Thursday 26 November 2009

A Memory Project

In 2008 I was lead facilitator of a Heritage Lottery funded project called Leicester Jewish Voices. The brief was to collect memories of being Jewish in Leicester during the 1940s and 50s and to turn those memories into a book, a website and a touring display. Val Moore, the Head of Writing School Leicester, managed the funding and I set about organising the collection and sorting of the memories. Our original idea was to run a small project. It turned out to be far bigger than either of us had expected.

This was a Writing School Leicester project and so the emphasis was on writing rather than oral work. I decided not to run the writing workshops as I had known these people all my life. I needed someone from outside the community and I knew just the person, Miriam Halahmy, an experienced workshop leader who I was sure that the contributors would love. Together we planned a series of themed workshops which were to form the nucleus of the project. We would be working with people who would not normally call themselves writers, including many elderly with sight and mobility problems. We planned a range of methods to keep things flowing; brain storming with flip chart and brightly coloured marker pens, fluorescent post-its for capturing those special sound-bites and scribes for any contributors who needed help.

My fears that we might encourage people to relive past pains, holocaust memories or wartime losses were soon banished. The project was full of laughter, warmth and friendship. Miriam was brilliant and I was right. The contributors loved her. She led a series of more formal workshops while I organised smaller discussion groups and one-to-one interviews. As non-writers, some contributors were initially reluctant to write but we only had to mention a word like ‘rationing’ or hold up a sepia wedding photograph and there was no stopping them. Our carefully planned themes were soon ignored but this was perfect. We were receiving stories that we could never have planned for because we didn’t know they existed. We were collecting priceless pieces of social history that would otherwise have been lost forever.

I was determined to reach a wider range of contributors than just those who were attending workshops. I used our original plans to develop a distance pack and sent out copies to anyone who expressed an interest. Word spread in a way that would not have been possible pre-Internet and I started to receive memories not only from all over the country but from all over the world too.

By the middle of the year we were working as a team; Miriam and Val with their invaluable writing experience, Glen Tillyard who organised the photography, scanning of old photos and the web design, George Ballentyne who helped with the checking and proof reading, Micky Wright who produced the cartoons and Ian Simons who is still in charge of delivering, setting up and maintaining the touring display. There was also a team of enthusiastic volunteers led by Judy Hastings who kept the whole project alive and buzzing.

The hardest part of the project for me was sorting the memories into a book. It took many weeks of reading, sifting, sorting and re-reading until slowly what had started out as random reminiscences emerged to tell a story of a small, self-contained community and the enormous upheaval it experienced in the 1940s when families of Londoners flooded into Leicester to escape the bombs. No one knows for sure how many Jewish people came to Leicester at that time. Many families spent the war here and then when their men were demobbed they returned to London. I managed to contact a few of these people and so was able to include a little of how being Jewish in Leicester felt for them. A large number of evacuees settled in Leicester, and it was these people, together with refugees from Europe, many of whom had experienced unspeakable atrocities, who helped to create the new, vibrant and diverse Leicester Jewish Community of the 1950s.

I now had the story but not quite the book. My previous writing experiences had ended here, with the typed manuscript being posted to the publishers, but this was different. With Val Moore's invaluable help we planned the pages, chapters, glossary, in fact all the parts of the book that I had previously taken for granted. Time was running short. With only two weeks to get the entire manuscript ready for sending to Think plus Ink, a brilliant team of local book designers, much of the final checking and rechecking was done late into the night. Only when the manuscript was placed into their hands could I breath easily again. Within days they produced A3 proof sheets and for the first time we saw a real book emerging from the typed pages that I had spent so many hours agonising over. With their design eye and expertise we worked together to produce the professional, attractive book Jewish Voices. It was then that I knew that I had achieved my goal. I had a book of memories that would be of interest to more than just the family and friends of the contributors.