D.C. museum to reunite survivors of Holocaust

November 01, 2003|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

They grew up in adjacent towns in Hungary. As teens, they spent 13 of the most intense months of their lives together. And over the past half-year, they've spoken on the phone more times than either can count.

Yet as of this morning, Margit Feldman still can't quite place Eva Weiss, who is, in the profoundest sense, one of her oldest and dearest friends.

"Your mind does things to you," says the 74-year-old resident of Bridgewater, N.J.

Feldman's lapse, if such it can be called, is understandable. It's not that she has lost her faculties; far from it. The Holocaust survivor, still an active writer and lecturer, has spent much of her life since the Allied liberation of Europe telling of the horrific time she spent in German concentration camps. A member of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education for 22 years, she published her memoirs - Margit: A Teen-Ager's Journey Through the Holocaust and Beyond - last March.

"I want future generations to remember how an uncaring world forgot millions of people not so long ago," she says. "If we don't remember how to care for one another, it can and will happen again. I have spent a great deal of my life, my energy and my money trying to prevent that."

This weekend, Feldman joins more than 6,800 other people - about a third of them survivors of the camps - who will be doing much the same. Today and tomorrow, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is playing host to "Tribute to Holocaust Survivors: A Reunion of A Special Family," the largest gathering of its kind since the museum opened in April 1993.

Part of the institution's 10th-anniversary celebration, it will feature tours, workshops and personal reunions.

In large part, the passage of time alone occasioned the gathering. Most of those who experienced the Holocaust and lived to tell about it are, at the least, of retirement age, and organizers want a venue in which they can preserve and affirm what they know.

The two days of activities, says museum spokesman Andy Hollinger, represent one of this wartime generation's last opportunities to "gather with its descendants [and] recall a shared history that was one of the pivotal events of the 20th century."

In a more personal sense, Benjamin Meed, a survivor who serves on the museum's board of governors, says the gathering will be a chance for guests to "renew old bonds, to thank those who risked their lives to aid us in times of unimaginable evil, and to remind future generations of the imperative of remembrance in building a safer, more humane world."

As Feldman can attest, part of that process will be the simple, elusive and indispensable act of recalling what happened. Almost six decades after the fact, even close friendships remain buried in the rubble of Hitler's Third Reich.

Had Feldman never sat down to write her book, she'd have forgotten all about Eva Weiss, and Weiss about her.

After almost 60 years of lecturing, teaching and meeting personally with students in New Jersey schools, Feldman, a mother and grandmother, decided it was time to create a more permanent record. "As painful as the whole process was at times," she says, "that meant getting things down on paper."

She worked with a close friend and colleague, English professor Bernard Weinstein of Kean University in New Jersey, to recapture as many details as she could. "We'd work for a while, do as much as possible, cry together, take a time out, then come back again and pick it up again sometime later," she says. "Three years it took, off and on. It wasn't always fun. But I'm relieved it's finished, and I'm glad we did it."

New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey wrote the foreword to the book, which recounts Feldman's time in five concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and her life in the years since.

If remembering was a bittersweet liberator, Feldman never guessed the process would lead to further, and perhaps even more personal, memory.

Though she and Weiss grew up in nearby villages in Hungary, they were not friends as children. However, after both were forced from their homes during Passover in 1944, they ended up in the same camps for more than a year - and even came to America on the same boat after the war. But until last March, neither had seen or heard news of the other since then. "I didn't know if she survived; she didn't know if I survived," says Feldman. "Nothing. But she got a copy of my book, recognized the events in it and realized who I was."

Weiss, who arrives in the Washington area from her Michigan home today, got Feldman's phone number and called.

"We have been talking ever since," says Feldman, "comparing notes and memories of what we went through."

Ironically, it was Weiss, also 74, who remembered the memoirist, not the other way around. "Her memory is better than mine, I suppose," says Feldman with a laugh. "They say that trauma blocks out so much, and it does. She recalls me vividly. I did not remember her at all. Isn't that strange?

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