When someone says s/he wants to write the story of his/her life, the first reaction is to ask "Why?" If the intent is to write a best-seller that will be turned into a movie, chances are that won’t happen. So why write a memoir? For essentially one reason: to tell your children and their children who you are, where you came from, anything you knew about your parents, anything at all that lets them understand who they are and where they come from.
Late in life, Eta Wrobel embarked on a new career as an author. Last week she looked at a hardbound copy of her camera-ready manuscript, a book that began with a poem and a promise she made to herself in the woods of Poland in 1943.
Eta Wrobel is literally the poster girl for jewishpartisans.org.
It somehow didn’t register until she saw the draft of the cover all shiny, with three photos of herself on it that 63 years later, she had fulfilled that promise. The cover shows Eta as a defiant 3-year-old, as a ‘0-ish partisan in Poland, and in her prime in America.
She sat at the kitchen table and passed her hand over the book, silently thumbing through it. This is the first time Eta has seen her book look like a "real book" instead of a manuscript in a loose-leaf binder.
It’s a working copy, one to mark up, to find the typos, make the last changes, additions and deletions, edits and corrections before it gets sent off for consideration by publishers. It’s quite an accomplishment, filled with family stories and photos.
Eta was always jealous of everyone she knows who has buried family members and placed headstones on the sites. She lost everyone in the Holocaust, her parents, nine sisters and brothers, brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews. And when we met, she said that each night she forces herself to remember them in her dreams, never to forget them or their stories. Every moment of the day, she is obligated not to forget and she had to write that book. Yet the first time she sat down to write, years ago, she almost experienced a heart attack. Last spring she decided, "It’s now or never."
It was time to commit memory to posterity or break that promise.
Eta’s three children, all in their 50s, were encouraging. They interfered not at all and were helpful, asking clarifying questions, catching typos or inconsistencies. Years ago, one sat with her mother for weeks to create an outline. Eta used it as her bible when she dictated her story to me and I asked lots of questions as I typed into a laptop on her dining room table and we wrangled with language.
Eta’s story starts with her grandmothers. She was born into a solidly middle class family in Poland, and morphed into a partisan after escaping first from prison in Lublin and later from the liquidation of her ghetto. A natural organizer, leader, and manager, she became the mayor of Lukow after the war, until the Communists came knocking. She and her family fled to the American zone, leaving almost everything behind, came to America and rebuilt their lives. They worked hard, with setbacks and successes. Eta became the quintessential Hadassah lady, a Jewish activist, an organizer and a leader, in Israel Bonds, Yad Vashem, bikkur cholim, Akim…. If there was good to be done, she was doing it.
This week Eta confides that for the first time in 63 years, she’s sleeping better. "I feel like a yoke’s been taken off." And that’s because she has done much more than write a book. She has transferred her memories to pages for eternity, to pages in a book. The souls of her family are all around her, in the names her children bear.
As we sat in the kitchen, looking at her work, we realized that her book is the portable yet permanent headstone she created for them. It transmits memories of their lives from generation to generation that will become carefully worn and dearly cherished. Eta’s memories will last forever, written by Eta for her family, her life, told her way.
Will the book be published? Right now, no one knows and that’s actually not the point. The point is in the writing, in the remembering, in the transmittal, generation to generation, whether it’s Haagen Dasz or the Holocaust, from Simon and Schuster or a printout from your computer.
Eta’s last word: "A person’s stories belong to the future. That’s how memories live on and your descendants remember you. Write. That’s how you find peace of mind."