Seventy years after the Holocaust, survivors heal by writing memoirs

What does my writing mean to me?

That was the homework assignment Peter Loubal, 82, and other members of his class had pondered. Now it was time to share their written responses.

“Memoirs enable us to communicate with the future,” began Loubal, of El Cerrito. “I don’t believe in eternal souls; my story is the only near-eternal thing I can leave behind.”

His six classmates, seated in a semi-circle around a large table, listened carefully, then gave their own thoughts.

Peter Loubal reads from his work at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life.

The give-and-take took place during a meeting this summer of the Holocaust Survivors Memoir Writing Workshop, a program of East Bay Jewish Family & Children’s Services. The two-hour workshop, held twice a month at the Suse Moyal Center for Older Adult Services in Berkeley, creates a space for those who lived through the Holocaust to work on their personal writing in a group setting.

Rita Clancy, JFCS director of adult services, started the memoir-writing workshop nearly seven years ago. Herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors, the licensed clinical social worker was inspired to start the program after hearing child survivor and published author Orah Young talk about the benefits of the memoir-writing process.

Over the years, Clancy has witnessed firsthand how writing can help survivors remember and digest what they experienced.

“It’s a way of processing things that are really troubling and festering inside,” Clancy said. “Through this group, they’re really understanding their own history, so they have the tools to pass that history on to their families.”

Today, the memoir-writing group — about 14 on-and-off members, with a core group of regulars — mostly comprises child survivors. Each session, a different participant leads the group, preparing a homework prompt and a group-writing exercise.

Writing one’s memoirs — especially for those who endured the Holocaust — can be emotional for workshop participants. Berkeley resident Herta Weinstein, who left Vienna at age 12 on a Kindertransport, said she joined the group to improve her writing and her memory. But she’s gotten far more out of the experience than she expected.

“I had no inkling of discovering feelings welling up,” the 88-year-old read aloud to the group. “And it always happens at the point of encountering aspects of liberation, of relief from the fear that had been there. It’s always at that point that the tears come. I can only deduce that this reflects the fear and perhaps the grief and the loss of liberty that was being escaped.”

For some, like Edith Heine, 77, of Richmond, memoir writing represents an end to years of silence. Originally from Amsterdam, Heine lived in Germany after the war, but was discouraged from talking about the Holocaust.

When she came to the United States, she said, “I started writing and … no one had to listen, only the paper. It was really very healing and liberating.”

Collectively digesting their pasts, however, can lead to difficult conversations within the group.

In the process of sharing their writing, complicated topics emerge — such as how comfortable the survivors feel around Germans, or how to write truthful memoirs without hurting others.

Another topic can be particularly contentious: whether they identify as survivors at all. While some are willing to accept the label “survivor,” others openly struggle with it and, as child survivors, believe the term belongs only to those who survived the concentration camps.

Writers Renee Passy-Zale (from left), Denah Bookstein, Gloria Katz, Herta Weinstein and Edith Heine hone their work. photo/sara weissman

But despite their disagreements on these sensitive issues, ultimately the camaraderie of the group sustains it through such tense and complex discussions. The supportive atmosphere in the room is especially apparent when group members share their writing.

Each session, everyone reads aloud their latest work, and the rest of group responds. People point out specific parts they liked, reflect on the feelings and experiences shared by others, and suggest ways to make the writing stronger.

“I see how people learn from one another and create a place of safety for each other,” said Clancy. “They really encourage each other to have their voices be heard.”

After the workshop, “regulars” like to stay and talk, catching up on each other’s lives and often going to lunch together, Clancy said. Many also participate in Café Europa, a monthly social and cultural program Clancy organizes for survivors, their family and friends.

In the spring, the memoirists present their work to the public. At this year’s annual reading at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, group members read some of their writing on a collectively chosen theme. Nearly 100 people came to listen to written excerpts on the topic “Now I Am Free,” an exploration of what liberation meant to each writer, said Clancy.

Some workshop participants have found other public forums to share their work as well. A few are now published authors, such as Eva Maiden, a child survivor from Vienna who wrote “Decisions in the Dark: A Refugee Girl’s Journey” (2013), a compilation of her written work from the workshop.

Others, like Renee Passy-Zale, whose family survived the war in southern France, speak about their experiences at local schools.

Loubal, who escaped from Prague at age 6, shares his writing on a personal blog.

Whether published or not, many workshop members have felt empowered by the opportunity to piece together their stories.

As Loubal read to the rest of the group: “Now is the right time to try and turn my disjointed memories into a cohesive story of the highlights of an adventurous life, and in the process, relate them to what was happening in the world — a personal and unique view of my time and place in history.”

To learn more about the Holocaust Survivors Memoir Writing Group and to see some of their writing, go to

Sara Weissman
Sara Weissman

Sara Weissman is the editor in chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine, and a former J. intern who graduated from U.C. Berkeley. She can be reached at [email protected].