The importance of memoirs
This is the third of a three-part series on Writing Lives, a two-semester project 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 experiences before, during and after the Holocaust. The course is a partnership between Langara, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Azrieli Foundation. As part of their course work, students are keeping journals of their personal reflections on their experiences as Writing Lives participants. This week’s journal is entitled “The Importance of Memoir.” Here are some excerpts.
Our survivor has repeatedly stated that he and his peers greatly fear that, once they are gone, no one will remember what they went through. Survivors worry that, once they are no longer here as living testaments, their suffering and the people they lost will be forgotten. Our class, and other projects like it, is working to ensure that does not happen.
We must preserve the experiences of Holocaust survivors in written form so that, once they are no longer physically here, their story will be. We are not only archiving personal anecdotes, we are putting a human face on history. Facts are important for historical validity, but personal perspectives are essential in creating empathy. This program is chronicling history in such a way as to touch people and make them care about what happened to the Jewish people (and others) during the Holocaust. Empathy is one of the greatest tools in breaking down intolerance. Once we see the humanity in others, it becomes harder to hold onto prejudice and hatred.
Now, more than ever, it is vital to create this historic empathy. Prejudice and persecution are becoming ever more prevalent in our society, and it is up to us as a nation to halt such hatred. It is essential to remind the world what can happen when hatred is met with social apathy. These memoirs are a documentation of the horrors that unchecked hatred can lead to. I believe in the power of memoirs, the power of living history. I am honoured to be a part of such an important project at such a crucial time.
– Frieda Krickan
The first time I interviewed a Holocaust survivor, I was nervous, and rightfully so. My interview partner and I had been preparing for months before our first meeting but, nonetheless, when our interviewee arrived, I was so star-struck that I briefly lost my aptitude with the English language altogether. All I could manage to say was multiple renditions of the same sentence, thanking him again and again for his time and for agreeing to meet us.
Our interviewee, R., was gracious and didn’t miss a beat. He chimed in every time by thanking us in return just for listening and told us on multiple occasions, “I am so grateful for what you are doing. This is very important to make sure that the Holocaust never happens again.” His response surprised me but, the more I listened, the more I realized that this project meant more to him than just sharing his story; it was his personal call to tikkun olam, to repair the world the best that he can.
I learned that every Holocaust survivor’s greatest fear is not what you would expect. It is not death camps or gas chambers – instead, R. told us that their greatest fear is that no one will remember their stories when they are no longer alive to tell them. They are afraid that, with today’s ugly resurgence of antisemitism, everything they endured will be meaningless in the face of a society that cannot wait to forget. In a world that wants us to keep silent, it is every survivor’s hope that we raise our voices – that we proclaim the truth until our breath runs out. Our sacred duty is to empower the ones who can no longer empower themselves, and the key to making sure history never repeats itself is to tell their stories.
– Zoe Mandell
During this course, my group members and I spent a concentrated amount of time with a child survivor of the Holocaust. Time and time again, he narrowly escaped falling into the hands of the Nazi regime…. His story is inspiring, heroic, terrifying at times, and very emotional. He tells his story with such grace, in such detail, that we could clearly visualize in our minds what he had experienced.
I have heard many stories of those who survived, and the stories they tell of those they lost. I have learned what it was like for a child survivor from Paris, a teenage survivor from Amsterdam and an adult survivor from Warsaw. I have heard the stories of their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters: how they watched their father get shot, or saw their mother walk toward her certain death, or said goodbye to a brother they knew they’d never see again. Telling their stories, writing their stories, is not only a therapeutic technique, but a preventative one. It is important for those who survived to tell as many stories as they can, not to let the memory of their loved ones perish like they did during that awful time in history. It is important to tell the story of their loved ones to keep their memory alive in as many beating hearts as possible. And it is important to tell the stories of the Holocaust, for both survivors and those who perished, to stand up and say, “We survived. We won’t forget. Never forget. And never let it happen again.”
– Marni Weinstein
During and after each interview my group conducted with R., he thanked us multiple times. He thanked us for taking the time to listen to his story, for writing his memoir, and even for sharing parts of our lives with him. Every time he thanked us I was taken aback: why was he thanking us for listening to him, when we were the lucky ones? We were being given the opportunity not only to listen to a Holocaust survivor speak but to write a memoir that would continue his legacy throughout time. At first, I struggled with his gratitude; I was almost uncomfortable with how genuinely thankful he was that we were spending time with him and listening to his story. Yet no matter what I said, he was grateful.
It took me quite awhile to grasp exactly why R. felt the need to continually express his gratitude. In fact, R. did not grow up in a world that accepted the events of the Holocaust as facts and wanted to learn more about it. He grew up in a world where no one wished to speak about the Holocaust and its events were contested. He did not conceal his experiences only because they were too painful to revisit, but also because no one wanted to listen.
Not only did those affected by the Holocaust lose their families, their homes, their childhoods and years of their lives, but in many cases they lost their voices. For years, the world refused to listen and, because of that, we lost many valuable stories. Memoirs are important not only because they give survivors the opportunity to share their stories, but because, on a very small level, they begin to give a voice back to the voiceless. Although we can’t bring those survivors back and prove to them there are people who care and will listen, we can make sure the survivors who are still alive do not go unheard.
– Lucy Bogle