In November, Ottawa was violated by six acts of anti-Semitic, racist and Islamophobic graffiti, and this issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin is likely bursting with references to those events. But I would like to write about creativity and the human potential. American writer Toni Morrison reminds us that times of struggle are moments when we must bear witness and fight tyranny with all the creative life force we have: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
At Limmud Ottawa on November 20, I had the honour of running tech for “Hilda’s Story: For Tomorrow,” a presentation by Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton. With the use of live and recorded song, storytelling and projected images, Rabbi Bolton shared the biography and poetry of Hilda Stern Cohen, a German-born Holocaust survivor.
Rabbi Bolton traced Hilda’s girlhood in pre-war rural Germany and Frankfurt; her life under siege in the Littmannstadt Ghetto of Lodz, Poland; her captivity at Auschwitz; the horrors of the death march at the end of the war; her flight to freedom across European forests and fields; and the survival and new life she found in the United States. By the age of 20, Hilda had survived the horrors of the Shoah, but had lost almost her whole family. Her sister, Karola, was the only other family member who survived.
Hilda: “As soon as we were liberated, it was one big Kaddish. We said the prayer for mourning when someone dies. One big Kaddish went up to heaven. Everybody said Kaddish all over the place. We said Kaddish for ourselves really. It was like we had been in a deep and dark hole. … We didn’t see ourselves as civilians, just as inmates.”
Hilda’s survival was miraculous, as was the survival of the poetry she wrote. Even as a child she wrote, and after the war she was able to transcribe her memorized poems into notebooks. Although Hilda felt an obligation to tell her story of captivity and survival, and told it whenever she was asked, the very existence of her poetry was her secret, and she kept these texts hidden, even from her husband. Hilda’s notebooks were not discovered until 1997, after her death, and they reveal a nuanced and complex rendering, in German, of an unfolding catastrophe.
Hilda: “When I first came out of the concentration camp, I kept saying that we’re all human, and I was all-forgiving. After that I looked at some of my own poems. I was really horrified at some of them because they were so depressing, so terribly depressing. … Of course, it was the only world I saw, and we were together there with all the murderers. We were together with them, down in the mud.”
Rabbi Bolton had been introduced to Hilda’s story by Baltimore storyteller Gail Rosen, who had been given permission, by Hilda, to share her story when she no longer could. Rosen met Hilda in 1984, and for years she told Hilda’s story of survival. After Hilda’s death in 1997, notebooks full of poetry were found, and Rosen began incorporating translations of these poems into her performance.
In 2008, Rabbi Bolton joined Rosen as her performance partner in an enhanced version of the storytelling show that included song-settings of Hilda’s poetry in the style of German Lieder, or art songs, by composer William Gilcher. With a musical accompanist, Rabbi Bolton and Rosen toured Europe twice, first to Poland and then to all the places Hilda had lived and passed through in Germany and Austria during her journey to America.
The company also performed in several cities in America. Now that Rosen is no longer telling stories professionally, it has become Rabbi Bolton’s turn to bear witness and share Hilda’s words. Her presentation at Limmud was the first of what I hope will be a long commitment to keep telling.
Hilda: “I want people to know more than the facts of what happened. … You can say, ‘This can never happen.’ Well it can happen. There is a potential. … This humanity that we all share is for each of us to deal with, to look at, then to transform, to make into something that’s noble. That’s each and every human being’s mission.”