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  • On the Other Side of the Story
  • Helen Mintz (bio)

In this essay the author describes her work as a storyteller using Yiddish source materials. She analyzes her own family's relationship to Yiddish and finds connections between the inspiration she finds as a writer, as a peace activist, and as a Jewish woman in the writings of Rokhl Korn and other historical figures. The essay builds a case for the use of stories as an appropriate and powerful tool in the work of reconciliation.

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I began storytelling, at first for free and to anyone who would do me a favour and listen. The whole process thrilled me: choosing a story that speaks deeply to me; learning it so that the story flows through me and becomes a part of me and in the learning is changed. And then sharing the story with an audience. Feeling the open heart with which so many people listen to story.

I wanted to tell stories that connected me with my family's Yiddish speaking past in Eastern Europe. I began by sharing tales I remember being told. And then I set out to find the tales I was never told. Once I began in earnest to research Eastern European Jewish stories, I developed some understanding of the enormity of the loss of Yiddish language and culture. I had ignorantly assumed that the Yiddish stories I wanted were all there, translated into English and just waiting to be discovered, [End Page 26] memorized, and performed by me. This was not the case. Material was extremely difficult to locate. Much had been lost; much had never been translated from Yiddish and was therefore inaccessible to me. I chastised myself for the hours I'd spent as a child fooling around in after-school Yiddish classes, learning close to nothing. I saw how Yiddish texts were virtually lost without translators; how desperate the few surviving Yiddish writers were to have their work translated. It was not only I who had failed to learn Yiddish, but almost my entire generation.

In beginning my journey to find the stories of my culture and my childhood, I sought stories that spoke about this loss. And through the act of storytelling, I grieved. Once I started grieving my own loss, I was able to empathize and speak about the atrocities that others suffered. I experienced the power of storytelling to link the stream of personal narratives with the wider historical river in all its colours and variations, thus allowing us to approach human experience at once more humanely and more realistically.

In 1995 I faced a personal crisis. The relationship in which I had expected to live out my days (foolish delusion) came to an end. I was filled with rage, regret, despair, and grief. I felt bereft and didn't know how to go on. Seeking refuge in the stillness of Buddhist meditation practice, I was introduced to the ideas of forgiveness and reconciliation.

At the same time, the war in the former Yugoslavia was raging. I was haunted by the basic wisdom of my Jewish post-Holocaust childhood, "Never again." Here it was happening again in Europe, each evening before our very eyes on the television screen. Innocent people forced from their homes and murdered, mass rape of women—all because of their ethnic and religious identities. The term "ethnic cleansing" entered the popular lexicon.

As an artist, I set out to find stories that reflected hope within tragedy, and forgiveness in the face of anger.

Soon after, I was hired by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre to create a one-person play to accompany the exhibit "Open Hearts, Closed Doors," which documents the experiences of Jewish children orphaned by the Holocaust who had come to Canada after the war as part of the Canadian War Orphan's Project. I did extensive interviews with three individuals who survived the Holocaust as orphaned teens. I spoke with them at length about their experiences before, during and after the Holocaust and came to know something of the fabric of their lives. I was deeply inspired by their ability to carry on despite...


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pp. 26-35
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2012
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