Writing Lives is an initiative at Langara College, coordinated by instructor Dr. Rachel Mines, in which second-year students are teamed up with local Holocaust survivors to interview them and write memoirs of their lives before, during and after the Holocaust. Langara students earn English or history credits towards a diploma or degree, but, more importantly, they get the opportunity to learn outside of the classroom setting, in the community. The course is a partnership between Langara, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Azrieli Foundation.
In the first term, students learned about the Holocaust through examining literary and historical texts. They wrote a research project on prewar Jewish communities, using resources from the VHEC and Waldman libraries, and they had the opportunity to meet with and learn from two of the VHEC’s outreach speakers, Alex Buckman and Lillian Boraks-Nemetz. This term, with guidance from Kit Krieger and other guest speakers, students have learned strategies for planning and conducting interviews with Holocaust survivors and, in mid-January, they began to record survivors’ testimonies. The following is an essay by one of the students.
I found a quiet corner of the library and took a deep breath. This was the moment; it was all happening now. I was about to call my survivor, code name “Chester.” I say “my survivor” as if he were a possession. I don’t “own”’ him … and yet, in a very short period of time, I will have to “own” his story. I will be responsible for taking his experiences and shaping them into a lasting memoir.
This was the moment of truth: the first phone call. It was now or never. I slowly dialed and had a look around – no one within earshot. I put my cellphone up to my ear, my palm sweaty with nervousness. It began to ring. I gulped. It rang again. “Oh no,” I thought. “It would be just my luck that he’s not home and I have to leave an awkward message, and what sort of first impression will that be?…”
“Hi, uh, hello. Hi. Um, my name is Ashley and I’m calling from Langara College about the Writing Lives project. May I speak to Chester?”
“Oh, sorry dear, Chester’s not here right now. Why don’t you text him?”
“OK, sure,” I said with a smile. I was expecting a hard-of-hearing senior citizen and, in true 2017 style, I was being instructed to text instead. I took down the phone number and finished the call.
Gulp. Another deep breath. Time to text.
I punched in the number and wrote an introductory message to “my survivor.” I said that I’d call in the morning for a formal introduction. I nervously hit send.
I then spent the next 74 minutes checking my phone to see if I’d received a response. Eventually, it did come: “We will talk then.”
Relief. It had begun. This journey, this process.
The next morning, Chester and I spoke briefly. I told him a bit about the program and asked if he had any questions. The phone call went well. Chester seemed to have a comfortable style, a compassion and understanding that put me at ease; there were sprinkles of humour amid logistical details. Though the call was short, I immediately felt better about what lay ahead.
The following Saturday was our first meeting in person. My group and I met up early so that we were all on the same page and fully prepared for what was about to transpire. We sat across from each other in a small meeting room on the main floor of the school’s library. We were excited, nervous, tense, curious. We were all in agreement that we didn’t really know what to expect and that we’d do our best to tackle things as they came and we’d support each other as much as possible. I felt lucky to have such encouragement.
The time came; it was 10 minutes to the scheduled interview. I grabbed my phone and headed out of the library and down the hall. Chester and I had decided to meet by the Starbucks, which is close to the library entrance. Even though I was early, I wasn’t surprised when I saw a person with a head of greyish-white hair seated near the coffee shop. “That has to be him,” I thought to myself. As I approached, he turned around and I was greeted by the welcoming face of Chester.
We exchanged pleasantries and made our way to the meeting room in the library. I think we both may have been a little nervous, but there was also a sense of mutual understanding – a consensus that we were about to do something important: something private and meaningful, potentially for both of us, particularly for the survivor.
“First off, do you have any questions?” I began once we were all settled. One of my group members sat to my right, ready to take notes and provide support. Chester sat across from the two of us, but diagonally across the square table, so we were all huddled around its corner, quite close to each other.
“Well …” and we were off! The next hour flew by. The purpose of the first meeting was for introductions and initial questions to be sorted. We also asked for a brief overview of Chester’s story, a sort of condensed version of his life. In learning the scope of his journey, we’d be able to better shape questions and structure further interviews. Chester was incredibly giving and kind. And what a storyteller! Sure, we bounced around a little, as memories and stories came to mind, but the next interviews could be more structured, more chronologically accurate. This was our introduction, our chance to get a sense of “our survivor,” to learn what he’d been through and how his experiences had shaped him.
I must admit, I was particularly moved by stories regarding Chester’s family. The way he spoke of his mother, in particular, and his children: it was just lovely.
There were a few difficult moments, and that is to be expected. In future interviews, when we will go into greater detail regarding Chester’s life and journey, we now know when certain difficult experiences occurred and will be prepared. Well, as prepared we can be, I suppose, for the emotional moments that are to come.
At the end of our meeting, Chester mentioned that we may not have enough material for a memoir. Such a sweet, humble comment. I couldn’t help but smile.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I believe that we definitely have enough for a book here. You have some wonderful stories.”
And it’s true. The stories of love, survival, adventure, family, travel, loss, connection…. We’ve only begun the interview process, and I’m already moved by the trust that’s been shown. Our survivor is being so generous with his time and his story. I only hope that I can do this project justice.