September 23, 2009
Reflections on Friends Who Lived to Tell
There would seem to be little more inappropriate than talking sex with your gal pals who are in their 70s and 80s — and who, by the way, also just happen to be survivors of the Holocaust.
At a poolside reunion in Valley Glen, we gathered on a hot summer’s day in 1999. But despite the fruity coolers, laughter and chatter, this was not your ordinary gathering. A number of the friends came from another world, where they had experienced one of the darkest periods in history — the horrors of the Holocaust. Our little party was lovely, and everything was going smoothly, until someone realized that it was that time — time for the most talked-about HBO television show of the day, “Sex and the City.” Did someone actually say “Sex and the City” at a Holocaust survivor gathering?! I shuddered and scouted for the nearest exit. Then I realized who I was so concerned about. This group was more uninhibited, resilient and eager to embrace the moment than most of us could ever expect to be. They care about what “young people today” are talking about and don’t miss much. So it should not have been a surprise that they responded more than a little enthusiastically to the suggestion, and in no time we were humming the theme song, laughing and squealing, as we watched Carrie and Samantha navigate through their sexcapades. Oy gevalt!
I am blessed to have — and to have had — personal relationships with many survivors and to know that I played a part in ensuring their voices will be heard, as their legacy to the future.
During Yizkor, I will be thinking of some personal friends among the numerous Holocaust survivors I met during my years working for Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education), the nonprofit organization established by Steven Spielberg to record and preserve the testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses, which ultimately created an archive of nearly 52,000 testimonies from 56 countries and in 32 languages. The work was at once a privilege and a burden, an honor and a challenge, a workplace and a family, an education and a responsibility.
While I became acquainted with hundreds of survivors through their testimonies, a few became my teachers, “grandparents” and personal friends. We became mishpachah. My colleagues and I knew their stories and they knew our work and dedication. We knew about their hometowns, the families they lost in Europe and the families they started here in the United States. They knew about our lives, as well. We were doing purposeful work together, documenting personal and historic tragedy of monumental proportions. Yet, when we gathered socially, it was often funny, lighter moments we shared, interspersed with poignant remembrances of a life long ago.
They experienced tremendous pain, but these beautiful, inspirational people were determined to make the world a better place, each in his or her own way.
Henry Rosmarin, of blessed memory, who touched us forever with his soulful harmonica playing and the story of his survival ... Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), of blessed memory, who was dedicated to working for human rights and was the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to the United States Congress ... Bernard Firestone, of blessed memory ... and my current relationships with Sigi Hart, who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen and other camps and who travels to Poland with hundreds of high school students on the March of the Living ... Renee Firestone, a riveting speaker, tireless educator and lay ambassador who can practically move mountains ... Dana Schwartz, Paula Lebovics and Daisy Miller, who shed light on their unique experiences as children during the Holocaust ... Alice Cahana, an Auschwitz survivor whose paintings beautifully and hauntingly tell the story ... Eva Brown, who recently wrote her autobiography about her experiences ... Dario Gabbai, who speaks at schools about his experiences as a Greek Jew at Auschwitz who worked in the Sonderkommando and who, at age 87, follows a daily regimen of swimming and visits to the gym ... Bill Basch ... Irene Zisblatt ... Sidonia Lax ... the list goes on. They lived through the unspeakable, but speak of their experiences and dedicate their lives to the credo, “Never Forget.”
They each had a special spark that drew people to them. While my work at the Shoah Foundation dates back to a number of years ago, my friendship and connection with these survivors continued.
Earlier this year, five of us visited our friend, Holocaust survivor Silvia Grohs-Martin. As a young girl in Vienna, Silvia was an actress, dancer and singer, touring with a theater troupe throughout Europe until the Nazi occupation of Holland. Upon meeting Silvia, one could easily detect her flair for the dramatic. Not quite 5 feet tall, Silvia was a feisty, spirited woman whose fair complexion was offset by fiery orange curly hair, ruby lipstick and vibrant outfits. “Hellloo,” she would trill, “it is Silvia ... come on, my little Mischa ....” With her little gray schnauzer at her side, Silvia would make her arrival known with her singsong greeting, uniquely punctuated with her thick Austrian accent.
But now, our reunion with Silvia was somber. She lay in a coma in her sunny bedroom, a breeze whispering over her frail body. There was no fiery hair or bright lipstick. It took a minute to recognize that this was the same woman we knew, with her animated quips, lively spirit and melodic voice. Although we could not be certain that she could hear us or even know we were there, we told her how much we cared about her, and brought greetings from all her friends at the Shoah Foundation. Some of us had traveled with her to schools in various cities, and we reminded her about all the students she impacted with her story of survival. Silvia had joined the Dutch Resistance and later survived the horrors of Malines, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbrück. Her memoir, “Silvie,” was published in 2000 and was translated into several languages.
Once, at a Shoah Foundation fundraising event, Silvia relayed the story of being asked to be featured on an educational CD-ROM. “Of course! I would love to be on the CD-ROM,” she zestfully responded. She recounted, “Then I asked them: ‘What’s a CD-ROM?’ “ Her delivery from the big stage was followed by laughter, a standing ovation and a sea of nodding heads. We reminisced with her at her bedside, we laughed and we cried. And we said good-bye.
On April 18, 2009, a few days after we visited her, Silvia passed away peacefully at the age of 90. She would have loved to know she made it to the ultimate platform of today — an exchange on Facebook.
With the help of educators, technology and all of us, the testimonies of Holocaust survivors will live on for generations. We have inherited their treasure trove of memories. As Silvia put it once, “You’re gonna remember this face.” We certainly will.
All of us now carry with us the critical lessons the Holocaust survivors entrusted us to impart to the world and to the future. We can also all learn from the inspiring way they chose to carry on forward, to rebuild, and to embrace and engage in life. Some of us have been personally enriched by their friendship. Our precious time together was invaluable — often it was filled with animated conversations about world events, human nature and points of view about God’s whereabouts during human tragedy. Sometimes it was sharing deep wisdom about personal accountability, taking a stand and how an act of kindness can make a world of difference.
And one lazy summer day, it was simply relaxing with friends, giggling on the couch and watching an episode of “Sex and the City.”
Bonnie Samotin Zev is marketing and communications specialist for the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. She worked for the Shoah Foundation from 1994 to 2003.