Riva Hirsch Photo by Eric Dejuan

Riva Hirsch
Photo by Eric Dejuan

The Birmingham Holocaust Education Center teaches the history of the Holocaust so that new generations can learn the lessons of the past to build a more just, humane and tolerant future. A special fundraiser, L’Chaim 2017 honoring Cathy O. Friedman, will be held on August 20 to support that mission.

There is darkness and there is light.

As the Second World War was drawing to a close, a young Jewish girl was hidden by nuns in the darkened bunker of a convent in the Ukraine. Terrified by the SS, the nuns would sneak food every couple of days to the young girl living in darkness.

When it was safe, when the fighting ceased and the exhausted people saw the beginnings of peace, the deathly ill, emaciated girl moved from the darkness of the bunker into the light.

She has never stopped.

That girl, Riva Hirsch will be 84 this month. Only seven when the war broke out in her native Romania, she is among the youngest of the survivors of the Holocaust, here in Birmingham and globally. Time is taking them away.

“I am still around,” Hirsch says. “I call myself the baby,  but when I go it is going to be only history. We need to make sure that the word goes out that it must never happen again. Because another Hitler will come along. Look what is going on in the world right now. It could happen. So we have to make sure that the world knows not to let it happen again. We have to open all the doors and windows to make sure that it never happens again,” she says.

Hirsch speaks regularly to all kinds of audiences as part of the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center’s Darkness Into Life exhibit and outreach program.

“My speaking is very hard.  It is very hard on me to go through my past. But so long as I live I will speak because it is very important, especially for the youngsters, because the future is in their hands. I am booked already to almost the end of the year. I am very happy I can keep on going.”

After the war, Hirsch was liberated and sent first to a refugee camp in Cyprus and later Israel, where she married Aisic Hirsch, another survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto. They moved to the United States in 1962 to New York, and later to Birmingham to be near their two children and four grandchildren.

Born in a small village between Romania and Russia, the war– when it came to her part of Europe in 1941–changed everything. “I came from a very nice family. We were not rich but we had everything we wanted,” Hirsch says. “I cannot remember what I ate in the morning, but I cannot forget what I went through in my young life. They took away everything from me, my education, my health, my eyes, my teeth, everything. But I survived. There were days when I did not want to live. The good God helped me survive to be able to stand up and tell the story.”

Cathy Friedman and Riva Hirsch

Cathy Friedman and Riva Hirsch

Cathy Friedman is the honoree and driving force behind this year’s fundraiser for the Holocaust Center. L’Chaim will be held on August 20 at the Alys Stephens Center. Tickets are $50 ($25 for students). The entertainment program features the Steel City Men’s Chorus as well as special musical entertainment from Red Mountain Theater executive director Keith Cromwell.

Cathy Friedman says the Holocaust is such a difficult subject to teach, and the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center does invaluable work in equipping educators to share the Holocaust with students.

“These people survived because someone was kind or they had an such a desire to survive. It makes me think, ‘What have I done?’ I am going to keep this organization alive and I am going to make sure that students understand what happened,” Friedman says. “Then they won’t bully. Won’t take advantage of people. Maybe they will be leader. Maybe they will know what hate does. I hope the lessons never go away and the stories never go away. The Holocaust Center is here to make sure that it does not go away.”

That is the point of L’Chaim, Friedman says. “It shows the heart of this organization and the talent that is around Birmingham.”

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