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What I Learned From a Holocaust Survivor About Writing a Life Story

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One day, an elderly man phoned me up out of the blue. He was looking for someone to help him write a book about his life. A colleague of mine, also an editor, had recommended me to him. His English was impeccable, and he had an accent that I couldn’t quite place. He was very sweet and charming. Then he said something that made my jaw drop.

He was a Holocaust survivor.

Gidon Lev told me that of the 15,000 children imprisoned in or transported through the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt, fewer than 100 survived and that he was one of those children. He was in the camp from the ages of 6 to 10. He had lost 26 family members, including his father, who, he believed, had died on a death march out of Auschwitz. 

I’m glad Gidon couldn’t see my face since we were on the telephone. I hadn’t been able to make it through Schindler’s List until my third try, and even then, I sobbed throughout. There was no way that I had the emotional bandwidth to edit or write about trauma so unimaginable that even the word to describe its source – Holocaust – is freighted like a dark storm cloud.

Gideon Lev as a child
Gideon Lev, a few months after liberation

Perhaps out of a sense of duty, kindness, or even posterity, I agreed to meet Gidon for coffee. Maybe this lonely old man just needed a little company, I reasoned. It was the least I could do.

82-year-old Gidon Lev arrived at the café we had agreed upon with a spring in his step. With a shock of white hair and merry blue eyes, he was energetic and voluble, not the lonely, depressed, broken person I had imagined at all.

He told me about his six children, his experience living on a kibbutz, his time serving in the Israeli army, and how he’d taken five of his kids camping across the American west one summer, all the way to California. Gidon is nothing if he isn’t charming, talkative, and persuasive. I liked him. 

Despite his cheerful manner, I knew that Gidon must have witnessed, absorbed, and internalized a world of sorrow and unexamined trauma. He spent some of the most formative years of childhood in a Nazi concentration camp where people were hung in public and trains chugged away to Auschwitz several times a week.

Food was scarce, and disease was rampant. Death was everywhere. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go along with Gidon on the journey of revisiting those things or that I was qualified to do so. As a writer and editor, Gidon’s story couldn’t have been further from my wheelhouse.

Gently, I told Gidon that I didn’t think I was the right person for his project, and as an excuse to let him down easily, I cited the fact that I didn’t know enough about the Holocaust to be able to write about it accurately. But, I told him, I was certainly happy to be friends.

More Than A Holocaust Survivor

Gidon said he was happy to be friends too, but his book wasn’t about the Holocaust. After all, he pointed out, he was liberated when he was ten years old and had lived a long and full life afterward. Of course, he had written down some memories of his time in Theresienstadt, Gidon explained, but that period did not define him or his book.

I realized that I was the one defining Gidon as a one-dimensional “Holocaust survivor.” Yet that was the first thing he told me about himself when he called. He knew it would get my attention. 

Our early conversations were filled with uncomfortable cross-currents: Gidon’s cheerful insistence, my overwhelmed trepidation, and my sense of obligation. Gidon’s optimistic view that his book would be a bestseller, read by thousands upon thousands of people, and my certainty that no, actually, thousands and thousands of people do not want to read about the Holocaust. Not voluntarily anyway.

But his life wasn’t about the Holocaust, Gidon asserted, again and again. I tried to explain that as an editor, I understood the world of publishing, and you can’t just mention “the Holocaust” as an aside even if it was, as a percentage, only a small part of Gidon’s lived experience. He would have to write about it; he would have to explore his memories and feelings at least to some degree. 

Gidon began to see my point. It was clear that he had an uneasy relationship with what was, in some ways, the alpha and omega of his life: a historical event of such epic, horrifying magnitude that, like a black hole, sucked up everything around it and pulled it in. He wanted to get away from the gravitational pull of the Shoah, to reclaim his narrative. In the living of his life, he said, he had done just that. He had never looked back at his experience surviving the Holocaust as other than a historical fact. 

As he tried, so ardently, to persuade me to help him with the book, Gidon began to realize that in order to write a good book, one that would really affect readers, he had to be willing to explore some very uncomfortable feelings for the first time in his life.

Taking on the book project

What initially sounded like a project with Someone Else written all over it intrigued me. Was I qualified on any level to facilitate Gidon’s memories – some of them very painful, at this late stage in his life? 

If Gidon is good at one thing, it’s getting what he needs. We began to meet for coffee regularly. I liked being around him, and truth be told, I was a bit lonely. We spent more and more time together, going shopping, doing errands, even going camping and swimming. We became very close. For two people with a twenty-nine year age difference, we were strangely and wonderfully simpatico. 

A few months after we met, to the shock of everyone who knew either of us, Gidon and I moved in together. For us, it was the most natural thing in the world. It was this new, loving, day-to-day dynamic that unlocked my understanding and appreciation of Gidon and the lens through which he viewed his life.  I discovered that Gidon evaluates risk based on whether or not he might get caught or injured in some way. He opts for the shortcut, the quickest way around an obstacle, even when there is no existential threat beyond a parking ticket or being fifteen minutes late. 

As the book project began to pick up steam and take shape, I learned that child survivors of the Holocaust — the majority of those who remain with us today — carry a heavy burden.

They are the last eye-witnesses of the darkest chapter in humanity. Yet, their memories are those of children not yet able to name or contextualize their experiences. But there is pressure. Survivors ought to remember. They need to tell their stories for posterity. 

Gidon wanted to take me with him to visit the place where he spent a chunk of his childhood — Theresienstadt, or Terezin, in the Czech Republic. I had never been to a concentration camp in my life. About forty miles north of Prague, Theresienstadt was a hybrid camp, a ghetto, a transport hub to the death camps, and a propaganda tool.

Visiting Theresienstadt

When I saw the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign, my mouth went dry. I worried that Gidon was likely triggered and in distress. But he was a few yards away, chatting with tourists who fawned over him. For Gidon, there is sometimes a performative aspect of being a Holocaust survivor. It is a role to play, not a feeling to be felt. Very often, people react in awe when they find out Gidon is a Holocaust survivor. He becomes a saint, a relic, or both. He is a hero, a black and white newsreel come to life. He loves the attention. 

When Gidon can’t remember an event or detail, he just makes something up because that’s what he thinks people want to hear. Once, in the space of two days, Gidon gave different answers to a pointed question. A transcriptionist for the book project asked Gidon whether he remembered the public hangings at Theresienstadt that the imprisoned populace was forced to watch. Yes, Gidon said, without hesitation. He went on to describe the moment in detail—the snap of the rope, the gasp of the crowd, the swinging shoes. The next day, someone else asked Gidon the same question. No, he said, emphatically. He had no memory of that incident at all. 

The love and trust between Gidon and I created a space safe enough for me to ask a terribly awkward question: 

 “Which is it?” I asked. “Do you remember the hanging or not? Why are your answers different?” 

Gidon sighed deeply, and his shoulders slumped. “To tell you the truth, I don’t really remember. I only recall standing out in the cold in the yard, and we were all facing forward. Suddenly my mother pulled my head to her chest so I couldn’t see anything and there was a big gasp in the crowd. That’s it.” 

For Gidon, what he remembers of the four years he spent in the camp is mostly fragmented sense memories. Bits and snatches. Like the hanging. Like roasting a stolen potato in the cast iron stove in the barracks. Like the incredulity of seeing the Red Army tearing down the camp’s fence in 1945 and throwing chocolates to the kids. 

Writing Gideon’s Story

As I edited and organized Gidon’s writing, I noticed that while he had recorded dates, names, and places throughout his life in fastidious sometimes excruciating detail, there was very little of his writing that was particularly emotional except on four topics: The end of his first marriage, his utter devotion to Israel, the love of his life (his second wife Susan), and deep, abiding anger toward his mother, Doris, long since deceased.  

Gidon wrote at length about how his mother had been a rigid, punitive, sometimes even abusive parent, even before the war. He wrote that his mother’s emotional and physical abuse carried on apace after the two were liberated in 1945. As awful as that was, it made sense to me. As an adult during her time in a concentration camp, always hungry, overworked, and worried about her child, Doris must have been painfully aware that she was living in a kind of hell. Whether Gidon’s memories of his mother are factual or not, they are painfully true for him.

Second-generation Holocaust survivors — children of Holocaust survivors — are sometimes called ‘survivors of survivors.’ Gidon felt quite sure that he had not talked about the Holocaust to his children and therefore not handed any of his pain down. But throughout working on the book, it became apparent that the unacknowledged trauma of the Holocaust had played out in Gidon’s life over and over again. First, as his direct experience: formative, fragmented, and bone-deep. Then through the passed down trauma of his mother after the war, and later, by learning as an adult what he couldn’t know as a child. Then, Gidon relived his trauma in the significant relationships in his life.

Before I took Gidon’s project on, I imagined that the hardest part would be paring down his painfully detailed writing — and that was indeed hard but I discovered along the way that listening to him deeply and noticing where he placed the most emphasis led to insights into what Gidon experienced as the narrative of his life. By deciding to include the experience of the writing of the book into the narrative, I documented this journey of discovery and indeed the results are both specific and universal.

The True Adventures of Gideon Lev book cover
The final culmination of the author’s work with Gideon Lev

I am reminded of the quote from the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.” Gidon wanted to record and share his life events, and he needed a loving companion to help him revisit his most profound trauma in safety. Gidon, survivor extraordinaire, got both. 

As a writer, I got what I wanted and needed too. I was given the extraordinary opportunity to write a book that I am proud of and perhaps more importantly, to make the story of Gidon’s life matter more widely.


Julie Gray is the author of The True Adventures of Gidon Lev. A native Californian living in Tel Aviv, her writing can be found in the Huffington Post, the Times of Israel, the Jewish Journal, Moment Magazine, the NY Post and many others.

About the Author

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