When Holocaust survivor Eva Brettler walked to the front of Choi auditorium April 8, a hush fell over the crowd. Students and community members alike had flocked to the auditorium to hear the story of a woman who survived one of the most devastating genocides of the 20th century.
Hosted by Occidental Hillel, the talk was also sponsored by a diverse range of student organizations and departments such as the African Students Association, Armenian Students Association and Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.
Hillel’s former President Hannah Mandel ‘14 made it possible for Brettler to speak on campus. Mandel has been an Americorps VISTA member at the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles since September, where she works closely with Holocaust survivors and their families. Mandel said that she quickly struck up a friendship with Brettler through work events. This inspired Mandel to ask Brettler to share her story in honor of Yom HaShoah, the annual day of Holocaust remembrance.
Before Brettler took the stage, Mandel introduced her and thanked the older woman for her guidance and friendliness. Brettler took the next hour to tell her story, detailing her experience as a young child in Europe during and after the Holocaust.
She described her childhood in Budapest, where her family moved after her father lost his job because he was Jewish, and the efforts expended by her family to keep her from entering a labor camp at the age of seven. Brettler told the large crowd about the eventual capture of her mother, their march to Germany, the feelings that she experienced when she first entered the concentration camps and the relief she felt when she was finally liberated by the British April 15, 1945. While her mother did not make it through the Holocaust, Brettler was eventually reunited with her father after the war thanks to the Red Cross. Sensing the growing anti-Semitism in the country, she escaped Hungary after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution broke out and moved to Austria to study chemistry.
In 1957, Brettler eventually decided to leave Europe completely. She was able to immigrate to the United States thanks to an Eisenhower-era immigration policy that allowed easier entrance to the country for those in the science field. A few months later, her father, his new wife and their young son joined her.
“We had family in Los Angeles,” she said. “And America seemed like a place to start over, to start new lives.”
After arriving in Los Angeles, she was soon introduced to another Holocaust survivor named Marten Brettler. The two married within a few months and had four children together. As a child, her education post-wartime had been a struggle, and she never made it past eighth grade. Brettler credits her academic troubles to a Communist-era Hungarian shutdown of religious schools and the anti-Semitic treatment she received in public school. Seen as an unpromising pupil, she was removed from public school at age 14 and put to work instead. However, once in America, Brettler took her education into her own hands and went back to school. She obtained her degree in psychology from UCLA in 1983.
During the question and answer portion of the event, a girl in the front took the mic and commented on Brettler’s positive nature. She asked how someone who had suffered through such a traumatic event could maintain faith in humanity.
“Well, I don’t keep hatred as my companion,” Brettler said in response. “It just hurts you more than the person you hate. You must devote life to living.”
After several other students had the chance to ask questions, Brettler asked how those listening had been affected by her story. After a short silence, one student sitting in the back raised his hand.
“Hearing your story made it more real to me,” he said. “It’s different than reading about it in a textbook.”
Soon after, multiple hands started to go up. Almost every student who answered Brettler’s question mentioned that one or more of their grandparents were also Holocaust survivors.
Brettler said she felt sharing her story was a way of speaking for the millions of Holocaust victims who did not survive. She stressed that when all Holocaust survivors are gone, those who heard their tales must speak for them in the same way, so that their experiences are never forgotten. Brettler beseeched the audience to immediately speak up and intervene when they see a person or group of persons being mistreated.
Although some of the audience members trickled out of the auditorium after a standing ovation, the event did not end there. A throng of students migrated near the podium to hear more. Brettler showed pictures and talked about her childrens’ successful careers. A few students lined up to give her hugs and express their gratitude personally. When a silence fell over the small audience but nobody motioned to leave, Brettler took the opportunity to crack a joke.
“Well, well,” she said. “You just don’t want to leave, do you?”
Both Hillel President Nathan Landay (senior) and Mandel understood why the students wanted to hear more and described how pleased they were that so many people came to the event.
“It shows the commitment of the campus community to discussing these important issues,” Landay said.
Mandel said that hearing Brettler speak might help students put their complaints about writing essays or taking tests into perspective.
“When we’re college students, we like to say our lives suck,” she said. “But when I hear these survivors talk about what they went through, it reminds me how lucky I am.”
Landay encouraged those who are interested in honoring Holocaust survivors to join himself and other members of the student body in the Walk to End Genocide Sunday.