Mary Gale’s family had no idea she was Jewish. After the Holocaust, she was scared to tell people her religion, or even her birth name, Miriam Zimmerman. She didn’t even tell her son when he converted to Judaism and made aliyah.
But now, thanks to the Sustaining Memories Project, she has put her story in writing.
The project is an extension of the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs program, which collects and shares survivors’ stories. The problem was that not all survivors were able to write their own stories.
Through a partnership with Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, survivors meet with mature students – 50 years or older – who listen to the stories, transcribe the conversations and turn them into memoirs.
Ruth Krongold was Gale’s writing partner. She listened to Gale’s stories, and then worked with her to “put the pieces in the puzzle together.”
The stories described how Gale spent decades after the war hiding her Jewish identity. It wasn’t until she had a heart attack that she told her youngest child, Anita Stern, that she was Jewish.
When she turned 80, she visited Poland with her daughter, and saw the spot where her father was murdered in 1944. She described it as an incredibly emotional experience, and it was the catalyst for the sharing of her story with her family.
Krongold said she wanted to help with the project after attending an Azrieli Foundation presentation during Holocaust Education Week a couple years ago. There, she learned about the foundation’s collections of stories and decided she wanted to get involved in collecting the memories.
“As long as there are Holocaust survivors like Mary who want to tell their stories, we should be listening, we should be recording it, we should be compassionate witnesses to their experiences,” she said. “I thought it was important as a human being to hear it.”
Last year was the pilot year, and Elin Beaumont, outreach and communications manager for the program, said she was pleasantly surprised when 18 people signed up to take part in it.
This year, 19 more survivors shared their stories. They gathered at Baycrest Terraces on May 2 with their families and were presented with printed and bound copies of their memoirs. That was the first time the family members got to see the story.
In the future, Beaumont said she would like to expand the project outside of the Toronto area to include survivors from communities all throughout Canada.
The memoirs created through the Sustaining Memories Project will be considered for distribution to libraries, educational institutions and Holocaust-education programs, as is the case with the stories completed from the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs program.
Stern said the program has been a huge help for her mother. Although Gale was still a bit nervous about telling the world she was Jewish, Stern said the two of them had been discussing the May 2 event for weeks.
“I said to her… ‘This is it. There’s no going back,’” Stern said. “I think this is a turning point for her.”