Putting it in writing
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Putting it in writing

Holocaust survivors leave a legacy

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Until 1990,” says Hersh Hanfling, “I never talked a word to anybody. The first time I started to talk was when my son’s daughter, my ainikel, came over to me, and she said to me, ‘Zaidy, I have to make a project in school. I have to make it from your biography.’ Ahh…. What won’t we do for an ainikel?

Hanfling, the author of “Plucked from the Fire of the Holocaust,” is among a growing cadre of survivors giving voice to their life’s stories through a burgeoning self-publishing industry. For most, the desire to see their words in print is not based upon literary aspirations. Rather, the authors feel they must convey their histories to future generations.

“I tell you true,” says Hanfling, who lives in Edison; “in the beginning, I didn’t even know I was going to make a book. I even didn’t talk to the kids. I figured I’m going to cry, so why should the kids cry? But the kids had learned by themselves, and they knew already about the Holocaust.”

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Hersh Hanfling of Edison, author of a Holocaust memoir, dedicated a sefer Torah when his book came out.

For his granddaughter, Hanfling “marked all of the places I had been, and I had a postcard from my street with a picture of my house.” These and a few other mementos were the seeds of the school project that ultimately opened the doors to the telling of a tale that begins with his birth in Rozwadow, Poland. Hanfling’s internments in seven concentration camps are aspects of his life, but not the whole of it. It is his determination, optimism, and faith that make his story unique.

Such is the nature of the memoir – those particular experiences that set it apart from all others. Capturing one’s life between the covers of a book is a challenge – and getting that book published a challenge of a different kind.

Most traditional publishing houses continue to shun unsolicited manuscripts. Some smaller, independent companies will consider hard copy (with self-addressed stamped envelopes enclosed), and/ or e-mailed submission. Still, the likelihood of having a Holocaust memoir published through the traditional route is slim.

With a monetary contribution from the author, niche publishing companies, including several Jewish publishers, will frequently accept manuscripts for review. The advantage of going this route lies in the publisher’s ability to get the books into the hands of the reading public. However, a more likely option for the writer of the Holocaust memoir is choosing from among the dozens if not hundreds of self-publishing or on-demand companies accessible via the Internet.

The term self-publishing is finely nuanced. Depending upon the publisher, the author or his or her proxy may simply follow the typesetting directions on the company Website, pay the required amount, and, through computer wizardry, create one bound book or as many books as one wishes to buy. For a price, most such companies provide a range of services including editing, formatting, designing, printing, and marketing a finished product. Costs range from company to company and publishing package to publishing package.

For the writer of a Holocaust memoir, language is often a stumbling block. Those who want to write in their first language while publishing in English will likely require a translator. But even authors comfortable in English often feel the need for a professional to help shape the story out of the raw material. It is here that freelance writers, moonlighting journalists, and previously published authors are sought-after commodities.

Azriela Jaffe of Highland Park is one of these. The author of 16 books, Jaffe has written on topics ranging from successful business partnering to kosher cooking. A regular contributor to Meshpucha Magazine, she is shepherding “her” second Holocaust memoir. Her first experience in this genre was as the “hired scribe” who helped Hersh Hanfling set down his story for posterity.

Initially, Jaffe was asked by a friend to interview Hanfling for a brief piece to be included in an anthology called “Small Miracles of the Holocaust.” Although they lived in the same community, Jaffe says, “I had never met him before. When I sat down with Hersh, I had no intention of writing a Holocaust memoir.”

Jaffe describes Hanfling as “typical of many survivors. He hadn’t written anything down, but he had spent a very long time writing his genealogy, and he had a map of his journey.”

When Hanfling’s adult children realized that their father had begun to speak about his experiences, they asked Jaffe to return again and again – to let their father “keep talking as long as he would talk.” And thus began the unique relationship between the author and the writer.

“I sat with Hersh every day for six months,” Jaffe recalls. “He would tell me stories – some things he told me he had never shared before.” Although she hadn’t anticipated meeting daily, the pattern developed because, says Jaffe, “I didn’t want to break the rhythm. At first I would say, ‘How about tomorrow?'” When tomorrow came, she would ask again. “And then I stopped making any other plans. I had a standing commitment to meet with Hersh every day from 3 to 4.

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Hersh Hanfling holds a design for his book.

“Because I had self-published a cookbook, I knew it was possible to make this more than just a Xeroxed piece. I had connections with a graphic artist; I knew the publishing process. I told the family, ‘I can make this a book for you. The price will not be outrageous.’ I charged $25, half my normal hourly rate.” Including writing, editing, graphic design, and the printing of several hundred copies of the book, the total cost to the Hanflings came to approximately $8,000.

“I wish I could write Holocaust memoirs for free,” Jaffe says. “But since I cannot, every dollar I made on this project went into a special savings account for my children’s tuition. The Hanfling family knows that they played a part in Torah education going forward for my family.”
Jaffe says that helping to write a Holocaust memoir was unlike any other writing assignment she had ever known. “You have to have a certain level of skill, and you have to develop a rapport with the person. You have to be able to handle the person’s crying, and you have to be able to type and cry at the same time.”

Although there is no denying the value of the testimonies collected in Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, Jaffe believes there is much missing from the visual accounts. “The interviewer comes for one day, places a microphone in front of you, and asks you to talk,” she said. The expanded time frame for preparing a written account provides an opportunity to tell more of the story.

“I feel really strongly that people want to know what life was like for the survivor before the Holocaust,” Jaffe says. “We don’t understand what was taken away unless we understand what he had.”

The importance of timing cannot be overstated. “There comes a time when the survivor is too old, and doesn’t remember,” says Jaffe. “You want to catch the person before that time.” There are “many people who are afraid of opening up a Pandora’s box by speaking about the past,” she notes, but “for those who are able to transcend the pain and the fear, a book is a valuable record.

“In Hersh Hanfling’s case, all three of his children read the manuscript end to end prior to publication. They pointed out inaccuracies and scrutinized the details. I asked them to read with an eye for what they wished they knew more about.”

Says Phil Hanfling of Teaneck, “Sometimes memories fade and change. At least I have a living document which was told by my father. He is the evidence of the fact.” He and his siblings, Dr. Marc Hanfling and Rosalyn Slepoy, both of Edison, encouraged the writing of the memoir. Copies of the book were distributed at the Sept. 1 dedication of a sefer Torah at Agudath Israel of Edison/Highland Park. Hersh Hanfling paid for the Torah with money received through German reparations.
For the Hanflings, their father’s story is a source of pride. “Like any other project, we all met and tossed around ideas – what should or shouldn’t be included. The entire process took a year, and was well worth the time,” says Phil Hanfling. “I think it is very important that families do this. So many times the second generation wants a record, and their parents have already passed on.”

The Hanfling family sent a copy of the book to Yad Vashem in Israel and to the Yeshiva University Library among other places. Not surprisingly, the memoir has made its way into the hands of other survivors, some of whom were Hersh Hanfling’s long-lost companions in another world.

Phil Hanfling says the making of this book brought an already close family even closer. “It gave us a better understanding of where we came from, the meaning of our religion, and the importance of understanding why it is we do what we do, and why we believe what we believe – all those things that my father instilled in us. When my father looks forward, I think there is a certain joy – a certain satisfaction that he gets from seeing that the generations are able to survive the tragedies and losses that have occurred. He’ll look at his grandchildren who are named after his sisters and brothers and parents and uncles and aunts and he can see the link.”

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Since the 1980s author/journalist Jeanette Friedman of New Milford has been helping survivors write their memoirs. The founder of Second Generation North Jersey, she is editor in chief and president of The Wordsmithy, an independent digital publisher and pre-press service. Her numerous books include the forthcoming “Why Should I Care? Lessons from the Holocaust” (The Wordsmithy/Gihon River Press). Co-authored with David Gold, the book is designed to “teach high school students the importance of accountability, responsibility, and doing the right thing.”

Friedman first helped to shape a Holocaust memoir at the behest of Ernest W. Michel, vice president emeritus of UJA Federation of New York. Thereafter, “people started giving me their manuscripts,” she says. Some authors simply wanted their work edited, others want Friedman to help them publish their memoirs. She ordinarily charges $100 an hour, but has cut her rate because of the recession. “We didn’t go into this business to make a million bucks,” she says. “I do the Holocaust memoirs because they need to be done.”

Whether the goal is a paperback edition or a hardbound, leather-backed work with gold embossing, “I use the best printer I can find for the best price. These books are not best-sellers, nor are they written to be best-sellers. The Holocaust memoirs have a far different purpose.”

Friedman feels strongly that Holocaust memoirists should tell the whole story of their lives. “The survivor needs to tell everything about his or her parents – who was a watchmaker and who was a fabric maker, and what was Shabbos like and what was Pesach like. Did you live in a shtetl? Did you feel anti-Semitism? What kind of clubs did you join? What kind of games did you play? Did you play with hazelnuts? Did you have a hoop? And did you have a bicycle? And what kind of bed did you sleep in? What is it that this person learned in his youth that got him through the experience? To me,” Friedman says, “the Holocaust experience is the middle of the story. Even your kids need to know who you were before the Nazis moved in.”

This need was brought home to her because “I have no clue who my father was before the war. He wouldn’t talk, and he died when he was 66.”

When working with survivors, Friedman tells them “‘You didn’t die in April 1945. If you stop after liberation then you remain a victim.'”

The key to conveying a full and meaningful story often rests with the professional, she says. “You have to have someone pull out the information.” And she stresses the value of including photographs in the finished product whenever possible. “To give over the face of a parent, the face of a sister, is very important.”

The tears shed in the listening and the telling, the hours spent poring over scraps of memory and dog-eared photographs, the process of giving over the life of a survivor are different tasks from those asked of most writers. “Filmmaker Menachem Daum calls the work we do holy work,” says Friedman, “and it is holy work.”

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“Rescued: The Story of A Child Survivor of the Holocaust in France” chronicles the life of Carl Hausman. In the synopsis on the book’s back cover, Hausman writes, “Following the terrible events of Kristallnacht that befell the German Jews in 1938, the Nazis forcefully expelled my family from our home in the southern region of Germany.

“On October 1940, together with 6,500 other German Jews from that region who had not been able to escape the Nazis, we were forced out and deported. We were locked into old trains and transported to the deplorable conditions of an internment camp situated in the south of France.

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Carl Hausman, author of “Rescued.”

“From there, at the age of eight, I was separated from my family. We would never be together again.

“Two years later I was an orphan, the only one of my family of five who would survive the Holocaust.”

Replete with photographs, maps, letters, and compelling narrative, the memoir tells the dizzying tale of Hausman’s journey to freedom.

Long before the printed version became a reality, Hausman, who lives in Teaneck, had the basic story in hand. He approached his friend Perry Rosenstein, president of the Puffin Foundation of Teaneck. (The foundation’s stated mission is to ensure that the arts not merely survive, but flourish at all levels of society.) “I said, ‘Do you think there is something here that you can help me put together,'” Hausman recalls. Rosenstein put Hausman in touch with Ross Benjamin, a writer and a translator of German. The two worked together over the course of two years to produce the book.

The finished product stands as a witness to Hausman’s life. “I felt that I should leave something behind,” he says. “My thought was that my family should have some background about what I went through, and that young people, especially, should be educated as to what happened.”

“We collaborated,” says Benjamin, who lives in Brooklyn. “Carl had a whole collection of papers and a lot of letters that his family had written, and he wanted to include some political facts.”

Benjamin’s work has appeared in The New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, the Nation, and other publications. He was a 2003-2004 Fulbright Scholar in Berlin. But this was the first time he had worked with a Holocaust memoirist. “The project was sad and difficult,” he says, ” but the connection with Carl was also really nice.”

When the memoir was completed, Hausman approached some publishing companies. “I never went to the big agencies,” he says. “I was told by people I knew that this was not the kind of story they would be interested in at this time. I did go to some of the smaller companies, and they said, ‘Oh sure, we can help you, but it will cost you money.’ Well, I wound up publishing it myself.” A friend who is a commercial artist created the design, the graphics, and the cover at no cost. “I went to a local printer and printed 100 copies of the book at a total cost of approximately $1,100.”

Hausman stresses the value of such memoirs. “I am a member of a group called The Hidden Children of Bergen County,” he says. “A few of us have written our experiences. But there are others who want do the same thing, and maybe they don’t have the means. These stories are going to get lost, especially now. We’re the last of the Mohicans here. I’ve thought that maybe some of the universities and colleges could ask the students to take on the project of working on the stories with the survivors.”

He acknowledges that “there are a lot of people out there who wouldn’t want to participate because they don’t want to relive the experience. It is not easy, because it brings back some of the stuff that you really don’t want to dwell on.”

In the concluding pages of his memoir, Hausman writes, “When I see my grandchildren with their parents, I realize what I missed in my own childhood. As a parent and grandparent, I have learned the central importance of a supportive, nurturing, and loving family to a child’s growth and development.

“But the Nazis stole this from me. In my mother’s last postcard to me from Riversaltes, which I received in the children’s home in St. Raphael, she inquired about a toothache that I had mentioned in a recent letter to her. I was eight and a half years old. Shortly thereafter, she was deported, and the attentive, loving concern of family ended in my life. It would be a long time before a close family member would again inquire about my pain – after my childhood was already over.”

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