The story of my life

One night 20 years ago Elaine and Leon Starkman sat down in their Walnut Creek home to have the Big Conversation: What do we do with Mom?

Leon’s elderly Polish-born mother had become frail, but he’d be damned if he would send her to a nursing home. So the Starkmans took her in, and for the subsequent four years until she died, they were, says Elaine Starkman, “a threesome. Whatever we did, we took her with us.”

Their time together brought with it moments of frustration, tenderness, confusion and pain. “She had a charming way of speaking,” remembers Starkman. “We took her to the dentist once, and she was always worried someone would take advantage. ‘Watch out,’ she’d say, ‘those dentists are all gonifs.’ Then she went up and kissed him.”

The flood of feelings had nowhere to go until Starkman remembered she had an outlet literally at her fingertips.

“I began writing a journal about taking care of her,” says Starkman. Friends who later read the journal urged her to publish it. A writer, editor and teacher by profession, Starkman attended a writer’s retreat to polish her memoirs of caring for an elderly parent.

“I put it together,” she says, “and Paper Mache Press published ‘Learning to Sit in the Silence: A Journal of Caretaking’ in 1992.”

With the success of recent bestsellers such as “Running with Scissors,” “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and the scandal-tainted “A Million Little Pieces,” memoir writing has moved to the forefront of contemporary literature.

With a new year just beginning, it’s common for people to take time to look back. Some set a few thoughts down on paper, but many in the local Jewish community take the time to write their memoirs.

Some do it as a legacy for their children and grandchildren. Some do it to preserve a historical account of momentous times. But the common thread, for Holocaust survivor and San Franciscan housewife alike, is the satisfaction of chronicling life experiences.

“I’ve written very personal memoirs about my family,” adds Starkman, “including a long piece about my mother’s death. I used to want so much to be published, but I was just thinking, ‘If this piece doesn’t get published, I still wrote it. It’s the truth of my relationship, and I’m glad I wrote it.'”

So far, that piece has not been published.

Getting published can be an elusive goal for any author, and memoirists generally face an uphill climb. But today self-publishing is often the answer — even if that means only a relative handful of people will read the final product.

Ken Colvin, 82, made his living in the field of agricultural marketing. But his life was forever changed when, as a 19-year-old Army surgical technician, he helped liberate Nazi death camps in 1945. It was an experience so searing it defined him ever after as an American and as a Jew.

Years later, with the birth of each of his seven grandchildren, the San Francisco native would write a long personal essay, a kind of letter of introduction. But he found he had even more to tell, and so in 1989 he set down his memoirs, which he titled “Cause and Effect.”

“Our company had the assignment to go into these camps and set up emergency medical treatment,” he recalls. “You walk in and see 20,000 prisoners, all of whom were dying, and set up treatment for them. You walk through the barbed wire gate and see the chimney still spewing the remains of our families. In front, a pile of bodies, maybe 15 to 20 feet high.”

Colvin saw half-dead Jewish prisoners drinking from mud holes, sleeping three in a bunk. He was once assigned a detail to stack the corpses in a mass grave. “If you start to feel anything,” he says, “it would blow your head off.”

During Passover 1945, the chaplain handed Colvin a Haggadah and a piece of matzah. “I gave them to the men in the bunk,” recalls Colvin. “One started to cry. He said to me his family was gone, his home was gone. The only thing that kept him alive was the thought of Eretz Israel. What that one man taught me about Israel propelled and directed my whole life.”

Colvin says it wasn’t until 10 years after the war that the full weight of his ordeal finally hit him. “The experiences were shoved so far down in my psyche I didn’t know what had happened. The nightmares came. And just last year I had another dream of climbing down in the pit. I remember everything.”

To write the memoir, Colvin bought a binder, paper and dividers. Each section, written by hand, became a chapter. He had several dozen copies printed at a cost of $5 each, then gave them to his children, grandchildren and close friends.

He has one copy left on his bookshelf.

For those who may not have ever written anything before, memoir writing might be the best way to start, with one’s life providing both canvas and inspiration.

Rachel Freed, 68, is a Minneapolis-based writer and teacher of writing who helps clients compose ethical wills. Based on a Jewish tradition, the ethical will is far more than a detailing of who gets what. It is a summation of a life’s meaning and legacy.

“It goes back to before the rabbis,” says Freed, “but they took the story of Jacob’s death when he gathered his sons for a blessing and told them to take his bones back to the cave of Machpelah. A thousand years later [the rabbis] said you need to document the moral wisdom of our people and transmit it to your sons. That became what we call the ethical will.”

As a Jewish feminist, Freed realized the ethical will was a practice women could employ to participate more fully in Jewish tradition. In her hands, the ethical will became an instruction of ethics, blessings to future generations and a document of wisdom, stories, family lore and history.

“In my work with women,” she says, “it goes from a 15-minute letter to a book, and everything in between. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. The major components are your writing and your effort to impact the future. It should include your wisdom, blessings and love.”

Freed believes writing memoirs and ethical wills can be profoundly transformative. “People come to peace about who they are, what they value and what their lives are,” she says. “You don’t have to be a movie star or a president or a CEO to have something to say. Everyone wants to be heard, and few people are.”

Helen Lewison, 82, was no CEO. She born in Waco, Texas, to a traditional Jewish family, married twice, settled in San Francisco and lived a quiet life with her second husband, Mel, until his death in 1992. To speed her healing, she began keeping a journal, which became the basis for her first memoir, “The Seduction of Silence: Journal of a Reluctant Widow.”

Since then, Lewison has been on fire, self-publishing several other volumes of memoir as fast as she can write them.

Her most recent, “The Butterfly Chronicles,” covers the time from her teen years in Texas to the death of her first husband. She met Mel when, at age 31 and newly divorced, she came to the Bay Area to mix it up with the Beat Generation. “I went to a B’nai Brith dance in Oakland,” she recalls, “met Mel and married him 11 days later.”

His death after many happy years of marriage left Lewison devastated, but motivated. “I started keeping a journal,” she says of her books’ genesis. “I needed to put everything down: how I felt about his death, about my family. I did it for myself.”

Lewison joined a writing group at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. Then she discovered Xlibris.

Xlibris offers writers the tools necessary to self-publish a book. Not only does the company help writers with book design (for a fee, of course), it then adds their books to its online bookstore. Writers retain all rights and potentially could earn royalties.

Lewison found she liked sweating the small stuff of self-publishing, from choosing a type font to designing the covers. “I was obsessed,” she recalls. “My first book was kind of amateurish, but as time went on I got better and better.”

Though she never took a writing class with Freed, Lewison seems to embody the drive to be heard, much as Freed describes it.

“I enjoy it,” Lewison says of the writing and publishing process. “I get pleasure out of it. It’s like I accomplished something. When I first looked at [one of my books], I thought ‘God, people will know me.’ Then I realized, this is good. I’m somebody now.”

While she wrote down every word of her memoirs herself, others need help. William J. Lowenberg, 80, is a well-known San Francisco real estate magnate and Jewish community activist. He is also a former death camp prisoner and the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust.

To go from the barracks of Auschwitz to the penthouses of San Francisco is a tale worth telling. Lowenberg titled his 1997 self-published memoir “For My Family,” because it was written just for them.

“My daughter finally convinced me to do a book,” he says. “I didn’t want the publicity. My idea was to do it for my children and grandchildren. That was the motivation. The survivors are dying off.”

Lowenberg did not work alone. He enlisted the help of his friend Susan Rothenberg, a San Francisco social worker by training and editor of five memoirs.

“Susan and I met every Wednesday afternoon for a few hours,” he recalls. “She put a mike on my tie, and I talked and talked. Then she would write up what we discussed and send me a copy from the previous week. It wasn’t painful to talk about it. I look at it as an obligation. The world has to know.”

He refers to the rounding up of his family, native Germans living in Holland, and sent to the death camps. The entire clan was murdered, with Lowenberg surviving only by a combination of luck and will. After time in Auschwitz, Westerborg and Dachau, Lowenberg was finally liberated by U.S. soldiers on April 30, 1945. He was 18 years old and weighed 84 pounds.

“For the people I work with, it’s easier to tell the story then write it,” says Rothenberg. “They aren’t computer literate. They worry about their English. In all my books, it is their words. I may help them flow smoother, but the words are theirs.”

Rothenberg says that discussion of family is a commonality among the memoirists she’s helped. “Without prodding,” she adds, “people talk about what their parents were like, what they learned from them and their grandparents, and what they want to pass on to their children and children’s children. It keeps them alive, and for Jews it’s a connection to being Jewish.”

With a background in American literature and writing, memoirist Starkman has had work published in magazines such as Moment, Midstream and Hadassah. She’s published five books of poetry and has taught literature — including Jewish literature — at Lehrhaus Judaica, Acalanes Adult School in Walnut Creek, and Cal State Concord’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

She also teaches memoir writing at Pleasant Hill Adult Center.

“I tell [students] to be true to themselves,” says Starkman. “One student had a near-death experience. He decided to write for his nine grandchildren and have them know his life. I had a man from Iran, a woman from Poland, city people, farm people, a guy who grew up on the streets of New York, a woman who wrote in Tagalog. It’s a record of their life.”

“By and large,” adds Freed of the art of memoir writing, “what happens is peoples’ hearts open, and they have a lot of love to give. Underneath is a deep yearning for connection.”

Though he wrote his memoirs for his family, Lowenberg says his book has gotten wider distribution. First-time visitors to his Montgomery Street office in downtown San Francisco are often rewarded with a copy.

“People thank me,” he says of his readers. “They feel sympathetic. Non-Jews who read it understand it as well. My friends say, ‘How could you have gone through that? I can’t believe you made it.'”

For those who undertake memoir writing just for the sake of their children and grandchildren, sometimes the effort turns out to be well worth it. Camp liberator Colvin, who has taken dozens of trips to Israel and made the cause of Israel paramount in his life, says his grandchildren have gotten the message.

“They keep telling me about using it as a reference book,” he says of his grandkids’ reactions to the memoir. “What’s so gratifying to me is they seek out Jewish friends. I can’t say it’s a result of this book, but somewhere along the line they’ve been taught not to hate.”

And for Lewison, these days she turns to writing to help her cope with aging, with loneliness and the inevitable struggle to accept mortality. Occasionally she visits her husband’s grave at the local V.A. cemetery, especially on Memorial Day, when little flags fly over every headstone. He had always encouraged Lewison to write more, and she thinks he would be proud of her today.

“I can’t help myself,” she says of her writing. “We’ve lived long lives. We’ve done a lot.”

Cover photo illustration by Cathleen Maclearie

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.