Thursday, December 2, 2010

Out of the dark

In my continued series, Darkness into Life: Alabama's Holocaust Survivors Through Photography and Art, meet Riva Hirch and read her compelling story:

When little girls are ten years old, they should be playing with dolls or hosting tea parties.

When Riva Hirsch was ten years old, she was hidden by nuns in a bunker near a convent in Ukraine. Fearful of frequent visits by the SS soldiers, the nuns were only able to visit the bunker every two or three days to leave food and water.
Out of the Dark by Becky Seitel
“When the door was cracked, it was my lifeline. The door separated me from the outside world. Inside that bunker, my life was lonely and frightening,” she recalls.

So fearful were the nuns of being discovered, they often simply cracked the door and hurriedly threw in the food.

“I was living among rats. If I was fast enough to get to the food before the rats ran away with it, I ate. If I was too slow, I was forced to exist on lice. They were all over me. At times, I could hardly open my eyes or my mouth. Swallowing lice helped keep me alive. They were my breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

Riva existed in this dark isolation for two years.

“I don’t know how time passed. Day was night and night was day. I felt more dead than alive. But even though I didn’t have even the simple basics of life like other little girls, I was safe.”

“In 1945, the door of the bunker opened wide. It had not been open more than a crack for two years.

“The nuns wrapped my frost-bitten feet in cloth and draped a blanket over my shoulders. I was suffering from malaria and typhus. My vision was impaired and my teeth had fallen out.

“A voice spoke in a language I didn’t understand. I later learned the Russian Army had liberated me.

“A hand pushed me forward. I moved toward the light, and with small footsteps, left the bunker in Tulchin, Ukraine.

“I was 12 years old.”

Like many children of the Holocaust, Riva was robbed of her childhood more than six decades ago by Adolph Hitler.

Today, she spends time working with the Elks Lodge of Mountain Brook to help promote the education and social development of Alabama’s youth.

Riva is well-known throughout the state for her dedication to raising money for the Elks Youth Camp. Located on Lake Martin in Tallassee, Alabama, the Elks Youth Camp offers activities and programs for young people between ages eight and thirteen. The youngsters receive an opportunity to experience different surroundings while learning valuable lessons about life. The programs are designed to help build character while showing how important it is to work with others.
Building Better Kids by Becky Seitel
In 2006, Riva single-handedly sold more Cadillac raffle tickets than any other Alabama member. This was just one of the reasons she was named Alabama Elk of the Year, becoming the first woman to receive that honor in the history of the Mountain Brook Lodge.

“Since we came to America in 1962, people have been wonderful to my husband and me,” Riva says. “Being a part of the Elks Association gives me an opportunity to give something back to this country by giving our youth such a great opportunity to build character… and have fun!”

Riva's husband, Aisic, is also a Holocaust survivor.

When she talks about the terror she experienced in Ukraine, he understands more than anyone. That’s because he experienced circumstances very similar to Riva’s, almost 1,000 miles away in Poland.

Riva and Aisic Hirsch married in Haifa in 1950, five years after they were liberated by Russian troops.

“We both went to Palestine after the war, and it was there that I met my beshert, a Yiddish word that means perfect match, soul mate, destiny,” Riva explains.
Beshert by Becky Seitel
“I was a police officer and often ate at a local cafĂ©. Riva was a waitress there, just 16, and the most beautiful girl I had ever seen,” says Aisic.

Through the years, they’ve shared much more than the painful story of their past. They’ve shared many happy family times, always observing and celebrating their Jewish faith and heritage, a faith and heritage that made them a target of murder by the Nazis and then brought them together in Palestine.
Friday Night by Becky Seitel