‘My father realized survivors’ stories weren’t being told’

A conversation with Azrieli Foundation director Dr. Naomi Azrieli on Jewish memory and why publishing survivors’ memoirs is a necessity for the Jewish world.

February 2, 2010 00:35
Naomi Azrieli. 'There's a tendency to lump Canadia

naomi azrieli 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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When David Azrieli, the famous Canadian-Israeli designer and developer of some of the country’s best-known buildings, sat down to write the story of his harrowing flight from the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, it took him 10 years to complete.

With his daughter Danna writing at his side, Azrieli struggled to put into words the story that saw him fleeing from his hometown of Makow Mazowiecki, northwest of Warsaw, through Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Baghdad, before arriving in Palestine shortly before the War of Independence.

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“Growing up, whenever he’d say something about the war, all four of us children would go quiet. It was very rare for him to talk about it,” says Dr. Naomi Azrieli, another daughter who today runs the family’s Montreal-based philanthropic foundation.

“He would talk about his mother, his happy childhood, collecting berries in the forest. But about the war, we could never put together the bits and pieces. We knew he was on a train at one point, that he got shot. But we didn’t know the whole story.”

It was only with the fall of the Iron Curtain that David, together with Naomi and Danna, decided to return to his hometown and retrace his wartime flight across Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.

“Based on that, he wrote a book together with Danna. This was in the summer of 1990.” It took until 2001 for the book to reach publication.

“He got to the end of the process, and because he’s a well-known person, a person of interest, he found a publisher pretty easily in Yad Vashem. But he realized that’s very rare. Many survivors have written their stories, but can’t find a publisher. These stories are not commercially viable; no publisher is going to make money on them. But that doesn’t mean they’re not critical for Jewish history and the future,” says Azrieli.

So the Azrieli Foundation, the family’s roughly $200 million philanthropic initiative focused on educational ventures, decided to change that.

“There’s a long-standing debate among historians about using memoirs in dealing with the Holocaust,” says Azrieli, who holds a PhD in European history from Oxford. “Historians were for a long time focused on documents, documents, documents, especially from the very complete Nazi archives. They felt the Holocaust was so well documented on the Nazi side, while personal memories of what happened are fallible.”

But, she says, that perception is changing. There are parts to the story that can’t be accessed in any other way. And memory, unlike bureaucratic archives, has an education value not shared “by a historical textbook with 100 footnotes from the German archives. They give you a personal feeling of what happened, letting you identify with the survivors.”

After looking for a publishing house to fund in Canada, the family realized that, unlike in Israel, nobody was publishing memoirs of Canadian survivors, some 35,000 of whom were living in the country.

“Memoirs are extremely demanding and expensive.” They require time-intensive translation, careful editing and the cost of printing. “There’s no way to cover your costs. This has to be done by philanthropy.”

IN 2005, the foundation put out a call for submissions, asking rabbis to announce the call at Yom Kippur services from Newfoundland to British Columbia.

“Within three months, we had 30 manuscripts. These were already written, and sitting around in people’s homes. Many were sent in by the next generation.”

Since 2005, the foundation has received 170 manuscripts, from 10-page poems and illustrations – “some survivors found it too painful to write their memories, so they drew them” – to 900-page word-processed tomes. They range in languages from English to Yiddish, Romanian, Hungarian, German, Polish and French.

The project has produced 15 books, each distributed free in 60,000 copies to every public, university and high-school library the foundation could find. They are stories of the Holocaust told by Canadians for Canadians.

“One book is of a father and daughter. He’s now 99, still living in Toronto. His memoirs focused on life in the ghetto and during the war. Her memoirs were more about the experience of being a young immigrant to Canada,” Azrieli explains.

“Put yourself in a Canadian context. In Toronto, which has an incredibly diverse population, teachers are working in a class with students from Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Pakistan, also white Canadians, Jewish students, Muslim students from North Africa. This teacher wants to teach the subject in ways that will resonate with their students’ experiences.”

So publishing and making available Canadian survivors’ stories can be a powerful impetus for learning. “One of the things we worry about is not to tinker with the author’s voice. If it sounds like he’s thinking in Yiddish, that’s okay. At the same time, these have to be accessible. We’re putting together guides for book clubs, resources for teachers,” she says.

A third series (after the first in 2007 and the second in 2009) of nine more books is due to be published in June.

THE AZRIELI FOUNDATION decided in 2002 to expand its philanthropic activities. “There was a sense – really my father’s vision and his decision – that this would become bigger, that this was his legacy. He has lots of buildings with his name on them, but for the ages, this is what counts,” explains Azrieli.

So the family met and “came up with a mission statement. We sat down together, talked about it for a long time. And the mission statement also reflects very clearly my father’s priorities. The mission is education.

“People ask what that means. Jewish education? Regular education? The answer is yes. It’s a very broad mandate.”

From a multimillion-dollar gift to the Carleton University School of Architecture to an Israeli program that helps the lowest-performing junior high-schoolers turn their grades – and futures – around, it is education itself that lies at the center of the foundation.

Which makes perfect sense to Azrieli. “In 2002, I was still only involved part-time in the foundation. I loved my academic work, teaching and researching. But then the foundation became my full-time occupation, and I haven’t looked back for a second. This has been a great pleasure.”

The foundation’s flagship programs in Israel reflect the breadth of what it means by “education.” At the “top,” the Azrieli Fellows Program is a “best-and-brightest” fellowship for graduate students, and may be the country’s most generous fellowship. About 12 students in applied sciences, education and architecture are allowed into the program each year, receiving a stipend of between $22,000 and $28,000 annually for three years.

“We don’t just give them money,” explains Azrieli. “We meet four or five times a year as a group, and the students have to present their work to each other. So an architect is presenting to a nanotechnologist, or a computational biologist from the Weizmann Institute is presenting to someone working on learning disabilities from Bar-Ilan University.”

The format grows out of Azrieli’s experience at Oxford, where “because of the college system, all these different people from different fields had to have dinner together. That was a very enriching experience,” she recalls, one generally lacking for Israelis, who “are older, and in some ways more mature and [just] want to get the degree.” The experience also helps to make the researchers into “educators because they have to explain their work in ways non-specialists can understand.”

The fellows are also required to volunteer in their communities, many of them choosing to do so through the foundation’s Institute for Educational Empowerment, a 12-city program in junior high schools “that is the exact opposite end of the [educational] spectrum” from the fellows program.

“We’re looking for future community leaders, not just excelling scientists,” the kind of leaders who have put in the hours alongside struggling 13-year-olds.

The foundation is one of Canada’s 10 largest. It invests very conservatively, allowing it to avoid many of the troubles facing other Jewish foundations.

“We say in the family that this is our ‘forever foundation,’ so you have to take a lot of care in how you invest and how you choose programs. We were touched by what happened to the market, like everyone else, but we’re doing very well now that the market is back up. And we had nothing, zero, to do with [Bernard] Madoff.”

That conservatism is also perhaps reflected in the foundation’s strong focus on Israel.

“Growing up, there were two things that were never in question: that we would have a Jewish home, even if we weren’t observant – which I’m still not – and the connection to Israel,” Azrieli relates. “I think I knew more about Israel as a child than about Canada.”

Her “escape” to an American university – “the University of Pennsylvania, where I went as a young adult because I needed to get out and breathe” – was an eye-opening experience.

“There’s a tendency to lump Canadian and American Jewry together, but that’s a mistake. They’re completely different.” Seeing American Jewry from up close “opened my horizons. I loved it. I loved the diversity of it. Now, in Toronto, I belong to a havura,” an informal group that gathers to pray and learn without the structures of a synagogue.

“The future of Jewish identity is to figure out how to have a strong identity in a diverse society. You want to be open, to be a democracy with a huge plurality in ethnicity and approaches and beliefs. How do you instill and nurture a strong sense of identity as a Jew in those conditions?”

Ultimately, she reflects, it becomes a matter of choice. “We survived thousands of years by forming structures of study and prayer that could go with us from place to place and sustain the community. Now this is the challenge of choosing a Jewish identity.”

A similar process is taking place among Western Jewry regarding Israel. “Israel is becoming a normal country, no longer desperately dependent on Diaspora help to survive. So its relevance for young Jews all over the world has to be something other than planting another JNF tree.”

The next step for the foundation? “We want to help show that Israel is a normal country, with an economy and culture. It’s not subsumed in the conflicts of the Middle East, which is often the only way you can hear about it or learn about it [in academia].” So “right now we’re looking into helping to launch Israel studies programs at the undergraduate level in Canada. I feel very strongly about this.”

The foundation is “completely non-political,” Azrieli insists. Education, not advocacy is the key to improving Canada, helping Israel and serving the Jewish people.

“What really defines us,” she says, “is how wide our vision is on education, how we’re trying to impact education from all these different angles.”

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