This is me: Holocaust survivor

By on October 19, 2011
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Photo courtesy of Mira Binford

From the time Mira Binford was 1 year old, she and her Jewish family were forced to flee bombs and the first attacks German troops made on Poland.

“I don’t remember that, but it’s hard not to imagine it didn’t have an impact,” Binford said.

What she does remember is feeling at a very early age that everyone around her was out to kill her.

“A child is capable of so much more than we realize,” Binford said being responsible enough for self control, having to eliminate any suspicion, and having to be alert of any possible danger.

Binford, professor emerita of Holocaust history at Quinnipiac, has proved to be capable of handling almost anything, as she has lived her life in the rarest of statistics.

Of the thousands of Jewish children from her hometown of Bendzin, Poland, she was one of only a dozen who survived the Holocaust.

As a 5-year-old Jew in Poland, she and her parents hid for about a week in an underground bunker. They were forced out because of dehydration after Binford was forced to drink her own urine to survive. They were arrested during the final attempt to “cleanse” Poland of Jewish people, and spent weeks in a local forced labor camp.

Her parents were put to work sorting clothes and possessions of Jewish people who had already been sent to Auschwitz. Binford spent her time hiding in a small bunker under a horse stable until her parents arranged for her to escape over the security fence on a fateful, sunny Sunday. She was sent to live with the Dyrda family, whom were Catholic. Her parents were deported to Auschwitz shortly after that.

While living with the Dyrda family, her hair was dyed blond and she was given a cross to wear so that she didn’t appear to be Jewish. When there was no longer any money to buy bleach for her hair, she was forced to remain indoors so no one would see her. While in hiding, Binford’s foster father was cruel and abusive. He taught her how to read and write in German along with basic math skills, but also terrorized and whipped her.

“I thought of him as my own personal Nazi. He wasn’t a Nazi, he was an anti-Nazi, but he was really abusive in a terrifying way because I was totally dependent on him,” Binford said.

Still, she considers herself lucky.

“My personal experience was not the worst,” Binford said. “I was phenomenally lucky that both my parents survived. That’s so rare.”

Binford’s other family members were not as lucky. Thirty-four of Binford’s immediate family members died in the Holocaust. She remembers them with drawings from her mother, a self-taught artist who is still alive today. These drawings hang on the wall in Binford’s home in Hamden.

After the war ended, she lived with her parents and attended school in Germany for four years waiting for their US immigration quota. She remembers the time and environment as “not friendly.”

“There were so many ruins, your eye was accustomed to bombed out buildings, in Poland also,” Binford said. “It’s a familiar image.”

They received food, housing, and support from UN agencies and Jewish-American agencies. Then, she and her families were known as displaced persons, or DPs. The “survivor” label would be applied later.

Binford was a little older than 11 when she came to America in 1949, and lived on the edge of the Spanish Harlem in Manhattan with her family. She remembered starting seventh grade, without any knowledge of English, in her first American school in that area to be “a culture shock of major proportions.”

“In the early years, after we came here, there was no psychological support or understanding for most survivors, neither from our community nor from the larger American [society],” Binford said. “So nobody in school would ever think of saying, ‘How are you adjusting?’

“In our point of view now, it’s hard to fathom how people could take survivors and just say, ‘Oh, you’ll be okay.’ And that’s what we heard. ‘You’ll do fine.’ And I did fine. But never dealt with any of it.”

Binford successfully went on to study literature in college. After graduation, she was awarded a scholarship from the Fullbright Program, the first awarded to a student at her university, to spend a year conducting independent research in a foreign country. She chose Germany.

Most survivors, she remembers, were scared of Europe; and people, especially Jews, were shocked she wanted to return to Germany as a student.

“I was intrigued, it was exactly 10 years since we had left and it was an interesting experience to see how people had changed, how the country had changed,” Binford said.

The Associated Press wrote a story about how the “Anne Frank who survived” was going back, and other news outlets picked it up, equally fascinated by her strong will.

“Germans would comment to me about my perfect German accent, because most Americans don’t speak very accent-free, and I would say, ‘It’s thanks to Hitler.’ And then it would be up to them to ask or not ask how come,” Binford said.

“Young people would say, ‘Well Hitler made some mistakes, but he did a lot of good for us.’ Which is true, he got them working, he got people jobs, he rearmed and that brought a lot of economic activity, and people were better off. But for them to be able to say to someone who had been marked for extermination, ‘he made a few mistakes,’ it was interesting.”

Binford also had been saving money while she was in college and working as a legal secretary part-time, and saved enough money to ship a new Beetle over to the US from Germany. It cost $1,400.

“I guess I’m a little bit of a contrarian and if everybody says ‘How can you?,’ I think about, ‘Well, why not?’” Binford said.

It was during her year in Germany where she first saw films other than Hollywood films. This began her fascination with documentaries. She has since made several documentaries, mostly in South Asia, while she lived in India and Bangladesh for nearly nine years as an adult. Her work is still in use, and is distributed by the University of Wisconsin, where she received her doctorate.

“Diamonds in the Snow” was her 10th and final documentary. It grew out of her experiences as one of the “hidden children,” stowed away from the Nazis by strangers. The film tracks Binford’s story as well as Ada Raviv and Shulamit Levin. Through interviews and photographs, the documentary tells the survivor stories of three of the few children who were able to escape. The film, available in English as well as German and Spanish, has been shown throughout the country and has won many awards, including first prize in the National Jewish Video Competition and the CINE Golden Eagle Award.

When Quinnipiac hosted the world premiere in 1994, more than 600 people were in attendance, according to Binford. Her parents were two of those audience members, and they received a standing ovation from the audience. A day later “Diamonds in the Snow” broadcast on German television.

“I felt when I finished it that it would be okay to die now,” Binford remembered. “I didn’t want to die, and I still don’t, but I had done something that I felt was worthwhile, that I feel good about having done.

“It brought me a lot of awards, other than award … contact with people, people I met whom I interviewed, the kind of richness that any opening out to the world can bring you.”

As a self-described “wanderer” and “bit of a gypsy,” she undoubtedly has lived her life in contrary to the hiding and confinement she was subjected to for so long. Throughout her life, she has lived or worked in Poland, Germany, America, Israel, Mexico, France, India and Bangladesh. She has studied, can understand or is fluent in English, Spanish, German, Polish, Russian, French, Italian and three Indian languages.

Today, Binford perseveres despite an additional struggle. She was diagnosed with a rare incurable neuromuscular disorder, primary lateral sclerosis, which today affects only one in 10 million people. The disorder is related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, but PLS is not fatal. It requires her to use a walker, but has not slowed her down. She refers to her walker as her “chariot” and remains an active voice for her causes through email.

“I like to say that making the film helped me to learn that you don’t have to be good, to do good, that ordinary people can find in themselves the wherewithal, the resources to do amazing things,” Binford said.

“For a catastrophist like me, who always expects that the sky might fall, a realization that you can do good at any time without having to be some extraordinary person and sacrifice everything, is one of the hopeful lessons that I can point to because it made my life possible.”

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About Meghan Parmentier

Senior Managing Editor
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Year: 2012
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