When Ra’anana resident Klara Ruso was given the opportunity – through Yad Sarah’s Life Stories Project – to record the details of her daring escape from the Nazis during World War II, she did not hesitate.
“I did not do it just so people would read about what had happened to me,” Ruso told The Jerusalem Post last week ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which begins Sunday night. “I did it so that future generation will always remember what we went through.”
Born in Romania, Ruso described how she spent much of the war, together with her four siblings and her mother, on the run.
“Every time the Germans arrived where we were, we would pack up our bags and leave,” recalled Ruso, who joined the Life Stories Project, part of Yad Sarah’s outreach to homebound Holocaust survivors, nearly two years ago, and had her story published in a bound memoir.
“When the Germans arrived in Romania, we ran away; we went eastward to Ukraine and then to Uzbekistan, and then I finally made aliya in 1947, after spending a year in Cyprus,” she recalled. “It’s a long, long story and there is a lot to tell.”
Ruso is one of some 350 elderly and housebound Israelis who have shared their life stories with specially trained volunteers that record, transcribe, type, print and then bind the stories to create a personal memoir for each individual.
Although Yad Sarah has been running the project in Jerusalem for more than a decade, a €100,000 donation from the Berlin-based EVZ Foundation (Remembrance, Responsibility and Future) a few months ago has allowed the project to expand countrywide. It will also add a training component for volunteers, teaching them how to correctly broach the highly personal issues and record them in a way that is enduring. The service is for all elderly homebound people and the terminally ill, as well as Holocaust survivors. Stories told by survivors are shared with the national Holocaust archive at Yad Vashem.
“The idea is not only to record the stories of the survivors but also to give them the feeling that their stories are important and being heard,” said Franka Kuehn, head of Public Relations for EVZ, in explaining why her foundation adopted the project.
“We support a lot of different projects for survivors, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as others in Israel,” Kuehn said. “We heard about Yad Sarah and recognized it was a big welfare organization that does a lot for survivors of the Holocaust.”
Kuehn also explained that the foundation, which started as Germany’s state-appointed body to distribute compensation to victims of forced slave labor during the war, was driven “to show that survivors are still being cared about and to preserve memories for the future.
“As long as these people are still alive then we have to let them tell their stories,” she continued. “[Life Stories] is not just an archive where stories are preserved by researchers, it is also a very important dialogue between those who do the research and those who speak out about their lives and experiences.”
For Daniela Ziv, one of more than 250 volunteers working on the project, it is also about the human interaction and the chance for people to recall many old memories.
“One woman I was working with told me afterwards that she was shocked when she realized she had done so many things in her life,” said Ziv, 66, a retired nurse from Herzliya. “Telling their stories really helps them organize their memories in their heads and it gives their families the chance to hear all the things they have done and be proud of them.
“I usually visit my clients once a week for about an hour, and we just sit and talk about their lives,” Ziv said, describing how she records the conversations and later, at home, transcribes them. “We talk about everything from their first memories and their childhood to what they remember about their grandparents and their friends. I also get them to describe different smells and foods from their past.”
The volunteers are given guidelines on what to ask and taught how to be sensitive to difficult memories, but still, they are encouraged to push the person in order to bring some of the deeper, murkier memories to the surface.
“From my former profession, I know that I am good with people and I know exactly which buttons to press to get them talking,” Ziv said. “I do not like working according to a list. It is better for it to come out in a natural way and it’s also important to hear what happened to them in the years before the Holocaust, as well as during the war and afterwards.”
The whole process can take up to eight months and, said Ziv, each hour spent recalling such difficult memories can be emotionally draining for both her and the client.
“Often we both get very tired and there are lots of emotions and
tears,” she said, adding that she also scans personal photos and other
personal documents to include in the memoir.
Despite the obvious difficulties, however, Ziv said that the work is “my life.”
“It’s amazing. I learn so much from them and have many stories. It’s really an amazing and important experience,” she said.