For more than 20 years, the Second Generation (2G) Group in Vancouver has organized and participated in workshops, local and international conferences, meetings and special projects, with a goal of developing a deeper understanding of ourselves and our history, as well as leaving a legacy for future generations. This article is about how 12 members of Vancouver’s 2G community used guided autobiography (GAB) to write their stories of growing up as children of Holocaust survivors.
Deborah Ross-Grayman: For some years, I have co-facilitated the 2G Group in Vancouver. Over time, I became aware that a growing number of us wanted to write both our own stories of growing up as children of Holocaust survivors and document the survival experiences of our parents. We wanted to explore how growing up in our families, and living with a Holocaust legacy, may have shaped our responses to life’s circumstances and influenced decisions we’ve made and actions we’ve taken. I began to look for a class we could take as a group.
Wendy Bancroft: In the fall of 2020, I was leading a GAB workshop series for the Simon Fraser University Liberal Arts and 55+ Program when I received an email from the program office saying they had been approached by a member of Vancouver’s Second Generation community, looking for a writing instructor to help them document their experience of living with this legacy. There are other writing courses offered through the 55+ program but students tended to give GAB high marks for being “safe” and having a “therapeutic effect,” hence my name was suggested.
GAB is a gently structured method designed to help individuals recall, reflect on, write about and share aloud meaningful memories. Feedback focuses on the experience being shared, and theme-based writing provides a ready focus. Stories must be kept under 1,000 words and all stories are shared aloud in a small group.
It’s a method designed by renowned gerontologist and founding dean of the University of Southern California Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, Dr. James Birren, and it was originally intended as a tool to enhance life review for older adults. In addition to choosing foundational and universal themes, Birren developed a set of associated memory-stimulating questions. It was a powerful tool that has, for several years now, been shared in general populations by instructors certified through the Birren Institute of Autobiographical Studies. I am one of some 600-plus individuals, globally located, trained to lead workshops using guided autobiography.
Truth is, I was thrilled to be asked to lead workshops for the Second Generation Holocaust survivors community. Although not raised as a Jew, I learned as a young adult that my birth father was Jewish and, ever since, I’ve wanted to know more about my genetic inheritance.
Ross-Grayman: For our part, none of us was familiar with GAB, nor knew about Birren. We were attracted by the fact that it gave us a structured way into telling our stories, and six of us enthusiastically signed up.
Bancroft: Shortly thereafter, I had my first meeting with Deborah and Henry Ross-Grayman, co-facilitators of the 2G Group.
Planning the workshops
Bancroft: Deborah and Henry told me about the group and what they hoped to get out of the writing; I helped them understand what GAB was about. Then came the important task of choosing from the many writing themes offered in GAB. Deborah and Henry chose themes addressing experiences they felt would be especially relevant for their 2G community: family, spirituality and identity, facing fear and finding courage, love and intimacy, and finding resilience.
It was then my job to adapt the introductions and associated questions to be relevant and sensitive to the 2G life experience. Up to that point, my knowledge of Judaism had been limited to novels and what I had learned in the past from attending a three-night series of information sessions offered as a Taste of Judaism through Temple Sholom. I worried I might use insensitive language and references so I read books and articles dealing with Holocaust effects and watched interviews available on the internet.
Our first official GAB for 2G workshop series took place on March 14, 2020.
That this was a special group was immediately evident. Many already knew each other so they had a head start on bonding, but they were also unusually open and deeply sharing, warm and … vociferous. The term “herding cats” often came to mind. Some were already outstanding writers. One was an actress and did marvelous imitations of her parents and grandmother.
Most stories were linked to Holocaust effects and led to insights about family or other events in the past. I think here of one that had to do with driving anxieties triggered by bridges. The author remembered being 3 years old and hiding with her family under a bridge to escape bombing. While the stories could be painful, pain was often offset by laughter.
Ross-Grayman: Wendy guided us on our journey with sensitivity and care. In the first session, each of us committed to confidentiality, which created a safe container for our exploration. And, as a result, a deep intimacy developed as we shared things that some had never shared. Through the process of writing, reading and listening to our authentic and honest pieces, we increased our compassion and understanding of ourselves and each other.
In reflecting on the impact of these powerful sessions I wrote: “Like Partisans in the woods, with words our weapons, we fought for truth and liberation. Arm in arm we supported each other, witnessed ourselves mirrored in the other and found the strength to continue excavating. Our expert guide pointed the way with care. We arrived at the end of our journey full of purpose and understanding, more connected and less entangled with the past.”
What began as a six-week course for six of us, grew to a two-year writing project for 12 members: Fran Alexander, Olga Campbell, Esther Chase, Barbara Gard, Jane Heyman, Gabriella Klein, Agi Rejto, Marianne Rev, Deborah and Henry Ross-Grayman, Sidi Schaeffer and Marg Van Wielingen. A majority are in the helping professions and the arts. We were born in Australia, Hungary, Iraq, Germany, North America, Poland and Romania.
We continue to meet bi-monthly as an informal 2G writing group.
Bancroft: It has been a deep and meaningful experience for me. Over the time I’ve spent with these dynamic, compassionate and highly intelligent individuals, I’ve come to feel an even stronger attraction to Judaism. The 50% of me that is Ashkenazi Jew keeps pushing for more and more recognition.
Ross-Grayman: It is important for these stories to be recorded for posterity so future generations can have a greater understanding of the impact of the Holocaust and intergenerational transmission of trauma and resilience. This is not just for the future Jewish community, but for all communities and peoples affected by war, genocide and trauma.
We are now organizing a Second Generation anthology, which we hope to publish soon.
Wendy Bancroft has been helping people tell their stories for 40 years, eight of those as a guided autobiography instructor. In 2022, she was awarded the Betty and James Birren Award for Excellence in Practice from the International Centre for Life Story Innovation and Practice (ICLIP). More information about Bancroft and GAB can be found at storycatchers.ca. Deborah Ross-Grayman brings her background co-founding and running a woman-owned business and her work as a child and family therapist to her role, over 20 years, as co-facilitator of the Vancouver Second Generation Group. She is also a visual artist and writer, currently working on her memoir. She can be reached at [email protected].