By David LaBelle
Last week, Robin Williams broke the hearts of millions of adoring fans by taking his own life. Witty and entertaining, on stage and in front of the camera, Williams eventually was unable to cope with his tortured private person and made a choice that stunned the world.
How could he do it? Many people are wondering how someone who made so many laugh be so troubled? How could a man, who appeared to have everything, decide life was too difficult to continue?
Because many of us watched him grow up from his early career as Mork on the television series Mork and Mindy, and then through the years in dozens of movies like Dead Poets Society, Patch Adams and Mrs.Doubtfire, each of us felt we knew him personally.
Some expressed anger, feeling robbed of his comedic genius. (In a world so ravaged by war and hatred, we could sure use a good laugh.) Others felt betrayed, as if all those encouraging, positive characters he played were lies.
I am not one of those people.
Born only five weeks before Williams, I have learned in 63 years to be gentle in my judgment of others, especially of public figures. Perhaps it’s because on my comparably tiny life stage, I have struggled with many of the same emotions, minus the drugs. Like Williams, I have always felt a need to please others, to bring them joy, comfort and hope and to make them laugh, even when privately I was crying inside.
The truth is that many of us are actors at one time or another. Sometimes it is only God who can see the depth of our pain, so well hidden by our efforts to comfort others.
Last month a different kind of celebrity, not likely on your radar unless you are interested in Holocaust studies, passed away somewhat suddenly. Like the famous actor, Betty Gold had her audiences. Always positive, friendly, smiling and encouraging, Gold worked tirelessly to promote Holocaust education. Even in her eighties, she continued answering requests to speak, and for many, she was the face of the Holocaust. Even Steven Spielberg interviewed Gold for his IWitness Challenge archival project.
But like Robin Williams, the private person often suffered a tortured hell when she went home alone at night and battled her demons.
As a young girl of eleven, she and fellow Polish Jews spent three years hiding first in a wall with sixteen others and then in the wilderness. Betty came of age as a woman, huddled in a dirt hole, forced to scavenge fields for food at night for the rest of those hiding. She lost toes to frostbite and lived in constant fear of being killed by Nazi soldiers. She even watched helplessly as her cousin smothered her own baby to stop the crying and therefore saved the rest of the group in hiding from discovery.
Out of the 5000 Jews from her town of Trochenbrod, Poland, 4200 were exterminated.
Yet as painful as that was, Gold said it was not as difficult as what she called her “Second Holocaust”, the deaths of two of her three sons. First Michael (named after her brother who died in the Holocaust) died from an illness and then Allan, who committed suicide in 2010.
I listened to Betty speak on several occasions and asked her to be part of a Kent State photojournalism project titled “Children of the Holocaust”. I didn’t really know her, anymore than I knew Robin Williams, but Amy Gaskin, one of my students who worked on the Children of the Holocaust project, did know her. Gaskin also knew the demons Gold lived with daily.
Gold embraced Gaskin like the daughter she never had, and the two stayed in touch through the years, often talking on the phone for hours each month. They had planned on meeting at the Cleveland airport last month during Gaskin’s trip from California to Ohio to see family. But stormy weather delayed Gold’s fight from Chicago (she had just spoken in Washington D.C.) and the friends were never to see each other again. Betty died two weeks later.
“I feel like there’s two personalities,” Gold told Amy Gaskin (then a Kent State student) in a 2011 interview in her home. “My social personality, the social Betty Gold and the sad one. You know, when I’m home alone and so forth, it hurts a lot and it’s painful to know you lost two sons. It’s very, very difficult to live with and it doesn’t get easier. The harder it gets, the busier I get and try and cope with it “
Though it was often physically and emotionally draining, especially after losing two of her three sons, Gold continued telling her story over and again. She especially loved talking to children, hoping, believing her words would sink into their hearts and be instrumental in helping avoid similar atrocities.
Most who saw this tiny, happy, energetic, accomplished business woman, had no idea the of demons she lived with when she was alone, or the many tears that were spilled.
I read the book Night by Eli Weisel my senior year of high school. It was chilling then and is chilling still. I couldn’t fathom how humans could be so cruel to other humans. Weisel’s graphic description of the forced marches, barefoot in the snow, and mass exterminations angered, frightened and confused me. When I met Betty Gold and listened to her story, that horrific event moved closer, across the ocean to Ohio. It became personal. How does one experience such brutality and witness such horror and live a “normal” life?
Even in their tangled forests of pain, both Williams and Gold put on a good public face. They were smiling cheerleaders who made us laugh and filled our hearts with humor and hope.
In a sad twist of irony, Gold was denied the one thing she requested at her death: to be cremated and have her ashes returned home to Trochenbrod with those murdered in 1942. She repeated this request often, especially to Amy Gaskin.
Her lone surviving son made a different choice.
Against her wishes, Betty was buried July 27 in Beachwood, Ohio.
Watching Betty and Amy connect at a time each seemed to need to each other’s strength and comfort most, reminded me of the beauty and power of human connection born out of documentary storytelling.
On one occasion, Betty told Amy, “I want to thank you very, very much because what youʼre doing does make a difference and thatʼs what Iʼm here for… And what youʼre doing is great because people are going to learn from it and you will teach them and for that we thank you. Itʼs a great, great contribution to society, what youʼre doing.”
Recently, Amy wrote in an email, “I miss her already. I miss our talks on the phone. I learned so much from her. She was probably my single biggest cheerleader. Always encouraging.”
She added, “I just can’t believe she is gone. She was one of the greatest people I will ever know.”
(Please follow the link to Betty’s story published in the Plain Dealer in 2010. http://www.cleveland.com/religion/index.ssf/2008/11/betty_gold.html