Edith Bell, a Holocaust survivor brought to the University of Pittsburgh by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace-Pittsburgh last week to, in the words of promotional material of the April 16 event, “share her experiences about her life under the Nazi regime, her later experiences in Israel and how her overall life experiences and witnesses have affected her stance on Palestine,” did pretty much that.
Contrary to fears voiced in the opinion pages of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by an official from the Zionist Organization of America, Bell, 91, who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, largely kept her remarks at the Holocaust memorial event to the dangers of violence. While comments from the audience of about 100 people attempted to steer the conversation to denigrating Israel as a colonial power intent on using the death of Jews during the Holocaust as a justification of the wholesale appropriation of Palestinian land and the subjugation of Arabs, Bell decried violence in all its forms and proclaimed a deep-seated love for the land that provided safe haven for her and her family.
“I love Israel,” she said at one point. Later, turning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she said, “It’s reprehensible when Palestinians bomb Israeli buses.”
Although she claimed that Hamas is not a terrorist organization by virtue of the fact that it was elected to lead the government of Palestinian-controlled Gaza, Bell also cautioned that she was not an expert in Middle East politics or current events.
From the beginning, Bell’s invitation by SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace, two groups that have drawn fire for events viewed as defamatory to Israel in the past, prompted uproar. A Carnegie Mellon University professor called the memorial a protest, while the ZOA’s Brian Albert claimed that the purpose of the gathering was not to “commemorate the Holocaust, but rather to vandalize the day by painting Israelis as modernday Nazis.”
Prior to even offering a word at Pitt, Bell’s opinions seemed solidified to some. In response, she acknowledged one author’s ignorance by stating, “I guess I disappointed him because I didn’t say what he expected me to say.”
What Bell did say was a detailed history of her experiences in the Holocaust, a claim that Israel must exist, a longing to visit her family who live in Israel, opposition to the mistreatment of Palestinians and criticism of some Israeli policies.
For the first hour of Bell’s presentation, she described experiences in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. She explained that unlike other survivors, her arms bear no Nazi-applied numerical tattoos because she only spent a week in Auschwitz. She described marching for miles alongside so many female prisoners that the frozen ground melted beneath their feet, became muddy and impeded traversing. She talked about the crematoria and the chilling feeling of returning to Germany, her former home, years after World War II.
While Bell welcomed questions throughout her talk, more were offered in the second hour, once she began discussing Israel.
She continued her narrative by explaining that between 1947 and 1952, she lived in Israel.
“It felt good being somewhere where you were wanted. It was my country. I felt good,” she said.
However, after her husband’s death in 1952, she accepted an invitation from friends and family to visit Panama. She had intended to stay for only two months, but while there met an American GI. The two eventually married and moved to the United States. For years after she came to America, Bell kept her Israeli passport.
“It felt good being an Israeli,” she remarked.
She even renewed the passport, though eventually decided for “red tape purposes to drop it.” Bell explained that it was easier for her and her husband to both possess American passports.
Over the years, Bell’s opinion of Israel shifted.
“The State of Israel has changed,” she told the audience. “It’s hard for me to criticize Israel, but I feel Israel’s policies are wrong and self-defeating.”
When asked what prompted her attitudinal change, Bell stated, “There was no special event, just an accumulation. Maybe it started when Israel started destroying the houses of Palestinians. I felt it was self-defeating, and they created more enemies.”
“Living in the U.S. you get a different perspective than living there,” she continued, “but slowly it seems like things were getting worse.”
She said she was “very upset when Israel was bombing Gaza” last summer. “Palestinians are human beings and have human rights; [Israel] should treat them like human beings.”
“Israel, it has to exist, they’ve done fantastic stuff there,” she said at another point. “It’s amazing to me what they did, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of other people.”
Near the end of her remarks, Bell was asked a loaded question about the Holocaust being used as a rationale for oppression.
“I totally reject using the Holocaust as a tool for hurting other people,” she said. “Having survived the Holocaust doesn’t give me the right to treat people like they don’t have human rights.”
While Bell met each question with a response, as the hour grew she admitted that she lacked all answers.
“We have to strive for Israelis and Arabs to live side by side,” she said. “I have no solution.”
Even without solutions, Bell provided listeners with more than she might have realized.
“I thought her story was amazing,” said Demetri Khoury a sophomore studying electrical engineering. “I only know about the Holocaust from reading about it in history class or reading Anne Frank’s diary.”
Bell is the first survivor that Khoury has ever heard.
He said that he admired Bell’s “courage and bravery.”
“It must have been really scary to go through where everyone was being targeted,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.