Many Holocaust survivors are suddenly realizing that their memories and bodies are frail. As a result, there has been a rush to write memoirs in order to keep the promises made to long departed comrades and family members-the promise to tell the world what happened “dorten”-there. Though their experiences can be compelling, profound, touching and the most terrible stories a person can tell, many survivors never broke the silence–until now. Today, these survivors are waking up to the realization that they want to leave their stories behind for future generations before it is too late, even if they never get them professionally published.
But mainstream publishers are no longer interested in Holocaust memoirs unless they are exceptional. And while every story of every survivor is special, not all of them are of the caliber to attract a commercial market. In this volatile market, where even a best seller isn’t what it used to be, monster hits like The DaVinci Code and Harry Potter are rare indeed. Thus, many books are published privately, some are done in conjunction with others, some are blogged on the net…today there are as many ways of creating a book as there are books-and very few of them are money-making ventures or become movie scripts.
Yad Vashem is contacted by at least 100 survivors a year who want to do their books (the Bertelsmann memoirs project is based there) and at least 200 Holocaust books are published in Israel each year. Other organizations are also considering publishing memoirs that tell the lives of the survivors who helped build them–using them to inspire new members, as fundraising tools and gifts to potential donors-not to mention bookstore sales.
So why write a memoir? For your children and grandchildren. To let them know who you are and where you came from, what your parents were like, how your family lived, what the neighbors were like and what growing pains were like. It’s about how you suffered, endured and came through it, starting life over from scratch, creating new families, new Jewish communities, new facts on the ground.
One woman, who lost her entire family, is writing her book because as she said at a school gathering for four generations of women-from great-grandmother, in this case a Holocaust survivor, to the youngest great-granddaughter-in her wildest dreams in Auschwitz, she never could have imagined that she would have brought forth three generations of Torah-observant women. She has a message she wants to leave them before she moves on to other realms.
For others, writing brings closure. The book becomes the “matzevah”-the memorial stone-that contains the memories and hopes, the dreams of the departed, the ones to whom the promise was made to tell the tale.
Writing is important, it is healing and revealing, yet there are rules. There has to be a beginning, a middle and an end. Life didn’t begin on the day Hitler was elected or on Sept. 1, 1939. And life continued after Liberation. The Before and the After are therefore vital components of a person’s story…even if the memories are the memories of a hidden child who doesn’t remember her parents-for after all, those, too, are valid, self-defining memories.
So first, write. Start at your beginning, with your first memories. Remember sounds, textures, holidays, celebrations, newspapers and fights with your siblings, if you had any, or with your friends. Write about school, or not going to school, about poverty or riches. Do not be afraid to write truth, your truth, and tell your story. Your great-grandchildren will thank you. And succeeding generations will have to continue to create and tell the stories of your family through the stories of their lives.