The ProsenPeople

Writing About The Holocaust

Thursday, June 19, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Margareta Ackerman wrote about trying to reconcile her granfather's happy personality with the horrors he suffered during the Holocaust. Her recently published book, Running from Giants: The Holocaust Through The Eyes of a Child, is now available. She has been blogging here for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

It was a day like any other. I was absorbed in the details of my life, answering an overflowing stack of emails and worrying about trivial things, when the phone rang.

“We’re done translating Grandpa’s notes,” said my dad. “Would you, by some chance, be willing to go over them and turn them into a book?”

“Of course!” I replied right away. It sounded like no more than a thorough editing job. It struck me that my dad was surprised by my quick reply.

He sent the notes over. Grandpa Srulik spent a couple of months writing about his life. Then, my brother and father translated his notes from Russian to English.

I printed the translation and read over the notes in minutes; ten pages to summarize the life of a man who had had suffered enough heartache to fill a thousand lifetimes. As I read, I recalled him speaking about his life. I could see his muscles tense at some particularly difficult parts of his story. Reading other sections, I could hear him let out a hearty laugh as he tried to lighten the load on both the listener and himself by finding bits of humor in his infinitely painful life.

Yet, without knowing my grandpa, or at least having heard his story firsthand, these notes were not enough; without him to personally bring them to life, the words lay flat on the page. I couldn’t leave it at that. That’s when I understood what I had signed up for, and why my dad was so surprised by my quick reply. Yet, I was certainly not about to change my mind. This may take a while, maybe as long as three months, but I am going to do it, I thought.

I spent many hours talking with Grandpa, trying to get as much information as possible. This was no easy task. Grandpa didn’t like talking about his past. More often than not, he would simply reply, “I already wrote about that, go look at my notes.” I had to keep the conversations brief, and omit some questions altogether, so as not to upset him. Through these unofficial interviews, I learned much more about my grandpa’s life than I thought there was to know.

Grandpa’s original notes had only a few sentences devoted to his life before the war. I felt that this wasn’t enough. I spent many months working on the early part of his memoir, familiarizing the reader with his warm, loving family of origin, and showing what was normal for him before the Nazi occupation.

The following section, detailing Srulik’s initial escape from the Nazis, was more difficult to write. It was hard to identify with horrors of such proportion. But after many conversations with Grandpa, I was finally content with that part of the book.

Then, it was time to write about the worst of it: the Nazi ghetto. I spent hours staring at an empty screen, not able to type as much as a single word. After many failed attempts to continue writing, I was close to giving up altogether. Did I bite off more than I could chew? Who am I to write about a tragedy this large? I hadn’t wrote a word in three months.

Guilt kept eating away at me. Unsure how to proceed, I decided to turn to others’ memoirs. There I was, reading Maus, Art Spiegelman’s heartfelt comic about his dad’s experience in the Holocaust, and in its pages I saw the same fears that I was dealing with. “Some part of me doesn’t want to draw or think about Auschwitz,” writes Spiegelman, “I can’t visualize it clearly, and I can’t begin to imagine what it felt like.”

Realizing that I was not the only one struggling to relay to the reader such horrific events gave me strength to carry on. I buckled down and wrote a paragraph. By the time that paragraph was over, so was my ability to continue writing for the evening. I wrote the third part of the book literally one paragraph a day.

I then quickly put together the fourth, and final, part of the book, about Grandpa’s final escape and his two years hiding in the forests. The writing was done. I couldn’t believe it.

By the time the book was written, edited, illustrated, and published, three and half years had passed. This project called on all of my critical, creative, and emotional capacities, and became one of the most important and personally significant projects I’d ever done.

Writing about the Holocaust is hard. Forget writing - even reading about it is hard. Although I wrote my Grandpa’s memoir, and read every word in it countless times, some parts still bring me to tears. Even today, there are sections that I prefer to skip when I leaf through the book.

Yet, despite how difficult it is, it is crucial that we record this dark chapter in our history. We, the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, have a big responsibility before us. It is our duty to pass on the stories of our loves ones. It might be hard to appreciate the importance of our work today - but too soon, the written word will be the only thing left to transmit their memories, and protect the integrity of this dark part in our history.

Margareta Ackerman is a professor, researcher, author and granddaughter of Holocaust survivor Srulik Ackerman. She received her Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Waterloo, Canada, and has won numerous awards for her research. Dr. Ackerman is the author of over a dozen academic publications, including research on applications of traditional Jewish study methodology to the modern classroom. She is joining the faculty of Florida State University this year.

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Holocaust Education: The Missing Piece

Tuesday, June 17, 2014 | Permalink

Margareta Ackerman is a professor, researcher, author and granddaughter of Holocaust survivor Srulik Ackerman. She received her Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Waterloo, Canada, and has won numerous awards for her research. Her recently published book, Running from Giants: The Holocaust Through The Eyes of a Child, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In my many years of schooling across three continents, I’ve attended many Holocaust classes. Yet, during each lesson and every lecture, I felt that something was missing.

In high-school, we read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a beautifully written firsthand account—rightfully a must-read if there ever was one. But, as most of us know, Anne’s diary ends before her story does, saving the reader the worst of the Nazi atrocities. To my surprise, my high-school class covered little about the Holocaust other than Anne’s diary. And while the university courses on the subject went much further, there was still something missing.

Although, thankfully, the Holocaust ended many years ago, it was still much more real to me than any other historical subject I studied. If one were to guess who among all my family members had survived the Holocaust, no one would have suspected my grandpa. Nothing about him brought to mind the horrors of the Holocaust. He had an unassuming, easy-going demeanor, combined with an exceptional sense of humor. Whenever I think of him, I always remember him with a smile on his face. Most incredible, however, is that he was, without a doubt, the happiest person that I’d ever met.

For many years, I couldn’t reconcile my grandfather’s personality with all of the horrors that he and others suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Hope came when, many years later, I was asked to help put together his memoir. Of course, I was honored and agreed right away. Among the many reasons that I wanted to help with this important project was my hope to finally discover how Grandpa managed to survive so wholly.

Don’t we break down from much smaller problems? Don’t people in times of peace and plenty disintegrate and lose the will to live from problems that cannot even be compared with the atrocities such as the Shoah? What made my own grandfather so much more resilient?

There are two ways to look at Grandpa’s reaction to all that he had endured. The first, is that he had managed to be happy despite all that happened to him. He would have been a happy person no matter what. Had he lived a simple life in the Polish village of Nowosiolki where he was born, he still would have been an exceptionally happy guy. Having survived the Holocaust, and still retaining such contagious joy for life, suggests that he would have been a happy person no matter what would have happened to him.

The other perspective, expressed by some of my readers, is that Grandpa was happy precisely because of what he had endured. Seeing into the depth of darkness enabled him to gain a profound appreciation for all that is good in life. Indeed, I was delighted to learn that there were other survivors who had the same response as my grandpa. In contrast to what they have already been through, the trials and tribulations of normal life seem trivial. Instead of focusing on the negative, they are eternally grateful for what is good, appreciate the small things, and are glad to be alive. This is why, a small number of survivors are exceptionally happy people.

Which of these theories is true? One of these, or some combination of both? That’s the classroom discussion that I could have used. A discussion, a lecture, or a class that would proclaim to the world that there were people who the Nazis could not break. There were those who, against all odds, managed to survive the Holocaust both physically and emotionally, and went on to live vibrant, joyful lives.

Perhaps it makes a difference to know that there was a ten-year-old boy named Srulik Ackerman, who went on to live a life full of happiness despite all the horrors that he endured at the hands of the Nazis. After everything that he has been through, he must have laughed and smiled more than a dozen men in a single lifetime.

I hope that learning about Srulik and others like him will make it easier for students to digest this difficult material. Maybe this lesson on the strength of the human spirit will encourage teachers to cover Holocaust history more completely, instead of omitting the truly difficult, but essential parts of this dark spot in our history. Maybe, realizing humanity’s potential for resilience, and our capacity for joy and happiness no matter what comes our way, will help students find strength in their own lives.

Dr. Ackerman is the author of over a dozen academic publications, including research on applications of traditional Jewish study methodology to the modern classroom. She is joining the faculty of Florida State University this year.

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