It took six months, but my part in the Sustaining Memories program, a joint project coordinated by Ryerson and the Azrieli Foundation where I used to work, is finally complete.
(The program pairs volunteers with Holocaust survivors who want to share their story in the form of a memoir, but, for whatever reason, require some help to actually get the story on paper. It involved several initiation/information sessions, interviews, hours of transcription and organisation, data gathering, chronological ordering, and finally, editing the mess into a readable story representing the life of the survivor as told by him or her.)
The experience was a wild array of adjectives and emotions. Meeting, interviewing, and getting to know my survivor was deeply moving and educational, but also disturbing and overwhelming. Where to start? How to do her story justice? How to react as she tells me about these dreadful experiences? How much and when do I probe? These problems were compounded by a slight language barrier (English is her fifth or sixth language) and the usual difficulties that come with age (hearing loss, sickness, memory lapses).
Writing the manuscript was another monumental task – I knew transcription was a long and monotonous process from my time in J-school, but I had never had to deal with such huge quantities of tape. I had over 11 hours of material from interviews and video documents, some of it repetitive, some of it contradictory, all of it important. There was also a huge amount of existing literature and data both online and in libraries in which to read, sort through, and find relevant information. And worst of all were the three competing authorial visions – left to my own devices, I would have written the memoir one way; my survivor also had a fairly clear picture in her mind of what she wanted; and the Sustaining Memories program itself had a clear and rigid set of rules and guidelines. Shaping the story into something that satisfied all three of us might have been the most difficult part of the whole endeavour…if it wasn’t for everything else.
It was stressful, time-consuming, and exhausting, but I also feel that it is one thing that is important and good that I helped bring into the world. I’ve never in my life felt like I was doing something more worthwhile. In some ways, it feels weird to write so much about my experience helping with the memoir, almost like I’m trying to appropriate her experiences. I hope it goes without saying, but I am under no illusions about how lucky I am, how minor these “difficulties” were in the larger scheme of things, and how much of a privilege it was to be involved.
Today, I received a package in the mail containing a bound copy of the manuscript, a certificate and letter of appreciation, and finally, a sense of closure, and with that, I count this item as complete.
(There are currently talks about putting all the memoirs from this year and last year into an anthology, and having it published. So we’ll see where that goes…)