Liat Ben-Shay is a different kind of Holocaust “survivor.”
Without the Holocaust, she never would have been born.
That fact still fuels her passion, to teach and create lasting art images that will tell the world about both the horrors of the Holocaust and the courage found in the Jews’ resistance to the Nazi war machine.
Ben-Shay, who shares her birth year with her native Israel, told her story recently, one day after more than 600 Jews gathered at an Amherst temple to observe Yom HaShoah, an annual memorial for Holocaust victims.
It is a story worth retelling.
Her father, Nechemia Chvat, fled from Poland to Palestine in 1933; six years later, he returned to Poland to bring back his wife and son, but the Polish border had just closed. Before the Nazi killing spree ended, he lost his six brothers and sisters, his young wife and their son, who was an infant when Chvat first emigrated.
He lost them all, apparently to the Auschwitz gas chambers.
Back in Israel, Chvat remarried, and at age 47, he and his 42-year-old wife brought their daughter Liat into the world, in 1948, the same year Israel was born.
“It’s ironic,” Ben-Shay said. “The Holocaust gave me my life.
“The reality is that the Holocaust killed 6 million people,” she added. “But on the other side, the Holocaust gave life, new life, to a second generation. We are the second generation. We were born after our parents lost everything and decided to show the world and the killers and anti-Semites that we will keep going, we will survive.”
Ben-Shay, who moved to Hamburg last spring with her husband to be closer to some family members, insists that her story – as a child of the Holocaust – is not that unusual. Several of her Israeli classmates were born under similar circumstances, to parents who had lost loved ones and wanted to start new families in Israel.
“This is our revenge,” Ben-Shay said of her generation. “We showed them that they couldn’t kill us. We are still here.”
She moved to America in 1990, when her husband came to this country as a student. They settled in Utah, where Ben-Shay carved out a reputation as both an artist and a teacher.
Ben-Shay is a multimedia artist who paints, draws, takes photos, writes stories and creates collages, often sprinkled with Old Testament passages. She also specializes in telling the story of the tragic end of Berlin’s Jewish community, and some of her Holocaust artwork has been on display in Israeli museums.
One of her works depicts a woman sitting forlornly on a wooden park bench with the same message, “Only for Jewish,” written in seven languages. That woman, wearing a Star of David on her shirt, sums up the Nazi campaign’s goal.
“The idea was to isolate the Jews, to choke them, to make them nothing,” Ben-Shay said, before referring to the woman on the bench. “She’s thinking to herself, ‘Why am I a Jew? What is my destiny?’ ”
Ben-Shay has thought a lot about her destiny, telling the story of the Holocaust from a different perspective.
“I’m not a Holocaust survivor,” she insisted. “I’m the result of what happened. I want to tell young people that the second generation of this Holocaust are still alive.”
Many of the direct survivors, of course, are gone. The youngest Holocaust survivors are well into their senior years. And many of them, like Ben-Shay’s father, didn’t like to share many of those horrific memories.
“It was a big wound,” she said. “It was so traumatic. My father decided not to open Pandora’s Box.”
But some of those memories did seep out.
Ben-Shay knows the basic story of her father’s exodus from Poland.
“All his family laughed at him,” she recounted. “They said, ‘Crazy Nechemia went to the desert.’ ”
His reply, to them: “One day you’ll see who’s crazy.”
After fleeing from Poland, he kept corresponding with his wife, Matilda, eager to have her and their son Joseph join him in Palestine.
He joined the British Army, working as a movie projectionist, until 1939, when he sought to bring his wife and son back with him. In Tel Aviv, he bought the best coat he could find, to show his wife how happy and successful he was, and he headed for Europe, finally taking a train to the checkpoint at the Polish border.
It was June 1939, and the Polish border had just closed.
“That was the moment that he knew he had lost his family,” his daughter said. “He took off his coat and threw it into the mud. Then he ran back to the train station.”
Someone retrieved the muddy coat and gave it back to him.
“I have no one to wear it for,” he said. “It was for my Matilda.”
Ben-Shay wants to preserve these memories, to keep them alive, fearing that another Holocaust could occur.
“My goal is to open the eyes of young people, about what can happen to minorities anywhere,” she said.
Ben-Shay, who can be reached at LBS8645@yahoo.com, believes it’s her obligation, her duty, to tell the stories she knows, to pass on these memories to a younger generation.
And then she invoked the words of her late father:
“I have nothing,” he told her. “You are the only thing that I have. They took from me my friends, my family, my house, my garden, my trees and my town. I have lost everything.
“Now I have only you.”