‘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.

naomi azrieli 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
naomi azrieli 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
“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 thestory that can’t be accessed in any other way. And memory, unlikebureaucratic archives, has an education value not shared “by ahistorical textbook with 100 footnotes from the German archives. Theygive you a personal feeling of what happened, letting you identify withthe survivors.”
After looking for a publishing house to fund in Canada, the familyrealized that, unlike in Israel, nobody was publishing memoirs ofCanadian survivors, some 35,000 of whom were living in the country.
“Memoirs are extremely demanding and expensive.” They requiretime-intensive translation, careful editing and the cost of printing.“There’s no way to cover your costs. This has to be done byphilanthropy.”
IN 2005, the foundation put out a call for submissions, asking rabbisto announce the call at Yom Kippur services from Newfoundland toBritish Columbia.
“Within three months, we had 30 manuscripts. These were alreadywritten, and sitting around in people’s homes. Many were sent in by thenext generation.”
Since 2005, the foundation has received 170 manuscripts, from 10-pagepoems and illustrations – “some survivors found it too painful to writetheir 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 60,000copies to every public, university and high-school library thefoundation could find. They are stories of the Holocaust told byCanadians for Canadians.
“One book is of a father and daughter. He’s now 99, still living inToronto. His memoirs focused on life in the ghetto and during the war.Her memoirs were more about the experience of being a young immigrantto Canada,” Azrieli explains.
“Put yourself in a Canadian context. In Toronto, which has anincredibly diverse population, teachers are working in a class withstudents from Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Pakistan, also white Canadians,Jewish students, Muslim students from North Africa. This teacher wantsto teach the subject in ways that will resonate with their students’experiences.”
So publishing and making available Canadian survivors’ stories can be apowerful impetus for learning. “One of the things we worry about is notto tinker with the author’s voice. If it sounds like he’s thinking inYiddish, 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 philanthropicactivities. “There was a sense – really my father’s vision and hisdecision – that this would become bigger, that this was his legacy. Hehas lots of buildings with his name on them, but for the ages, this iswhat counts,” explains Azrieli.
So the family met and “came up with a mission statement. We sat downtogether, talked about it for a long time. And the mission statementalso reflects very clearly my father’s priorities. The mission iseducation.
“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 ofArchitecture to an Israeli program that helps the lowest-performingjunior high-schoolers turn their grades – and futures – around, it iseducation itself that lies at the center of the foundation.
Which makes perfect sense to Azrieli. “In 2002, I was still onlyinvolved part-time in the foundation. I loved my academic work,teaching and researching. But then the foundation became my full-timeoccupation, and I haven’t looked back for a second. This has been agreat pleasure.”
The foundation’s flagship programs in Israel reflect the breadth ofwhat it means by “education.” At the “top,” the Azrieli Fellows Programis a “best-and-brightest” fellowship for graduate students, and may bethe country’s most generous fellowship. About 12 students in appliedsciences, education and architecture are allowed into the program eachyear, receiving a stipend of between $22,000 and $28,000 annually forthree years.
“We don’t just give them money,” explains Azrieli. “We meet four orfive times a year as a group, and the students have to present theirwork to each other. So an architect is presenting to ananotechnologist, or a computational biologist from the WeizmannInstitute is presenting to someone working on learning disabilitiesfrom Bar-Ilan University.”
The format grows out of Azrieli’s experience at Oxford, where “becauseof the college system, all these different people from different fieldshad to have dinner together. That was a very enriching experience,” sherecalls, one generally lacking for Israelis, who “are older, and insome ways more mature and [just] want to get the degree.” Theexperience also helps to make the researchers into “educators becausethey have to explain their work in ways non-specialists can understand.”
The fellows are also required to volunteer in their communities, manyof them choosing to do so through the foundation’s Institute forEducational Empowerment, a 12-city program in junior high schools “thatis the exact opposite end of the [educational] spectrum” from thefellows program.
“We’re looking for future community leaders, not just excellingscientists,” the kind of leaders who have put in the hours alongsidestruggling 13-year-olds.
The foundation is one of Canada’s 10 largest. It invests veryconservatively, allowing it to avoid many of the troubles facing otherJewish foundations.
“We say in the family that this is our ‘forever foundation,’ so youhave to take a lot of care in how you invest and how you chooseprograms. We were touched by what happened to the market, like everyoneelse, but we’re doing very well now that the market is back up. And wehad 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 wewould have a Jewish home, even if we weren’t observant – which I’mstill not – and the connection to Israel,” Azrieli relates. “I think Iknew more about Israel as a child than about Canada.”
Her “escape” to an American university – “the University ofPennsylvania, where I went as a young adult because I needed to get outand breathe” – was an eye-opening experience.
“There’s a tendency to lump Canadian and American Jewry together, butthat’s a mistake. They’re completely different.” Seeing American Jewryfrom up close “opened my horizons. I loved it. I loved the diversity ofit. 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 strongidentity in a diverse society. You want to be open, to be a democracywith a huge plurality in ethnicity and approaches and beliefs. How doyou instill and nurture a strong sense of identity as a Jew in thoseconditions?”
Ultimately, she reflects, it becomes a matter of choice. “We survivedthousands of years by forming structures of study and prayer that couldgo with us from place to place and sustain the community. Now this isthe 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 dependenton Diaspora help to survive. So its relevance for young Jews all overthe world has to be something other than planting another JNF tree.”
The next step for the foundation? “We want to help show that Israel isa normal country, with an economy and culture. It’s not subsumed in theconflicts of the Middle East, which is often the only way you can hearabout it or learn about it [in academia].” So “right now we’re lookinginto helping to launch Israel studies programs at the undergraduatelevel 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 Israeland serving the Jewish people.
“What really defines us,” she says, “is how wide our vision is oneducation, how we’re trying to impact education from all thesedifferent angles.”