By Paula Holmes-Greeley
The room was dark; lights out, the better to see the art work projected on the screen.
The big room at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, where as many as 300 of us gathered Monday night as a community of faith for the first Shoah Remembrance Committee of Muskegon’s Commemoration Dinner, was eerily and utterly silent.
Only Dr. Miriam Brysk spoke.
A survivor of the Holocaust, her voice was hoarse; her emotions, spent. For two days in Muskegon, at a prayer service and in interviews with high school students, and finally at a community dinner, Brysk tried her best to put the enormity of the Shoah — the Hebrew word for Holocaust during which 6 million Jews were killed — into perspective.
“Remember, they didn’t die all at once,” Brysk said. “They died one plus one plus one plus one until they got to 6 million.”
Even words weren’t enough. They couldn’t tell the whole story. They didn’t do justice to the story Brysk wants to share, the mission she feels called to complete.
“I want to return the dignity the Germans took away from them,” she said. “They are not shadows … they are real people.”
She was 7 years old when she was ripped from her home in Warsaw and sent to the ghetto with her parents, sentenced to die until the Nazis learned her father was a surgeon. Later, her family found refuge in the forest populated by other escaped Jews and Russian partisans. Her father ran a hospital, makeshift and crude. To keep her safe, Brysk’s parents disguised her as a boy. On her eighth birthday, they strapped a pistol to her side. After the liberation, they escaped to central Poland, and later made their way to the United States where for the first time, Brysk went to school.
“A shattered childhood,” she whispered into the microphone. A retired professor now living in Ann Arbor, Brysk decided she had to do something to bring the memories of the people who died in the Holocaust out of the shadows of time.
She began to gather photographs like the ones her mother carried close to her heart throughout the war, hidden for posterity, rescued from obscurity. Brysk found a photograph of a rabbi, who died in Auschwitz; photographs of relatives, separated and killed in extermination camps; a picture of children in the Warsaw ghetto in Poland, where she and her family had lived, children she called by name.
“Remember, once these children had smiles,” she said.
She found a photograph of her grandmother, whom Brysk saw last, loaded on a train to the Treblinka death camp. Her grandma stretched out her arms, reaching toward the little girl and implored: “Miriam, remember us.”
Brysk took the images, added fragments of their past as background — photographs of tombstones and Torahs left behind, pictures of their homeland — and created a collection of art she calls “In A Confined Silence.”
The room was dark Monday night when she showed her art work: faces of a rabbi, her grandmother, the children once laughing. She called them by name, and in a room uneasily silent, she gave them life again.
And when the dinner was over, the speech complete and the last image had disappeared from the screen, Brysk stayed on, talking and autographing her memoir, “Amidst the Shadows of Trees: A Holocaust Child’s Survival in the Partisans.”
“Remember,” she signed on the first page, echoing her grandmother’s last command. “Remember.”