This article is part of a series honoring the legacy of Elie Wiesel, zt”l.  

The series will feature emerging leaders whose work is impacting the Holocaust, Israel, Human Rights, and the way we view them.

Wiesel’s work shows the importance of writing about our lives, and the lives of our loved ones.  How can people begin to write memoirs? To answer that question I spoke with Wally Robertson, one of the leading advocates for writing memoirs today.

Finding the Words

Wiesel described his masterpiece Night as his “deposition”, noting in the preface to the new translation that “Convinced that this period in history would be judged one day, I knew that I must bear witness.  I also knew that, while I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them.”

It would be decades until he would write his memoirs.  Wiesel describes a lesson for all of us on the importance of writing memoirs in All Rivers Run to the Sea:

“To write your memoirs is to draw up a balance sheet of your life so far. Am I ready for a final reckoning? Memory, after all, may well prove voracious and intrusive.  Remembering means to shine a merciless light on faces and events, to say ‘No’ to the sands that bury words and to forgetfulness and death.  Is that not too ambitious?  It’s been years since I was young.  But I would love to rediscover, to recapture, if not the anguish and exaltation that I once felt, then at least the road leading to them.”

A Father’s Death

Wally Robertson’s father’s death shook him to the core. His father had died before he ever felt he’d had the chance to truly get to know him. Wally was 61 at the time of his father’s death, and his dad had been there for him all his life.

So why didn’t Wally ever get to really know his dad, the true man behind that label “dad”?

“The sky is so close to the sea that it is difficult to tell which is reflected in the other, which one needs the other, which one is dominating the other.... If the two were at war...I'd be on the side of the sea... The sky only inspires painters.  Not musicians.  Don't you feel that the sea comes close to man through its music?" Elie Wiesel, Day, p36 Photo: Wally Robertson in Wilmington, North Carolina

“The sky is so close to the sea that it is difficult to tell which is
reflected in the other, which one needs the other, which one is
dominating the other…. If the two were at war…I’d be on the side
of the sea… The sky only inspires painters. Not musicians. Don’t
you feel that the sea comes close to man through its music?”
Elie Wiesel, Day, p36
Photo: Wally Robertson in Wilmington, North Carolina

Wally explained that, “People generally create a sort of parental façade that is often not fully reflective of themselves or of their life experiences.”

Wally’s father may have told him how to behave as a child, and even shared with him some of his life experiences, but his father’s identity was obscured from Wally by his father’s parental image. When his father died, Wally was left not just mourning his father’s death but also the lost opportunity to know his father on a level deeper than his fatherly role.

A loss he realized that he hadn’t suffered to the same extent with his mother’s death, because he still had his father there to help him fill in the gaps. He was able to understand from his father the woman his mother was, aside from her maternal role. However, with the tragic passing of his father, only Wally’s siblings (who were also masked by that parental façade) remained to do that for Wally.

The pain was deep, but with it came his inspiration; the life experiences and stories of people do not have to die along with them, that is, if they take the time to, in some manner, record these experiences before their death.

And while Wally may never be able to know his own father’s life in the way that he so longs to, he began his company “Write Memoirs” to help others start doing just that.  Enabling them to leave an Emotional Legacy, perhaps more valued than the financial one.

The Opportunity to Write

“Write Memoirs” is Wally’s writing initiative to give you the opportunity to write about your experiences to those loved ones you will one day, inevitably leave behind. To express the “you” that you may have not been able to fully express in your lifetime. A priceless gift to your family, disclosing to them your true self in a far more personal, intimate, and meaningful manner than just the parental/adult facade you portrayed to them while alive. This can not only provide immeasurable support to mourners during a time of tragedy, but it can also transform death from being exclusively a tragic event into an opportunity to get to know the deceased in a way they previously could not.

In these challenging times, Wally’s memoir-writing concept could not be more felicitous. How many Jewish parents and grandparents have stories, experiences, and life events that they may not have ever felt comfortable telling their children? How many parents have war stories they have shielded from their children? How many children know, in intimate detail, the true struggles of their loved ones? How many children know their parents’ biggest victories and most joyful moments? How many children know in detail about their parents’ tragedy?  How many grandparents have still never expressed to their family their Holocaust traumas? For how much longer will we still have the opportunity to record the experiences of Holocaust survivors…?

With the passing of time, memories are blurred and the pivotal history of our parents, and collectively, as a people, is slowly blurred out, as well. This is particularly true of a modern state like Israel, whose founding is so recent that it was our very own parents and grandparents who lived in difficult and poor conditions, as they struggled to build our beautiful country into what it is today. Often, hearing experiences as children we did not truly comprehend them, and therefore, remembering them as adults we do so without the appropriate awareness.

Wally explained that he had known that his parents as children and in their early marriage had struggled financially.  That upon their marriage, they’d had to move into a one-bedroom Glasgow tenement with eight other family members…ten people living together in a one bedroom apartment. As Wally says, “I never knew!” As a child he never comprehended the reality of the situation and what it must have been like for them.  Upon his mother’s death, when he had the opportunity to revisit her life with his father in more personal detail, he was finally able to gain perspective on how dire life had really been for them.

The comparison of his own early  marriage, moving into a private 2-bedroom apartment with his wife, illuminated just how much his parents sacrificed for him. This is the opportunity that memoirs offer. The chance to open a window into the history of a loved one and understand intimately the life they lived. Not only to be shared when they are alive, but also for when they have passed on, leaving you a record of experiences that you can repeatedly revisit. When life stories are recorded, it gives the opportunity for loved ones to continuously relate and re-understand the experiences of their loved ones who are no longer here. Every person has a story. Every family has a story. And with the writing of memoirs, those stories can live on in all their detailed beauty.

In this way, memoirs don’t only give the opportunity for someone to express themselves. It also gives them the opportunity to protect and preserve the memories of events that should never be forgotten. It gives children the opportunity to understand their parents in new dimensions, so they never have to feel the pain of realizing, “I never knew. I never really asked!”.

It is important to remember. It is important to recount. And by writing a memoir, you can leave your loved ones with the deepest memories of a different world and a truer persona.  Ultimately, a personal memoir can become a way where you not only let your memories live on, but you can also give your loved ones something to cherish and take with them after you are gone.  As Wally says, “Write Memoires now — before the Grim Reaper calls!”