This story first appeared in This Week in Berkeley, our Saturday morning newsletter. Sign up for free.
Reporters get so many requests to cover a new book, film, or story that it’s easy to get jaded, harder to stay tender.
But tender I was when my editor forwarded me the information on the new book about 101-year-old Holocaust survivor Ben Stern, written by his daughter Charlene, both of whom live in Berkeley.
I haven’t been isolated from Jewish history, including the sickening atrocities under the Nazis. Which really weren’t that long ago. I’ve read a lot, viewed a lot. And there is family, my father was Jewish.
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Yet, there are screens between me and this history, not of denial but of time and distance.
Then there was Ben, looking through the screens.
Seeing pictures of him, reading the blurbs in the book and the documentary about his life, I wanted immediately to meet Ben.
And though this may sound strange or journalistically inappropriate, I also wanted to touch him, to shake his hand, or clasp his shoulder.
The Holocaust can do this, I think.
Why touch? To soothe (corny, I know), to honor, to hold on to the realness.
To talk to a survivor, especially someone with a sharp memory who is eager to share his or his experience, even in devastating detail, such as Ben, deepens these feelings, or did for me. (Not all Holocaust survivors want to or can do this.)
Coordinating the first visit to Ben’s home took time, with the busy schedules of Ben and his family, and of me and Berkeleyside’s sensitive photojournalist, Ximena Natera.
But when it did happen, there was, at least I felt, almost immediate ease.
Sure, Ben had a hard time hearing, and this was limiting. But with his daughter’s help, and augmented by email exchanges and the book and documentary about Ben (Near Normal Man), and a second visit, his stories took shape, with painful clarity.
His home, the pictures on his walls and the books on his shelves helped color between the lines.
I found I wanted more. I guess I could say, some of the screen was still hazy and I needed to look deeper, longer.
So, as I was working on the story, I watched a ton of documentaries on the Holocaust (including the one on Ben), mainly featuring survivors. Survivors of concentration camps, and of death marches, and of ghettos. Polish. Hungarian. German. Dutch. Czech. Documentaries about women, men, children.
I was hooked on this learning.
Much of the history was familiar, but in many ways, I was taking it all in anew.
And grateful for this.
It’s a huge responsibility to write about someone else’s life, and I never take this lightly. It’s even more of a responsibility to write about someone’s suffering. Whatever that suffering is.
Though for the sake of history, of remembering, of never forgetting, of the facts – this is vitally important. For many life experiences. How easily they become hazy.
And as for touching Ben?
In the first interview in his apartment, I asked if he was comfortable showing his Auschwitz tattoo. I’d seen pictures of it, so I thought he might be OK with this. He said sure and pulled up his sweater sleeve with a bit of help from others.
There it was in muted black-blue — 129592, with an inverted triangle. I rested my hand on the tattoo, and let it sit there for a little while, feeling the warmth of his skin.
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