Survivor explores memory through words and art

By Leon Cohen
Special to The Chronicle in Milwaukee
March 28th, 2010

When she was a teen, Miriam M. Brysk (nee Miasnik) decided she wanted to be a scientist. She fulfilled that dream, becoming a biochemist, but could not shake the nightmare of memories of her childhood in Nazi-occupied Poland. So after her 2000 retirement from the University of Texas Medical School, she turned her attention to those memories. She decided to not only speak about her experiences but also to explore the Shoah through art.

“I wanted to become an artist” whose subject would be the Holocaust, she said during a telephone interview from her home in Ann Arbor, Mich.

In both capacities, Brysk (pronounced “brisk”) will be featured this year at the Milwaukee Jewish community’s Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) “Memorial to the Six Million, Remembrance of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and All Resistance.”

Moreover, the event will be preceded by something new this year, an Intergenerational Program titled “Hiding from Hitler: A Child’s World in the Woods” that will take place from 1-1:45 p.m.

At that program, which is aimed at students in grades 5-8, participants will get to meet Brysk and hear from local children who participated in the Remember Us program, which pairs b’nai mitzvah celebrants with Holocaust victims who did not reach the age of bar or bat mitzvah.

Creating art

Brysk, 75, was born in Warsaw in 1935. Her father was a surgeon who managed to move his family out of the city at the time Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union partitioned Poland between them.

They ended up in the town of Lida in the Soviet zone, but couldn’t flee from there when the Nazis suddenly attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. In December 1942, they escaped from the Lida ghetto into the woods to live with a partisan group until liberation in 1944.

Brysk was 12 when her family moved to the United States and found the adjustment difficult. “In many ways I was an adult, rather than a child,” she said, referring to the Shoah’s effect on her. “Puberty was a bad time; high school was an awful time.”

She earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1967, became a scientist and married Harry Brysk, a physicist and survivor. They have two children and five grandchildren.

But she didn’t have the time to speak about, or feel she had a receptive audience to listen to, her Holocaust experiences. Not until she was nearing retirement did she begin going to some schools to relate her story.

But in 2002, she went on a group tour of ghettos and camps, and that “shook me to my core.” Now she decided she had to express something about the Holocaust through art.

“I never had an art lesson,” she said; but “where there is a need, you figure out a way. It clearly was a need for me.”

Her work has been exhibited in JCCs, museums and universities, and three of them are now in the collection of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Jerusalem.

After that, she decided she had to write her story, and so created “Amidst the Shadows of Trees: A Holocaust Child’s Survival in the Partisans,” published in 2007 by Yellow Star Press.

While writing that book, “I really returned to the raw pain of the memories of my experiences as a child,” she said. And that led her to create works for an exhibit devoted to the children of the Holocaust, “how they lived and died,” which was first exhibited in 2008.

Recently, Brysk completed another book, “The Stones Weep: Teaching the Holocaust through Art.” But she is determined to keep on speaking about the Holocaust “until my last breath.… When my generation dies, there will be no more survivors. God only knows what will happen then.”