When Shoah witnesses are gone...
Survivors of the Shoah – the Holocaust – are fading rapidly, and very few of those in their 80s or 90s have any clear recollection of what happened to them.
September 1 marks the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland. Survivors of the Shoah – the Holocaust – are fading rapidly, and very few of those in their 80s or 90s have any clear recollection of what happened to them.
One of the great tragedies – other than the losses of human life and the atrocities to which so many who were murdered and so many who survived were subjected – is that close relatives who lost contact with each other were in many cases convinced that they were the sole survivors of their families, and were separated for decades not knowing of each other’s existence.
In some cases, they actually lived in the same neighborhood in a city far from where they were born, but never bumped into each other until the twilight of their lives, or only discovered that one of them had died when reading a death notice in a newspaper.
Today, with the use of DNA, tracing is easier, but not every survivor knows about it and of those who do, not everyone is willing to undergo a DNA test.
Unlike pre-20th century tragic events in Jewish history, future generations of Jews – thanks to people such as film producer Steven Spielberg and others like him in different parts of the world – will not have to rely on historical “facts” in the eyes of a handful of beholders such as, for example, Josephus.
The testimony of thousands upon thousands of witnesses to the bestial inhumanity of the Nazi war machine and Hitler’s cohorts in many parts of Europe will be handed down from generation to generation, just like the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
But there will be an essential difference. It will be more than reinterpreted oral or written testimony. Thanks to modern technology, future generations will be able to see the faces of their Holocaust forebears and hear their voices as they tell their individual stories, a link in the chain of remembrance perhaps even stronger than that of the Exodus.
For the foreseeable future, there are also the second- and third-generation survivors who grew up with the stories and nightmares of their survivor parents and grandparents, and they will continue to tell those stories, just as Jews continue to read the Haggadah at Passover.
All survivors and their offspring have their own special way of telling their story. Bella Bryks-Klein, the daughter of survivors Rachmil and Hinda Bryks, has always wanted to perform in a play dedicated to her father – not only to his memory, but to his experiences, and her experiences growing up as his daughter.
Her parents met in Sweden after the war, and were married in 1946. Bryks-Klein was born in Stockholm, as was her sister Myriam Serla, and the family was brought to America by YIVO and HIAS. Yiddish was the language spoken at home, and the two sisters were educated in Jewish day schools in Manhattan. They lived in an environment of Holocaust survivors, hearing not only of the horrors that their parents suffered, but also those of their parents’ friends and acquaintances. The Holocaust was always part of their general awareness.
While a student at Stern College, Bryks-Klein came to Israel to spend a year at the Hebrew University, met the love of her life, got married, remained in Israel, transferred to Ben-Gurion University, and earned a BA in Behavioral Sciences.
Her father was a Yiddish poet and writer, and after his death in 1974, she took it upon herself to continue his work by working for organizations and institutions whose mission was to disseminate Yiddish language and culture.
In addition to working as a Yiddish translator, she also puts out a monthly newsletter in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, listing Yiddish events around Israel; she is the Israel representative of the Yiddish Forward newspaper, which is published online in New York, and also conducts Yiddish interviews with Holocaust survivors for Yad Vashem. Part of her work involves translating for Yiddishpiel Theater; she is in charge of the Beit Shalom Aleichem website and Facebook page; and until recently, was director of the Yiddish Arbeiter-Ring Cultural Center in Tel Aviv.
The Arbeiter Ring, the Israeli branch of the Bund, was established in Tel Aviv in 1951, mainly by Holocaust survivors whose common denominator – regardless of where they came from or where they had been during the war – was not only a desire but a need to preserve Yiddish culture.
The International Jewish Labor Bund, founded in Vilna in 1897, had branches in different parts of the world but primarily in America, which after the war could probably claim having the world’s largest Yiddish-speaking population. But the Bund was also active in Australia, where so many Holocaust survivors decided to go because it was the furthest distance from Europe.
As many of its older members died out or became too frail to attend events, the Tel Aviv branch of the Arbeiter Ring could no longer operate in its Tel Aviv premises, and moved to Beit Shalom Aleichem – another Yiddish citadel that was opened in 1966 – on a trial basis by Shalom Aleichem’s son-in-law, Yitzhak Dov Berkowitz, an internationally renowned Hebrew and Yiddish writer, who was also the leading translator of Shalom Aleichem’s works from Yiddish to Hebrew. Berkowitz, who died a year later, had been married to Shalom Aleichem’s eldest daughter, Ernestina, and was extremely close to his father-in-law, becoming his literary executor following Shalom Aleichem’s death in 1916.
Berkowitz, who had migrated to America in 1913, moved to Tel Aviv in 1928, after having made a literary impact in the US. He quickly became a prominent cultural figure in his new home, translating several of Shalom Aleichem’s plays into Hebrew for the Habimah Theater, and in the post-Holocaust years, dedicated himself to projects that perpetuated the culture of East European Jewry. He was the recipient of several prestigious literary prizes, including the Israel Prize for literature in 1958.
Others continued his work after his death, and it is no coincidence that the street in which Beit Shalom Aleichem is located is called Berkowitz Street. Beit Shalom Aleichem houses the archives of both Shalom Aleichem and Yitzhak Dov Berkowitz, plus an extensive Yiddish library that has now been enhanced by the 20,000-volume library of the Arbeiter Ring, whose Yiddish choir has also moved to Beit Shalom Aleichem.
“Yiddish was spoken daily at the Arbeiter Ring, and there was a bi-weekly Kultur Krayz of cultural mornings that were attended by hundreds of people,” says Bryks-Klein in a moment of nostalgia.
Her big dream to perform in a one-woman show based on her father’s life and writings finally come to fruition in June with a show called My Father’s Daughter, or in Yiddish, “Mein Tate’s Tochter,” just a few weeks before the move from Kalisher Street to Berkowitz Street was announced. The show, in which she also sings, is full of anecdotes about growing up as a second-generation Holocaust survivor. Altogether there were three solidly booked performances, and the response of the audience was more than enthusiastic, as people queued up afterward to embrace and congratulate her.
For many of the older generation, she is part of their extended family – an additional daughter, a daughter they never had, or a daughter they lost in the Holocaust. They delight in conversing with her in Yiddish – the mama loshen.
Bryks-Klein was included in the move of the Arbeiter Ring to Beit Shalom Aleichem, where she will present another performance of “Mein Tate’s Tochter” on Monday, September 16. She hopes to eventually take the show to America.
Her love for Yiddish is not confined to the spoken word. When she was still a young child, her father took her to the YIVO archives and showed her the letters penned by great Yiddish writers.
As a little girl, she had no specific career ambitions. She was shorter than everyone else in her class, and when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she replied, “I want to be as tall as the Empire State Building.”
In her show, she says, “We lived in America, but we were not Americans. We spoke Yiddish, we didn’t own a car, we didn’t eat in restaurants, my mother never owned a mink coat or diamonds. She always said that her two daughters were her diamonds. We lived in a very simple apartment.”
She continues her monologue: “We could have had a better life, but my father refused to take reparation payments.”
Her father used to visit Yiddish-speaking communities all over America to sell his books. Once he even went as far as Havana.
He wrote about life in the Lodz Ghetto, and later what he had experienced in Auschwitz.
While Holocaust survivors were eager to read of his memories, perhaps reflecting their own, other Yiddishists were not. It was not easy for him.
Leaping almost at random from subject to subject, Bryks-Klein says in the show, “Mother was a wonderful cook. Food was important. We had to finish everything on the plate, but I hate chicken thighs, and it was hard.”
She and her sister seldom had new clothes, “but we always had Yiddish books, and the Yiddish radio station was always on.”
When the girls outgrew their clothes, their mother would buy secondhand replacements at the Salvation Army thrift shop.
While some children of immigrant parents are ashamed to hear their parents speak in their most familiar language rather than that of the host country, Bryks-Klein was not in that category. “I was never ashamed of Yiddish. I liked to hear Yiddish.” Her father used to tell her Yiddish stories, and she taught herself to read and write Yiddish.
Relating to her father’s writings, she says, “Every piece of paper is important. It’s a document – a piece of history which is difficult to throw out.”
In contrast with her father, her mother wanted to be American, and went to night school to learn English. Her father never wanted to be American, spoke only in Yiddish, and his conversation was generally about Jewish life and Jewish culture that had been destroyed by the Holocaust.
“My father could not enjoy anything, because mentally, he was still in the ghetto.”
Her parents had always wanted to make aliyah, but somehow didn’t make it in their lifetimes.
“Both parents made aliyah after they died – they are buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.”
Her father referred to one of the books that he wrote as the tombstone for his relatives that were murdered by the Nazis.
There is a lot more to the show, which is both a work of love and of pain.
It is one of many vehicles of remembrance.
Another is Zikaron BaSalon, a social initiative founded in 2011 by Adi Altshuler whereby on Holocaust Remembrance Day, survivors or their children or grandchildren tell their stories in an intimate living-room setting and answer questions put to them by others.
In Israel, Yad Vashem conducts the main memorial ceremony on Holocaust Remembrance Day, but other ceremonies are held at Holocaust museums, education centers and at the Knesset.
In recent years, the United Nations has declared the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (January 27) as International Holocaust Remembrance Day; the number of Holocaust museums and monuments around the world has multiplied; and many countries, including some whose governments were in collusion with the Nazi regime, provide Holocaust education in schools and send teachers to be trained at Yad Vashem.
These are indicators that for at least another generation or two, the Holocaust will not be forgotten or dismissed as just another catastrophe in the annals of human history.
It will be remembered, albeit not with the same sense of tragic drama as when the story is related by a survivor. Then again, there are the videoed eyewitness accounts, which will become – when there are no longer any survivors – the most important archives of testimony to a great human tragedy that affected not only Jews, but gypsies, homosexuals, people with physical and/or mental disabilities, political opponents of the Nazis, and tens of thousands of soldiers who paid the supreme sacrifice.
Perhaps someone will also have the good sense to write a condensed Holocaust history in a similar vein to the Haggadah, to be read in Jewish communities on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, on the anniversary of the outbreak of World War II , or on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tevet.