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Moved to write memoirs

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Jill Hamburg Coplan is a freelance writer.

March 13, 2004

Educators and social experts say more and more people are discovering the power and pleasure of writing about their life, determined to leave their mark, record their involvement in significant events or satisfy their children's persistent requests to pass on their family history. Some write memoirs to purge nagging demons or simply feel the joy of creative release. Mental- health workers say they are even using memoir writing for its therapeutic benefits in hospitals and clinics.

Sometimes a parent's memoir powerfully affects an adult child's life.

When Samuel Eisenstadt of Belle Harbor was diagnosed with an illness in his early 80s, he immersed himself in recording his memories of the Holocaust - and it changed his daughter's life, she said.

The daughter, Debbie Mandel, a writer in Lawrence, recalls that almost every morning in 1985 and 1986, Eisenstadt sat in his home office, overlooking a neighbor's bushes, bent over a manual Yiddish typewriter he had bought for the task. Sometimes, he'd cry.

His 200-page manuscript, which she has translated into English, described his three young children's eyes as they were pulled away from him and sent to their deaths in Auschwitz. It tells of his refusal to accept help from a Polish doctor in the camp who wanted to assist him - but only if he'd deny that he was Jewish. He wrote about events and feelings he had never told anyone, says Mandel, who's the daughter of a second marriage. Through the process of writing, he stayed vital far longer than he might otherwise have.

Reading the manuscript had "a transformative effect" on her, she says. "The core of the message was to be true to yourself."

Mandel was a high school writing teacher at the time, but was inspired to shift her work toward an older population.

Now she leads groups of Holocaust survivors, and does stress management with retired nuns and people in geriatric residences - including memoir writing. Mandel recently wrote a book on the subject, "Turn on Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul" (Busy Bee Group, 2003

Sampling of Stories

Food for a friend

The late Samuel Eisenstadt recalled memories of the Holocaust, translated from the Yiddish by daughter Debbie Mandel of Lawrence:

I observed helplessly how ill Yakov became. He began to look otherworldly. He argued with me constantly.

"Why don't you eat my daily rations? I can't eat anymore," Yakov said. "I hide my portions, saving them for you and then the others come and steal them, robbing you of added nourishment. When they dole out some wretched soup, I call your name and you are not there to eat my portion. Eat, my friend Samuel, and live from my food."

I gazed into his jaundiced face and said, "Yakov, I can't lie to you. How can I watch you die inch by inch and eat the very food that is your lifeline? I cannot help how I feel. I cannot profit from your illness."

"But Samuel, you take nothing from me," Yakov replied. "I cannot eat anyway. Why should strangers and thieves benefit, while you, my dearest friend on this earth, starve every day and do not save yourself through me?"

I postponed my answer for another day. There was always tomorrow and I could think of another excuse. The next morning I went to visit Yakov earlier than usual. He was no longer there. I was told that he was ignobly thrown into a wagon and removed to the garage that housed the dead. Just yesterday we said the Shehechianu prayer together and today I should recite the lonely Kaddish. However, I did not say Kaddish for Yakov. What was the point? No one in heaven was listening.

The realization of poverty

Stasha Yontar of Sunnyside, writing about the first 10 years of her life during the 1940s in Cleveland:

One December, Daddy's union went on strike. Daddy was a loyal union man and would never, ever consider crossing the picket line, but the strike benefits were not adequate to support our family.

So he drove a truck, he delivered newspapers, he did electrical work, he sold aluminum siding and storm windows. He worked at a decorations and display warehouse, but he still didn't make enough. We missed a few mortgage payments.

Mommy emptied out all our kids' bank accounts, and took a part time job at a small, illegal factory doing piecework. For the first time we were latchkey kids, wearing the house key on a ribbon around our necks. We kids heard Mommy and Daddy talking about losing the house. But the man who held our mortgage told Daddy, "Pay me what you can and we'll make it up when you go back to work."

The strike lasted for six months. I realized for the first time in my life that we were really almost poor.

Birth of an only child

Manhattan resident John Boynton:

My daughter, Benita, was born in New York Hospital on Nov. 5, 1975 at 4:15 a.m. We had waited 10 years to start a family. Alice was 39 and I was 42. Benita was to be our first, and last, child.

It was an hour before dawn as I left the hospital to walk home. I happened to glance over my shoulder at the river and the 59th Street bridge. I saw the moving lights of pre- dawn traffic flashing across the silhouette of the skeletal span. In that moment, I felt the unique vitality of life itself. Life was motion and mobility as it flashed across the inert steel bridge.

As I walked to York Avenue, I joined the vital flow of my fellow humans as they bustled off to their early morning rounds. I felt elated that we were all united in the stream of life. Benita had joined us in that ancient, animated flow.

Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc.| Article licensing and reprint options

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