Holocaust survivor Serge Haber speaks with Tina Macaspac and other students at the Writing Lives closing ceremony April 26. (photo by Jennifer Oehler © Langara College)
Langara College recently held the closing ceremony for Writing Lives: The Holocaust Memoir Project, a two-semester collaboration between Langara College, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) and the Azrieli Foundation.
At the April 26 event, Dr. Rachel Mines, a member of Langara’s English department and coordinator of the project, described Writing Lives.
“In the first semester of this project,” she said, “students learned about the European Jewish culture and the Holocaust in the classroom, through studying historical and literary texts. They also researched and wrote a paper on prewar European Jewish communities.
“In the second term, students were teamed up with their survivor partners. They interviewed the survivors, transcribed the interviews and turned the transcriptions into written memoirs. The memoirs will be archived and possibly published, and they will also serve as legacies for the survivors and their families.”
Mines also relayed a message from Melanie Mark, B.C. minister of advanced education, skills and training.
“The Writing Lives project gives a voice to Holocaust survivors and teaches us about the type of courage and resilience it takes to overcome injustice,” said Mark in her statement. “These emotional and moving stories help connect people from different cultures and inspire us to do better for each other. I am proud to be part of a government that is committed to building a vision of reconciliation through the adoption and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. As an indigenous minister whose grandparents went to residential school, as the first person who ever graduated from high school in my family and went to college and university, I know the power of education. I know how transformative it is and how impactful it can be on our communities. Thank you for being truth tellers and helping to keep these stories alive in the minds of people.”
Gene Homel, former chair of the liberal studies department at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, encouraged students to consider entering the fields of history, politics or literature.
“History is very important in providing context to some disturbing developments, not so much in Canada but other parts of the world, which are not as fortunate as Canada,” he said. “History is a scientific-based discipline, and that kind of approach is all the more important in the context of fake news and alternative facts. It is very important that the stories be told, and for us to take an inclusive but evidence-based and scientific approach to history.”
“When I invited the survivors in this program,” said Dr. Ilona Shulman Spaar, education director at the VHEC, “I mentioned two things: first, I expressed that the VHEC is confident that the experience of meeting with a Holocaust survivor will prove meaningful for the students and, secondly, I mentioned that I hope the survivors, too, will benefit from this opportunity. Listening to the positive feedback that I received from both the students and the survivors, and looking at the overall outcome of this project, I am glad to see that my hopes for this program became true.”
Serge Haber, a Holocaust survivor and a Writing Lives participant, talked about the significance of his memoir. “It is very crucial to me, because, for the last 35 years, I have been thinking of writing my experience in this life,” he said. “I never had a chance, the time or the person to listen to me. I hated the machines that record, so [a] personal touch was very important to me. And here it was, presented by Langara. I worked with two students, and I think we created a relationship, a personal understanding of what I went through.”
Haber added, “In fact, I have never been in a concentration camp, but it is important to know that the Holocaust happened not only in camps but also in many cities around Europe, where thousands upon thousands of Jewish people, young and old alike, perished for nothing, only because they were Jewish. I profoundly remember three words that [I was told] while I was watching what was happening on the streets below, where thousands of people had been killed – my father mentioned to me, ‘Look, listen and remember.’ And I remember.”
Heather Parks, reflecting on the passion and dedication that she and her fellow students contributed to the project, shared an emotional speech.
“For their trust in us, we poured our hearts into building their legacy,” she said. “We spent our days and long nights taking words told to us in confidence. We poured our hearts – and sometimes tears – into making a story fit for the most incredible people we have had the honour of meeting. Every part of this was hard work, and every part of this was worth it. We learned so much from them.
“Besides the lessons on history, we learned what true strength means,” she said. “We learned that love can remain even after trauma, loss or heartbreak; that new love grows as lives move forward, and that time can heal many wounds, even though they may leave scars. We were lucky to have been included in this love, this trust and this experience. I am not the only one in this project – in the experience of all of us, this project was illuminating and enlightening. It was surreal and awe-inspiring in every sense of the word. The experience taught us compassion, how to listen and what it means to love in the face of hate.”
The Writing Lives closing ceremony, however, may be an end that ushered in a new beginning. According to Dr. Rick Ouellet, director of Langara College’s indigenous education and services, his department is currently taking initiatives to continue the program. Writing Lives was a collaboration in the two years it ran. Similarly, the future project would be in collaboration with organizations that are working closely with residential school survivors, such as the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society and the British Columbia Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, to establish necessary protocols and ensure the stories of survivors are respected and the students are well prepared. Though not yet finalized, Ouellet aims to initiate the new Writing Lives program in fall 2019 at Langara.
Marc Perez, a Writing Lives student participant, lives and works on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. His creative nonfiction and fiction appear in Ricepaper Magazine and PRISM international 56.3. His personal essay “On Meeting a Holocaust Survivor” is published in Zachor (May 2018).