Survivor’s story helps fight hatred

By Betsy Lopez
Rockford Register Star, May 02, 2011

Miriam Brysk is no stranger to emotional turmoil and tragedy.

The 76-year-old author and artist witnessed ghoulish atrocities and managed to overcome her demons associated with growing up in fear that the Nazis would kill her family.

Brysk, chosen as the Jewish Federation of Greater Rockford’s featured speaker for Sunday’s annual Holocaust Memorial Observance, said the hardest part and the greatest triumph is reaching out for help and learning to regain confidence. She spoke to about 160 people at Rockford College’s Fisher Chapel.

“I was meant to die, and the fact that I have lived and reached this age and had a full life is something to be celebrated,” she said. “I was born in 1935, and the war started in September 1939.

“At 12, when I came to America, the nice kids didn’t want anything to do with me. I was weird. I didn’t have a normal life, and I didn’t know what that was like. Finally in college, people wanted to be my friends.”

By age 45, Brysk felt out of sorts with her life. She had obstacles to overcome and knew she couldn’t get older with them by her side. She advocates for people to ask for help to reach happiness.

“It’s important to deal with it — to have less drama in your life,” she said. “I suffered major depressions in life. I questioned if I wanted to stick around anymore, but I went to get help. I regained my confidence and it’s protected me in the last years of my life. It was a lot of hardship and a lot of triumph.”

Born into a Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland, Brysk’s life quickly became one of escape, moving from place to place for protection. She lived in a ghetto, saw those she knew killed and, at not even 10 years old, was forced to shave her head and dress as a boy in her family’s attempt to shield her from sexual abuse. Her family was liberated in 1944.

But for all that she had seen and endured, it was education she wanted most. She lives in Michigan, a retired scientist and professor, having most recently worked at the University of Texas Medical School. In June, she will celebrate her 56th wedding anniversary with her husband, Henry, also a Holocaust survivor.

“Life is good. I had two big dreams in life — one was to become a scientist and the other was to become an artist,” she said. “I lived my first one and now I’m living my second. To live your life and live your dreams, what else do you want?”