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Last few Holocaust survivors share memories, pain

Every Tuesday at 2 pm, Bella Friedman steps onto the dais at the Museum of Tolerance, sits down on the straight-backed chair...

Written by LA Times Washington Post |
October 9, 2008 12:50:39 am

Every Tuesday at 2 pm, Bella Friedman steps onto the dais at the Museum of Tolerance, sits down on the straight-backed chair, folds her hands in her lap and looks out at the audience that has gathered to hear about life, death and the Holocaust.

She is 82, neatly coiffed, with tailored pantsuits that hide the tattoo on her left forearm. She is the only member of her immediate family to survive. She brings pictures of the people she lost. Her mission — to make sure the world does not forget. But Friedman also has dementia. She has trouble now speaking English and communicates best in Yiddish, the language of her childhood. She sits in front of the theatre —silent, compelled — while museum staffers project an interview she gave in 1995 on the wall above her frail silhouette.

The digital woman tells the story the flesh-and-blood survivor from Radom, Poland, no longer can — “The whole ghetto was liquidated. They pushed us into cattle cars… We couldn’t breathe.” There are few better places than the museum’s intimate Theatre to witness history’s slow fade. Six days a week, a small cadre of survivors — average age, early 80s — gives testimony here to the Holocaust’s horrors.

The Los Angeles museum’s ranks were never all that big to begin with, because most Holocaust survivors remain mute about their painful pasts. More than 60 years later, only a minority has found that remembrance can bring healing. These days, many of the 30 or so survivors who volunteer at the museum feel increasing pressure to speak up in their own way, reaching out to as many listeners as possible before being silenced by disease or death. In less than a generation, they all will be gone.

Few people have been more aware of that fact than Bella Friedman, Lion Cohen, and Eva Brown. “I was so silent for 50 years and kept everything bottled in, and now I don’t know how to shut up,” said the diminutive Brown, 81, who just learned that her leukemia is back after a too brief remission. “It’s so critical to tell our story. Because you’re here today and gone tomorrow.”

Cohen, 82, had a fondness for bright plaid shirts and a history of heart disease. Cohen gave his last talk in the museum’s Wosk Theater on July 31. Five days later, he died of a massive heart attack. He was buried near his sister Henriette From, an Auschwitz survivor, at Mount Sinai Memorial Park. He was scheduled to speak again on August 14.

Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, said that only in the last decade or so have survivors in their 70s, 80s and 90s begun to speak out in great numbers. By talking publicly and regularly about the most painful experiences of their lives, he said, “they return again and again to gain mastery and, in a certain respect, to salvage from the ashes something not wholly negative. Those who don’t, endure in trauma”.

Eva Brown takes the floor at the Wosk Theater when Friedman is finished. Talking, she says, is a lot like forgiveness: Hard to do, but harder not to. “I want people to hear my cry, my sadness, my losses, and it’s very hard,” she said. “But I choose to do that… Keeping silent? It’s not good enough just to remember. You have to verbalize your pain.” Last October, Brown published her memoir, “If You Save One Life.” In November, she was diagnosed with leukemia. She has finished two months of chemotherapy and hopes to have a cancer-free year to continue the work . If all goes well, Brown will resume her regular Tuesday schedule at the museum this month.

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