Thornhill Liberal – Aug. 16, 2009



Sometimes you have to plumb the darkest depths of human experience to find healing and hope.

That’s how one Thornhill young woman sees it, anyway.

At a time when her peers are scaling great heights as they start out in the world, Shlomit Kriger is digging through the depths of despair.

Ms Kriger has compiled one anthology of stories from homeless people and now is seeking stories and poems from survivors of the Holocaust.

“Any sort of hardship and tragedy offers us something we can learn from each other,” she says. “At the same time, both groups have so much they’re carrying around with them.”

Using writing to express what is carried inside can be therapeutic, she says.

Four years ago, Ms Kriger co-ordinated the 6th Annual Ve’ahavta Creative Writing Contest for the Homeless. The Jewish humanitarian and relief committee produces the anthology each year and it proved to be a moving experience for the Thornhill freelance writer.

She still keeps in touch with some of the contributors, one of whom, a prostitute raped by a customer, is now doing well thanks to the creative writing experience and is studying social work at George Brown College. Another homeless contributor has since booked himself into a drug rehabilitation program in downtown Toronto.

“Seeing how much impact artistic expression had on the homeless, I thought I would like to do it again some time with another group,” she says.

When she met energetic and animated George Scott, a Holocaust survivor, taking part along with Ms Kriger in a program to help immigrants practise English, she realized she’d found the ideal group of writers. He had brought in his own poetry about his Holocaust experiences to be read.

“They don’t want people to forget and don’t want it to happen again,” she explains. “This lets them get into the open things they’ve been keeping bottled up, scrambled together in their mind. It helps them put the puzzle together.”

Some survivors may find it easier to write about their feelings and experiences rather than talk about them. Her own grandfather, Kusha Kriger, who lost his parents and other relatives in the Minsk Ghetto in Belarus, still finds it too painful to talk about.

“I think it’s also important that instead of trying to push things aside or pretend they haven’t or aren’t happening, people should be talking more about issues such as discrimination, abuse, healthy ways to form peace, psychology, etc.” she says. “Sometimes people see things happening so often that they can come to accept them as ‘normal.’ I want this book to reach not just the Jewish communities, as many may assume, but also beyond.”

Ms Kriger, who emigrated to Canada from Israel when she was six, sees similarities between the writers she worked with who are homeless and those who survived the Holocaust.

“There’s definitely the feeling of being alienated in society and struggling to be heard and accepted. Many underwent abuse in various forms. Also, many of these people were separated from their friends and relatives and some have had to go on living without them. They have to continue on their own and find their way. They also lost a part of their identity in the process, and that can never be replaced.”

So far she has received almost 40 writing submissions from Holocaust survivors, including one from England and another from Australia.

“Some are very hard to read through. Sometimes I wanted to cry reading them.” She tells of one poem describing a woman being whipped by Nazis, promising God she would not scream because she had faith that He would get her through it.

Another writer describes how she discovered talents that helped to keep her alive – giving manicures, massages and haircuts to her captors – and her dreams of a future that included marriage, healthy children, “shiny silk dresses,” and “rich pastries.”

“It made me think more about the purpose of this anthology,” says Ms Kriger, who was inspired by survivors’ strength. “Having these pieces that are so very terrible, that are hard to even imagine, I worried maybe I was just giving it more energy. Then I came to realize I want to get these stories out there so we can learn from them. Just as one person can create so much hardship, people can also create so much good.

“I want to make sure my work is meaningful and I’m making a positive difference in people’s lives.”

Contributors can leave a “magical legacy” with their writing, she says, at the same time as they help others.

She hopes the book, and portions of the sale which will be donated to a Holocaust-related organization, will “serve as an example for other groups struggling to be heard and reach the waves of love, peace and healing.”