The question "What is home?" is always a poignant one for a writer to explore. In Zelda Abramson's The Montreal Shtetl: Making Home After the Holocaust (Between the Lines Books), published in January to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27), the question is even more complex.
She looks deeply into the experiences of Holocaust survivors in North America as they arrived by the tens of thousands, particularly in Montreal, where they faced poverty, rampant discrimination, and culture shock as they attempted to build new homes for themselves and their children.
Abramson interviewed more than 60 Holocaust survivors and reviewed hundreds of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services files to create a vivid picture of what their lives were like in Montreal as they dealt with trauma, language barriers, employment issues, and a sometimes unwelcoming Canadian society - at times even within the existing Jewish community. She expands on these experiences to draw conclusions about the needs of current refugees and how policy can be shaped to have a lasting positive impact.
We're pleased to welcome Zelda to Open Book today to talk about The Montreal Shtetl. She tells us about beginning by speaking to her parents, who were Holocaust survivors themselves, about becoming so entrenched in research that it felt like she was "living in the late 1940s" for a time, and about two iconic books that influenced her interest in social justice.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be. What made you passionate about the subject matter you're exploring?
The Montreal Shtetl: Making Home After the Holocaust follows the experiences of Holocaust survivors post-World War II, the ways in which they were allowed entry into Canada, and their resettlement experiences in Montreal. Both my parents were Holocaust survivors who moved to Montreal in 1952. In 2005, before my mother died, I asked her about what her early experiences were like in Montreal, in particular, who helped our family resettle. “There was no help to be had,” she said. She only once asked for help from a Jewish Agency and having been refused, she never asked again. “We helped each other,” she said, referring to her friends who were also survivors. A couple of years later, an article appeared in the New York Times about the disparaging ways Holocaust survivors who settled in New York were treated by the Jewish community.
These two events were pivotal to how the book came to be. I had many questions: What was the integration into Montreal life and Canadian society like? What supports systems were in place that facilitated integration? I began looking for literature on survivors who resettled in Montreal and was most surprised to see how little was written about this time period. It was curious given that the majority of Jewish refugees who came to Canada resettled in Montreal. In 2012 I had a sabbatical, and my partner and I decided to go to Montreal to research the many questions I had.
Is there a question that is central to your book? And if so, is it the same question you were thinking about when you started writing or did it change during the writing process?
Although this book is rooted in my family’s experiences, I did not want the book to be about my family. The importance of this book was to capture the individual and collective experiences of the survivors in relation to local and national policies and community relations that shaped their migration and resettlement experiences. This was the intent of the book and did not change during the process.
What was your research process like for this book? Did you encounter anything unexpected while you were researching?
The research process occurred over three years. This meant many trips back and forth between Nova Scotia and Montreal. There were two parts to the research: in-depth interviews and archival research. Finding interviewees at first was challenging as I had I had moved away from Montreal 40 years earlier (in 1972) and had very few connections. I began to reach out to various individuals I knew and agencies, such as the drop-in centre for Holocaust survivors and Montreal Holocaust Museum, for potential names. Meanwhile we spent most days at the Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives and The Jewish Public Libraries Archives where we had access to an array of documents and to our total surprise and delight, thousands of social work case files. The case files proved to be very helpful in our interviews as they raised questions we would otherwise not have asked.
After six weeks being in Montreal, our sample snowballed, and we were able to interview most days. The interviews on average lasted three hours. Each interview would begin with their lives before the war, shift to the war years and then to the crux of the interview, how they arrived in Montreal and their resettlement experiences. We did not intend to probe in-depth their holocaust experiences, but the interviewees needed to tell their stories in detail. Once their survival story was shared, they assumed the interview was over. There was not much to tell about their resettlement, they said: “We came, it was hard, and we made a living.” They had rarely revisited this time even though by the end of the interview they realized that this period was a time of rebuilding and hope.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
My partner and I needed to be in Montreal, needed to be in the same neighbourhood where the survivors settled, needed to walk the same streets, and reflect on what we heard in the interviews and what we read in the archival documents. For months, it felt as if we were living in the late 1940s. Each morning we would go for a walk, buy bagels or croissants, eat breakfast, read various newspapers-often ranting about the state of the world- and then settle into writing. I would sit at the kitchen table for hours each day, there were always fresh tulips behind my laptop and there was a large window looking out onto a typical Montreal alley.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
When a writing block occurred, I would write down ideas, random sentences, words, and move-on to a different section of the book and return to my frustration the following day. Our morning walks proved to be productive in these instances. It was a time we talked through and problem-solved difficult areas. I was even known to record a memo to myself on my cell phone while walking. At other times the solution was to seek more information by either returning to the Archives or revisiting an interview.
What defines a great work of non-fiction, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
Aside from accessibility of writing and a storyline beautifully told, for me a great book of non-fiction is one whose narrative is informed by principles of social justice, and has an historical impact thereby influencing social change. What comes to mind, as I just finished teaching a course on health, environment and poverty, is Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962). In Silent Spring Rachel Carson exposed industry’s role in contaminating the environment through reckless use of pesticides and called for changes in government regulations that restrict their use. The petrochemical industry was vicious in its criticism of her writing and research, claiming her findings and conclusion were inaccurate, her approach was fear mongering and she was a hysterical woman; yet no evidence of misinformation was ever documented. Her writings have led to the enactment of environmental laws and regulations and laid the foundation of today’s environmental movement.
During my first year of University, I was introduced in a required English course to Malcolm X’s autobiography. His life circumstances and struggles have always stayed with me. The book powerfully captures the full arc of racism from the blatant to the invisible and how people and nations fail humanity.
What are you working on now?
My focus is still on the resettlement experiences of Holocaust survivors. I would like to “translate” The Montreal Shtetl, at least parts of it, into a digital story map, charting their forced migration from their homes in Europe before the war, during the war, and the differing routes they needed to take to get to Montreal. In Montreal, the map will largely trace the rebuilding of their lives.
The original research covered the resettlement period from 1947 to 1956. In the writing of the book, we realized that the refugees who arrived post-1956 were not only survivors of the Holocaust but also refugees of the Cold War. Although in Canada their resettling experiences were similar to those who came post-World War II, the circumstances of their postwar experiences were sufficiently different than those who arrived in Canada earlier. Their story needs telling.
Zelda Abramson is an associate professor of sociology at Acadia University. Her areas of teaching and research include methodology, health, and family. As a public sociologist, she strives to combine academic research with social activism. Zelda grew up in Montreal as a child of Holocaust survivors.