Writing can heal the soul, says Holocaust memoir teacher

Where do you start?

Staring at a blank piece of paper can be daunting, but it should not halt the process, according to one who has written her own autobiography. Getting back to the basics of grammar school composition, she thinks, is what works best.

In other words, get your name down first, says Hannelore Hahn, who will teach a seminar on "Writing Holocaust Memoirs" Sunday in San Francisco.

In dealing with Holocaust surivors — students who have fragile memories — she uses a gentle approach.

"You never say, 'Now we are going to write about the Holocaust,'" says the New York author of "On the Way to Feed the Swans." "You never go straight to [the subject]. Never."

Instead, she takes the point of view that pressing on a wound should be a cautious endeavor, and proceeds softly.

"I say, 'Write about your name.' Who gave you your name? Were you named after someone? What was that person like?'"

She knows that eventually "the name leads you to your parents, to your history and inevitably will lead to the subject we are now talking about.

"It's a vis-à-vis," she says. "You sit opposite someone and there are questions and answers. It's like daylight. But when you reflect on your pain, it's not daylight; it's dark."

Over the years, many survivors have given their oral histories. But Hahn thinks guiding them in the writing process can alleviate some of the pain, provide comfort and "cleanse their soul from this horrible oppression and this continual feeling of victimization," she says.

She herself narrowly escaped the Holocaust.

Her family owned the Hanna Maltz Fabriken in Dresden. The grain would arrive via ship from Olomouce, Czechoslovakia, "stop at our malt house, which was on the to the edge of the River Elbe in East Germany, and my father sold it all over Germany to the brewers," she says.

In 1937, "Father got a signal from someone he knew" that he should take his family and "disappear without delay."

Both his brothers who lived in nearby Hershfeld were already in Dachau.

So the family chauffeur delivered Hahn's relatives to Bohemia, then returned to Dresden to get the 10-year-old girl from her Jewish school. She grabbed a suitcase from home and joined her family. "I could sense the nervousness all around, " says Hahn.

The family stayed with her mother's relatives who were Czech. Hitler had already invaded Austria and Czechoslovakia wouldn't be far behind. Seeing the writing on the wall, Hahn's father had put money into foreign banks.

Eventually the family left for the United States by ship from Genoa, Italy, obtaining visas from the American Embassy. They joined relatives in Patterson, N.J., but several Czech relatives died at Auschwitz.

Hahn would go on to attend Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and eventually founded the International Women's Writing Guild, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

She sees life as "a knotted skein of wool" and believes "all you need to do is find that little end and start pulling."

The Berkeley-based Tikvah Acharey Hashoah — in collaboration with the Holocaust Center of Northern California — is sponsoring "Writing Holocaust Memoirs" in memory of its late president, Odette Meyers, who died Feb. 2.

The free workshop begins at 10:30 a.m. and goes to 4 p.m. at the Cultural Integration Fellowship, 2650 Fulton St., S.F. For information, call Eva W. Maiden, Tikvah's executive vice president, at (650) 324-4343.