Abram and me
Strength of Hope:
A personal reflection by Fiona Harris
It was in June of 2021, lockdown number five in Melbourne, when I got a call from Martin Hughes, my publisher at Affirm Press.
‘Would you be interested in writing the memoir of a ninety-seven-year-old Holocaust survivor named, Abram Goldberg?’ he asked down the phone.
‘I’d be honoured,’ I told him. ‘But does Abram know I’m not Jewish?’
Of course, I was worried this would be a problem. I’m a non-Jewish, white woman, who grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne and attended an all-girls catholic college. I don’t know the first thing about what it means to be Jewish, or how it feels to have grown up in a world where my community has suffered hundreds of years of persecution. So, how could a girl like me, raised in a safe, free, and lucky country like Australia possibly comprehend the horrors, trauma and pain suffered by a Holocaust survivor? I couldn’t. I was also concerned that my body of writing work up until then included warm and funny adult fiction books, children’s books, sporting celebrity memoirs, and comedy television scripts. All extremely different material to a Holocaust survivor’s memoir. But Martin explained that he had thought of me because he wanted a lot of heart in this very special book. After all, it was also a love story about Abram and Cesia, his wife of seventy-five years.
‘Also,’ Martin told me. ‘Abram doesn’t care about race, ethnicity, or religion. He just wants to find the right person to write his story with him.’
Convinced, I agreed to meet with Abram and his family on a Zoom call the following week.
I was nervous before that first Zoom, but the moment Abram, his daughter, Helen and son, Charlie’s smiling faces popped up on my laptop screen, I relaxed. I felt so much warmth and kindness emanating from all of them, and luckily for me they soon gave me the tick of approval. When I got off the call half an hour later, I was overwhelmed with mixed emotions. I was excited at the prospect of writing this extraordinary man’s story, but also knew I had just taken on an enormous responsibility. But I knew that I had to let my doubts and fears go and just focus on getting to know Abram, listen to his story, and try my best to capture the essence of him on the page. I had to do Abram, his family, and the Jewish community proud. Letting any of them down was not an option.
Soon after that first meeting, Abram, Charlie and I began having weekly get-togethers. We would sit at his kitchen table for a couple of hours, and I would ask him many questions, recording his responses on my phone to capture his authentic voice and personality. Each week I would write new questions, breaking them up into the different stages of his life, as I slowly worked my way through Abram’s experiences and stories over ninety-seven years.
Abe’s Holocaust Museum video testimonials were also crucial to writing his story, as well as reading books on the Lodz Ghetto, and whatever documentaries I could find. This research was so important. As a writer, I needed to learn as much as I possibly could about this period of history, as well as what was happening in Abe’s life. I spoke to various people who were close to Abe, including his family, friends, and colleagues from the Holocaust Museum. I also spent a lot of time with Abe’s wife, Cesia, as she is a very big and important part of the book too.
When it came time to dig into Abe’s feelings and emotions, that was hard because he is a practical, facts and figures kind of person. I knew it was going to be a challenge to draw these very painful and intimate details from him, and so Charlie, Abram and I ended up using a bit of vodka to get us through those sessions.
Spending time together in social situations has been incredibly important for the book too, as well as very enjoyable. Not just because the Harris-McLeish family has fallen in love with the Goldbergs, but because it was a great way to see how the family interact and the love that is there for Abe, and his love for them. A couple of months after Abram and I started working together, my husband, two teenage daughters and I had the whole Goldberg family over for dinner. It was a night full of laughter, stimulating conversation and lots of vodka shots. It’s not easy to keep up with Abram, let me tell you!
At one point, Charlie’s wife, Bettan, looked at her watch.
‘Oh, we should really get Abram home!’ she said.
‘Why, what time is it?’ Abram asked.
‘It’s 10.30, Abie,’ I said.
‘What?’ he cried. ‘No! But this is very late for me! I had no idea!’
Since then, the Goldbergs and the Harris-McLeish families have shared many wonderful catchups, dinners, theatre outings together, including the Harris-McLeish’s very first Passover.
Abram and I are extremely different people, and our life experiences are worlds apart, but the one thing we have in common is our desire to share his story as far and wide as it can go. Young people, middle-aged, senior citizens…everyone should read Abram’s story and learn about the man he became and is today; a positive, beautiful, caring strong father, husband and friend who has never taken a single moment of his life for granted. Abram has true perspective, which is something many of us in the 21st century lack. He knows what is important in life. He knows what is worth complaining about, and what most definitely is not.
When you know what Abram has suffered in his life, and see the happy positive kind man he is now, and has always been, I’m sure you will be as amazed, impressed and besotted with him as I am. I hope that when my girls read this book that they feel immense gratitude for their lives. I hope it gives them perspective on how lucky they are, and that it inspires them to want to help others in their lives and give back. At our first face to face get-together, I asked Abram how he had coped through lockdown.
‘Is okay,’ he said. ‘Why should I complain? I have a roof over my head, food in my fridge and my family outside the window waving at me. I am safe and loved. What more could I want?’
This is Abram.
← Back to Blog