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The Life of a Wounded Survivor

04-16-2015

JERUSALEM, Israel -- This week Israelis mark 70 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. About 189,000 of those who made it through the Holocaust live in Israel.

One such survivor, Rita Kasimow Brown, shared her experience with CBN News recently -- how she survived and what it means to be a survivor.

"This painting I painted in Tel Aviv before I came here, and I call it 'The Wounded Survivor,' Rita told us as she stood in front of an ethereal painting in which two buildings representing the ghetto and Tel Aviv stood and a girl in white lay bleeding on the ground.

Rita was just seven years old when the Nazis invaded her hometown of Turmolt, Poland.  In 1941, the Nazis rounded up the Jews there and put them in a ghetto.

Now a recognized Holocaust artist, who has also been an art therapist, Rita's survival experience is the theme of her paintings.

Wounded Survivor

"I'm the wounded survivor," she said. "I always painted myself in white. I think it has to do with the little white, not-so-white nightgown that I survived the whole Holocaust in."

At 80, Rita is bubbly and vibrant.  If not for her artwork and her story, you might never know her painful past. Yet she carries her memories with her every day.

"I'm not sure if it's totally that you cannot heal the wound; it's something that still works in your memory and it affects your daily life," she said. "It's such a traumatic experience that you're like a post trauma."

Her story is told in the book, "Portrait of a Holocaust Child, Memories and Reflections." Rita told CBN News how she and her family survived in what they called "the grub."

"What happened was we escaped the ghetto. We were hiding in all sorts of places, in barns, in bunkers, in all kinds of places with other people, but we got sick and had colds and then my father went away for a few days and what he did, he found another Christian family," she said.

"And there he dug a big pit under the stable and had a connection to the potato bin and a latch that you can open to the farmer's home," she recalled. "Now it was total darkness. We had a little light, from the cow shed, a little straw so there was a little light."

"My father and my mother and the two little kids with them, only my little brother could stand up, and I was lying in the passageway from the pit to the potato bin," she continued.

Hungry and Fearful

"This is how we lived 20 months. We were hungry and fearful. It was just a living hell. It was a living grave," she said.

As they lay there, Rita's mother taught her songs that she knew from the very cultured life she had led in her birthplace of Vilna.

"We sat like this and prayed and tried to sleep," she said, clutching at her heart.
Being awake was a nightmare, she explained, hour by hour, suffering day and night. Most of her father's 12 siblings died while her little family of five stayed alive. 

"Being creative helped me survive and not only survive but keep my sanity," Rita said.  "I survived the Nazi murder machine, but the thing for us, the Nazi Holocaust survivors…we are wounded survivors."

Spider Bite

At the urging of her students in 2006, Rita revisited Poland for the first time to join the March of the Living. While at Auschwitz, a spider bite took special significance, which she later put in a painting.

"This I painted like the 'there and then' and the 'here and now,' she said of the painting with a green, grassy lawn, but in it there's a big black spider.

"Even [though] the 'here and now' is green and beautiful, there's still in the memory the train leading to the Holocaust. There is this [black spider] that bit me it looks a little bit like a swastika…and it's also soaked with blood."

A mother of two and grandmother of three, Rita says she has seen many miracles in her life.

"We [survivors] have a kind of a survival instinct, which was very strong but now it's weakening because when you get older your defenses go down," she said.  "So the only thing that we have is because of our children and grandchildren, that's our victory."

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