I approached Imprint: A Memoir of Trauma in the Third Generation (Caitlin Press, 2017) with reluctance. But Claire Sicherman’s account of her murdered family members, of her grandparents who were the sole survivors of the Holocaust and of her own intimate life as granddaughter, woman, wife and mother is profoundly moving and tender. Her accounts of her relatives’ lives and deaths under the Nazi regime are brutal and shocking. The proximity of these emotions makes the book challenging to read but hard to put down.
Sicherman’s choice of the title Imprint helped me understand just how stubborn and long-lasting the impression of anxiety, grief and horror can be to the human psyche. My mind went to the reality of fossils. According to one source online, sometimes an animal “is buried before it is destroyed. And when that happens and conditions are just right, the remains of the animal are preserved as fossils…. Fossils are the naturally preserved remains or traces of ancient life that lived in the geologic past…. Fossils represent the remains or traces of once-living organisms.”
For Sicherman, the emotions related to the destruction of her family are permanently imprinted in her body and in her genetic makeup. She must now bring them to conscious awareness.
The juxtaposition of cold, hard accounts of death – as in the chapter “My Family” at the beginning of the book – immediately followed by the first letter to her 9-year-old son Ben, signed “Love Always,” warns the reader that what follows is not for the faint-at-heart. She alternates between three essential narratives: the telling of the destruction and deaths of her relatives in Poland; the survival of her grandmother and grandfather, which leads to the intimate story of her mother and Sicherman’s youth; and the traumatic birth of her son Ben, which acts as a catalyst, breaking through lifelong barriers of ignorance, denial and grief.
In gazing at the cover of the book, the three images of caterpillar, cocoon and butterfly began to make sense. This metamorphosis becomes the symbol of Sicherman’s lifecycle; the lack of awareness of her family’s history, the birth of her son, and her desperate search for knowledge and understanding of why she suffers from chronic health conditions, anxiety and depression.
Sicherman’s answer to the question “why” lies within the concept of epigenetics, the study of heritable changes in gene expression. Traumatic events cause changes in gene expression that can then be inherited. For Sicherman, her task is to explore, through various forms of therapy, the intergenerational transmission of trauma – the genetic imprinting of the horrors that befell her great-grandparents, her great-aunts and great-uncles and their progeny. Despite the distance of being a third-generation Holocaust survivor, her writing captures the beauty and intimacy of family affection (“My Babi,” “My Deda”). Hope of healing and surviving trauma permeate the pages of this creative book, offering acceptance and guidance to others of her – and the next – generation.
Craig Miller in a shot from the documentary The S Word, which screened for the first time in Western Canada on March 22 in Winnipeg. (photo from MadPix, Inc.)
Jewish Child and Family Service of Winnipeg (JCFS) partnered with the Suicide Prevention Network and the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg’s Young Adult Division to show the documentary The S Word for the first time in Western Canada. The screening took place March 22 at the JCC Berney Theatre, and the event’s aim was to help put a stop to the silence surrounding the subject of suicide.
“Suicide is widespread and affects all age groups and communities,” said Carli Rossall, JCFS addictions and mental health caseworker. “There are many ‘S words’ that reinforce the behaviour around suicide, such as silence, stigma, shame and struggle. The hope is to turn this around into S words such as support, survival, sharing and solutions.”
Rossall has taken the lead in organizing this project, along with Cheryl Hirsh Katz, JCFS manager of adult services, and Shana Menkis, JCFS director of operations.
JCFS is a member of the Suicide Prevention Network, which is a group of agencies and individuals committed to enhancing the mental wellness and quality of life of people in Winnipeg, preventing suicides and supporting those bereaved by suicide.
“I think our goal with this [event] was to begin to create a safe space within the community where topics like suicide can be freely and openly discussed,” said Rossall. “Staying silent doesn’t make an issue cease to exist. Suicide is a reality in our community as it is in all communities. Healing requires openness, acceptance and dialogue. The more we talk about these things, the more fluency we develop when it comes to hard conversations, [and] the better equipped we all are to support one another.”
“Bringing this film to our city and specifically to this community,” Hirsh Katz added, “will hopefully give a voice to this problem and put a face to the solution.”
The S Word aims to open the conversation surrounding suicide. Its director, Lisa Klein, is a survivor of both her father’s and her brother’s suicides. In the film, she wanted to show the voices of those who survived suicide attempts, as well as others, to provide an honest portrayal of the thoughts and feelings surrounding suicide. She further wanted to provide positive messaging.
“It’s an outstanding collection of stories that, unlike other films on the same subject, shines a light on hope,” said Klein. “It talks about language, relationships, relapses in mental health, and about how recovery is rarely a straight trajectory. It’s very real and raw. I consider it to be one of the best mental health documentaries I’ve ever seen … unique in its approach to an otherwise familiar topic.
“We hear about suicide epidemics, about over- and under-medicating, about the bereaved when it comes to suicide in the community, but, rarely do we hear from survivors. Frankly, I don’t know if ‘survivor of suicide’ is a concept most people even know exists.”
“Loss is never easy to talk about,” said Rossall. “But, when loss gets tied together with morality, as suicide often does, an added layer of stigma exists. Anything that challenges our definition of ‘right,’ ‘moral’ or ‘normal’ tends to make us uncomfortable – and it often makes people look to blame.
“Generally,” she said, “people who have thoughts of suicide suffer from intense psychological pain, where there is a feeling of hopelessness, isolation, and no alternative. The reasons for this can vary, from those experiencing mental health challenges or physical illness, to those who have experienced trauma, are struggling financially or have addictions. The rise in suicide rates may be due to life’s increasing pressures and complex circumstances.”
It was in her late teens that Klein lost her father and then, three months later, her brother, to suicide.
“It’s something that obviously is a huge part of my life, my existence, and it wasn’t something that right away I knew what I’d do with,” said Klein. “It affected me greatly. I really didn’t know who to talk to. That was a big part of why I did this film, because it’s so difficult to talk to people when you’ve lost people. They don’t know what to say to you.
“When I came out to L.A. and went to graduate school, I did a film prior to this one…. We started to do documentaries. We did one on bipolar personalities and, when we did that one, we had someone who was in the film who had lost their daughter to suicide. I thought, OK, I’ve dealt with this. And then, almost immediately, I realized that I actually hadn’t. I thought it was time to do something, because people weren’t, and aren’t, talking about it enough, not talking about it responsibly.”
As Klein began researching the topic, she found a large community of people dealing with suicide – so great a number that they were holding conventions in the United States about it. Klein found this resource helpful when it came to finding specific stories to include in her film.
While The S Word is not yet widely available, Klein has worked to get the message across through teachers, mental health professionals and survivors. And she created a toolkit that is on the movie’s website that anyone can access to find ways to bring the message to their communities.
“We’ve signed with an educational distributor and eventually it will be available – probably in the late fall…. We want to help open the conversation, for sure,” said Klein. “We want people to feel less alone, like they’re not the only ones going through this. And we want people to know that they can be there for somebody else, too. Also, to know that, if you, yourself, are struggling, there are people to talk to.
“A lot of times, what can really kill people, what can drive people to this is the silence or the hopeless feeling of being alone – feeling that they have nobody to talk to, and the stigma and shame keep people from talking about it.
“We see this also in the rape culture and the whole #MeToo movement,” she added. “People who were so afraid to talk are now coming forward. And it’s so important to be able to do this. We want to be part of that conversation.”
Klein invited everyone to visit the film’s website – theswordmovie.com – for more information and to watch the many interviews conducted with suicide survivors that did not make it into the film (click on the “#SWordStories” link). She further encouraged people to send in written stories about their own experiences to the website.
In Winnipeg, JCFS is ready to help anyone in need, via their active mental health services program for the Jewish community and counseling services that are open to the general public. In Vancouver, Jewish Family Services is also ready to help.
“Through these supports, there are opportunities for individuals and families to address their concerns, feelings related to suicide, and other issues on a proactive basis,” said JCFS’s Hirsh Katz. “There are also several other community-based agencies in Winnipeg that provide both crisis and non-crisis work with suicide. The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention is a nationwide organization dedicated to offering support. Livingworks Education Inc. is a leading provider of suicide intervention training through various workshops – the training is focused on identifying, speaking and intervening with people who have thoughts of suicide, and it is invaluable for individuals ages 15 and over who want to help people be safer from suicide.”
This academic year marks the second session of Writing Lives, a two-semester project at Langara College, coordinated by instructor Dr. Rachel Mines. Writing Lives is a partnership between Langara, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Azrieli Foundation. Last fall, students learned about the Holocaust by studying literary and historical texts. In January, students began interviewing local Holocaust survivors and will write their memoirs on the basis of the interviews. Students are keeping journals of their personal reflections on their experiences as Writing Lives participants. Students used their most recent journal entry to reflect on their first meetings with the survivor with whom they are partnered. Here are a few excerpts.
Prior to meeting our survivor partner, one of our group members spoke to him on the phone, and she described him as a person “who doesn’t let anything past him.” It seems he’d tested her on her ability to say the word “Holocaust” without shuddering an apology.
It is clear that our partner refuses to spend his time telling his story to anyone who cannot handle it. On one hand, his attitude is a comfort; I believe we will be able to show him that not only are we unafraid to hear his story, but also that we care deeply about helping him tell it authentically. On the other hand, this adds to the building anxiety about our interviews and our worries about writing the memoir. Producing a memoir that our survivor is 100% proud of is my biggest goal and also my biggest fear. I feel that telling the story of another person’s life is a tremendously huge responsibility, and I do not take it lightly.
– Chelsea Riva
We actually met D. before our first meeting: he came to our class to give a talk last semester. Our first interview was arranged at his home, and D. was as warm and friendly as before. So was his wife, and they took good care of us. They helped us with our coats and insisted that we did not have to take our shoes off. D. said we must have walked a long way, and it was the shoes that kept us walking comfortably; therefore, we should not take them off. I immediately recalled what Primo Levi wrote in his book Survival in Auschwitz. Yes, shoes are of the utmost importance, and D. has experienced that. However, we quickly realized that the house was immaculately clean, and so was the light beige carpet that we were stepping on with our shoes! Anyway, while I was worrying about the carpet, the meeting began.
– Bonnie Pun
When I first met D.S., I was apprehensive. The culmination of the past four-and-a-half months was finally at hand, and I was set to be the lead interviewer for our group – not a task that fell lightly on my shoulders.
Moira and he came into the room and she introduced him (she had met him previously). D.S. smiled so widely that his eyes crinkled, and he shook each of our hands in turn. When we were done, D.S. said a few words about himself and then quickly launched into a very compressed, detailed story about his life.
We had been expecting a more casual, getting-to-know-you first interview, and none of us had been expecting to take in such a massive amount of information – although, in hindsight, I’m glad we did. At the end of the interview, after D.S. had given us advice about meeting deadlines and making sure we had enough time to edit and rework parts of his story, we breathed a sigh of relief – it had gone well.
The opportunity to have a question-and-answer session with a person who has survived such great personal trauma is incredible. D.S. is a wonderful storyteller, and the interviews so far have been a continuously rewarding experience.
– Susan Scott
Some of the stories that D.S. shared with us at that first meeting were hard to absorb. I think I didn’t really want to understand what he was saying, as a way of protecting myself, so I wouldn’t show I was affected while I was in the room with him. It was only after I listened to the recorded interview that I could even start to imagine the events that he had endured. It sunk into me that this was a real thing that had happened to a real man, one who sat in front of me, ready to share his pain and perseverance with us. For that, I am grateful and honoured.
What D.S., the other survivors, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, the Azrieli Foundation and Langara College are doing through the Writing Lives program is so immensely important – something I have come to understand on a new level after that meeting. I think the point is to affect others in the way that this one meeting affected me. It’s to try and understand people’s suffering as best we can, though we will never feel their pain, and to use that understanding to become better people, and not be complicit in others’ suffering in the future.
Breakfast at Andrésy circa 1945. René Goldman is holding his bowl out for more food. The children peering through the windows are from another dining room, who had likely finished their meal but had not yet been given permission to leave. (photo from memoirs.azrielifoundation.org)
René Goldman’s account of his childhood – A Childhood Adrift (Azrieli Foundation) – is set in Belgium and France during the Second World War, when Hitler’s plan was to annihilate all European Jews. Each European Jewish child was automatically sentenced to death. Only between six and 11% of European children survived the Holocaust. Ironically, this memoir describes both a heartbreaking and an uplifting story of one Jewish boy’s struggle to stay alive and sane despite all odds against him.
A Childhood Adrift is both personal and, at the same time, an important historical document. The story, written with a spatter of tongue-in-cheek humour, is a fascinating labyrinth of multiple narratives; stories within stories. It is not only about René the child, but also René the man, who revisits the past and examines the wounds left by war.
Goldman weaves his experiences throughout the periods of war and postwar, when he is a young man who travels back to the places that sheltered him and other children lost in the horror of war. The entire narrative is skilfully infused not only with historical and political facts but with the geography of various places so poignantly described one can feel and see them.
Goldman writes about the time when children lost parents, siblings and homes. These children had to depend on the kindness of strangers or were left alone to fend for themselves.
Goldman was 6 years old when the Nazis invaded his native Luxembourg, where he was born, and Belgium, where his family had taken refuge. In 1942, the family fled Belgium for France. From the last station before the French border, they walked on foot to the Demarcation Line between the German Occupied Zone and the Free Zone. No sooner did they cross the line than they were arrested by the French police, who were rounding up Jews escaping from the Occupied Zone, and the family was interned in Lons-le-Saunier. On Aug. 26, Goldman and his mother were taken to the city’s train station for deportation. His aunt appeared from nowhere and tried to take him away, but to no avail. Eventually, she found someone in authority to send two officers to rescue the young boy and save him from boarding the train. His mother was already in one of the cars waving goodbye as the train was pulling out of the station. This was the last time Goldman saw his mother. He was 8 years old.
His father disappeared that morning and it was only in 1944 that Goldman was reunited with him for a brief time, until his father was arrested and taken away. Only after the war did Goldman find out that his father died at the end of the death march from Auschwitz, in January 1945.
In 1942, Goldman was placed in the care of the OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants) and brought to Château du Masgelier. After two weeks, he was taken to the village of Vendoeuvres, where a young couple offered to take care of him. Soon afterward, the Free Zone was invaded by the Germans.
What followed for Goldman were moves to several homes due to the changing circumstances, which necessitated a constant search for safe places for children.
Left an orphan in 1945, Goldman was placed in the care of the CCE (Commission Centrale de l’Enfance), an organization inspired by communist ideology, which was instrumental in shaping his political beliefs. His faith in this system remained unshaken until he lived in Poland for three years, when he became disillusioned, even shocked, by it.
He writes, “I can now in all candidness recognize that I caught myself wondering whether communism was not the greatest lie of the century, if not of all time.”
Goldman’s narrative strength, among his many others, leans towards the lyrical.
One of the immediate postwar places to which Goldman was moved in France was the town of Andrésy and its Manoir de Denouval, which inspired poetic instincts in him. Here, he found the beauty of gardens and serenity, a “sanctuary” that shielded him for a time from his loneliness and the postwar chaotic reality. Interestingly, Marc Chagall, who donated funds for the children’s care, would occasionally visit the manor.
“I was enthralled with the Enchanted Manor,” writes Goldman. “It nourished in me a fascination with mystery as I explored it for hidden nooks and ventured up the narrow winding steps that led to the turret, sometimes even in the dark of night.” And, indeed, these were dark times in the young boy’s life for it was then that he realized he was an orphan.
Friendships played a huge part during the war and in the postwar period. In the boys and girls Goldman befriended along the way, and some of the kind teachers, he found a certain relief from the loneliness he felt, and from the lack of affection and support. One person who played an important role in his life was Sophie Micnic, who became his caregiver and friend. This woman, a founding leader of the MOI, the Jewish communist resistance movement in Paris and Lyon during the war, later became the director of CCE. It was she who took Goldman under her wing, and recommended that he live in the “Enchanted Manor.”
A Childhood Adrift – a must-read – is a powerful testimony of a child’s response to the calamities of war and their everlasting imprint on his life. It is also a statement of courage and survival in the face of adversity. Eventually, Goldman developed a tremendous hunger for knowledge, education and a desire for communication in as many as 10 languages.
In the last section of the book, the author reveals himself as a poet and a grown man still deeply immersed in his past.
Lillian Boraks-Nemetz is a Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre outreach speaker, an award-winning author, an instructor at the University of British Columbia’s Writing Centre and the editor of the No Longer Alone section of VHEC’s Zachor, in which a longer version of this book review was originally published. René Goldman will be the keynote speaker at the community’s Kristallnacht commemoration on Nov. 5, 7 p.m., at Congregation Beth Israel. Copies of his memoir will be distributed to those in attendance. Holocaust survivors are invited to light a memorial candle. The ceremony is presented by VHEC, Beth Israel and the Azrieli Foundation. For Pat Johnson’s review of Goldman’s book, which was initially called A Childhood on the Move, visit jewishindependent.ca/fragmented-childhood.
Dr. Peter Suedfeld, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia, spoke on behalf of the survivors who participated. (photo by Jennifer Oehler)
Emotions were high at a graduation event where survivors of the Holocaust and Langara College students who wrote their memoirs shared their reflections on the experience.
Writing Lives was a two-semester course and a partnership between Langara College, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) and the Azrieli Foundation. In the first semester, students learned about the history of European Jewish culture and the Holocaust. In the second term, groups of three students were teamed with a Holocaust survivor. Students interviewed the survivor, transcribed their recollections and wrote their memoirs, which were presented at the closing event April 20.
“These memoirs will be given to the survivors as gifts for themselves and their families, but they will also be archived and they may possibly be published, and they will also serve as legacies for the survivors, their families and perhaps the research community in general,” said Dr. Rachel Mines, an English instructor at Langara and coordinator of the Writing Lives project. “I’m also the daughter of survivors, so I know how important it is that the stories get told and kept as a legacy for the families and the children and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren and also for the community at large, which I think is something that this particular program has succeeded in very well.”
Dr. Peter Suedfeld, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia, spoke on behalf of the survivors who participated.
“I have been interviewed a number of times by different people, of different levels of experience. So, when I was asked if I was willing to be interviewed by some students from Langara, I thought, ‘Oh well,’” Suedfeld said to laughter. “It’s not going to be very interesting. They are probably amateurs who don’t really know what they’re doing.”
He was pleasantly surprised, he said.
“My expectations were not fulfilled at all,” he said. “They had fresh points of view, they had interesting ideas about the Holocaust, they had interesting questions – not the kind of routine things that I’ve gone through before with more professional interviewers who tend to ask the same questions the same ways. Some of the questions made me think about my own experiences in ways that I never had before…. The interviews were always interesting and lively, occasionally funny, sometimes a bit frustrating and rarely, but once in awhile, irritating. But, all in all, a very positive experience and I expect that most of my cohort probably had similar experiences, and I certainly hope that the students did as well.”
Frieda Krickan, speaking on behalf of the students in the program, saw Writing Lives as an opportunity to honour the survivors, deepen her knowledge of Holocaust history and serve her Jewish community.
“This class has been so much more than that in so many ways,” she said. “It’s been a life-changing experience and I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of it. This class has taught me the importance of personal perspectives and historical documentation. Memoirs put a more human face on history and they memorialize what our survivors have been through and create empathy that historical facts and figures just cannot…. These survivors represent living history. These memoirs are a way of honouring survivors and making sure that history will never forget them…. You cannot get that sort of visceral emotion and intense human connection from a book or documentary. This is a living, breathing human being in front of you opening up about their most intimate and painful memories. It is an experience I will never forget.”
She added: “I came out of this class with something I did not expect: hope. Amidst all their personal accounts of suffering and loss, our survivors still managed to impart upon us the importance of hope. I don’t know if I’ve ever had such a life-affirming experience as talking to these survivors.”
Gene Homel, an instructor in liberal studies at the B.C. Institute of Technology who taught part of the Writing Lives course, said evidence-based and factual history are important at a time when the veracity of events past and present are being called into question.
The collection and preservation of eyewitness accounts is what makes the Writing Lives project so valuable, said Ilona Shulman Spaar, education director at the VHEC.
“Some students told me that they would never forget the personal encounters that they had with their interviewees and that they will always carry them close to their hearts. Some even mentioned that this program was life-changing for them,” she said. “Some of the survivors shared with me that they greatly appreciated being part of this program. For them, too, it was a unique experience, as most of them never gave interviews to this extent or in such depth.”
Robbie Waisman, one of the survivor participants, said the greatest fear that Holocaust survivors have is what’s going to happen after they are gone.
“What you are doing gives us hope that it’s going to be remembered, to make this a better world,” he said. “So thank you.”
Serge Vanry, another survivor participant, said it was an experience that he hadn’t expected.
“I started out wanting to do this, but feeling uneasy about somehow getting involved in the past, a past that has been put away quite a bit,” he told the audience. “I was talking about events that I had forgotten, things that were difficult, things that were hard to live with and things that can haunt you. As I was looking back at the past, I started to discover a lot of things that I had forgotten – events, situations that really had disappeared for me.”
Turning to the students, he said: “You did extremely well and I am really thankful and I’ve really appreciated what you’ve done for me, for the things that I don’t want to forget, the things that need to be told again for me and for my family.”
Other survivors who participated in Writing Lives were Alex Buckman, Amalia Boe-Fishman, Jannushka Jakobouvitch and Mark Elster. Excerpts from student-participants’ journals have run in previous issues of the Independent (search “Writing Lives” at jewishindependent.ca).
Mines thanked the Azrieli Foundation, for expertise and materials that made Writing Lives possible, and the VHEC, “which has been crucial, essential, absolutely indispensable in supporting Writing Lives … through liaising with survivors, making their library available for research and as an interview room and, generally, just being generous in terms of their time, their advice, expertise and not to mention moral support.”
Mines added that she hoped this pilot project of Writing Lives would become an ongoing program and, in the days following the closing ceremony, she received the news that Writing Lives will indeed run again, starting in the fall semester.
Pat Johnsonis a communications and development consultant to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
In February, the Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation and Louis Brier Home and Hospital honoured Chaim Kornfeld. And they did so in the place he has especially dedicated his time over the last four decades: the Louis Brier synagogue.
Chaim was born in Hungary in 1926. His upbringing and education were Orthodox and, for the first part of the Second World War, his family were untouched. From the start of his education at Yiddish cheder, at age 3, he was a good student. Community life continued much as it had for centuries.
Outside the home, Chaim’s memories describe a tense separation between Jew and non-Jew. “My father always used to say, ‘When you see a Shaygetz, cross the street. Go on the other side.’”
Needless to say, young Chaim did not always do as he was told. “I took the beating instead – but I fought back, too.” He adds, “Especially at Easter time, they’d call you dirty Jew.”
It’s not hard to imagine a young Chaim’s spirited response. Even at 90, he is energetic and expressive in conversation. “I was a tough kid,” he says. His daughter Tova adds with pride, “He gave as good as he got!”
In 1944, Chaim was preparing to go to Franz Josef National Rabbinical Seminary of Hungary in Budapest. Then, not long before his 17th birthday, his family was moved to a ghetto with the other Jews of their town. Then came the trains.
Chaim, his parents and one of his sisters were sent to Auschwitz. On the journey, Chaim was permitted to fill a bucket of water for the passengers to have occasional drinks. He also took the dead out of the car.
On arriving at the concentration camp, Chaim jumped out. Greeted with ordinary scenes – “children playing, laundry drying” – Chaim’s mother figured she could work in the camp laundry.
Chaim relates how “an old man came up and asked, ‘Do you speak Yiddish?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course.’” The man pointed to a German official. “He’s going to ask you two questions. When he asks how old you are, you say you’re 18. When he asks you what you do, say you’re a farmer.”
Young Chaim approached the man with his usual confidence. Josef Mengele asked him his age and profession. Chaim answered as he’d been told. Mengele told him to go to the right. His parents were sent to the left. Before they were separated, Chaim’s father made a final request: “Bleib a Yid.” (“Remain a Jew.”) Afterwards, Chaim heard others say, “You see that smoke? That’s your parents.”
At Auschwitz, the Nazis stripped the prisoners of their belongings and identity, shaving off Chaim’s hair. He smiles ruefully. “I had lovely peyis, nice and curly.” Having only spent two weeks in Auschwitz before being transferred to Mauthausen in Austria, Chaim wasn’t at the camp long enough to get a number tattooed on his arm. He has not forgotten his number, though, and barks out “67655!” at an impressive volume, but not in English, or even Yiddish. It’s in Polish, as he heard it at Auschwitz.
Asked how he managed to maintain his sanity while facing death every day, he quotes Robert Frost: “I had promises to keep and many miles to go before I sleep.” But there’s more to it. Chaim describes how he kept his promise to his father, in spite of malnutrition and brutal treatment. “I always said, I’ll get out of here.”
He speaks with gritted teeth. “I never gave up. Even when I worked in a tunnel underground, I was mumbling a prayer. I prayed all the time to make time go faster. I knew the prayers by heart from a very young age. All kinds.”
Chaim describes a life of hard labour, misery and oppression. There were about 600 steps up the quarry. We “carried rocks on our shoulders, every day. There were dogs barking, soldiers pointing guns at us.” There was a pond at the bottom. If a prisoner fell down, he says, they would be pushed in.
Chaim found that he was the only one who remembered long tracts of the Torah. He led Kol Nidre in the camp, “all the others stood around me. I knew it by heart. I got a good education.” To lead a service in such appalling circumstances takes more than just education, however. It speaks to a capacity for leadership and clarity in a situation that is baffling in its cruelty.
When the prisoners were forced on a death march, Chaim was recuperating from an abscessed ankle. Although barely able to stand, he followed the advice of a fellow prisoner, who told him that if he didn’t leave the camp upright, he’d never leave at all. Limping in extreme pain, Chaim made it out but collapsed afterwards. When an SS officer raised his gun to shoot him, Chaim spoke up with his characteristic blend of optimism and boldness. Having been reminded of what a good worker this young Jew was, the officer permitted Chaim to hitch a ride on a passing wagon.
Until this year, Chaim was active in Holocaust education. In spite of the many letters from kids, thanking him for his work, these letters can be “painful,” he says. “The reminder is not always pleasant.” One might think that even a “tough kid” could tire of telling this harrowing story again and again, but Chaim isn’t flagging. “As long as there’s someone to listen, I’ll tell.”
After liberation, Chaim lived at the “internat” (boarding school) maintained by the rabbinical college in Budapest. Completing two years of high school in one under the instruction of one Dr. Kolben, Chaim still speaks admiringly of his teacher. “She was quite a lady. Very smart,” he says.
Kolben also taught them about the culture of Budapest. It gave the boys a chance to revive their appreciation of the arts, to leave them with images of beauty, after the horrors of the war. These included trips to the theatre in Budapest, to see Shakespeare’s plays. Their influence lives on today in Chaim’s memory. “To be or not to be, that is the question, whether it is nobler.…” He pauses to let me finish the quote. After staring, dazed, for an instant, I am relieved to find “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” bubble up in my mind.
Chaim ended up in a displaced persons camp, in Bari, Italy. The hungry residents were frustrated to find that the food stores were locked away. “He led an uprising and they opened the locker,” Tova says. “He gave an impassioned speech.”
After the DP camp came aliyah. “Someone came from the JDC [Joint Distribution Committee] to take people to Palestine.” Chaim arrived in 1949, right after independence, and joined the air force immediately. “I was in charge of a platoon of women. That was fun,” he laughs. “I told them, during the day, I am in charge. In the evening, you are in charge!”
Asked about his career, he describes being “a lawyer for 55 years; prosecuting, judging, the lot!” Indeed, Chaim was appointed to the bench. Having developed a habit of quoting the Talmud in his judgments, he earned the nickname “The Bible Judge.” He would make “off the bench decisions,” which were popular with the courts, Tova recalls.
Chaim had originally planned to go to engineering school but his English was not fluent enough. “It was so hard, so technical,” he says. At the end of his first year, his essay about George Bernard Shaw’s Candida got him a C-. “People who were born and raised in Canada failed that exam!” he says proudly of his grade.
His optimistic attitude was evident in his approach to work as well. As a lawyer, he was known for handing out treats at the courthouse. Known as “Candy Man,” he would move up lines of people waiting for their paperwork, greeted by out-stretched hands.
At the Feb. 25 Louis Brier tribute, Chaim was honoured with a special Shabbat service in his name. With more than 150 people in attendance, Chaim read Haftorah. As Tova, says, “like a bar mitzvah boy, beautiful.” Thanked by many for his work, he was given a Torah cover for one of Louis Brier’s volumes. Says Tova, “It was really lovely.”
Reflecting back on his survival, Chaim credits his Judaism for keeping him afloat. This is living proof of Viktor Frankl’s assertion that, to survive, one needed to seek a meaning to one’s existence, even in the camps. “I didn’t feel that G-d abandoned me,” says Chaim. “I never lost my faith.”
Indeed, he has kept a kosher home for all of his adult life. But survival takes resilience and a good deal of ingenuity, as well as faith. “We took empty burlap bags and stuffed them into our pyjamas, to stay warm,” he says. When he was starving, he ate coal. “I was my own doctor,” he says.
One might think these experiences would define him, but, when presented with the term “survivor,” he shrugs and grimaces. “Rachmanut saneiti,” he adds. “I hate pity.”
One cannot help but see the sense in Chaim’s attitude. Simply referring to this man as a Holocaust survivor would be reductive. He recently celebrated six decades of marriage to his wife, Aliza, and their four adult children all have successful careers. Still active at 90, he has built a reputation as a mensch: generous, respectful, with a buoyant spirit and a talent for relationship-building. And, even now, one sees the tough kid – the keeper of promises, the kid who took a beating rather than tolerate bigotry. And, the same kid who jumped off the train in 1944, ready to meet the eye of the man who held – and toyed with, tortured and destroyed – the lives of his contemporaries.
Chaim has only just retired. He still reads the Tanach in his office and attends shul on Saturdays and Sundays. He talks of keeping up with his hobbies: “Swimming at the JCC every day. Making my wife happy.”
Shula Klingeris an author, illustrator and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at niftyscissors.com.
Writing Lives is a two-semester project at Langara College, coordinated by instructor Dr. Rachel Mines, in which second-year students are connected with local Holocaust survivors to interview them and write memoirs of their lives before, during and after the Holocaust. The project is a partnership between Langara, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Azrieli Foundation. In the first semester, students learned about the Holocaust through reading literary and historical texts, and wrote a research paper on prewar European Jewish communities using the resources of the VHEC and Waldman libraries. This semester, students studied practical strategies for interviewing survivors and have conducted and transcribed their interviews. They are now in the process of writing the memoirs, which, when complete, will be presented to interviewees at a closing ceremony to be held at Langara later this spring. As part of their course work, students are keeping journals of their personal reflections on their experiences as Writing Lives participants. A recent journal entry was on the theme of multicultural relationships, and here are excerpts from three student journals.
One of my older relatives knew how to count in Japanese. She was not Japanese. My family is predominantly of Filipino descent. She only learned how to count in Japanese because she was forced to learn as a child, during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. I learned this pretty late in her life.
I wanted to ask my relative questions, and I assumed I would get the chance at some point, but I was never sure if it was appropriate to bring it up. Two or three years after I learned that she could count in Japanese, she passed away. I never got to ask my questions.
When I decided to take part in the Writing Lives project, I was thinking of my relative. I have learned that having unanswered questions about someone you care for can lead to painful regret. Because of my own family’s unknown history during the Second World War, I wanted to help another family learn theirs.
– Jonathan Pineda
Some feel sad when they see pain,
Some feel fascinated when they see pain.
Some feel broken
Once they see a broken heart.
Some feel fire
And mock that broken heart.
Some reach out a hand
Only to say “got you man.”
Some reach out a hand
Only to say “let me help you man.”
Some are inwards
Some are outwards.
Some love to inflict pain.
Some love to inflict love.
Some grab a gun.
Some grab a seed.
Some ignite a fire.
Some extinguish the fire.
There are always two sides to a story,
Whether good or bad it has a history.
Where do these people come from?
I used to ask.
They come from us,
They used to answer back.
Now I stand with a shattered heart.
Now I stand with a broken back.
Seeing is something.
Hearing is intriguing,
Both are fascinating,
The hearts are something.
– Mojtaba Arvin
I have listened to survivors tell their stories a few times before. Two survivors visited my school when I was in high school, and we had a couple of survivors come to our Writing Lives class last semester. Those were really the only encounters I had with the stories of Holocaust survivors. My family is not Jewish, and were not persecuted during the Holocaust.
My paternal grandfather and his father emigrated from southern Russia in 1925 to
escape the persecution and violence they were facing because they were Mennonites, but we have no personal family experience of the Holocaust or anything that the Jewish people endured. Because I could not bring my own perspective to this course, I am lucky that I had an amazing partner who was able to bring insight into many things because of her Jewish background. Overall, this project has been really incredible. My two partners are so supportive, and I have had the most amazing experience interviewing alongside them and writing the draft memoir with them. This is a project that I will remember my entire life.
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.
Robert Krell, left, and Elie Wiesel. (photo from Robert Krell)
I met Prof. Elie Wiesel in 1978. I was 38 years old. He was 49. Elie, as he insisted I call him, came to Vancouver to speak at a commemorative event. It was for Yom Hashoah, the day of Holocaust Remembrance.
He arrived Friday afternoon and I fetched him at the airport and brought him to our home for a few moments pre-Shabbat and then to his hotel. He had agreed to a press conference on Saturday morning stipulating only that no microphone be used. Elie was observant.
I moderated that morning. He was engaging, handled difficult and peculiar questions equally graciously, and made a deep and lasting impression on the journalists and religious leaders who attended. I learned that morning that his book, Night, a slim 120 pages, had once been nearly a thousand pages written in Yiddish and published in Argentina. How had he reduced it to its present size? By eliminating every paragraph without which the book would not lose its essence, and then by eliminating every sentence in those paragraphs that was not needed to sustain its narrative. Ever since, I have tried to practise that in my talks and writings.
Elie asked me to visit at the hotel on Sunday for breakfast and we ended up talking all day. That evening, he spoke to an audience of 500. I had the honor of introducing him. I used two minutes. How long does one need to introduce Wiesel? He was known to all, even though he had not yet received the Nobel Peace Prize; that was to come in 1986. His lecture that evening was astonishing. One could listen to him forever, one of the few speakers in the world who commands attention and seldom, if ever, loses his audience.
We remained friends. He was the kindest, gentlest, wisest person in my life. And he always made time for me although he was also the busiest and most prevailed upon person imaginable.
So, I took it upon myself to do two things. One was to call him from time to time and briefly visit when I was in New York. Famous people sometimes have no one who inquires as to their own lives. I did not ask him for anything unless the idea began with him. No demands, requests, or favors. The other was to assist wherever I could with whatever little I could do. For example, he asked whether I could arrange for him to be in touch with Rudolf Vrba, one of only four or five escapees from Auschwitz and the author of the Vrba-Wetzler Report (Auschwitz Protocols) warning of the imminent deportation of Hungarian Jews in 1944.
Vrba lived in Vancouver and I knew him well. Elie and Rudi subsequently corresponded for years and I can only guess that some of it concerned the fact that the Wiesel family was not informed by those who received the report in Hungary when there was still a chance to flee into the nearby Carpathian Mountains. Did they ever meet? I offered Elie the opportunity. His response, “I do not think I can look into his eyes.”
One time, when in New York, I received Elie’s return call. Yes, he had time for me to have a brief visit on Monday morning. I went to his home and we caught up for perhaps a half hour. During that time, he excused himself only once, to take a call from the White House. Presidents, secretaries of state, governors and senators, all sought his counsel. He often flew at short notice to speak, to warn, in the midst of various crises around the world.
It was close to Passover. He asked who was traveling with me and I told him, my wife Marilyn and our oldest daughter and granddaughter. Elie was upset not to greet them and he insisted we all visit the next Thursday so he could personally wish them a happy Pesach. How he made time in his wildly busy schedule, I will never understand.
I saw Elie speak in Israel at the 1981 World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors at Lohamei HaGeta’ot (the Kibbutz of the Ghetto Fighters) and at the closing ceremonies with then-prime minister Menachem Begin. While in Los
Angeles in 1982, I heard him speak at Cedars-Sinai Hospital on “the Holocaust patient” and on “talmudic tales” at UCLA Hillel House. Spellbinding.
For the very first International Conference of Child Survivors and Their Families – the 1991 Hidden Child Foundation/Anti-Defamation League conference – the New York-based committee asked if I could convince Elie to speak. Since Elie seldom said no if he was able to attend, wherever in the world he was needed, this request for my involvement was puzzling. After all, this was New York, his home and the site of the gathering. But he had declined. My guess is that the situation had become complicated by competing factions.
I called him and reminded him that this was “the gathering of the children.” Where else would he want to be? He graciously agreed to give the closing address. I introduced him on the closing night and wondered out loud how it was possible that I had heard him lecture at Yale, in Israel, New York and Los Angeles. Somehow, wherever he was, I found him. I must be his groupie! I certainly never missed an opportunity to hear him and to learn from him.
In 1998, in New York, Elie presented me with the Elie Wiesel Holocaust Remembrance Medal for my work in Holocaust education, my psychiatric contributions to the care of Holocaust survivors and the founding of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. Elie had visited the VHEC and served on its international advisory council along with Irwin Cotler, Yaffa Eliach and Sir Martin Gilbert. My family was there and my children all came to know him better. His loving presence is seared into their memories. Children, for him, were like a magnet. All who wrote to him received a personal response. How he managed this, in between teaching at Boston University, speaking around the world and publishing at least one book every year, I do not understand. But that is what he did.
In 2008, I went to Boston to celebrate his 80th birthday, which consisted of a three-day Festschrift devoted to his scholarship and writings, as well as a tribute concert.
Although surrounded by his friends and fellow scholars, I found him sitting alone in the front row and joined him. At one point, I turned to him, “Elie, what is it like to hear all these scholars speak about your contributions all day long?” His response, “I am a good listener.” And, indeed, he was. He listened attentively, to individuals and to humanity.
I nominated Elie for an honorary doctorate from the University of British Columbia and, although he was still recovering from open heart surgery (and wrote a book Open Heart), he traveled to attend the 2012 ceremony and to participate in An Evening with Elie Wiesel, held at the Orpheum theatre, attended by some 3,000 people. Our cab driver said, “Oh, look, Elie Wiesel is speaking.”
As the interviewer for the evening’s proceedings, I asked questions, some “naïve,” as in “Why remember such awful events?” referring to the Shoah.
Elie’s response: “How can you not? Memory is part of who you are, your identity. I have so many wonderful memories of my family and being in shul and it’s all I have now of my family except my two surviving sisters, of whom one has since passed on. Without memory, who would I be? The moments are so important.”
“Elie,” I asked, “you were asked to be the president of Israel. Can you tell us about this?” He answered that the thought had tormented him. How could he turn down the highest honor that could ever be bestowed upon him? He felt he was letting down the state of Israel that wanted him and his leadership. But, he explained, he was without political experience and all he really has are words which, as a politician, would no longer be his. “And besides,” he joked, “my wife would have divorced me.”
“How do you choose the language in which you write?” (Elie speaks Hungarian, Romanian, Yiddish, Hebrew, French and English.) “I prefer the eloquence of French, which is the easiest for me. And, sometimes, my choice is determined by what I am writing about. And I like to write to classical music, preferably a quartet, as an orchestra is too distracting.”
“What message would you send to our young people here tonight?” His response, “Your life is not measured in time and years. It is a collection of moments. You will look back and have so many moments in time that remain fresh, memorable and meaningful. I would tell all of you young people in the audience to enjoy all these moments in time. Being here in Vancouver this weekend has been one of those moments for me.”
With his passing, I shall be without more such moments with him. His death leaves an enormous void, for his moral strength and inspiration will be missing from all who benefited. We must resolve to step up and commit to continuing to learn from and emulate this remarkable human being who returned from the depths of despair and loss to provide a measure of hope.
I urge you to read Night and Elie’s brilliant memoir in two parts All Rivers Run to the Sea and And the Sea is Never Full. Having absorbed at least these books, you may then reflect upon, and hopefully act upon, the lessons learned. They will last you a lifetime.
Dr. Robert Krellis professor emeritus, department of psychiatry, University of British Columbia, distinguished life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and founding president of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, in whose newsletter, Zachor, this article has also been published.
It was announced on July 29 that Holocaust survivors in Canada will now receive more aid to help them cope with financial burdens of basic needs such as food, medicine, medical care and living expenses.
The Azrieli Foundation has partnered with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) to provide supplemental funding to Holocaust survivor programs that the Claims Conference established and has supported for two decades.
For 2016, the Azrieli Foundation is providing a total of $457,500 to four organizations to provide emergency financial assistance to Holocaust survivors: the Cummings Centre for Seniors in Montreal, Jewish Family and Child Service of Greater Toronto, Jewish Family Services of Ottawa and Jewish Family Service Agency in Vancouver.
Azrieli’s funding will add to the $23 million that the Claims Conference will distribute to 12 organizations throughout Canada, including the aforementioned four, for a wide range of services that aid survivors. The Claims Conference funds home care, medical care, medicine, food, transportation, emergency assistance and socialization for 3,000 survivors throughout Canada.
“The Azrieli Foundation has been an immensely valuable partner, working cooperatively with the Claims Conference and contributing to the welfare of Holocaust survivors in their time of need,” said Sidney Zoltak, a member of the Claims Conference board of directors and co-president of Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants. “We wish to thank the Azrieli Foundation, not only for this generous contribution but also for the important project it oversees publishing survivors’ memoirs.”
The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program was established by the Azrieli Foundation in 2005 to collect, preserve and share the memoirs and diaries written by Holocaust survivors who came to Canada.
Organizations receiving the Azrieli funding for survivor services will report on their use of the grants through the Claims Conference online system, eliminating the need for the Azrieli Foundation to develop its own system for tracking its funding.
The Azrieli Foundation supports a wide range of initiatives and programs in the fields of education, architecture and design, Jewish community, Holocaust commemoration and education, scientific and medical research, and the arts. The foundation was established in 1989 to realize and extend the philanthropic goals of David J. Azrieli.
The Claims Conference (claimscon.org) represents world Jewry in negotiating for compensation and restitution for victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs. It administers compensation funds, recovers unclaimed Jewish property and allocates funds to institutions that provide social welfare services to Holocaust survivors and preserve the memory and lessons of the Shoah.