Ode to Louis Ferman, Buchenwald Camp Survivor
Character names? Where do I get them? It’s a great question because some of them are made up and some come from real people who have passed through my life. Now, on the eve of RENDER HARMLESS coming out, I want to wax eloquent about one whose memory I want to honor.
I first met Louis Ferman when I was eleven and starting to learn to chant my Haftorah which is the passage taken from the book of Prophets in the Old Testament that a young man or, if you are a reform or conservative Jew, woman reads at his or her bar (boys) or bat (girls) mitzvah. Anyone who has heard me sing knows that I will never be a candidate for any talent show. I tell people the only way I can carry a tune is in a bucket. But Louis was patient with me and I became passable, and I think that is being generous.
When World War II ended, Louis Ferman was a sixteen year old living skeleton who had survived Buchenwald. He was allowed to stay alive because he had a beautiful voice and the SS camp guards forced him to sing for hours. At night, they would give him a song and he was expected to sing it well the next day or it was off to be worked to death as a slave laborer or to the gas chambers. He put his ability to memorize to better use by remembering the face and name of every SS guard that came into the camp. After the war, he gave the list and detailed descriptions to Nazi hunters who used it to help bring many to trial. When the war ended, his dream of being a pop singer died in Buchenwald and he became a cantor to support himself as he worked his way through school to become a psychiatrist. Much of his practice was helping other camp survivors. After the war, the only place Louis Ferman would sing was in a synagogue.
In RENDER HARMLESS, there are passages when Josh Haman talks about his memories of Louis Ferman, they are mine altered to fit the plot. To this day, his beautiful, pain filled voice still rattles through my brain. In it, you could hear and feel his sorrow borne in Buchenwald.
One day, as an innocent twelve year old, I asked him what Buchenwald was like. Keep in mind that this was in 1957, twelve years after he was liberated in April, 1945. He looked at me and to this day, fifty-eight years later, I can still see the look on his face. If you could paint inner, haunting pain, the tormented look in Louis’s eyes would be on the canvas. He said, “Marc, you would not believe me if I told you because it is beyond belief. Words cannot describe what I saw and lived through. Only God knows the truth because only he can understand the horror of what we went through. Just promise me that you will never let it happen again.”
Louis Ferman, death may have stilled your wonderful voice, but I will remember your words to the end of my days. And yes, I will die to prevent another Holocaust. Thankfully, I have not been put to the test.