Life & Culture

Exploring the emotional recovery of a Shoah survivor who lost father, brother and sister

Diane Samuels’ latest drama tells the story of Miriam Freedman, who learned how to live with the loss of her family members in Holocaust


We live in a time where it may not be possible to imagine ever recovering from atrocity. But the life and times of 89-year-old Miriam Freedman are evidence that even the greatest outrage can be overcome by those who survive them.

Raised in an Orthodox family in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia), Miriam spent much of the war as a toddler hiding in the small town of Nitra with her mother and six others, crammed into a basement deliberately smeared with excrement and so small that Germans hunting for Jews never suspected it could be inhabited by people.

After the war, Miriam discovered that her father, brother and sister had been murdered in the Holocaust.

How you might ask could anyone ever psychologically recover from such experiences, let alone forgive those who perpetrated them. Yet Miriam has.

“It begins with a meditation,” says playwright Diane Samuels.

Best known for the 1993 modern classic Kindertransport, Samuels is referring to her latest work All About Miriam, a multimedia show based on Miriam’s memoir Love Is Always The Answer. Directed by the actor Ben Caplan, the show receives its premiere at JW3 next week.

“The piece is also called Meditations On Survival And Beyond, so I wouldn’t say this is primarily a Holocaust story,’ continues Samuels.

“It’s a moving story about a very inspiring woman and her self-inquiry into facing what she experienced. I think it really speaks to people now.”

The evening is dominated by a big screen with images and video footage relating to Miriam’s story. A clarinet player accompanies the piece, interweaving music around the recorded voice of Miriam who was interviewed for the production.

Speaking from her home in Finchley Central, Miriam casts her mind back to her life in Israel and Britain after the war, which included a spell as the Jewish Agency’s representative of Israel in Northern Ireland.

This was before she met her mentors, who include Irina Tweedie, the Russian-born leading practitioner of meditation and Sufism.

“I was living in denial and isolation,” says Miriam.

“I didn’t want to see people and couldn’t relate to them [although] I’ve always considered myself a social person.”

She hesitates to say that she suffered from depression but back then her symptoms also included physical pain, which she partly ascribes to her impossibly cramped hiding conditions.

And then in 1961, not long after she had got married, there was the Eichmann trial.

“The Holocaust came back to me with a clarity that I had never known before. I realised at that moment that I had been living in denial.”

The breakthough led to new kinds of understanding and practice.

She became a yoga teacher, learnt alternative therapies, such as reflexology and massage, and also trained as a counsellor.

“I came from a very strong Jewish background, but somehow Judaism never gave me the answers I wanted. Instead, I looked east, if you like.”

“Irina Tweedie was key in guiding Miriam to this point,’ says Samuels. “She’s a huge influence and presence. And so we follow that relationship a little bit through the piece.”

It was also Tweedie’s influence that led to the forgiveness that Miriam says was part of her healing process.

The two became so close that at one point Tweedie asked Miriam to host people who had travelled from across the world to listen to her lectures. Some of them were German.

“At first I said no,” says Miriam.

“But then I thought how can I be a disciple and pupil of Irina and not agree to what she’s asking me to do? So I agreed to host Germans in my home and they became close, close friends.”

For Samuels the impulse to write the play comes from the same source that drove her to write Kindertransport.

“What enabled me to write Kindertransport was my need to understand how one faces up to the truths of traumatic experience, and I think that’s the connection between the two plays. I think it is essential that trauma is examined. Burying and denying it does not help you heal. It can help you cope and get on with life, but not really heal.”

And yet Miriam sees shadows from the past being cast today, not only in what happened on October 7 in Israel but in the pro-Palestinian celebrations that took place immediately afterwards.

“It brings back memories,” she says. “Hamas are like the Germans, in a different way because we are living in different times.

“But it does bring back a lot of memories and sometimes fear comes in. It’s not going to happen to me again but sometimes I think it can.”

“This play and Miriam’s story are like a portal to a space for some kind of communal processing,” adds Samuels.

“Because we need a place for feelings and these traumatised reactions.”

All About Miriam is at JW3 on 16 November.

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