Sustaining Memories

In 2011, the Foundation reached out to the Programs for 50+ at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University to form an innovative and unique partnership. Together, in consultation with Paula David from the University of Toronto, they created the Sustaining Memories Project to give interested survivors of the Holocaust the opportunity to “write” their memoirs. With little fanfare and great enthusiasm, eighteen people joined the Project and committed to a training program to be matched with a survivor to tape and transcribe their story. Sustaining Memories continued in Toronto for five years and produced ninety-five memoirs in total. The project expanded to Montreal and to Vancouver, where it became Langara College’s Writing Lives course, with students helping to produce survivors’ memoirs.

When a survivor speaks or writes about their life during the Holocaust, it gives a voice to the lives they lived and lives that were lost. Their stories provide us with a bigger picture of daily life before the Holocaust and how their lives were so suddenly transformed when the Nazi regime and its collaborators almost wiped out an entire culture along with its millions of 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 parents’ 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 survivors had already written themselves and that we had no help to offer them. As a small organization we had neither the staff nor the time for such a huge undertaking. Then 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 for their families and for the foundation’s archival collection. This was definitely a win-win situation. With the approval and support from the Azrieli Foundation, the Sustaining Memories Project was established in 2011.

The success of Sustaining Memories is due to many people and partnerships: Ryerson University’s G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education for adults 50+ and especially its director, Sandra Kerr, who shared my enthusiasm for this project; Dr. Paula David, whose experience and knowledge from decades of working closely with elderly Holocaust survivors helped to lead the way through comprehensive workshops she developed to train writing partner volunteers; Dr. Paula Draper, Holocaust historian and educator, who led workshops on interview techniques and Holocaust history; 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; and 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 more than ninety Holocaust survivors who had the courage to tell their stories and entrusted us with their legacies.

Knowing that the Sustaining Memories Project 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.

photo of Elin Beaumont

Elin Beaumont

Community and Education Initiatives Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program

Introduction

Paula David

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’ experiences across the life course in order to understand their current needs and perspectives. 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.

At Baycrest, a predominantly Jewish geriatric facility, I quickly learned that aging Holocaust survivors were coping with memories, experiences, struggles and challenges that hadn’t been covered in any health care professional training of that time. Trauma was not a particularly 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.

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 and secrecy, I started on a life-changing journey 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.

Read more

IMG 5793
Sustaining Memories author Bess Fishman, right, with her writing partner and granddaughter, Michelle Fishman.
IMG 5800
Sustaining Memories author Faigie Libman, right, with her writing partner, Farla Klaiman.

Sustaining Memories in the Media

Thank you to all the copy editors who worked on the memoirs over the course of Sustaining Memories:

Sharon Chisvin

Dana Francoeur

Lynda Guthrie

Farla Klaiman

A special thank-you to Dr. Paula Draper for her assistance in choosing some of the memoir excerpts.