October 18, 2007
‘They killed us like termites’
When the girl was two years old, she became so sick with pneumonia that the doctors told her mother there was nothing more they could do, to just take her home.
Her father, a rabbi, arranged a minyan of 10 men to say special blessings. She lived.
At one point in her young life, she had received so many blessings for so many illnesses that her parents gave her a second name: Bracha.
At 16, she was sent to 10 different concentration camps. Near the end, she was forced to march for two weeks through the rain, without water or food. She survived on insects and wild mushrooms. By then, she weighed less than 65 pounds, and with typhus ravaging her body, she was barely clinging to life. When she was rescued by a Yiddish-speaking American soldier at 4 a.m. one morning, in an open, muddy field in western Germany, she could hardly move or say a word.
To reunite with her father in a Hungarian town called Miskolc, she had to tie herself to the roof of a train for three days, all the while breathing the fumes of the locomotive.
When she finally tracked down her father, she gave him "the hug that would never end." For the rest of her life, she would grieve the 59 other hugs that would never happen -- the hugs for her mother, four siblings and the 54 other relatives who never made it back.
More than six decades after that bittersweet reunion, Eva Brown, a tiny 80-year-old walking testament to the ideal of survival, is sitting at my Shabbat table, doing what she does best: telling stories and smiling.
She's one of the happiest people I know.
Eva was my neighbor for many years before I moved to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, and I would often see her walking to Cedars-Sinai to do her charity work. She would come over for holiday meals and play with the children. In her little bungalow, she told me how much she missed her husband of 50 years, Ernie, who passed away 10 years ago. We also had fun: She was my "date" once to the Maimonides' trustees dinner -- a fancy affair for which she insisted that we take the Acura NSX sports car, not the minivan.
No matter where we were or what we talked about, her smile never went away.
At our Shabbat table, on the day after Simchat Torah, she was telling stories to my mother, my three sisters and some of my kids, tales of her dark days in those 10 concentration camps. The hint of a smile never faded from her face.
For a woman who's seen so much darkness and lost so much, and who often feels very alone, how do you explain this ability to keep smiling?
Is it the cliché that when you go through hell, you appreciate all the little blessings of life? No doubt, but I think there's more.
As I've gotten to know her better, I've seen that a key part of Eva's joy comes from her ability to remember not just darkness, but love. She's more than a survivor, she's a lover.
She remembers the love of her father, who told her to look in the mirror every morning and ask: "What can I do today to help someone else?"
She remembers the love of her younger brother Heschel, who was 10 years her junior and whom she raised like her own son.
She remembers the love of her soul mate and husband, Ernie, who for years would cuddle with Eva on his lap, rather than have her sit on a chair.
Her memories of love overflow into the present. Like the well in the backyard of her childhood home that provided water to sustain life, the deep love she feels for her family, including her two beautiful daughters and one granddaughter, is a well of joy that sustains her today. The more she feels love, the more she loves life.
For years, she has been expressing that love by sharing her story in schools, community centers and at the Museum of Tolerance. Now, her very own book, "If You Save One Life," which she wrote with Thomas Fields-Meyer, is out. She hopes that her story of conquering darkness will inspire others to do the same.
Occasionally, though, she is reminded that the darkness can win out.
She confided to me that a recent event had shaken her up. She had to fumigate her house. Her husband used to take care of these things, now she has to. As she was making the final preparations, something in her snapped. She was told to carefully wrap all the little items in the house that might be damaged by the fumigation -- things like toothpaste and bars of soap.
As she was wrapping the toothpaste, she couldn't resist pouring out her soul to Jose, the fumigator from El Salvador. How could I be so protective of a stupid toothpaste, she asked him, while no one cared enough to protect the millions who died in that other fumigation 65 years ago? Jose saw the sadness on her face and wanted to hear more, so she told him her story. Finally, she yelled out: "They killed us like termites!"
This was not the cheerful Eva I knew, the one that is moved by love. This was the Eva that had earned the right to hate and get angry. The image of living termites being killed by gas was simply too graphic -- it brought back memories that were too dark. She cried every night for two weeks, she told me, until she "ran out of tears."
She sounded a lot better, though, when she told me that Jose the fumigator wanted to bring his children over to hear her story.
Maybe that's the secret to Eva Brown's smile -- knowing there are people out there who will always want to hear her story.