When a survivor speaks or writes about their life during the Holocaust, it gives a voice to the lives they had lived and lives that were lost. Their stories provide us with a bigger picture of how daily life was lived before the Holocaust and then suddenly transformed in a flash, almost wiping out an entire culture along with its victims.
As a child of two survivors, my biggest regret was not having a written account of my parents’ experiences during the Holocaust. My ability to share my parent’s stories by memory to my children are vague, and in time I fear these stories will be lost in translation as they trickle down to the next generations.
After working at the Azrieli Foundation for a short time, I began receiving phone calls from Holocaust survivors asking me if someone could help them write their story. One of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do is tell survivors that we only accept stories that are already written and we had no help to offer them. As a small organization we had neither the staff nor the time for such a huge undertaking. Now in their eighties and nineties, survivors felt that they too didn’t have much time either.
After considerable thought and some sleepless nights, I came up with the idea of developing a memoir-writing program. If we could find and train volunteers willing to work with survivors, we could ultimately help them produce a written story with the possibility of publication by the Azrieli Foundation. This was definitely a win, win situation. With the approval and support from the Azrieli Foundation, the Sustaining Memories Program was established in September 2011.
The success of the Sustaining Memories Program was based on many factors; the credibility of our partner, Ryerson University’s G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education for adults 50+ and especially their director Sandra Kerr, who shared my enthusiasm for this project; to Dr. Paula David whose experience and knowledge from years of working closely with Holocaust survivors helped to lead the way by training the volunteers through comprehensive workshops she developed; to the dozens of devoted volunteers who gave of their time unselfishly, interviewing survivors and then undertaking the daunting task of transcribing their survivor-partner’s words into a manuscript; to my team at the Azrieli Foundation, with special thanks to our Managing Editor, Arielle Berger who worked determinedly to edit and meet deadlines: but mostly, we are grateful to the 90 Holocaust survivors who had the courage to tell their stories and entrusting us with their legacies.
Knowing that the Sustaining Memories Program has helped so many survivors fulfill their wishes has in part fulfilled mine. Keeping their stories “alive” makes me realize just how proud my parents would be of me for creating this program in their honour and remembering them in this very special way.
Reflections on these Unique Memoirs
The Sustaining Memories Program and my involvement with its conception, development and growth has been a unique learning process and a true privilege. I first encountered Survivors of the Holocaust in 1988 when I began my career at Baycrest Centre in Toronto. As a social worker working with older adults it was important to be aware of my clients’ trials and tribulations across the life course in order to understand their current needs. I usually met them at a time when they were facing age-related challenges and required resources and support in order to live their remaining years with as much health, peace of mind and dignity as possible.
I always appreciated that each and every one of us ages with our own unique perspectives, experiences and capacities. When I arrived at Baycrest, a predominantly Jewish geriatric facility, I quickly learned that aging Holocaust survivors were coping with memories, experiences, struggles and challenges that were never covered in any health care professional training of that time. Trauma was not particularly a popular area of study, and trauma and its impact on older adults even less so. I realized that my ability to support my elderly clients in a meaningful way was compromised by my own lack of understanding of their Holocaust experiences. I looked to the literature and my colleagues and was astounded at the paucity of available information.
I did not understand that my same questions and needs were shared by a small group of colleagues around the world who were working with a growing cohort of elderly survivors. From those early days, when the majority of Holocaust narratives were still steeped in pathology, mystery and secrecy, I started on a life changing adventure that allowed me to work with, work for and be part of an international shift in the understanding of Holocaust Survivors. This included the evolution of the importance of trauma informed caring and a new understanding of the lasting impact of early life trauma on aging.
In my work with trauma survivors, none of these insights, the ongoing improvement in professional training and individualized client care would have been possible without the input of Holocaust Survivors and their families and their willingness to share their stories. In order to understand their needs, I needed to understand their strengths; how they coped with the extremes of loss and of the range of trauma they endured. I needed to learn how to hear their stories, and in order to hear their stories; I needed to learn how to listen. For four decades, I became a willing student, a ready listener and worked with hundreds of aging Survivors, their adult children, several of their grandchildren and then in turn, sharing what I learned with my colleagues at Baycrest and similar facilities.
Apr 14, 2012
Holocaust Survivor's Story Bound in Manuscript
Apr 17, 2012
Azrieli-Ryerson Pilot Project Presents a Rare Gift for Holocaust Remembrance Day
May 16, 2012
Holocaust Memoir Project Pairs Survivors with Students
May 02, 2013
'Being Jewish meant being dead': Holocaust Survivor Explains Why She Kept her True Identity Secret for 70 Years
May 29, 2013
100 Things to Do in 1000 Days; #7: Sustaining Memories Program at Ryerson University.
Jul 13, 2018
An End, A Beginning