Stories have power. They can bridge divides between strangers and make them feel as connected as kin.
On the couch in her Encino living room on a rainy December afternoon, Paula Lebovics is holding hands with Olga Burkhardt.
“She’s my granddaughter,” the 81-year-old says proudly, pulling Burkhardt, 29, near — and it is true, even though it isn’t.
Lebovics is Jewish and a Holocaust survivor, liberated at age 11 from Birkenau concentration camp. On her left forearm, she bears the Nazis’ tattooed identification number.
Burkhardt is not Jewish. She lives in Germany. Her mother was born, the year Lebovics was rescued, in an underground bomb shelter as Allied bombs fell.
It is Burkhardt’s first visit to Los Angeles, but leave the city’s sights for others. She and Lebovics prefer to drink tea and share stories, and make more tea and share more stories, as the hours slip by.
A story is what brought them together just over a year ago.
Burkhardt, who has always felt tangled up in her country’s history, was up late working on her graduate thesis involving memory theories and a novel about the Holocaust. In her research, she kept coming across the USC Shoah Foundation and its more than 50,000 recorded Holocaust survivors’ testimonies.
She found a handful of the videos on YouTube. She clicked on one, and Lebovics’ face popped up.
So sweet, so gentle — you could see in it the child that once was.
Lebovics was 6, living in Ostrowiec, Poland, when World War II abruptly destroyed her childhood.
She had lived in comfort with her extended family, surrounded by cousins and siblings. After her country was invaded, she said in the testimony, her family was forced first into the Jewish ghettos and then into concentration camps.
Burkhardt started watching her story around 11 p.m. She was still watching past 2 a.m. Nearby, her own 6-year-old daughter was safe and warm, fast asleep in her bed. But for this other long-ago 6-year-old — so scared that she wet the bed every night — Burkhardt’s tears fell and would not stop falling.
That little girl had seen public hangings, snow stained red by blood and the skies above her camp turned crimson by smoke from the ovens that ran all day, spewing out residue that stuck to her skin.
Her two teenage sisters were taken away early on. The family never saw them again. After her parents were sent to camps — which her mother would survive but her father would not — Lebovics hid: inside an unused and icy-cold iron factory kiln, in a space so small behind a chink in a wall that she had to crouch because she could not sit down.
But soon she too was captive.
Staring into a video camera, Lebovics said that to survive at Birkenau, the gregarious child she had once been learned to disappear in plain sight. Survival trumped all — even basic kindness — as each person in the camp tried to live another day.
There was one story in particular that tore at Burkhardt.
Birkenau had been liberated. A Russian soldier, in tears, had lifted Lebovics up and rocked her in his arms. Not a parent, not a relative, just a fellow human being reaching out.
“It was the first time I had this kind of feeling. … Somebody caring about me, it was overwhelming,” Lebovics said in the video.
Burkhardt felt a need to respond. That morning, she found an email address at the Shoah Foundation.
“Last night I watched the testimonial of Shoah survivor Paula Lebovics,” Burkhardt wrote to Josh Grossberg, “and I find myself really wanting to say some things to this wonderful woman.”
Could the foundation help, she asked? Was Lebovics even alive? Her testimony had been recorded nearly 20 years earlier.
Grossberg wrote back that, unfortunately, keeping track of so many people was not possible. Still, he said, “I’d certainly share anything you want to say with our staff and some of the survivors who volunteer at our office.”
Burkhardt almost dropped it there, but she couldn’t.
The message she emailed back to Grossberg began simply: “Dear Paula, I am a young German woman with a 6-year-old daughter.”
She wrote of “this little Paula, the same age as my daughter now, who was left to herself, exposed to so much violence, so much evil, so much dirt, cold, hunger, and solitude, and at the same time lacking many things a child needs….”
“I promise you, Paula Lebovics,” she went on, “and I promise every single other survivor of the atrocities, crimes and innumerable violations and breaches of the most basic human rights which my country, my forefathers committed, to dedicate every single day of my life to bringing up my child in a way that values life over death, friendship over betrayal, heart over reason, warmth over coldness, trust over mistrust, respect over humiliation, and tenderness over violence.”
Grossberg, then new at the foundation, circulated the letter as promised. Right away, word came back.
Of the thousands of survivors spread across the world, this one was well-known at the foundation. Not only was she very much alive, but she lived nearby and was a longtime volunteer.
Grossberg visited Lebovics and connected the two women on Skype. They hardly know now what they said. But he recalls that they started speaking German — first shyly and then steadily, for about an hour.
Then came a stream of emails, calls and, finally, a meeting.
In April, Lebovics traveled to Auschwitz to participate in the annual March of the Living. Burkhardt joined her. At once, the two were in each other’s arms.
“The warmth of this woman, she wouldn’t let go of my hand,” Lebovics said. “She was hugging and kissing me. She is so warm and so compassionate.”
Also visiting Auschwitz that day was Jim Ring, 67, of Calabasas. Someone told him about Lebovics and Burkhardt. Then he saw them together — and his response, he said, was “instantaneous.” He offered to pay for Burkhardt to come to Los Angeles for a longer visit.
“I just had this overwhelming feeling of emotion and of wanting to help them take their story one step further,” said the real-estate developer, who describes himself as semiretired. He has offered to pay for Burkhardt to visit as many times as she likes.
On this trip, Burkhardt brought Lebovics a present she helped her daughter make. It’s a hot-water bottle, with a red cover on which they stitched a white dove.
Her daughter still is very young, Burkhardt said, but “she knows that Paula did not have a very nice childhood. And she knows that she was always cold … that she did not have warm food, that she did not get to see her parents very much and that she did not have a childhood the way a child deserves.”
The two women curl up on the couch with their tea and their trust that there will be more stories to come, both old and new.