Just as our hunger is not that feeling of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say “hunger,” we say “tiredness,” “fear,” “pain,” we say “winter” and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes. If the Lagers had lasted longer, a new, harsh language would have been born.
— Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, 1986, p. 123
Using “free” words – the only words available to describe experiences during the Holocaust – while doing justice to memories of perished loved ones and agonizing personal experiences seems impossible to many Holocaust survivors. There simply is not appropriate vocabulary to convey what happened or how it felt. The survivors’ sense of duty and obligation to share these memories, though, is ever present.
In response to this need, we have developed an ongoing writing workshop at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum called The Memory Project. It is designed to allow the Holocaust survivor participants to share their memories in a way other than speaking publicly. Survivors are guided in the production of a document for their family members, as well as for historical archives. Participants have varying levels of education and writing experience but all seem to gain personally from putting their memories on paper in a safe, open environment.
We currently offer this program to the 64 Holocaust survivors who volunteer their time at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The idea for The Memory Project came from Drew University’s (Madison, NJ) writing workshop for Holocaust survivors called “Leave-A-Legacy.” Our group meets for three and a half hours monthly. In each session, participants read pieces of work they are currently working on and receive comments and critique from the group, as well as the comments of the instructor prepared in advance. They also do writing exercises and receive homework assignments for the next meeting.
The Memory Project allows those survivors who do not wish to share their memories publicly to “speak” on their own terms. This is one more way the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum helps survivors to share their memories and add significantly to Holocaust remembrance.