The value of memoirs
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 are now in the process of writing the survivors’ memoirs, based on the interviews. Students are keeping journals of their personal reflections on their experiences as Writing Lives participants. They used their most recent journal entry to reflect on the topic of The Importance of Memoirs. Here are two excerpts.
Memories are our experiences: our interactions with people we love or hate, our communication with the ever-changing world. Our memories remind us of our moral values, our knowledge, our appreciation of our own lives, and perhaps our own inadequacy in being the person that we wanted to be. Our memories are a true reflection of who we are, and that is exactly why they are our most valuable asset.
Writing down our memories is a great way to retain them and, hence, it is meaningful to write a memoir on behalf of David, a man who has experienced one of the most controversial and complex events in history – the Holocaust – so that his memories will be retained in concrete form and can be passed on to many generations. I believe David’s descendants, and anyone who cares about other human beings, will be inspired by what David fought for in the past and will be grateful for what they have. Sometimes, we take food and safety, peace and dignity, the privilege to love and to be loved, for granted, and we forget about the unfortunate ones.
Most importantly, memoirs of Holocaust survivors are a stern reminder of the fact that we humans can turn into perpetrators for not so obvious reasons. It would be wrong for us to think that, since we are civilized, rational, educated people, we cannot become perpetrators. We have come to realize that it is not the case that only psychotic or inherently evil people can harm others in callous and appalling ways. The Holocaust has demonstrated that hatred, racism, conflicts between religions and a sense of insecurity can easily be used to justify our wrongdoings. With the real-life experiences of survivors recorded in memoirs, hopefully people will never forget this painful lesson in human history.
– Bonnie Pun
Storytelling is a phenomenon that all manners of societies and cultures have practised since the hominid species first learned to communicate. We use stories to convey social values and wisdom. In Western society, thanks to pioneers such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers, storytelling forms the bedrock of modern counseling practice. The intimacy of sharing a story with a compassionate and safe person can literally transform a life. Stories transmit meaning, both individually and socially. It’s as simple and complex as that.
Memoirs are a place where individuals can encounter and transform their experience into one that has larger meaning. On a societal level, projects like Writing Lives present the human experience and personal costs of the atrocities that have occurred. The personal narrative transforms historical facts into real and impactful events that can be felt, if not fully understood.
The Holocaust is so often constructed and taught as an historical anomaly, a mysterious evil; however, the fact of the matter is that it is a story of social relationships. Sadly, “stories” such as this have occurred far too frequently over the last 70 years. Globally, we have seen genocidal processes of hate in countries such as former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Russia, Sudan … the list goes on. As our neighbour to the south, the United States, struggles with an ideological divide that has become so significant it is now one of the countries monitored by the NGO Genocide Watch, memoirs from the Holocaust become particularly important here in the Western world. I think it is sometimes easy to look at racially motivated brutality in the second and third worlds and feel a certain sense of safety. These memoirs confront us with a different reality, one which is too important to ignore.
– Ann Thomas