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Seniors find catharsis in telling their stories

Lorraine Greenfield (right) addresses an audience with memoir writers (from left) Mimi Cerier, Nancy Parritz, Charles Hersch, Fay Bussgang, Dotty Tobin Sacks, and Irving Bachman.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Lorraine Greenfield (right) addresses an audience with memoir writers (from left) Mimi Cerier, Nancy Parritz, Charles Hersch, Fay Bussgang, Dotty Tobin Sacks, and Irving Bachman.

One woman worked on the atomic bomb; another danced for the troops in shows with such stars as Jimmy Durante and Lucille Ball.

A veteran school administrator confesses to shoplifting a toy soldier as a little girl to join a neighborhood gang. Remembering her first Passover, a poet describes peering into tanks at the fishmonger and asking, “Which one is the gefilte fish?”

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Such are the stories you will read from the residents of NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham in the memoir collection “Thoughts Along the Way.”

“This is a place where there are incredible people who have led incredible lives,” said Lorraine Greenfield, who edited the book and wrote several of the memoirs (she still feels guilty about that toy soldier).

More than 40 residents of the independent-living units at NewBridge contributed their stories. Their recollections reflect the incredibly varied paths they took to this bucolic community just inside Route 128 in Dedham. Owned by Hebrew Senior Life, NewBridge also includes assisted-living, rehabilitation, and nursing home facilities.

Greenfield began work on the book two years ago at the suggestion of a friend who had done a similar project with seniors. For more than six months, she met weekly with residents at the NewBridge library and in their homes. She said about half the stories were already in the works or had been published in the community’s quarterly journal, The Bridge. In other cases, people would come in with general ideas, which she’d help focus. Greenfield drove one woman to Cambridge to meet with an old friend to help prod her memory.

At times, Greenfield was like a prospector as she dislodged long-forgotten nuggets. “I think it’s such a catharsis to have people relive these memories and write them down and know that they’re going to be there for their grandchildren,” she said. “These were memories that were tucked away and had never been put on paper.”

"Thoughts Along the Way."

"Thoughts Along the Way."

Some contributors were old hands at memoirs, like Edward Goldstein, who has been writing stories since enrolling in a Brookline memoir workshop in the ’90s. Goldstein prepared the book for publication and wrote two of its most powerful stories, one about his family home being ransacked during Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) 75 years ago in Nazi Germany and the other about witnessing Third Reich ringleaders on trial at Nuremberg while he was serving as a lieutenant in the US military. “[H]ere is Hermann Goering, once fat and swaggering, now looking haggard and shabby,” Goldstein wrote.

Julian J. Bussgang, who had fled Poland just weeks after the Nazi invasion, wrote of the five-day uphill battle to take the German stronghold at Monte Cassino. “[W]e reached a point where we could only crawl, because anybody standing up would be immediately shot,” wrote Bussgang, who was serving in the reconstituted Polish army.

An ocean away, Bussgang’s future wife, Fay, grew up in a small town in Ohio, where her Polish-born father ran a clothing store and endeared himself to the community with his generosity and gregariousness. “There were stories about people coming into the store shivering from the cold, and my father would take warm long underwear off the shelf and give it to them,” she wrote in one of her contributions to the collection.

Joe Vogel (left) and a customer in the late 1920s.

Joe Vogel (left) and a customer in the late 1920s.

Dotty Tobin Sacks, blessed with Ava Gardner-like looks (Frank Sinatra once asked for a date, she says), performed in a USO show sponsored by her employer, the Boston Consolidated Gas Co. “We danced on the decks of destroyers, battleships, cruisers, aircraft carriers.”

One show did not go on — that scheduled for an audience of German POWs. “We said no way,” Sacks said in an interview. “Why should we entertain them? Our guys are probably sitting in prison camp in Germany.”

She didn’t know it at the time, but one of “our guys” was her future husband. A bombardier, he was the only member of his crew to survive a crash in Yugoslavia. He spent more than a year in a German POW camp, where he and the handful of other Jews were twice taken out for mock executions — their captors’ idea of a joke.

For the atomic bomb story, Greenfield worked with a transcript from an oral history interview conducted by the Natick library with Shirley S. Woods. She extracted the answers to produce a narrative, working with Woods to establish the chronology. Employed along with her husband at the top-secret Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Woods didn’t know the ultimate goal of her research. “Think of it, Shirley, someday, we will drop a bomb and blow up a whole city,” Woods recalled a colleague telling her. “And I, shocked, said, ‘We will?’”

Julian Bussgang as a polish soldier.

Julian Bussgang as a polish soldier.

Greenfield works full-time as an assistant professor at Lesley University, where she is director of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics division. She taught seventh-grade English in Milton for 21 years and later served as a middle school administrator in Framingham and Danvers, and then as assistant superintendent in Marshfield.

But her stories in the memoir book are about her childhood, not her career. In one of them, she recounts how during World War II she, her mother, and grandmother would knit sweaters for her uncles, one a fighter pilot serving in North Africa and the other a sailor in the Pacific.

“Those evenings together, knitting and tearing out mistakes, bonded me to those women forever,” she wrote.

Fay and Julian Bussgang.

Fay and Julian Bussgang.

NewBridge hosted a party in December to mark the debut of the book. The celebration was subdued. Earlier that day, one of the contributors, Nathan Goldhaber, had died. An accountant, Goldhaber, 92, found his voice as a writer after moving to NewBridge. By turns whimsical and poignant, his stories record his childhood on the Lower East Side of New York, sharing a tenement apartment with his mother, two brothers, two boarders, and his grandparents.

In “My Zaida’s Hat,” 14-year-old Goldhaber sees his grandfather’s black hat fly off as the two shovel snow off the roof. After retrieving the hat, he finds Zaida lying on the roof, dead.

“I had never seen him without a hat and the first thing I did was put his hat back on his head,” the grandson wrote. “I never saw his hat among the clothes he left behind; I assume it was on his head when he was buried.”

“Thoughts Along the Way” is available at www.lulu.com. Search for the book by its title.

Steve Maas can be reached at stevenmaas@comcast.net.
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