Echoes of Memory: Holocaust Survivors' Writing Project

Uploaded by ushmm on 18.10.2012

Scholars of the Holocaust, and the world in general, consider them among the six million
Jews murdered in Europe. To me, they were my Uncle—my father's oldest brother—my
aunt, and my cousins. Each one of them had a name, and each had a face, which I recall
often among my haunting memories. I see the value of Survivors writing about
their personal experiences of the Holocaust in two ways. This is a chance for survivors
to tell the personal experience of someone who lived through it. To impact a reader,
maybe giving them something that they have an emotional experience with. The personal
gain I see is having something for each writer, giving them a chance and a space to think
deeply about the experience. To try to come up with words to express the feelings, the
emotions of the things that happened to them. I knew what I wanted to be when I started
to think about the Holocaust and my experiences because of it. When I was growing up, I felt
I was always at the mercy of other people's ideas and wishes. It was only as I began teaching
that I consciously thought about the person I wanted to be. All people have events that
can make them unhappy people. However, one has the choice of how to put these events
in perspective. I think it would surprise quite a few Americans
to know that the place in our education system that most students at the secondary- and university-level
encounter the Holocaust in their coursework is in the literature classes and the language
arts classes. It's there that they read the written testimonies of the Survivors.
Memory is difficult to write. We can never fully recapture it, especially a memory of
an event that was meant to destroy memory. And so what Survivors are doing by writing
out, struggling sometimes to find the words, they're expanding and they're deepening
this pool of memory. When I first joined the workshop, there were
so many Survivors who had been through really horrendous events and happenings, I felt,
"Why would anybody want to hear my story?" But the other Survivors were interested, and
certainly they made me feel it was alright talking about my Kindertransport experiences.
When people read something they're written, it often touches on something in my mind,
and I'll think I want to write about that and find out about that. And I think the Memoir
Writing Group is really good for that. It brings back so much that you don't, that
I don't think of, maybe other people do. My parents, my sister, my brother, and I left
Antwerp and joined the exodus of Belgian civilians, who were trying to get into France to escape
the rapidly advancing German army. My very first memory dates back to that time. I remember
lying in a ditch besides my mother and other civilians. Standing tall next to me on the
roadway, an officer is looking at the sky through binoculars. His presence is not threatening,
and I continue to watch him, but soon I fall asleep. When I wake up, we are still in the
ditch, but the officer is no longer standing there. That was the last British soldier I
saw until we were liberated by British troops four years later.
You've captured the feeling of a first memory so vividly. You don't mention that they're
British until the very end. I think that's the way to do it, for the piece. I think,
I feel like that's the way to, to put that there, and it gives it a weight that it wouldn't
have otherwise. It was very hard to start talking about it
altogether, and to write about it, of course, it's even much harder. Somehow when we are
in the classroom, there is something that clicks. She says "write about this, write
about that," or she reads us about something, and it's great. I wouldn't even call it
teaching, it's done in such a tactful, behind-the-scenes way.
How many people wrote about a person? What was your experience of trying to describe
that person without telling the story? It was not a problem at all because he's
a wonderful person, so it was good to do it. And you wrote about a person, too?
It's a person that I didn't recognize, that I knew many years before.
I was sitting at the desk in the Hall of Remembrance, a place that has many symbolic reminders about
the Holocaust. Then a woman approached me. "Hi Nesse," she said. The only people
that call me by my real name are people from my past. "How do I know you?" I ask. She
was surprised. "I went to school with you. My name was Haya." I looked at her again
and wondered is that the girl that was so active and beautiful hair down to her shoulders,
always dressed in clothes with pretty colors. Before I could say anything, she said, "Yes,
my dear, you still have your blonde hair, but you do not look as I remember you from
home." Haya said, the years make the change. When you think about the Holocaust, it's
big. Six million, millions more affected. Or when you hear these grand, sweeping generalizations:
No, it's about, you know, man's inhumanity to man. It's about, you know, crimes against
humanity. What does that mean? But when you have a woman who could be your grandmother
and who's written these words. She is the object of that inhumanity. It takes it from
that very broad, sweeping "oh, this is a terrible history; it's man's inhumanity
to man," and it boils it down to the face of this elderly gentleman or this older woman
sitting in front of me, who's written this, and I see their picture, and I'm hearing
their story. Why are they the object of that inhumanity?
Going to night school, trying to learn English, and hearing about the greatness of American
democracy and the Four Freedoms, I was excited. My teacher was Mrs. Lurst. She was a very
nice elderly lady. She encouraged me to read the New York Time, so I could improve my vocabulary.
Time and time again, I read articles about Jim Crow and lynching of blacks in southern
states and also noticed that black Americans were not treated fairly. I asked her to explain
how this can happen in a country that advocates freedom to the world. She tried very hard
to explain that the reason was that they had states' rights and the federal government
was helpless and couldn't do anything about it. Then I retorted that that doesn't make
sense. How can you call that freedom when you practice such selective justice and injustice
as well? In the central hall of the Holocaust Museum,
we have a biblical passage from the Book of Isaiah inscribed in stone. It says "You
are my witnesses," and I think that really encapsulates the mission of the Museum as
it relates to Survivors. This is not just a museum; it's a memorial museum, so it
functions as a site of memory, as a quasi-gravesite for those who have no graves. Many Survivors
who visit here, both volunteers and others, feel that this place is the guardian of their
memory. It will speak for them when they are no longer here. The common understanding of
what the history of the Holocaust means will be radically different when there is no one
alive anymore who was alive at that time. After walking through the rows of graves,
reading names and dates of several generations buried here, I came across an insignificant
headstone. What caught my attention was the number of pebbles on the headstone and on
the ground around it. The inscription read: "Here lay a third of the ashes of 344 cremated,
sacred souls, victims of the Nazis." I kept lingering at that grave, reading and rereading
the inscription while envious thoughts started to circle in my mind. Here was a group of
people killed by the murderous Nazis, but at least their ashes are buried where one
can come and pray for their souls. My thoughts went back to my own parents and my two younger
brothers. I can only envision the smoke from the chimney, rising towards the sky and a
handful of ashes from the ovens of Auschwitz-Birkenau, scattered around the fields and blown away
by the wind. How can I put a pebble, a sign of visitation, on this headstone in the air?
Ordinary people sit down, and they write the story of their experience, and eventually
somebody will read it and see it, and no matter how much other people will deny it, they'll
have something that will stand up. All these people couldn't have all gotten together
and, and made up stories. Ok? Because each story is different and each story is genuine.
And I think that in some ways is more valid in the long-run and will pay dividends in
the time to come.