The following article was written in 1995 upon my return from a three week
trip shooting the 1.5 hour video documentary, "A Journey to Remember."
In April 1998 it was reprinted during Holocaust Remembrance Week in
The Beaverton Valley Times, Tigard Times, and Tualatin TImes. The next
year it won first place for Best Feature Story in the Oregon Newspaper
Publishers Association annual contest.
I hope you enjoy accompanying me as we join Alice for her incredible
In 1995 Alice Kern of Portland, Oregon, and her four daughters completed a journey of both sorrow
and joy to a place and time which, for most of us, exists only in history books.
Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, the death march, cattle cars, Dr. Mengele - all grim reminders of a
time which, for Alice, was terribly real.
In 1944, when Alice was a young woman in Romania, she and other Jews in her hometown were
rounded up and shipped to concentration camps. Most did not survive.
Only after many years of silent grief was it finally possible for Alice to return to the sites of her
imprisonment. "I didn't know I was supposed to talk about it," Alice says, "I have a number on my
arm, but nobody asked me any questions."
After 30 years she could contain the feelings no longer, and began to write down the chronicles of
those early days. Then in the mid-eighties, at the urging of a Christian pastor, she put the words
into book form and published "Tapestry of Hope."
She discovered schools, churches and civic groups were interested in hearing her story in person.
Since then she has been the featured speaker at many schools throughout Oregon and Southwest
So in May of 1995, Alice, then 72, journeyed with her daughters and videographer Robert Bowling
to visit the camps and make a documentary video, "A Journey to Remember," recounting the
events of those tortuous days. Why? To soothe the aching in her soul and also leave a legacy for
the future; an education project to teach not just about the evil of those days, but about the miracle
of survival and the will to keep believing in the future.
Notes from Alice: The curtain is rising. I never thought that the day would come for me to face
the darkest days of my life. But after fifty years, surrounded by my four loving daughters, off we
go. My heart is pounding. I am afraid of the unknown which is waiting. After a long night flying
over Greenland and Iceland, we land in Germany. Many scary stories and distorted stories we
have heard before about neo-Nazi's and modern persecutions, but after a short drive in our
rented van we arrive safely in the small community, Bergen. Accommodations are perfect
which soothes our excited souls. Bergen-Belsen is not too far in the distance.
There are no signs mentioning a concentration camp on the highway, just a small one reading,
"Bergen-Belsen." The parking lot is almost empty in the late afternoon as Alice makes her way
into the modern museum complex.
She pauses to sign the visitor's book, writing: "Alice Kern, I was a survivor of this camp." It is a
significant moment. Her pride in signing seems to be telling the Nazi's: You did not win, I have
had a life!
To one side of the building is a large room with wall after wall of large photographs and murals of
all aspects of the Holocaust: The 1938 "Krystallnacht" (night of broken glass) when the SS
destroyed Jewish businesses and homes, murdered people, and desecrated synagogues; the
bestial ghettos and marches to the cattle cars; the concentration camps and crematoriums; and of
course the hideous trenches - a hundred feet wide - piled high with emaciated bodies. All are
pictured here for only the bravest of souls to see.
In the central lobby stands a 30-by-10 foot model of the camp as it was in 1945. Alice leans over
it, perplexed. She never saw the whole camp before, only her barrack and the bath house. Her
eyes glaze over a bit, she is in shock from this view of the whole camp with row after row of
barracks and barbed wire.
On the other side of the lobby are the theater and offices for the museum. Alice meets with Dr.
Thomas Rahe in the conference room and finds that her book, "Tapestry of Hope" is on the
shelves. Dr. Rahe show her a 4-inch thick record book listing names of those imprisoned at the
camp. He explains that the SS destroyed all the records, so all information must be pieced
together from survivors and relatives. He is not Jewish, but he is quite serious about preserving
the history of the camp.
Alice searches for her name in the book, but it is not there., nor is the name of her beloved Aunt
Sarah who was a second mother to her. Both were liberated by the Allied Forces and taken to the
infirmary as breathing skeletons. At that time, Sarah's husband Joel located her and sent word
that he would come to visit. The next morning, Alice looked over at her aunt's bed only to see a
stranger, a woman mumbling in Italian. No one had to say it; Aunt Sarah had died. Uncle Joel
arrived just hours later and was told the tragic news.
Of the 50,000 people who died at
Belsen, 14,000 died after liberation.
Alice keeps looking through the
book and finds the name of her best
friend, Heddy. "I can remember the
day she died," Alice says softly as
emotion chokes her voice, "but by
that time... I had no more tears."
Notes: In 1945 as my friends tell me, I looked like I was dead in this camp. Yet when we
were liberated somebody heard me still breathing. Now, after 50 years, I am back. Walking
into the clearing that was once the camp I am faced with what seems to be miles and miles
of reddish brown ground cover - heather. It give me the impression of a burnt ground. We
pass a huge mound with the inscription: '"Here lies 5,000 dead." The next huge grave
honors 1500 dead; the next 2500. And on it goes, all around the open meadow. Which
one of them is my aunt buried in? I will never know."
Alice stands by the model of the camp and talks to Dr. Rahe, trying to decipher where she was
imprisoned. She tells of the miracle of finding a friend from her hometown who was in charge
of the bath house and being invited to stay in a nicer barrack with a wooden floor and windows.
She was able to get some extra food, a turnip once in a while.
Then the camp was neglected at the end of the war, and for weeks there was no food and no
water. Lice were everywhere, infecting thousands of people with typhus. Every morning
workers would come by and haul out the dead, piling them up like cordwood. There was
neither time nor motive to bury them.
Other museum visitors start to gather around the large table to listen to Alice. It is obvious to
those who are aware and speak English, This woman was here. This is no history book or
photo exhibit; this is a survivor. There is a sacred silence among the listeners. Alice speaks
for 20 minutes, telling many stories of what it was like to be constantly so close to death.
Then she tells of her recovery in Sweden, which took many months. The people were so
wonderful there. A group of boys would stand outside the window and send notes in to the
refugees. It was in Sweden that she met a handsome photographer named Hugo who had
survived Dachau, but had escaped earlier in the war. She would go on to marry him and move
to America: Portland, Oregon, where she would raise four daughters.
As she finishes her story, she simply shrugs, "My husband told me we cannot live with anger
and hatred because it will destroy us. We must move on and hope. So this is my message:
We must make sure that this never happens again. And we must always have respect for
Before leaving for Poland to find Auschwitz, Alice takes her daughters out to the memorial wall
at the far end of the grave mounds. The sun is out, but there is a cold bite to the air; the wind
whips steadily, yet somehow honors an eerie silence amid the graves. Amid 50,000 people,
Heddy, and Aunt Sarah.
We stop by the wall near the inscription, "In memory of those who died in this place." We
light a candle and say our mourners kaddish for my aunt, my best friend Heddy, and all who
perished in this place. All the lice-infested barracks have been burned down long ago, but I
can see them; I can remember them. This place is ours, the survivor's cemetery.
As I once again leave this place behind we drive past a NATO base and a sign reading
"British Compound." They never left! I have such admiration for those heroes who liberated
us. They were just young men trained to fight a war, but then to find us skeletons: the dead
and the barely living. I will always be grateful for the miracle that I could survive such evil.
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