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A frail few can still recall death camps

Survivors of the Holocaust, some long silent, find strength bearing witness.

October 08, 2008|Maria L. LaGanga | Times Staff Writer
  • Eva Brown, with a family photograph from her youth in Hungary in the 1930s, is one of a small group of Holocaust survivors who feel compelled to tell their stories. She speaks at the Museum of Tolerance most Tuesdays, telling tourists students about her experiences.  "You have to verbalize your pain,? she said.
Eva Brown, with a family photograph from her youth in Hungary in the 1930s,… (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles…)

Every Tuesday at 2 p.m., 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 theater -- 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 theater 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. Each year the group dwindles as one or two aging volunteers dies.

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 (Tuesdays at 2 p.m.), Lion Cohen (every other Thursday at 3 p.m.), and Eva Brown (usually Tuesdays at 3 p.m.).

"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. To rapt groups of students and tourists, the former chef described years as a Dutch teenager hiding from the Nazis in a rural attic, long stretches flat on his back or stomach. By the time he was liberated by the Canadian army, his legs no longer worked. Most of his family was dead.

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 Aug. 14.

"There would have been nothing stopping him," said his niece, Eveline Bermudez of Mission Viejo. "I know my mother wanted to do it too, but she wasn't well enough. It's very important for them to be heard, listened to, for their story to be told. It's important for us to know too."

Cohen came late to telling his story. He had volunteered at the Museum of Tolerance for about the last year and a half, but those talks, Bermudez said, were the highlight of his last chapter, "a special time for him."

"It meant a lot for the children to respect him and listen to him and ask questions," Bermudez said. "It was a therapeutic way for him to express himself and let young people know that this actually did happen and there was no disputing that."

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."

The women and men most compelled to tell their stories despite frailty and increasing age, Berenbaum said, probably share a similar motivation: "Do you want to be a teacher or a person who is diminished and destroyed and whose vitality is robbed from them by pain?"

That would have been an easy question for Friedman to answer before dementia stole her voice.

About a dozen years ago, she went on the March of the Living, a trek by teenagers and Holocaust survivors to concentration camp sites in Poland, then on to Israel. About the same time, she began appearing regularly at the Museum of Tolerance.

"The last time she spoke at the museum when I was there, she didn't actually speak. I read her notes," said daughter Marianne Cohen, who lives in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. "That was about a year ago. . . . But she still needs to tell it."

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