When Fairlee Ritchie, a Presbyterian minister, decided to enrol in Ryerson University’s continuing education program, she never expected to forge a relationship with a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor.
But through the Sustaining Memories Project – a pilot program designed by the Azrieli Foundation and Ryerson in which graduate and mature students work collaboratively with Holocaust survivors to help produce their written memoirs – that’s just what happened.
Ritchie teamed up with Leon Rotberg, an Auschwitz survivor, and together they wrote about Rotberg’s journey out of Lodz, Poland to Germany, where he endured forced labour constructing the Autobahn until he was sent to Auschwitz in 1943.
After the war, desperate to leave Germany, Rotberg and his family sought a new life in a new country, only to be denied entry into a number of countries. Canada finally accepted him and his two brothers.
Today, Rotberg lives in the Kensington Place Retirement Residence, a Jewish retirement home.
“People have often told me that I was someone they could talk to,” said the 59-year-old Ritchie.
“What I have always loved about the ministry was the pastoral work and research, so this project was a natural step. The first time we met, Leon asked me why I was doing this. I said I’m not Jewish, but I care. We [Christian people] have not treated you well over the centuries, but this is a story I want to hear, and I think others do, too.”
Ritchie and Rotberg are among 18 pairs of students and Holocaust survivors who have contributed to the Sustaining Memories Project, which was initiated by the Azrieli Foundation, an organization that helps survivors write their memoirs.
Margaret Kittel Canale and her mother, Vera Kittel have also taken part in this initiative to document Kittel’s escape from Nazi persecution. Canale said her mother spoke very little about her experiences during the war, but her family was determined to record her story before this piece of their history was lost.
“My mother found it sad to talk about her family, with only her and her sister surviving. Whenever she hears people talk about all their relatives, she realizes how much she has lost. It has affected her all her life,” said Canale, who helped write her mother’s memoir.
“I would have done this program even if I couldn’t have been paired with my mother, but I was grateful that they let me ask my mother if I could help her write her story. My mother said she might have held back some things if she had been talking to a stranger. In some ways, it was easier for me to work with her because I knew the characters and could help fill in some of the gaps.”
Kittel was eight years old when Hitler came to power and began persecuting Jews – attacking synagogues, seizing Jewish businesses and arresting people.
In a supreme act of selflessness, one that she could only truly understand when she became a parent herself, her parents sent her to England on the Kindertransport, a rescue mission that sent nearly 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland to live in British foster homes, hostels and farms.
Kittel said the decision her parents made to send her away was so painful, her mother couldn’t come with her father to the train station to say goodbye.
Most of the rescued children survived the war, but the majority of their parents did not. Kittel’s parents were killed in Auschwitz.
It was more than 50 years later that Canale first learned about the Kindertransport that saved her mother’s life.
Today, she has an even better understanding of her mother’s past and an appreciation for her resiliency.
“My mother said, ‘We always looked forward, never back. We needed to find hope for the future.’ It was hope that kept them moving forward, even when they came to Canada as immigrants and tried to get ahead.”
On April 17 at 12:30 p.m. at Kensington Place Retirement Residence, the program’s 18 survivors and their writing partners will celebrate the culmination of their work at a private luncheon with their families.
Each pair will be presented with a copy of the memoir they produced, the results of a project that is sure to have changed the lives of both the writing partners and the survivor authors forever.