At seders when I was growing up, my mother would tell the story of how she was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto, and say, “On the day I left, my mother made me promise that one day I would write a book to tell the world what happened to us.” I already understood that such a book would not be an adventure story. It was a sacred testament, a witnessing of a horrible past that decimated our families. The Yizkor books, the “Black Books” of memory that proliferated in the 1950s and ’60s underscored this truth.
Until the 1980s, most survivors were were still in survival mode, busy with business and family, philanthropy and community. Most couldn’t speak English well, had no education, and left writing to “experts.” Some couldn’t talk at all, some couldn’t stop. The “story” was at the core of their being, and for their children, often what was left out the story was more compelling than what was in it. Alexander Donat, a Dachau survivor who had published a newspaper in Warsaw, founded the Holocaust Library in 1977, and books by survivors slowly began to appear.
Then, at the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Israel in June 1981, a concerted effort was made to collect survivor stories. As a volunteer at the Center for Holocaust Studies in Brooklyn in 1972, I was trained by Yaffa Eliach and Bonnie Gurewitz on how to interview Holocaust survivors on audiotape and conducted a how-to workshop in Jerusalem. Video cameras were prohibitively expensive in those days, but attendee Syd Mandlebaum began toting a huge video camera on his shoulder and created the core of the Fortunoff Video Archives of Holocaust survivors. Judith Kesternberg created a methodology for effectively interviewing child survivors, who added their stories to the testimonies.
This was followed by “Schindler’s List.” While based on a true story, the book by Thomas Keneally was categorized as fiction because, as he says, “I had written as a novelist, with a novelist’s narrative pace and graphicness, though not in the sense of a fictionalizer.”
Steven Speilberg’s Shoah Visual Foundation interviewed 52,000 survivors on digital video. It was a massive effort done for the good of humanity. It is what Menachem Daum, the filmmaker who made the award-winning film “Hiding and Seeking” calls “holy work.” But even holy work can be corrupted.
I make a large part of my living helping Holocaust survivors write their memoirs, and the toughest issue confronting them in getting the story on paper is disregarding the advice they got from writing courses, even if that advice came from the best teachers, editors, and workshops in America. That’s because such courses teach their students to write for publishers and movie producers – people who are obsessed with hitting best-seller lists and box-office highs.
Those teachers and editors have no obligation to the truth of memory. They are there to train their students to write best-sellers and movie scripts. Survivors are told to start with a bang, to play with the chronology, to be dramatic, to create dialogue, to stress details and make them stronger. In other words, they encourage survivors to embellish, to twist the details here and there to make things more “interesting.”
I was asked to edit one book, a truly dramatic story, valid on its own, that made even me cry. When we were done, the author complained that I hadn’t turned the book into “Beach Music,” a best-selling, very hokey, and disturbing novel where the Holocaust survivor throws herself off a bridge in the first chapter. She sought out another well-known editor and also fired him because he, too, refused to embellish facts.
Sometimes it’s not the survivors but their offspring who cause the problem. One survivor was a simple man who became a partisan hero. Someone in his family decided that his “character” wasn’t “pumped up” enough. Yet another family demanded that I produce a best-seller.
My reaction to those people is to say “Ciao bella,” and give them the rules I use for writing memoirs with survivors. This sometimes breaks my heart and empties my pockets, but I insist on following the rules I created for the people I work with.
One: Do not write your memoirs if your goal is to write a best-seller or popular movie. Publishers are generally no longer interested in Holocaust memoirs because they do not sell well and the movie industry is choking on Hollywood-ized versions of the Holocaust. (Ask some of the survivors of the Bielski group what they really think about the movie, when the camera and tape recorders are turned off. One shrugged his shoulders and said, “What did you expect? It’s entertainment!”)
Two: You were not born on Sept. 1, 1939, and you did not die in April 1945.
Start at the beginning: with the story of where you came from, who your parents were, and how you grew up. Tell about everything – from the newspapers that were read at home to the youth group you belonged to; how your parents observed Judaism – or if they did. Write about your mother’s cooking, what your home looked like, about schools, games you played, books you read. Write what you know about your grandparents and ancestors. Why? Because if survivors don’t start at the beginning and tell people who they are, why should anyone care about what happened to them during the war?
Don’t forget the ending. If survivors stop their stories in April 1945, they remain victims. But if they tell how they rebuilt their lives and created new families and supported them, then the story becomes one of triumph. Survivors should include their views of life and how to survive.
Most of all, survivors should keep in mind that these stories are promises kept to those who were left behind and legacies for those who come after. They are holy testimony to the 6 million. My grandmother Yitta made my mother swear to bear witness, so that her grandchildren – my brothers and sisters and our children and our children’s children -would know who we are and where we came from.
The survivors have an obligation to hand over a truthful legacy and their “tzevaahs,” their ethical wills. They do not owe their writing teachers, film producers, and the general public anything except the truth. If a publisher or producer then finds the story valuable, fine and dandy; the survivor lucks out. But that lucky break should never be at the expense of truth. The 15 minutes of fame and the damage it does to those who tell the truth are simply not worth it to the rest of the survivor community.