When you marry someone, you’re marrying their entire family. Karen Treiger was familiar with this well-worn maxim when she married Sheldon Goldberg 25 years ago.
But it wasn’t until she learned the remarkable story of her parents-in-law, Sam and Esther, that Karen discovered just how accurate the adage was.
“I married into a Holocaust family,” Karen said. “My in-laws were both the sole survivors of their large families from Poland, the rest of whom were murdered during the Holocaust by the Nazis.”
Karen, a fifth-generation Seattleite and a practicing lawyer for nearly two decades, was enraptured by Sam and Esther’s story, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that more people needed to hear of the unthinkable horrors they’d endured — and the simple, miraculous fact that Sam was one of roughly 65 survivors of Treblinka, the notorious Nazi concentration camp where an estimated 900,000 prisoners were murdered.
“It wasn’t until I joined the family and got to know them better that I really deeply understood the trauma that happens and the stories you remember,” Karen said. “Because if you survive that, you have so many stories and so many miracles that happened to you. As I learned of the many miracles that happened to them, I just thought, ‘This has to be a book.’”
As a lawyer, Karen was comfortable writing legal briefs and memos, but to faithfully translate Sam and Esther’s story to the page, she needed a new set of skills.
“I looked online, and I looked at the University of Washington, and I found this fantastic program,” Karen said. “There was one class called Creative Nonfiction Writing, and the description fit what I wanted to do exactly.”
So Karen signed up for the
UW Certificate in Writing and set about telling Sam and Esther’s story. Putting Pen to Paper
After escaping Treblinka, Sam met Esther in the woods outside the camp; they hid for a year with the help of a local Christian woman, Helena Stys, and her family before being freed by the Soviets. They married, immigrated to the United States and settled in Brooklyn — a truly astonishing story of survival.
Karen knew that telling such a monumental story would be an equally monumental undertaking. The structure and feedback from her instructors and classmates in the
Certificate in Writing program helped Karen learn how to shape and construct such a weighty project.
“I wrote this chapter about Treblinka, and I handed it out to my classmates,” Karen said. “Everybody had really great comments and ways to make it better. One of the best comments was from the instructor, who suggested I make it into two chapters to really make the camp its own character in the book. Those ended up being my two favorite chapters in the book because what happened at Treblinka is so important to the history of the Holocaust. That comment was something very concrete that I took away from that class, and it helped me so much.”
The workshop environment encouraged Karen and her fellow writers to present their work — and critiques of each other’s work — openly and honestly.
“The way the class was structured made it a very safe place to share your work and to feel really good about it,” she said. “It made it comfortable for everybody in the class.”
Karen used the feedback she received from the certificate program as motivation to start
a blog that documented the writing and research process, which ultimately resulted in her debut book . My Soul Is Filled With Joy: A Holocaust Story
In Her Own Words
Karen Treiger explains how the Certificate in Writing gave her the confidence and skills she needed to tell her family's story.
Play A Joyful Journey of Discovery
Karen’s book’s title comes from a conversation she had with a Stys family descendant, who, upon connecting with Karen online, remarked that his “soul was filled with joy.”
“The title is surprising, it’s real and it’s also what happened to me because by doing this and opening up my life to new experiences both in the writing class and all the people I met on these journeys filled me with such joy,” she said. “It still does because now I spend my time talking about the book and trying to spread this story of hope and life — of how to be grateful for your life.”
Karen attributes the publication of her “story of joy” to her decision to change careers and embrace her inner storyteller through the
Certificate in Writing.
“The Creative Nonfiction classes I took at the University of Washington turned me from a lawyer who had no idea how to become a writer to someone who could say, ‘Yeah, I’m a writer,’” Karen said. “It was such a great confidence-builder.”