In early March at the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), I had the pleasure of attending a panel on family story and meeting Ellen Cassedy, author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, published in March 2012 by the University of Nebraska Press. I bought the book from the publisher’s exhibit booth and began to read it immediately. I couldn’t put it down.
The Whole Megillah offers an interview with Ellen to commemorate Yom-HaShoah:
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Did you know you’d be writing a memoir when you went to Lithuania?
Ellen Cassedy (EC): No. At first, all I wanted was to breathe that air, look up into that vast Baltic sky, imagine myself back into the daily lives of my ancestors — and improve my Yiddish. But on the brink of my trip, things started to happen. My uncle took me aside and revealed his secret Holocaust past. An old gentile man in my ancestral town asked to “speak to a Jew” before he died. A story began to unfold.
Even so, I’m not sure the book would have come to pass if the late Ruth Gay (author of one of my favorite Jewish memoirs, Unfinished People, hadn’t said the magic words: “You must write this down.”
EC: I filled nine spiral notebooks and snapped nine rolls of film. (Remember rolls of film?) I was constantly jotting down sensory details — colors, smells — and feelings. (I’m scared, I’m sweaty, I hate this, etc.)
As a journalist, I know how to speed-write as people are talking. It helped that many of my interviewees spoke slowly because English was not their first language. I did also manage some conversations in Yiddish. That was a challenge, I must say — listening, talking, and taking notes in another alphabet!
TWM: In what ways were you transformed as a result of this visit?
EC: I went to Lithuania expecting to judge. I wanted to judge my uncle, the old man in my ancestral town, and the majority of Lithuanians who stood by during the Holocaust as their Jewish neighbors were annihilated.
In the course of my visit, though, I lost the urge to sort people into columns — good here, bad there. I came to believe that in this moral terrain, what matters most are the questions we ask and the serious attention we pay.
For those who personally experienced the most terrible times in the mid-20th-century, it may be difficult or even inappropriate to move on beyond hatred. I wouldn’t ask that of anyone. But for people in the successor generations, people like me, I came to see a different role — an opportunity.
Now what engages me are questions like these: Can we honor the memory of the Holocaust without perpetuating the hatreds of the past? Can American Jews forge a connection with a land where Jewish culture was annihilated? Can we appeal to others not as victims, bystanders, or perpetrators, but as fellow beings with the capacity for moral choice?
TWM: Was there any opportunity you wish you had taken while in Lithuania?
EC: Many. Later this year I’ll have a chance to visit again, when We Are Here is published in Lithuanian. I’m looking forward to continuing my education, both about the little towns where my family came from, and the big questions, such as how a country moves forward from genocide.
TWM: Do you still “work” on your Yiddish?
EC: Mit groys fargenign! (With great pleasure!) I’m a member of a monthly Yiddish reading circle that has met for ten years. We read aloud from Yiddish literary classics and discuss them in Yiddish, no English allowed. With a colleague, I’ve also been translating short stories by the weird and wonderful writer Blume Lempel.
TWM: How long did it take you to write this book?
EC: From the first scribbles to publication, ten years.
TWM: What struggles did you face in writing this book?
EC: Oy. The biggest issue was how to join together so many different elements — my family story, the larger story of how Lithuanians as a people are engaging with the Holocaust, the moral issues raised by my journey, my love of Yiddish and yiddishkayt. I felt sure all of these belonged in the mix, but it took a lot of piecing and matching and stitching to fit them all in.
My favorite memoirs are ones that provide the reader with an intimate perch from which to learn about a wider world. That’s what I was striving for.
TWM: In the review process of We Are Here, did anyone disagree with your narrative? If so, how did you handle that?
EC: It’s not possible to talk about the Holocaust without pain. And after fifty years under two regimes, Lithuania sometimes seems like a cauldron bubbling with competing martyrdoms, resentments, and hatreds. In the book, I try to set a tone of humility and compassion. The task is not to reach an agreement, but to reach out — to listen, to engage in respectful dialogue.
TWM: Were you expected to have your manuscript vetted by any subject matter experts?
EC: I sought out many readers, including the historians Michael Steinlauf, Saulius Suziedelis, and Cecile Kuznitz, and the moral philosopher Lawrence Blum. Their help was invaluable.
TWM: Is there anything you would have done differently?
EC: You know, I’m a different person today from the Ellen Cassedy who wrote the book. So when I read certain passages today, I think, hmm, that’s not exactly how I would put it now. But all you can do is to be as painstaking and honest as possible. No regrets.
TWM: Memoir has taken flack for being not entirely true. What’s your perspective on that?
EC: Nothing is entirely true, in my opinion. Every piece of writing reflects the author’s views and prejudices, whether the author acknowledges them or not. Just as with the moral issues raised by the Holocaust, what matters most to me is the effort, the serious attention we pay. I felt a strong compass guiding me as I wrote, and I tried to stay true to that inner sense.
TWM: What advice do you have for budding memoirists?
EC: My first piece of advice: Step back. Detachment is what turns a family story into a book.
At the AWP conference in Chicago, I offered a handout, “Your Family Stories: Ten Ways to Make Your Readers Care.” Readers can contact me through my website to ask for a copy.
TWM: How do you think your mother would have felt about your trip, your Yiddish, and your memoir? (I’m sure she would have been kvelling.)
EC: Now you’re making me cry (not a bad thing, of course!). When my mother was alive, I could count on her to keep track of the past. But when she died, I had to do it for myself. The result was a life-changing journey — and a book.
Dedicated to the memory of all those who perished in the Holocaust