Listener-Witness: My Role as a Writing Partner for the Sustaining Memories Project

For Helen

“No one / bears witness for the / witness,” writes Paul Celan in “Ashglory” (here translated by Pierre Joris). I returned to this poem again and again when, in 2017, I held the role of writing partner for the Sustaining Memories Project, a program created by the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program in partnership with the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University). The Sustaining Memories Project matched Holocaust survivors with volunteers interested in documenting Holocaust testimonies. The writing partner’s role included listening to, recording, transcribing, editing and writing the life story shared by the Holocaust survivor.

Helen Berkovitz (à gauche), et Anna Veprinska (à droite).

Helen Berkovitz, Holocaust survivor (left) and Anna Veprinska, writing partner (right).

But how do you write a memoir that is not yours without transgressing the borders of another’s story? This was one of the questions the training sessions for the Sustaining Memories Project attempted to tackle. These sessions centred on best practices for sensitively approaching both the survivor and the writing process. I remember one piece of advice that still nudges me during my current research with Holocaust testimonies (more on this below): Don’t break down in front of the survivor. If you need to cry, excuse yourself. It’s not the survivor’s job to comfort you. I recall several of the project participants smiling at this advice, which seemed, perhaps, obvious; hearing about an experience, after all, is only an inadequate shadow of living an experience. But theoretical emotions are far easier to control than those that arise in actual interactions.

I was nervous when Helen and I met in her Toronto apartment, worried about getting both my emotions and the writing right, uneasy with the idea of expecting someone I had just met to pour traumatic memory into the tape recorder between us in the same casual way she poured me tea. It was impossible, however, to stay nervous with Helen, who is endlessly warm and welcoming. From the beginning, she felt like family.

The recommended length for each of the recording sessions was approximately two hours, a time frame that took into account the potential overexertion of both survivor and volunteer, but that also often disrupted the narrative. Throughout our sessions, I became highly conscious of how I listened to Helen’s story. I minimized interruptions to those involving clarifications and refrained from voicing sympathy: I did not want Helen’s narrative to be engulfed in an endless stream of my futile I am sorrys. As such, I reduced my responses to silence or sounds (ah, oh, mm). I recall Helen recounting an incident of a nine-year-old boy who was dying from a gunshot wound to his mouth turning to his mother to tell her that his mouth felt warm. What could I possibly offer in response to that memory? I swallowed my emotions, looked down.

La couverture des mémoires d'Helen Berkovitz.

The cover of Helen Berkovitz's memoir written with her writing partner, Anna Veprinska.

Transcribing Helen’s oral testimony into a written memoir was a challenging and labour-intensive process. Among the challenges was rearranging the events in Helen’s testimony into a linear narrative; memory seldom arrives chronologically, so writing the memoir involved transposing certain events from one context to another. Additionally, English is approximately Helen’s sixth language, preceded by Yiddish, Czech, German, Hebrew and Hungarian. While Helen speaks English brilliantly, the grammatical inaccuracies inevitable in one’s sixth language meant that editorial adjustments needed to be balanced with faithfulness to Helen’s voice. On an emotional level, listening and relistening to, writing and rewriting Helen’s story was at times heartbreaking.

Despite tragedy and loss, however, Helen is among the most optimistic and grateful people I know. One of the honours of my life has been meeting her and learning from her. Our continued friendship is a gift I cherish, and I deeply thank the Sustaining Memories Project for fortuitously pairing me with Helen.

Now, a few years after working with Helen, I am researching pre-recorded audio-visual Holocaust testimonies as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. When I watch the testimonies, I sometimes think of those initial meetings with Helen, about the courage that sharing one’s life with a stranger demands. I also think about the interviewer, who remains behind the camera for most of the interview. In moments when the interviewer interrupts or attempts to steer the testimony, I recall the training sessions for the Sustaining Memories Project. But I also wonder what the interviewer’s face might look like when the survivor recounts a particularly harrowing event. Is the interviewer, as I did with Helen, attempting to restrain their emotions?

As I have learned, holding the role of a listener-witness bears its own set of responsibilities: to pay attention, to limit interruptions, to avoid emotional appropriation (to name a few). Notably, listeners also play a role in shaping the stories shared with them: a speaker might omit or include certain details based on, for example, the receptivity of the listener. Would Helen have told her story in a slightly different way to a different writing partner? During our recording sessions, because she is caring and conscientious, Helen would often repeat, “I don’t want to stretch it” — meaning, she wanted to avoid taking up too much of my time with a lengthy story. Despite my protests and voiced desire for the entirety of her story, I wonder if Helen has more stories to tell.

One closing snippet from my friendship with Helen: about two years ago, I visited Helen during her short-term stay at a hospital. Assuming I was family, the nurse mistakenly referred to me as Helen’s granddaughter. As I began to correct her, Helen interrupted: “She is like a granddaughter to me.” I, too, feel this, Helen.

I grew up without my grandparents for reasons ranging from my family’s emigration to most of my grandparents’ early deaths. I did not have the opportunity to ask my grandparents about their Holocaust memories, and I only know what my parents remember — what they were told or what they were invested enough in to ask. These absent stories remind me of the stories that are not shared because of trauma or death or simply because no one asks.

Living in a country coming to terms with its own history of genocide — especially in light of the recent findings of children’s remains and unmarked graves near former residential schools — I am deeply aware that hearing the stories of those who have suffered genocide is vital to our understanding of history and our shared human responsibility for healing.

I am grateful to the Sustaining Memories Project for creating a space for survivors’ stories to be told and for affording me the honour of listening to one of these stories.

Anna Veprinska is a writer and researcher living north of Toronto (Tkaronto). She is a current SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto. Her book Empathy in Contemporary Poetry after Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) received Honourable Mention for the Memory Studies Association First Book Award.