One quiet summer afternoon years ago, I was sitting in the tidy kitchen of a friend when she began to reveal a series of long-buried stories about her childhood during the Holocaust. It was obvious to me that while the telling was excruciating, so had been the silence. “Sometimes, ” she said, “I think I have been doing nothing all these years except shutting up the grief and pain and pretending it never happened.”
But after attending funeral after funeral of Holocaust survivors, my friend said she felt a need and a responsibility to document her experiences. I shared her sense that this testimony must be preserved and recorded by the few who survived, most of whom had been teens or younger during the war.
Hearing her stories that afternoon, I felt for the first time what the life of a victim must have been like. Despite all the research I have done on the subject my understanding had never been so deeply personal. How are those of us who were born later supposed to comprehend the Holocaust? The numbers are too big; the images too frightening. I found I could absorb the experience only on a smaller human scale, by focusing on one single incident in one person's life.
The idea for this book began in that kitchen.
As a documentary filmmaker it would be natural for me to try to capture these stories on film, or, as an alternative, make transcripts of audio recordings. Both forms are widely and effectively used for personal Holocaust accounts. Instead, I chose to help Holocaust survivors write their stories themselves.
I chose autobiographical writing because it gives the survivors complete control of the work they create, unlike film, and allows the writers time for contemplation, unlike interviews. The process of writing gives the author time to reflect, revise, and dig beneath the first layer of memory. The reward for us, the readers, is a deeper, richer, more poignant story.
I was looking for the writers to be rewarded as well. I hoped that the process of writing would help the survivors to heal.
In 1994 I approached the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh to support a book of memoirs in short story form, written by Holocaust survivors and liberators. Together we sent letters to about two hundred survivors. I then phoned them