It’s not easy to handle death. It’s so naked and finite. No matter how much we talk about the spiritual journey to the next world, about legacies that never die, about a life well lived, there’s really no consolation for the pain of missing someone — really, really missing someone.
I will miss Eva Brown, a Holocaust survivor who passed away last week at the age of 83 after a three-year fight with cancer.
What I will miss most is the sparkle in her eyes. She seemed to always have it — when she first told me about her cancer; when she’d listen to me complain about stuff in my own life; when someone would let her down; when things were really good or when things were really bad.
She even had it a couple of weeks ago, when I brought my kids to see her one last time to say good-bye. I had a premonition it would be the last time, because my friend Marci Spitzer had left me a message that “Eva would like to see you very soon.” When I got to Eva’s house in West Hollywood that Sunday afternoon — where we’d once been neighbors and where she had lived for nearly 60 years — Eva told me the doctors had said her long battle was over. By now, her two surviving daughters and her granddaughter were there with her around the clock. She was taking painkillers. It was just a question of time.
But she still had the sparkle in her eyes, the sparkle that said, “I’m still here.”
She mentioned that for the past few days she had been having visions of her father and husband walking through her room. They were the two men closest to her. She lost 59 members of her family in the Holocaust, but her father, a prominent rabbi, miraculously survived. They had moved to America after the war, and she never lost her attachment to him. She spent many hours at our Shabbat table telling us stories of what it was like to grow up as the daughter of the chief rabbi of a little town in Hungary when there was plenty of love but no running water.
Story continues after the jump.
Video footage with Eva Brown taken October 2007.
She had a 50-year love affair with her husband, Ernie, who passed away about 10 years ago. But they had different outlooks on life. Her husband could never get over the pain of the Holocaust and the bitterness in his heart. She once shared with me that on his deathbed, he confessed to her that he regretted having been bitter most of his life.
Eva, somehow, managed to avoid bitterness. At the age of 16, she was sent to 10 concentration camps in just one year. Her signature story, captured at the beginning of Thomas Fields-Meyer’s book, “If You Save One Life,” describes her encounter with an American soldier, who rescued her from a long death march. He asked her, in Yiddish, “Who did this to you?” and she didn’t have it in her heart to point her finger at a German soldier. She believed in justice, but not revenge. She also believed, as her father taught her, that every life was worth saving — hence the title of the book.
This ability to be positive and look to the future was almost inexplicable, because she spent so much of her time talking about the pain of her past. For many years now, she has been part of the family at the Museum of Tolerance, where she has spoken regularly to various groups about her Holocaust experience. The last few years, as if she could sense the clock ticking, she increased her appearances at schools, churches and colleges. El Camino College in Torrance even set up the Eva Brown Peace and Tolerance Educational Center in her honor.
I attended many of her talks. The extraordinary thing about Eva’s message is that even as she talked about death, murder and pain, she always ended up in the same place — with an intense love of life. She left Holocaust theory to the intellectuals. Her specialty was living.
It was as if her years in the pits of darkness had led this tiny woman to reveal herself as an evangelist for the celebration of life. She saw this as a very Jewish thing — savoring every breath of life that God gave her. She loved going out. When I would take her as my “date” to the Maimonides Academy trustees dinner, she’d put on a nice dress and perfume and would ask to go in the sports car, even if she had trouble getting in.
Her sparkle attracted a “circle of love” from Jewish women in the community, among them Sara Aftergood, Lesley Wolman, Marci Spitzer and Kathy Barnhard, who constantly brought her the soup she so loved and invited her for Shabbat and holiday meals. When Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer visited her a few days before she died, Eva didn’t want soup — she wanted to hear the song, “Eshet Chayil.” She soaked up pleasure until the very end.
One of those pleasures was taking pictures. Her house was full of them.
On that last Sunday when my kids and I went to say good-bye, after we all shared kisses and sweet words, she asked me in a weak voice: “Can we take a picture?”
We took a couple of great shots with the kids. If you look carefully, you can still see that little sparkle in her eyes.
To see a memorial for Eva Brown, visit evabrown.net.