Presbyterian Minister and Holocaust Survivor Partner to Capture a Piece of History
Azrieli Foundation and Ryerson Honour Students’ Work with Survivors
An ad she saw while riding the Toronto subway caught Presbyterian minister, Fairlee Ritchie’s, eye and led her to a connection with a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor and a mission to help him write his story.
The ad, one of a series of subway car promotions for Ryerson University’s G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, showed a woman with white hair and a caption that mentioned programs for people 50+. Looking for opportunities that might interest her, she found several courses and the Sustaining Memories Project, a pilot program designed by the Azrieli Foundation and Ryerson in which mature students and graduate students work collaboratively with Holocaust survivors to help produce their written memoirs. The project was motivated by the need for survivor narratives that would otherwise be lost to be preserved as both an educational tool and a legacy for their families and community.
Several months later, and just two days before Holocaust Remembrance Day, Ritchie and Leon Rotberg will be presented with the first a copy of Rotberg’s account of his journey out of Lodz, Poland to Germany, where he endured forced labour constructing the Autobahn until he was sent to Auschwitz in 1943. The pair will be among the 18 survivors and their student writing partners at a luncheon to mark the culmination of the Sustaining Memories Project and receive a copy of their written work on April 17 at 12:30 pm at Kensington Place Retirement Residence, where Rotberg now lives.
“People have often told me that I was someone they could talk to,” said Ritchie, now 59 and a resident of the Toronto Beaches neighbourhood. “What I have always loved about the ministry was the pastoral work and research, so this project was a natural step. The first time we met, Leon asked me why I was doing this. I said I’m not Jewish but I care. We [Christian people] have not treated you well over the centuries but this is a story I want to hear and I think others do too.”
And this is how Rotberg, a 92-year-old survivor now living in a Jewish retirement residence, came to share his memories of the Holocaust with a retired minister. Together, they preserved a story that includes his attempts after the war to leave Germany only to be turned down by multiple countries until Canada finally accepted him and his two brothers.
For over 20 years, Ritchie has been listening to the stories of refugees who have been tortured and the struggles of the mentally ill. Now she has helped preserve a person’s memories for his family and an important piece of history. The Ryerson program is a pilot project, but one that she hopes will continue and will no doubt sign up for again.