Miriam Winter Lecture and Interview
Written by Kokko Tso
“I am a Polish child survivor of the Holocaust. By inviting a Holocaust survivor to speak to you today, you remember the murder of the Jews of Europe. You keep their memory alive.”
– Miriam Winter, Lecture at Hillsdale College on January 24th, 2014
In early January, Dr. Robert Eden, professor of politics at Hillsdale College, approached us to record a lecture from Miriam Winter, who was scheduled to to talk about surviving the Holocaust. Intrigued, I picked up a copy of Miriam’s memoir Trains as research material. I discovered an amazing story, unbelievably sad, but permeated with hope and strength.
Miriam was a six-year-old child living in Lodz, Poland when World War II began. The Nazis first relocated her family to the infamous Warsaw ghetto, then to the Ozarow ghetto; however, Miriam’s parents managed to sneak her out of the ghetto with help of a sympathetic stranger. As Miriam writes in Trains, “My life was saved through a chance meeting of two strangers on a train… I can’t remember my mother’s face, although I do remember the train that took me away.” Miriam spent the next four years hiding her ethnicity, her religion, and her identity. She endured both the constant fear of discovery and the often-abusive behavior of her foster parents. Her greatest pain came at the end of the war when she couldn’t find any trace of her family. Despite her best efforts, she has yet to find any record of what happened to them, leading her to believe that they had all perished.
Yet, Miriam did not give in to despair.
I met Miriam for the first time when she gave her lecture at Hillsdale. A small, elderly lady, her frail frame belies her tremendous strength of character. She spoke of dealing with survivor’s guilt, the pain of realizing that she was alone in the world after the war, and the confusion of not knowing who she really was after so many years of hiding her identity.
Miriam found her purpose through her inner struggles and through writing. Before a packed auditorium at Hillsdale College, Miriam declared: “I am a witness—a witness to the Jews that perished in the Holocaust. I must tell their story.”
The importance of her Jewish identity is a recurring theme throughout both Miriam’s lecture and her memoir. When several Hillsdale students and I visited her a few weeks after her lecture, we asked her about her difficult journey of remembrance in her memoir, Trains. She talked about losing her Jewish identity and her struggle to recover it. As a child during the war, being Jewish meant death, and she struggled with openly declaring her Jewish identity even after the war. Because she was separated from her family so young, she has difficulty even remembering her parents’ faces, let alone her Jewish heritage.
She described writing Trains as more than a chronicle of her path to remembrance–it is a facilitator of her journey. By writing and re-writing her memoir, Miriam slowly came to remember and reclaim her Jewish identity and heritage.
She is someone who I am proud to have met, and her inspiring story–and the fact that so many at Hillsdale College heard it–will continue to resonate here on campus and throughout the country. As witnesses, we have a duty to keep the memory alive as well.
Kokko Tso is the Web Content Manager for Hillsdale College. A ’13 graduate of Hillsdale, Kokko triple-majored in History, Latin, and Music. As Web Content Manager, he manages the College’s website and social media.