At the start of a luncheon for students and Holocaust survivors yesterday, Hillel Rabbi Nathan Martin told his table that there were no bad questions. Holocaust survivor Miriam Brysk quickly replied, “But unfortunately, there are no good answers.”
When Brysk was 7 years old, living in Lida, then part of Poland, the Nazis captured the city and took the town’s Jewish population to a ghetto.
Later, when they were deciding who would be killed, they noticed a red cross on Brysk’s father’s arm indicating that he was a physician. The soldiers pulled Brysk’s father and his family from the line of those condemned to death.
Two Jewish resistance fighters rescued Brysk and her family from the ghetto in December of 1942 and brought them to a forest filled with Russians and Jews resisting the Nazi occupation, where Brysk’s father helped establish a hospital.
For the more than two years that Brysk lived in that forest, she dressed as a boy to prevent from being raped. She was given a pistol as a present on her eighth birthday, she said.
Russian troops liberated the forest in 1944. After that, Brysk’s family lived in Italy for two years and then moved to America.
Brysk, a digital artist who focuses on works portraying the Holocaust, now lives in Ann Arbor near her two daughters and five grandchildren.
Yesterday’s luncheon, sponsored by University of Michigan Hillel’s Conference on the Holocaust, allowed students to sit at a table with one or two survivors and discuss their stories in an intimate setting.
About 300 people, many of them University students, attended the event, as well as about 60 survivors and 10 children of survivors. Registration for the event was full, with as many as 45 people on a waiting list to attend.
“We had no idea we would have this big of a turnout,” said LSA junior Carly Wayne, one of the event’s organizers.
Sam Offen, another survivor who shared his stories, was 18 when life in his hometown of Krakow, Poland changed forever.
“September 1, 1939; the day I will never forget,” he said.
That day, Germany invaded Poland, enforcing a curfew that forced Jewish residents to remain inside their homes for several days.
Shortly after the curfew was lifted, people who admitted to being Jewish were pushed into large trucks and taken away.
“They took this human cargo away and we never heard from them again,” he said. “That’s how I lost a lot of relatives.”
Offen also described the time he spent in Plaszow, a labor camp near Krakow, and then in Mauthausen, a concentration camp in Austria.
Prisoners were forced to walk in five columns when moving across the camp. If one person escaped, everyone else in the column would be shot, Offen said.
On Oct. 2, 1942, Offen left his barracks and saw “hundreds and hundreds” of corpses lying in the street.
“They continued the oppression to the very last day,” Offen said. “Five years, nine months, six days.”
Offen was asked about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called the Holocaust “a myth.” Offen said he was disheartened by Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia University last month.
“It made me feel very bad,” Offen said. “It reminded me of 1939, and Hitler.”
After survivors finished telling their stories, they participated in a Yahrzeit, memorial ceremony where small groups lit candles to remember those who died in the Holocaust.
LSA sophomore Dori Moscowitz said the event was important because there will be a time when no more Holocaust survivors will be around to tell their own stories.
“It’s important for people our age to be learning this, because soon we’ll be the ones passing this on,” she said.
As the event came to an end, several survivors handed out contact information to their tables. Miriam Brysk gave each person at her table her business card and a hug, promising they could visit her house to see her art anytime.
“It is up to you guys to remember, and to make sure no more Holocausts go on in this world,” she said.
– Beth Wittenstein contributed to this report.