East Bay survivors recall Holocaust in their own Voices

As the numbers of Holocaust survivors dwindle, memories of the horrors they endured are often lost to the sands of time. Some have never spoken of their experiences. Others may have shared their stories with children or relatives, but few others.

Members of the East Bay Holocaust Survivors Memoir Writing Group have taken another approach: They have written down their Holocaust stories and memories — an experience they find to be both cathartic and rewarding.

“I started writing my life story for my children,” says 80-year-old Ruth Spencer, whose story about witnessing Kristallnacht and escaping to France appears in a recently published booklet, “A Celebration of Voices, II.”

The 26-page booklet is a collection of writings that were publicly read June 7 at Café Europa, a social and cultural program for survivors sponsored by Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay.

“It was very moving — they had a lot of pride in what they’d done,” says JFCS East Bay Holocaust Survivor Program coordinator Rita Clancy. “A lot of them had their families there. Often survivor families, especially the children, don’t know a lot about the story of their parents, so it was interesting for them to hear what their parent or spouse had accomplished in terms of writing and expression.”

The survivors’ writing group meets twice a month, with writing coaches who help the members get their stories onto paper. And no two stories are the same, to which “A Celebration of Voices, II” certainly attests.

“The Night of Our Departure  — Agony and Tears” by 82-year old Olga Winkler tells the tale of her leaving Hungary for the United States via Italy.

Although she had related her story to her late son, the Emeryville resident felt it was important to commit it to paper for her grandchildren. The story was excerpted from her self-published book, “A Family Legacy,” which includes the story of her childhood in Satoraljaujhely, Hungary, her family’s escape from the Nazis and her life in the United States — along with some of her mother’s recipe

“I lost my son, and he was an only child,” says Winkler, explaining her motivation for writing down her stories. “There was a grandchild that was born three months after my son died, and I really wanted to write it. My son and I were very close, and we’d discuss the Holocaust.

“Every time I read the book, different chapters bring up chills in my neck,” Winkler continues. “I feel like I’m back there and am reliving some of this.”

Winkler says the idea for the book came during a Chanukah dinner. “Everyone said how they en-joyed their dinner, and I said, ‘Oh good, I’ve sort of been writing down some of my mother’s recipes for the grandchildren,’ “ Winkler says. “I started to put the recipes to-gether, but de-cided that my story means a lot more. I tell my stories to my grandchildren, but they won’t remember, so it’s nice to put it down. I decided to write.”

Because writing about the Holocaust can be painful for survivors, JFCS East Bay provides counseling to group members in addition to writing pointers.

“There’s an experience of re-traumatization — that people are re-traumatized by telling the stories,” says Judy Blumenfeld, a program developer–social worker for the  JFCS East Bay Holocaust Survivor Program.

Adds Clancy, “Judy or I are usually there so that when emotional issues come up, we can contain that — especially in the beginning, that was very necessary. We spend one-on-one time with them and help them to be in a safe place when they leave. It’s very cathartic and it gives them confidence.”

Working with experienced writers has given the members confidence in their abilities and helped them write their stories.

“When I started, it was not easy,” Winkler says. “I needed some discipline, and in the classes, I got some ideas of how to handle it — how to lay out the story.”

JFCS East Bay plans to continue the Holocaust Survivors Memoir Writing Group, but it needs support for this and other programs. In addition to financial donations, the program seeks experienced writers to work with the group and others who can help with transportation.

“The survivors feel it’s very important for the world to know what they went through,” says Blumenfeld. “They’re very concerned with how the next generation is going to handle this — and whether it’ll be forgotten. They don’t want to see this ever happen again, which is a great mitzvah.”

Adds Spencer, “I think it’s important for these stories to be told. I thought it was so it wouldn’t be repeated, but I’m not so sure now that’s true. Things are repeated in different ways, but repeated nonetheless. For history’s sake, I think it’s important.”

Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay has copies of “A Celebration of Voices, II” available for a small donation. For a booklet or more information about the Holocaust Survivors Memoir Writing Group: (510) 558-7800 ext. 257 or rclancy@jfcs-eastbay.org.