Updated April 2016 to reflect changes in Facebook’s event settings.
This was the challenge that was brought to me by Chaya Rosen, founder of the Art & Writings of Destruction and Repair Project, when she asked me to host a discussion based on selections from Returning. Because of the geographic dispersal of the members, the discussion would need to be online. We experimented with various platforms, including Skype and Google Hangouts, but worried that most of the potential participants might be put off by these technologies.
Facebook seemed the obvious answer. The problem was that although the two groups each had a Facebook presence, they were both closed to protect the privacy of the members. We would need a way for the members of both groups to post comments and opinions, without compromising their need for privacy. But the more imposing challenge was the nature of the event itself. This was a book that was sure to provoke strong reactions in the readers.
To the first challenge—the technical one—I had what I thought was the perfect answer. To the second… Well, I’ll leave that for Chaya to explain below!
So, the technical challenge… Here is where Facebook Events came to our rescue. Doubtless many are familiar with this feature, which can be used to announce events taking place at a fixed time and location. What many may not know is that Facebook Events are actually mini-forum pages. Properly set up, anyone who joins an event can post to the Event Wall and comment on other people’s posts. They can even upload files to the event page.
For our purposes, we set up an Event called: “Book Club Discussion: Memory, Faith, and Healing after the Holocaust”. We set the privacy to Invite Only, then sent an invitation to the administrators of the two groups, each of whom then invited the members of her group to the event. When dealing with a potentially large number of people, you can save time with a browser extension, such as the Invite All plugin, which allows you to check all members on your invitation list. Note: Facebook now requires you to set the event’s privacy at the outset and no longer allows you to change it once the event is underway. (Updated April 2016)
There was only one problem: each group admin could only invite those who were on her Friends List. What about the hundreds of group members who were not directly connected to the group admin? Our solution was to open the event to “Public” for a set time and pin the event announcement to the group page for a while. That allowed all those who wanted to take part to join.
Once the event was under way, we reset the privacy setting to “Invite Only” to preserve the event page as a “safe space”.
As to the timing, we planned the culminating group discussion to take place on 9 November, the anniversary of Kristallnacht. What better time to provide a venue for the sons and daughters of the survivors to piece together again the broken shards of their parents’ memories. But since Returning is a not exactly a quick read—we’re talking 400 pages worth of memoir, letters, and reminiscences—we started the group event one month ahead of our grand finale.
And here is where the Event Page as discussion forum really came through. Every week, I posted an excerpt from a section of the book (read a sample here) and invited participants to discuss some question related to the excerpt. I had worried that not being able to be there “in person” with everyone would make the event less intimate. If anything, the opposite was the case! The responses were incredible. People weighed in on issues that their own parents faced, but which they never spoke of. For some this was the first time they had exposed this side of themselves. Suddenly things began coming out that had never been put into words. But even though emotions ran high, the comparative distance of the online forum seemed to help people distance themselves from their own words, at least enough to get the thoughts down and press “send”. The relative anonymity doubtless helped as well; there is less fear in expressing when you can stay safely on the other side of the computer monitor!
And expression was the name of the game! By the time the final all-day discussion came around, the participants had formed a kind of surrogate family. They were sensitive to each other’s vulnerabilities and at ease with each other.
And then came the big day, 9 November. To say the conversation was intense would be an understatement. Here, we faced the challenge of time zones; I was some seven or eight hours ahead of most of the participants. Our solution was for me to be online for the time slot between 12 noon and 12 midnight my time. Throughout the day, I posted topics for discussion, but there were plenty of other topics posted by participants. Because our chosen date was a Sunday, we could be sure that most of our participants would be able to check in at some point during the day. In the end, some of the participants stayed in the discussion for the whole 12 hours!
We all came out of the experience with a deeper understanding of the linkage between the written word and the creation of our own reality. Thanks to new technologies, that lesson was shared across three continents and 11 time zones.
Take Away Lessons on Using Facebook Events for Book Club Discussions
From book club to catharsis
Chaya Rosen, founder of Art & Writings of Destruction and Repair
The Facebook group that I lead was set up specifically for the artistic expression of second and third generation survivors. In previous groups I had seen snippets of marvelous insights and art. I thought: this is who we are! Look how creative we are! But it wasn’t being preserved. Facebook is dynamic; five minutes later it was replaced by something else. Gone.
The Art & Writings group was founded to preserve these artistic expressions, to let us show what we have made of our parents’ experience. Not all of us are artists, but we all have something to say. This is precious. How is the next generation going to integrate all of this? I’m sure that technology such as the Internet and Social Media will be both part and enabler of what they create.
For me, the incredible thing about this joint Book Club event was how it showed us to ourselves. This is not just about communication. It’s meta-communication—communication about communication. It’s about trust. We’ve had to overcome incredible obstacles—the need to understand the wounded souls among us, and accept them for who they are. The need to understand what our parents’ experience has done to us.
We—the children of survivors—consume books about the holocaust. We long to understand. We enlarge photographs and stare at the details. We gobble up whatever we can find, all in an effort to understand, to place ourselves in those towns, on those streets, in those houses. We desperately want to get closer to what was never penetrable. Normally we do this by reading—first page, last page, and it’s done; the book goes away. Some of us fantasize a talk with the author. Personally in reading Returning, I found myself screaming to the wall—well to the author: “How is it that you know what is sitting in my guts? How are you able to put this into words?”
Normally, of course, the author is not there to respond. It becomes a lonely, painful experience. Until the next Holocaust book comes out. But here, Facebook allowed us to engage in a dynamic dialogue with the author, who was there for us every step of the way. Not only was the author part of the process from start to finish, but she was also sensitive to stay in the background as each of us individually processed and exchanged the most sensitive information .
The combination of community and technology created something that was far greater than the sum of its parts–a whole dialogue spanning time zones, personal histories, disparities of temperament. For this event, we were all together.
The nature of our community makes this even more of an accomplishment; we have people who had never spoken about any of this—not their parent’s experiences and not what it was like to grow up in the shadow of those memories. They came into this with some distrust and anxiety, and yet, they blossomed into the discussion, revealing what they had never consciously faced before. We have members who are still suffering, but were willing to open up to the group. And some of the most beautiful comments came from those who do not consider themselves artists at all.
The nature of Returning also had something to do with this. This is a Jewish book! It resonates with the dynamic tension of life and death as a Jew. It shows us to ourselves. It questions the very things we hold most dear. And it brings out the Jewish soul in us. That resonated with our members. Perhaps a book that is about confessing a dark past gives people like us the courage to tell our own pain and accept it. If Ovadya can tell us what it was really like to wake up in Birkenau, then perhaps we too can open up. If he can find love despite it all, then perhaps we can open up to the love that binds us all into a family.
What happened in this online discussion was unique—so many difficult emotions, so many obstacles overcome. We don’t always get along. We may argue, get on each other’s nerves. But here we wanted to move on for the sake of that “higher ceiling” that we’re all under.
And we made it happen! We carried off this incredible event with sensitivity and with utmost respect for each other’s experiences. We discussed some of the dilemmas that tore our parent’s souls to pieces. We identified with the struggles of a former Sonderkommando to come to terms with his choices, and we saw our parents reflected in his journey. There were times when some of our members couldn’t continue with the discussion; it was too painful. But they came back, and we found comfort in our own transformation, as we reached the transformative ending of the book.
In this discussion, we allowed ourselves to experience our parents’ world in all its horrors and to go beyond it.