Twenty years ago, Turner Geriatric Center social worker Ruth Campbell helped a client, Holocaust survivor Miriam Garvil, begin writing her autobiography. This winter, I Have to Survive: Miriam’s Story, was finally published as a print-on-demand book from amazon.com. Now retired and living in Japan, Campbell is working with the ninety-two-year-old Garvil, who lives in an assisted living facility in Ann Arbor, to promote the memoir, which describes the author’s travails as a young Polish Jew in the notorious concentration camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
The women met when Garvil’s adult son was seriously ill. After he died, Campbell encouraged Garvil to tell her story, believing that, painful as her past was, recording the memories might provide some relief and a sense of purpose. But Garvil and her now-deceased husband, Julian, were ambivalent about the project and eventually stopped work on the book.
Never one to leave a project unfinished, Campbell brought the unfinished manuscript along when she and her husband, U-M Japan expert John Campbell, retired to Tokyo in 2005. A couple of years ago, she reread it, had it typed and spiral bound, and, nervously, mailed it to Garvil. This time, the reluctant memoirist responded eagerly. On Campbell’s next visit to Ann Arbor, she says, they spent a week together, “me reading from my laptop, and she making comments and corrections.”
Garvil says she enjoyed recalling her happy childhood as the younger of two daughters in a beautiful apartment in Lodz, Poland, and her love of ice skating and fashion. Harder was describing her experiences after she was sent to the camps at age eighteen. Garvil took chances–grabbing a confiscated fur coat under the eyes of Nazi guards, smuggling potatoes from the kitchen where she worked, whispering rumors and information to other prisoners. “To survive, you had to look all around you and be very observant,” she writes. Her father, mother, and sister died in the camps. What helped, Garvil recalls, was her promise to her father: she had told him, “If you don’t survive, I will survive for you.”
When she finally got a copy of her book in January, Garvil says, “I read all night. I was crying.” But Garvil is glad she finally told her story. “So many people,” she says, “know nothing of the Holocaust.”