Brysk, Miriam (Miasnik)
This oral history video interview is available at the USC Shoah Foundation website through the generosity of the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Family Foundation
Child Survivor, Partisan
Warsaw (Poland), Lida (Belarus)
Miriam Miasnik Brysk begins with the activities of her father—a central figure to her testimony during the Holocaust. Chaim (Heniek) Miasnik was born to Chana Liba Pupko and Chenoch Miasnik in Lida in what was then eastern Poland and is now Belarus—Belorussia. He graduated from medical school in Vilna in 1932, came to Warsaw to do his residency, and became a prominent gastric surgeon in Warsaw before the war. He was a true humanitarian and was referred to as the “King of the Poor” by the poor Jews whose lives he saved and who could not otherwise afford proper medical care. There he met and married Bronka Zablocki, the daughter of Ita Zemelman and Avram Zablocki and sister of Henry, Morris, Ala (Sara), and Sevek (Israel).
Miriam was born in March 1935 and grew up in Warsaw until she was 4 years old. In 1939, after Germany invaded Poland, but prior to the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, Miriam and her parents escaped to Lida, Belarus, where her father worked as the head of surgery at the municipal hospital. Her Aunt Ala and her husband David (Tadek) Wilner and her Uncle Sevek joined them in Lida. Her two other uncles, Henry and Morris, who left Poland for America before the war, tried to get them all to come to America, but her grandfather said “You know all these millions of Jews are not very worried so why should I be?” They remained in Warsaw and “that was the last time that I saw my grandparents alive.”
In the summer of 1941, the Nazis invaded Lida and established a ghetto. The Nazis ordered Dr. Miasnik to operate on wounded German soldiers, while Bronka worked in a leather factory run for the Germans. “It was scary for me because I always worried what would happen if the Germans came into the ghetto when my family was working. I worried about what would happen to the children.” In the Lida Ghetto, Miriam witnessed daily barbaric beatings of her fellow Jews, bombs falling as they ran to hide in the shelters, and food rationing. “Life in the ghetto, you felt like you were being held in a cage. My mother used to say, ‘look at these dogs they can roam in and out of the ghetto; they are free but we as human beings are not.’”
And then in early 1942, some 700 Jews escaped from the Vilna ghetto and made their way to the ghetto in Lida, where the Jews in the Judenrat were able to get them false papers and find them work. Everything was wonderful and they were totally integrated into the Jewish community in the Lida ghetto until two Jewish robbers robbed the house of a priest who was friendly to the Jews. When the Germans found out that these thieves were two Jews, in order to save their own lives, the thieves betrayed the Jews of Vilna, pointing them all out to be slaughtered.
On May 8, 1942, SS and their collaborators raided the ghetto and forced all Jews from their homes. Those who could not walk were immediately shot to death in the streets. Miriam’s family was marched from the city into the countryside. They heard gunfire in the distance. “My aunt and uncle were sent to the left, while my mother and my father and I were sent to the right. It became obvious immediately that the right represented death.” They were beaten with metal pipes and forced to run faster, until they were stopped by a soldier who saw Dr. Miasnik’s white band with a red cross on the sleeve of his coat and realized that they still needed his surgical skills and ordered them to go back towards life. Those sent to slaughter, 80% of the Lida Jews, watched as their children were thrown into a pit and blown up by grenades, and then they too were forced to undress and were shot into a mass grave.
In the summer of 1942, in response to a rumor that the Germans would come and kill all the Jewish children in the ghetto while their parents were working, Dr. Miasnik snuck Miriam into the infectious ward of the hospital and injected her with all sorts of things that would make her sick. When he became afraid the nurses had become suspicious, he arranged for her to hide on the farm of a peasant woman whose little daughter he had saved. Before leaving “my mother kept telling me play with the child, be ever vigilant, watching everything that’s going on, never saying another Yiddish word, from today on you’re no longer a Jew. My parents had previously taught me the Lord’s Prayer in case I needed to recite it.” After a few weeks, Miriam returned to the Lida ghetto when the rumor proved false, although in other ghettos they did kill all the children.
Less than a month later, Ala decided that she had left her parents in Warsaw and she should be there to help them instead of being with her sister’s family in Lida. She gave a sled driver a few gold coins to take her there. “We never knew what happened to her; chances are that the man taking them to Warsaw gave them away on their way towards Warsaw; and if they made it to Warsaw, they probably died in Treblinka.”
It was rumored in the ghetto that Russian partisans were operating in the nearby forests. On November 9, 1942, two Jewish partisans from the Lipiczany Forest snuck into the Lida Ghetto to bring Dr. Miasnik and his instruments, as well as Bronka and Miriam, back with them so he could operate on wounded Russian partisans in the forest. At the same time, they brought back Baruch Levin, a machinist who had amassed a large collection of arms, subsequently blowing up eighteen trains and killing or wounding 1500 German soldiers. “My mother said the reason we stayed alive was because my father was a surgeon, but my mother made the difficult decisions when to act. She decided it’s better to die in the forest than to die here.”
The forests in Belorussia were much wilder, thicker with swamps than in Ukraine or Poland or Lithuania. There was so much undergrowth and fog that settled on it that it was hard to navigate through the forest. Because the forest was so wild, it made it easier for the partisans to operate there. In the forest they were sheltered by enclosures dug in the earth called ziemlankas. Some were partially submerged in the ground and had a roof over the top. Others were completely underground and covered with wood, then earth was put on the top of the wood and pieces from the surrounding ground cover were put on top of the earth to make them undetectable by the enemy. The partisans obtained their food supply by raiding nearby peasants: those who worked with the Germans were fair game; those who were loyal to the Russians were usually good communists and were never touched.
As her father was often away operating on wounded partisans, Miriam and her mother were at the mercy of the partisans, especially when German forces infiltrated the forest trying to capture the partisans. Miriam was considered a danger to the partisans as she was a child of only eight and might cry out and alert the enemy. The partisans threatened to kill Miriam and Bronka if they tried to follow them. Sometimes they were abandoned in the middle of the night, leaving them isolated. One time, Miriam was separated from her mother and feared she would freeze to death without ever seeing her family again. She endured unbearable cold and hunger for days at a time, with only trees for shelter and only snow to drink and eat.
While living in a family camp in the forest, Bronka came down with typhus caused by the Rickettsia organism which was transmitted through lice “and we were thoroughly covered with lice.” When Dr. Miasnik heard from a partisan that his wife was dying, he took whatever food he could carry in his hands and joined them in the family camp. “I knew that my mother was going to die. She was the only friend I had. My father was always elsewhere. I couldn’t count on him and she was getting sicker and sicker. I saw my father wander off near a tree and he was crying. I realized that even he thought my mother was dying.” He injected her with everything he had on hand and she finally passed the crisis and slowly recovered.
There was a limit to how much Dr. Miasnik alone could do with only a small set of instruments sterilized in alcohol and a few boiled rags. So the high command in the forest decided to build a hospital on a small remote island surrounded by a vast swamp and accessible over “a bridge” of rolling logs. Dr. Miasnik became its chief of staff and recruited Jewish doctors and nurses who had been rescued from the ghettos and other Jews who were not partisans to be part of the hospital staff, saving them from the dangers of life as unarmed Jews in the forest.
They built several ziemlankas for shelter, an operating and recovery room, and a separate area for the people who had typhus and other bad infectious diseases. They raided nearby hospitals for medical supplies. Miriam watched many of the operations, except the ones at night “because my father wanted me to sleep” and the abortions that she was forbidden to watch “but I always knew there was an abortion because the room acquired a smell after the abortion.”
Dr. Chaim Miasnik saved hundreds of lives and secretly left the hospital to operate on unarmed forest Jews who were not allowed into the partisans. He later was awarded the “Order of Lenin” by the Soviets in Moscow.
There were very few women in the partisans, mostly men, and the men wanted women. There were no prostitutes so everyone was susceptible to being raped. Any woman who was not married or living with a boyfriend, “it doesn’t matter what age, if she was a woman and has the proper anatomy, she became fair game.” To protect Miriam from rape, her father took a razor and shore off the hair from her head and her mother sewed her boys clothing. For her eighth birthday she got her own pistol “and I felt really, really important – a young partisan”
Miriam shares many memories of the people she met in the forest. “Each one had their own experiences and stories of escapes or near escapes or non-escapes and they were really very painful.” She explains the reason the Jews went to the forest to join the partisans. “It wasn’t a question of survival, but mainly a question of vengeance. They had to avenge the deaths of their families so brutally murdered in so many ghettos all around. They were going to kill as many Germans as they could.” This was true of most of the forests except for the Naliboki Forest where Tuvia Bielski believed it was more important to save one Jew than to kill 100 Germans, so he built his large camp in a remote part of that forest and in the process saved 1200 Jews.
In the early summer of 1944, Russian tanks entered the forest “and we were liberated. I don’t think any of us thought, as we were going through day to day, year-to-year, that any of us would still be left alive, but we were.”
After liberation, the Miasniks were assigned to Szczuczyn, a small town in Belarus, where Dr. Miasnik was made chief of the hospital run by the Russians. While there, they received a postcard forwarded from Lida that Uncle Sevek who was sent to Kazakhstan was alive.
They didn’t want to live under the Russians, wanting to leave Belarus, but not knowing how they would leave, “but there were always people my father had operated on who came into our lives as our saviors.” They were helped to escape to Central Poland and then travelled as refugees through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Austria, sometimes crossing borders by foot. They finally reached Italy, an Allied-occupied country, with the help of British soldiers from Palestine and Brichah, an underground movement of Jewish Holocaust survivors fleeing Eastern Europe for Palestine. One of the soldiers was Chaim’s cousin Josel Chwaletzki from Lida who was sent into Russia, escaped as a deserter, made his way to Palestine, joined the British Army and fought during the liberation of Italy. While in Rome, Dr. Miasnik was allowed to operate on Holocaust Jews, as these survivors refused to be treated by Italian doctors.
In February 1947, when Miriam was twelve years old, the family immigrated to the United States. “My father and I had wanted to go to Israel. We wanted to go to our new Jewish nation, but my mother refused to go there. After what we had gone through, we were not going to a place where there’s a war going on. We were going to America because my mother and father each had brothers in America. This was our best chance to reunite with family.” As the ship backed out into the Mediterranean, “We couldn’t help but cry like babies for all the families that we had lost.”
They arrived in New York on February 23, expecting the “goldene medina,” the land of gold where the streets were paved with gold. “As we were riding in the taxi going to Brooklyn where my uncles lived, I looked out and there was all this garbage in the streets, there were all these tenement houses, rusty old tenement houses In New York. This is the land of gold?” Their adjustment was difficult. While their family understood the enormity of six million Jews “having died, “they totally ignored the traumas experienced by the survivors–the hurts, the traumas, the fears that made it difficult for us to adjust to normal life.”
Her parents were busy trying to settle their own lives and establish a medical practice in Brighton Beach to have time for Miriam. “I was suddenly registered for school. I would go there, sitting there in shame because I didn’t know anything and I could not even speak English. I did not have anybody to console me and make me feel better. I felt like I was really sinking, I wasn’t swimming.” It was a difficult effort to become Americanized. The American Jews didn’t want to hear about the Holocaust for 45 years. “It was as if it never existed.” Fortunately, however, Miriam and her parents talked about it all the time amongst themselves. “The memories of life during the war stayed with us.” They also shared their memories with other groups of survivors from the Lida ghetto, the forest, and Warsaw.
Finally Miriam caught up in school and finished high school at seventeen. She attended New York University, where for the first time in her life, she truly blossomed. When she was a sophomore, she met her future husband, Henry Brysk. He came to America from France at the beginning of the war and got his PhD in theoretical physics from Duke University on his 23rd birthday. They married in June 1955 and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Miriam obtained an MS in bacteriology from the University of Michigan. Her first daughter Judith was born there, then they moved back to New York, where their second daughter Havi was born. Miriam returned to graduate school and received a PhD from Columbia University in biological sciences. They moved around and Miriam completed several postdoctoral fellowships. She went on to become a professor of dermatology, microbiology, and biochemistry at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
When she first came to Texas, she fell into such an unbelievable depression that she thought to end it all. Out of desperation she sought professional help and spent some thirteen years with one rough woman therapist who pulled her though and she hasn’t been depressed since. She published 85 research papers and became a mentor to other women faculty at the medical school, “seeking to help them achieve their goals and become successful with their issues of handling children and husbands and all the things it entails.”
Since her retirement in December 2000 and return to Ann Arbor to live near her two daughters and five grandchildren, Miriam has become a Holocaust artist. She has had over 25 solo exhibits and three of her art pieces are part of the permanent collection at Yad Vashem. “I have absolutely no art training. I was too busy doing science to worry about art and science is a very demanding master.” But as an undergraduate, she took an introduction to art course and was so enamored by all this beauty that was around her, that she told herself “one day I too will be able to express my feelings through art and that nation has followed me for the rest of my life.” Then, in 2002, she visited the ghettos and camps of Eastern Europe “and all the wounds that were contained in my body opened and festered even more. I cried my way through most of that trip. It was so unbelievably painful for me. When I came back, I said to myself ‘I’m ready to do Holocaust art and I got on the computer and old wounds were opening, coming out, just coming out. I think it’s given me a sense of purpose in life at this stage. It’s what keeps me young and going because I’m too busy working to play.”
In 2007, she published her memoir “Amidst the Shadows of Trees: A Holocaust Child’s Survival in the Partisans.” She is working on a second book with Margaret Lincoln, “The Stones Weep: Teaching the Holocaust through a Survivor’s Art” based on her first two art exhibits and on a third exhibit called the “Scroll of Remembrance” that will be less about individual people and more about situations and communities.
Miriam has pretty much devoted the rest of her life creating a memory, a legacy, “to leave something behind, on the Holocaust, something tangible, because that’s all I can do now is to honor them by remembering them. My art is meant to honor the Jews who died, to return to them their dignity, the dignity that the Germans took away from them. That’s why I use color; they’re real people, not shadows walking into a gas chamber. It’s done out of love, out of love and respect for the Jews who died, and not meant for my edification. It’s meant to look at individual faces and read what’s underneath them because that tells part of the story of what went on in the Holocaust. This is the best I can do to remember the Holocaust. As long as I’m alive, my computer will spew out remembrance of the Holocaust, whether it’s in print or in pictures. That’s the way I live my life now. I remember.”
Date of Interview: March 7, 2012
Length of Interview: 2 hours 55 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran
To view this oral history video interview, please click here.