A creative writing class from the UAB English department attended the Nazi Germany and Jim Crow South symposium in February. Six students, including Taylor, submitted their reflections on the interview with Riva Hirsh, a Holocaust survivor, and Josephine Bolling McCall, daughter of lynching victim, Elmore Bolling. Their honest and emotionally raw selections will post over the course of this week. — AR
Riva Hirsch scans the room with wide eyes and white hair. Her shoulders are draped in purple and gold, her veiny hands clutched around her microphone. When the interviewer asks her to tell the room about her childhood and family, she stands up and brings the microphone to her lips.
“I had everything I needed until the murderer came.”
Her voice comes out grainy and loud, her lips probably kissing the microphone. She shakes with emotion I’m sure she’s felt for a lifetime.
The interviewer turns to Josephine Bolling McCall, who sits in her chair with her ankles crossed, robed in shades of emerald. Her hair is as red as fall leaves before the separate from branches and litter sidewalks. Like Riva, she wears glasses. The interviewer asks her the same question and she stands. Her voice is softer, as steady as a librarian talking while leading you through the stacks and pulling the book you need from the shelf.
“I lived in Lowndes Country, Alabama. It was known as ‘Blood Lowndes’,” she reveals. I look around the room and watch a few audience members shift in their seats. One squints his eyes, as if trying to imagine just how bloody it had been. “I was only 5 when my father was killed.” Even I shift in my seat.
Riva begins the heartbreaking tale of bring separated from her family by the Nazis. She was seven when war came to her town. A family friend named Joshua warned her family to leave. The second time he came, Riva tells us “I could smell human flesh.” Riva and her family were forced to leave their home, taking only the packages her mother and grandmother made. Joshua hid them until he could hide them no more. One day Joshua came running.
“The SS are coming!” Riva and her family were forced into the forest, where they lived in sickness, became covered in lice. Eventually they were caught and separated by the SS. Riva tells the room of alert eyes and open mouths that her mother was beat in front of her when she refused to let go of her children. They were forced to wear the yellow star and told they would be taken to a better place. She tells us of the trains they were forced on and leaves us with an image that chills to the bone and boils blood all at once.
“There were piles of dead bodies on the train. We were all moving from life to death, death to life.”
Josephine tells us about her father, Elmo, before he was killed. “He had airhorns on his truck,” she reminisces. Her father would blow his horns as he passed the family in the shop or the house. But in December of 1947, gunshots could be heard some time after the airhorns. No one thought anything of it until they were told her father was dead. “He was laying there in the ditch and his eyes were still open,” she says, looking down into the microphone. I know we all imagined a 5-year-old mind replaying that image, understanding more of its horror as time passes.
When asked about the community’s reaction to her father’s murder, Josephine admits that everyone was afraid to talk. “Keep your mouth shut, stay inside, and don’t say anything,” she recites. This was the law of their land. Josephine’s brother saw the murder of their father and saw the car that appeared to be following their father before the murder. Her brother wrote the tag number in the dirt in front of a sheriff, trying to give him the information. The sheriff had no interest. “My father’s murder had been planned,” Josephine says. And the room understands that the sheriff already knew.
Riva is asked to talk about her savior, a man who spoke German. “A man put his hand on my mouth,” she says. “I was so sick with malaria and typhoid. He told me to play dead. He put me on his shoulder and started to run with me.” The German man hid Riva in a carriage to smuggle her out of the camp. The carriage was stopped, but Riva went undiscovered until she was brought to a convent. “He handed me off to a nun and then she started to run with me,” and I imagine a nun’s black clothing flailing in the still of night, a sick child limp in her arms. She was brought to a place where more children were hidden and told the nuns would bring them food as often as they could, but not too often as to draw attention. “They were my guardian angels,” Riva confesses.
After Josephine’s family fled Lowndes County to Montgomery, she found information that would launch her into an investigation about her father’s murder. In the Montgomery Advertiser had an article about her father’s murder. “He had been shot 6 times with a pistol, once in the back with a shot gun. What does that tell you? That there was more than one person there,” Josephine urges into the microphone. After retrieving the article from historical archives and interviewing others, Josephine discovers that many people had known her father’s murder was planned. She also discovered that by definition, her father’s murder had been a lynching. In a Chicago newspaper headline about her father’s murder, the word “lynch” appeared.
The interviewer asks, “Why was it important for your father’s murderers to not make it look like a lynching?”
“Counties were being held responsible and fined,” Josephine responds. “The Association of Southern Women to Protect Lynching (ASWPL) came to Lowndes County to stop the lynching from happening.” The murderers were trying to protect themselves.
Riva tells us about her life after the way. She never went to school, but taught herself 7 languages. She married another Holocaust survivor, who lost his whole family to the gas chambers. He was the only survivor. 28 years ago, Riva came to Birmingham. Her daughter and step-daughter and still with her. She lost her husband 4 years ago, her son 9 years ago. She still claims with excitement, “America is the best place in the world.”
Josephine started a foundation in memory of her father. She wrote a book, The Penalty of Success: My Father was Lynched in Lowndes County, Alabama, and had two book signings a day for a week in Boston. She continues to share her story.
Both women leave us with their own words of advice. Riva cautions, “Make sure you speak to educate our students because the future is in their hands.” She pins us all with a determined stare before finishing, “Never ever let it happen again.” Josephine follows Riva, urging that “we have to acknowledge what has gone on before we can reconcile and come together.” Finally, she points us to Bible, Hebrews 13:1, “Let brotherly love continue.”
Taylor Byas is a graduate student at UAB pursuing her Master’s Degree in English, Creative Writing. She aspires to teach Creative Writing at the collegiate level.