Being a part of the Stories that Live Fellowship has been an incredible experience. I first found out about the program through my Birthright trip to Israel. I was pretty interested in the project from the start and really excited when I had the idea to write a series of letters. I was matched with Ronnie, an amazingly sweet woman with a very unique Holocaust story. In planning out the project I knew there were a lot of options. Creating something how did I want to capture, convey and remember this story? Did I want to focus on religion, family, love or loss? Would it be more about surviving the Holocaust, changes in life before and after the war or current life as a survivor? Would the story have connections to contemporary global issues? Writing a series of letters from Ronnie’s perspective allowed me flexibility to include many of these themes. I was excited because this medium would capture the entirety of her experience both in Germany, on the St. Louis, and in America up until modern day. I could address both people she knew and loved as well as discuss the general sentiments she had towards President Roosevelt or the Nazis.
Letter writing is something near and dear to my heart. All of my life I have been a bit of a writer whether it was the diary that I avidly documented my childhood in, or the travel journals I keep now. For a time I wrote formally, publishing things online and through my school, once even blogging for admissions. Inheriting my aunt’s extensive stationary collection fuelled a love for letters that hasn’t left. I even have a wax seal now. There’s something about the medium that makes it special. I wanted to bring the intimacy of letters to my project. I knew that attempting to make something like a documentary which I wasn’t familiar with creating nor have the skills to accomplish would turn out sub par. I loved how simple the basis of my project could be and that I could build it up to be a larger scale project. I liked that the letters varied vastly in their length, contribution to the narrative I was assembling of Ronnie’s life. They included a range of emotions from anger to sadness and broad strokes of confusion and misunderstanding since Ronnie was a young girl and her parents tried to shield her from as much of the events and then didn’t want to talk about it when they were older.
I organised the letters more or less chronologically so that a reader could get the full arch of Ronnie’s narrative. In spending hours talking to Ronnie I learned so much about all aspects of her life. I wanted to deliver that, all the life I had absorbed in listening to Ronnie. I knew people would be most interested in her family or escaping from Nazi Germany. Yet, there were so many interesting things that came up that I knew would interest others even if they didn’t know to ask about it. For instance, the story of Uncle Walter leaving a concentration camp and coming to the United States, but never truly being able to be free given his constant rumination with his eventual suicide is not commonly discussed though its not a novel experience. Talking to Ronnie about her thoughts on America and her patriotism was very interesting given the US denied her and others on the St. Louis entrance. I tried to wrap all of these stories into a larger narrative that flowed.
The fellowship really emphasis making an impact that extends beyond the event you have on campus. Along with putting everything online, instantly making it more accessible to technologically inclined folks, I wanted to scatter the letters around town and on campus. It seemed really neat if I was someone in a coffee shop and in a very Alice in Wonderland manner stumbled upon a letter that said “read me.” I figured this was a perfect way to promote the actual event of Ronnie coming to speak on campus and they could exist as long as they weren’t thrown away. I picked the letters that were interesting and captured enough of Ronnie’s experience that you wouldn’t understand the broad strokes of her Holocaust survivor story. I then set up an email account hoping that anyone with questions or comments could write to Ronnie, making the whole project more interactive in that you would be the reader, but also a writer yourself and continue the conversation with Ronnie so to speak. I wanted to bring authenticity and friendship to any reader learning about the incredible woman Ronnie is.