Yesterday, I was honoured to take part in Vanier College's annual Holocaust Symposium. The symposium's coordinator Marlene Grossman invited me to speak to Karen Rhodes's "Women Writers and the Short Story" class. Miss Rhodes and her students have been studying discrimination so the timing was right for me to tell them about my interest in Holocaust studies. I explained how my mum, who is 86, is a survivor of the Holocaust and how she kept her story secret for more than 60 years -- until a snoopy, curly-haired person (you guessed it -- me!) got it out of her.
As I told the class, I spent five months interviewing my mum -- and then several more months writing the first draft of the book that became What World Is Left.
One of the reasons I think Holocaust education is so important is because survivors, like my mom, are getting older. Now it's up to us to keep their stories alive.
During my talk, I told the students that they need to uncover their own family secrets. In a city like Montreal, many of our parents and grandparents come from other countries, and many have gone through tough times. A student named Alex told me that his Hungarian great-grandfather was a Jew who was used by the Nazis to do carpentry work. Alex told me he wants to interview his grandparents about their memories of life in Hungary, and what it was like to start over in a new country.
When I talked about the need to REWRITE, I caught a student named Sabrina nodding. So I asked Sabrina why she reacted to my comment. She explained that last year she did a special project with seniors about dignity. "I rewrote it 15 times," she said. Yay, Sabrina! You sound like a real writer!
A student named Janella is close with her grandmother who came from St. Vincent. But Janella told me that sometimes it is hard for her to distinguish whether her grandmother's stories are true or fantasy. I suggested that maybe Janella should try writing a story about her grandmother that combines memoir and fantasy. I'd definitely read it!
Holocaust education matters so that we can prevent the atrocities that happened from happening again. I don't know of a better way to reach people's hearts than by telling stories. Thanks to Miss Rhodes for sharing your class with me, and thanks to the students for being such an attentive, sensitive audience. Now go get the stories that matter!