Azrieli Foundation paired Holocaust survivors with volunteer writers to ensure their life stories are preserved

Yvette Newman, right, a Holocaust survivor, wrote her memoir with the help of Bev Birkan.

Yvette Newman had always told her children and grandchildren about her idyllic childhood in Slovakia, as well as life during the Holocaust when her family was ultimately deported to the concentration camps.

But there was no written record preserving her story for future generations, until an innovative program developed by the Azrieli Foundation matched her with a trained, volunteer writer. The pair worked on her memoir and turned it into a printed account.

Today, her family has her life history in print and a copy even sits in the War Museum in London, England.

The seed for Sustaining Memories began years ago: Elin Beaumont was working at the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs program and would receive calls from survivors who weren’t able to write their own stories.

“They’re in their 80s and 90s and realized this was their last shot to tell their stories and leave it for their families,” she said. 

As a small program at the time, Beaumont’s team didn’t have the resources to do this.

Beaumont, herself the daughter of two survivors, felt terrible and decided to come up with a way to help. She was in contact with Holocaust academics at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson) who worked with survivors. Together, they put together a program to train adults to write these life stories. 

Creating the memoirs is no small feat. Bev Birkan has worked with at least six survivors for this project and she knows what it takes to write these stories. 

“We are the pen and the survivor is the writer,” she said.

Birkan describes the process as five Sundays spent training at TMU with different sessions from a social worker, editor and speakers from the Azrieli Foundation. 

Following this, writers were matched with a survivor. They met over several sessions and recorded their story. 

“You want to get a picture of the survivor, their family and what their life was like before, during, and after the war,” said Birkan.

Next, the volunteers transcribed the discussion and set about writing the story in the survivor’s voice. 

“The process can take up to 100 hours or more. Transcribing takes the longest but also thinking about where each piece is going to fit in. Sometimes the survivor will remember something that happened in the past and they’ll jump back and forth,” she said. 

So far, this project has helped more than 90 survivors produce books about their life. 

It was through this program that Yvette Newman shared her story. She was born in Slovakia in 1930. Her father was a physician and she described their life as very good.

“We had bicycles and a car which very few people had back then,” she said. 

When she was in her early teens, the Nazis invaded and deportations began. Her family was exempt because of her father’s profession but not for long. They went into hiding but were exposed by a neighbour. They were then sent to concentration camps. 

“Forty-some of my relatives did not survive, including my father and my brother. My mother passed away from ill health shortly after the war ended,” said Newman.

Newman has been sharing her story with her children and her grandchildren since they were young but she didn’t have a written copy.

“I wanted to formally write down my story for future generations,” she said.

Newman decided to join the Foundation’s program and was paired with Birkan who came to her house over the course of several sessions.

“As much as it was painful to share my story, I was always looking forward to Bev’s visit,” said Newman.

Together, the pair produced Newman’s story.

“The importance of documentary evidence is that someone could say she made this all up, it’s all a hoax.”

Birkan carefully crafted Newman’s memoir in a way that had historical and physical evidence to support her story. Newman’s relatives in England received a copy and submitted it to the War Museum in London where the memoir now lives for people from all over the world to read. 

For Beaumont, the success of this program is personal.

“Both of my parents were Holocaust survivors and their stories were never written down. I felt this tremendous sense of loss for my children and grandchildren who won’t hear their stories,” she said.

Beaumont was able to change this for many other families. Now, after years of work, these stories are available to the public through a digital exhibit on the website of the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program.

“So many of the survivors have passed since this program started. It makes you realize how lucky we were to be able to get these stories and allow the survivors to know they left something important behind, not just for their families, but for the entire community.”