I recently completed a writing project assigned to me by a professor; however, I am not a university student and the professor, George Pal (former dean of engineering at Mohawk College in Hamilton), is retired. Nonetheless, this was a powerful assignment from which I continue to learn.
Pal is a survivor of the Holocaust. Helga Thorson, a University of Victoria Germanics Studies professor, asked me this summer, on Pal's behalf, to help Pal write his story for a project she is leading called Building an Archive: Local Stories and Experiences of the Holocaust.
Although many accounts have been written by and about Holocaust survivors, the intent of this project is to make sure that local stories are told and preserved according to the wishes of those who experienced them.
Pal wanted me to help him tell his incredible story because I am a storyteller. Pal thought that since his story is shared by millions of others, many of whom did not survive, it would be better for everyone if his experiences could be turned into a narrative.
Pal, who is 86, had written the most difficult parts of his story for a presentation to university and high school students titled From Whistle to Smoke: Never Again! Never Again! Never Again!
The first part of the title refers to the 15 minutes Nazi SS officers required for the transfer of prisoners considered unfit for work from boxcars to crematoria where they were murdered. The subtitle expresses Pal's plea that this kind of genocide never occurs again in any form to any people.
Pal also told me about his harrowing journey home after liberation by the Russian army in 1945, a story he had not written or told fully before.
I was about to complete Pal's narrative when we realized that the most meaningful part of his story had not been included: the rebuilding of his life after the Holocaust.
George Pal has lived a successful, inspiring life in his new country of Canada, a living testament to his resilience and recovery from one of the worst episodes in human history.
He has many scars from his life in the camps, few of which are visible, yet all are keenly felt by him every moment of his life. Even so, he refused to let these impediments stop him from living a full, productive life.
Once these more positive aspects of Pal's life had been included in his report, I asked him if I could expand the title of his story to Prisoners of Hope: Rising from the Ashes of Holocaust.
Pal has said that when he was imprisoned by the Nazis, he also became a prisoner of hope. This is the only way he can explain how he survived.
Pal has also said that whenever he is asked if he hates Germans, his answer always is "No! If I were to blame the Germans for everything that happened to me, and to all those who did not survive, I would be making the same mistake the Nazis made by generalizing and referring to us as the Jews who are all responsible for all their woes. ...
"Just as not all Nazis were German, not all Germans were Nazis. There were, and still are, Nazis [or sympathizers and followers, perhaps by another name] among other nationalities throughout the world."
Our task is to do all we can to make sure that we are guided, not by hatred, but by kindness and generosity to all. I believe that humanity can and often does achieve this goal, because in a way, we are all prisoners of hope.
Shoshana Litman is Canada's first ordained Maggidah, a female Jewish storyteller and teacher. She is also an administrator for the Mus-sar Institute of Vancouver, which makes an ancient Jewish spiritual practice accessible to all.
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