On August 3, my grandmother passed away. Mila “Michelle” Korn was born in the city of Łódź, in Poland, and witnessed the Nazi invasion of Poland as a nine-year old. She survived the Łódź Ghetto and numerous Nazi concentration camps along with her sister and mother. She was liberated from Dachau, and spent time in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany after the war, where she met and married my grandfather Simon Korn. Eventually they immigrated to the United States, and after a few years in New York, they moved to sunny California (“if we wanted to be cold we would have stayed in Europe”) where my father and aunt were born.
She epitomized California, and especially Los Angeles for me growing up. She was very fashion-conscious and always had a pair of sunglasses handy. She seemed so glamorous to me, so Hollywood, and that was a big part of her identity. So was being a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor. That may seem like an unlikely combination, but they were both a part of who she was, and for me it is hard to think about one without the other.
The last time I saw her was when we came back to the United States for a visit last year. She lived with my parents for the last few years of her life and it was great to see her every time we went back. I was so happy that we had the opportunity to introduce her to her first great-grandson, Leon Korn during that visit. Leon is named after her father Leon Karp who was murdered at Auschwitz. We were excited about seeing her again this year, but unfortunately we did not get there in time. We just missed seeing her, and she missed meeting her second great-grandson, Emmett Korn.
It was very sad, especially since we were so close (we only missed seeing her by two days), but I am thankful that we were able to be there for her service and to be with our family. It was a nice reunion and we even had some relatives from Australia who just happened to be visiting Los Angeles the week of the funeral! After the war, Grandma Mila (and my Grandpa Simon) had very few relatives left at all, so this was very significant. It was also very meaningful for me to be able to attend the service since she was the last living grandparent I had and her funeral was the first one I was able to attend. I was given the chance to say a few words about Grandma Mila at the service – here is (more or less) what I said:
We are gathered together here today for a sad reason, but I am thankful for the chance to spend some time thinking about Grandma Mila. In thinking about her, a few things come to mind.
First of all, it is easy to be impressed by who she was. She was a survivor of the Shoah, and although that is certainly not all she was, it was a big part of her identity. She suffered through the worst that this life has to offer – she lost everything and nearly everyone in her life at a very young age. For her to go through what she went through and to come from where she came from, and then to become the person she became took courage, determination and a resilience that few possess. In many ways she was a victim of the circumstances of her life, but she was anything but passive. She was a force, and after having lost so much, she knew how to hold on to those around her.
Secondly, I was always struck by how clear-sighted she was in looking at herself and her own life. She knew what she had lost, and never forgot it or shied away from talking about it. She was always ready to share her story and ready to acknowledge the pain and the grief of her loss. But she was also aware of what she had gained in her family, her friends and her life. She never took anything for granted because she knew how easily things and people can slip away, but that did not make her overly cautious or fearful. Instead it gave her a hunger for life, for joy and for happiness.
Third, I remember when I went to stay with her and Grandpa Simon for the summer when I was 7 years old. This is a silly example, but it stuck with me. I kept bugging her and telling her that she should quit smoking. Finally, she did quit and I remember thinking that it was crazy that she cared enough about me as a 7 year old to actually make a change in her life. And then, she empowered me by telling me for years after that I was the one who convinced her to stop. That helped me learn that you can make a difference in life. You can change things.
She certainly made a difference, obviously in the lives of her family and friends. But also in the lives of all the people she shared her story with. Later in life she often went to speak at schools and share her story, and many of the students she spoke to didn’t know anything about the Holocaust. Some of them had never even heard of it. They were always fascinated by her and her story, and eager to learn. Many of them wrote thank-you letters to her afterwards, and she loved showing her big stack of letters and reading through them. She was very proud of them and she had good reason to be. Each letter represented a changed life.
I miss her and I know many others do as well, but I am thankful to have had her in my life.
Here are some photos from the funeral:
For both Grandma Mila and for Grandpa Simon, telling the story of what they experienced during the Holocaust was always very important. They both used to tell stories about what they went through to my sister and I when we were very young, and always stressed that it was important for us to know about it, because we had to make sure that nothing like that would ever happened again. In the spirit of remembering what they lived through and survived, I thought this would be good to share:
They were both interviewed by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation created by Steven Spielberg (now called the USC Shoah Foundation). Their testimonies are available on the database: Simon Korn interview code 2817 and Mila Korn interview code 2812
Both of them were also interviewed for an article in the Los Angeles Times back in 1995, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.