Shonaleigh is keeper of the stories that survived the Holocaust

Storyteller, Voices of the Holocaust, July 17
Storyteller, Voices of the Holocaust, July 17
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A Dronfield woman known the world over for possibly being the last of a special type of Jewish storyteller is appearing in Sheffield next week.

Shonaleigh is a third-generation survivor of the Holocaust and represents an ancient tradition among women of passing down stories.

She learned the tradition from her grandma, whose skills may have helped her to survive the horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

She said: “I am a Drut’syla, which is a Jewish storyteller, but more than that they had a very social role in the shtetels and communities.

“In those times women didn’t learn Hebrew or have an education so they learned in a very particular way. You physically walked through the story and learned by kinaesthetic means.

“It was designed for the story where you haven’t got the flexibility of being able to write it down, so it makes a story more real.”

She added: “They were holding this incredible library of stories and this way of counselling, mediating communicating, absolving.”

She gave an example of how the women would sit with people who had lost a loved one and ask them 14 questions. The last was ‘how did that person make you feel angry?’

Shonaleigh said friends who are counsellors say that is very close to some techniques they use.

She knows more than 3,000 stories and feels she walks through them as they populate her world.

Shonaleigh said that the tradition almost died out during the Holocaust because many of the first victims in the camps were the youngsters and old women.

She said: “Because it was not recorded and valued, it was not made reference to.”

Her own grandma, who she calls her bubba, survived partly because of her ability to entertain, much like the musicians who were forced to perform for the Nazis in the camps.

She also saved her daughter by sending her to Britain before the war to live with her aunt on a special kindertransport refugee train.

Later the family were reunited when her bubba came here to live with them, which was when she started teaching Shonaleigh her stories.

She said: “It’s like I got given the bag of sweets by my bubba and I’m just happy enough to get given the bag of sweets. It’s imperative that I share the bag of sweets around.”

To do that she has made an archive of the stories and teaches people the techniques, including as a lecturer in storytelling at the University of Derby.

Other work has included storytelling with young people in deprived areas and in prisons and working with human rights groups.

She said of her performances: “I do it old school and people will go never seen anything like it. If you said to my bubba how does this story finish, she would ask where did you join the story, because they are cyclical.”

She summed up the stories’ importance: “By looking back we see further into the future. It gives you insight.

“There are always new versions of these stories as often you would get heckled. Somebody wants to hear a particular story now, so you go off at complete tangents.

“I can start from Solomon and end up anywhere. They all link up.”

Shonaleigh will be telling the story of the Golem, a Jewish mythical figure believed to have inspired both Tolkien’s Gollum and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story.

The Golem was meant to protect the people when called upon and Shonaleigh’s bubba told her he was “buried under the leaves”.

She recalled that as a child she used to walk the woods for hours, looking for a pair of eyes peering out from beneath the leaves.

Later a rabbi told her that her grandma’s limited English meant that she had made a mistake in translation. He said: “She means leaves as in the pages of a book. He sleeps beneath the words.”

Shonaleigh is appearing at the Library Theatre next Wednesday (July 17) with a specialist theatre group called Voices of the Holocaust. They will be performing Meaning, the story of a psychiatrist who was a Holocaust survivor.

He went on to write 40 books, including on surviving the Holocaust, on finding ways of creating meaning in life and a reason for living, even in the most desperate circumstances.

For tickets, visit or call 07568 191656.