“There are as many Holocaust stories as there are Holocaust survivors,” said David Ehrlich, a survivor outreach speaker of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, to open his afternoon talk at Langara College. On Oct. 31, a class of 20 students and several faculty members and guests heard Ehrlich – a Hungarian survivor of Auschwitz who immigrated to Canada via Paris in the late 1940s – tell his personal story.
This class is part of a program called Writing Lives: The Holocaust Survivor Memoir Project. In the first term, its students produce research papers on prewar European Jewish communities like the one that Ehrlich called home; in the second term, they will interview survivor-partners and together write memoirs of the survivors’ experiences.
Ehrlich is an evocative speaker. He spoke lovingly of his family home in Transylvania (now part of Romania). “We had a three-room home, and we were middle-class. But we had no running water and no electricity, not for another 20 years,” he said. “Kids don’t know any better. I thought that we had it well: chicken on Friday night, bread on the table, it was wonderful!”
But he also told of his experience with antisemitic violence, the hard choices made by families who tried to avoid a Nazi roundup, and life in Auschwitz. He silenced the room when he spoke of stepping off a train boxcar at Auschwitz: “I’ll never forget the view when the sliding doors opened, or the noise that the doors made,” he said.
The students – who in this term’s research papers attempt to imaginatively reconstruct Jewish life before the Second World War’s devastation – responded with questions about Ehrlich’s journey to Canada. He spoke of the family that he made in Canada: a wife and three sons. He made his story accessible to the audience of all ages.
The students admired Ehrlich and a bond was formed during his talk, which was about an hour long. When he finished speaking, there was a respectful silence, and no student seemed willing to be the first to break it. Teachers from Langara began the question-and-answer session and, once the ice was broken, the students filled the remaining time with questions. Ehrlich in turn shared relevant wisdom for Writing Lives’ participants.
“You are educated and smart,” he told them. “There comes a time where you’ve got to learn to put up with people who are different because you have to get along. Start practising by getting along with your fellow students.”
Indeed, Writing Lives features groups in which students collaborate on research and, ultimately, on memoirs with the course’s survivor-partners. These collaborations require empathy. Ehrlich conducted himself as an exemplar of empathy, stating, “I can’t hold the grandchildren of Nazi-era Germans accountable for the Holocaust,” and the students’ response to his talk suggests that they, too, understand empathy’s importance. The course thus offers an excellent venue for students’ development of collaborative skills and of compassion. It provides a space in which students can grow closer together.
The afternoon also contained humour and reference to contemporary subjects. Ehrlich joked that he was now willing to use various German-made appliances and recalled that the heavy rainfall during a roundup of Hungarian Jews paled in comparison to Vancouver’s weather. Ehrlich also demonstrated strong knowledge of news and politics by interspersing references to American and Canadian current events into his remarks. He shared his general optimism about the post-Holocaust situation, stating, “After three or four generations, the Germans are coming clean; they are behaving like good nations do. It’s the only country in the world where you cannot say that the Holocaust didn’t exist.” He added, “We in Canada are very lucky – multicultural – and there’s no way that one minority group could be persecuted as in the Holocaust.”
His audience appreciated his graceful, optimistic tone. One enthusiastic student baked dozens of cupcakes to celebrate Ehrlich’s recent birthday.
Ehrlich’s talk will guide Writing Lives’ students through the remainder of the program. They will respond to it in one of their weekly written submissions, and the experience of interacting with a Holocaust survivor foreshadows the interviews that they will conduct in early 2018. They could not have asked for a better guide.
William Chernoff is a student in the Writing Lives program. Coordinated by instructor Dr. Rachel Mines, the two-semester program is a partnership between Langara, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Azrieli Foundation.