By DeBorah Layman
When it comes to improving life in greater Birmingham, there is scarcely an organization, an initiative, a program or a movement that has not been touched by Cathy O. Friedman.
“I lived through the Civil Rights era,” said Friedman, a Mountain Brook native. “When I got older and had a voice, I knew I wanted to work for human rights. I knew I needed to speak out. I made a decision to be part of the solution.”
Because of her commitment to Holocaust education and her lifelong work for human rights and social justice, the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center honored Friedman during its annual L’Chaim (“to life”) event, on Aug. 20.
Working for her chosen causes – including the YWCA, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama, Collat Jewish Family Services, N.E. Miles Jewish Day School, the National Conference for Community and Justice, Birmingham AIDS Outreach, the Birmingham Jewish Federation and Birmingham Pledge – Friedman has spoken out, organized, pushed, prodded, cajoled and insisted. Her secret weapons – charm and tenacity – have made her a force to be reckoned with in Birmingham.
Early Interest in a Dark Period
Friedman’s interest in the Holocaust began during her youth. Her first trip to Israel, in 1975, instilled a passion in her, she said.
“Israel rose out of the ashes of the Holocaust, and I watched it flourish. It filled me with a sense of purpose,” she said.
A visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau in 1994 as part of the “March of the Living” crystallized her focus. She saw evidence of the atrocities of the Holocaust and realized that in the small towns and villages around the camps, neighbors had remained silent as starvation and death filled the air. She determined to become a witness to what hate, evil and indifference can do.
“I knew I would never be silent to injustice anywhere,” she said.
With Friedman’s help in her role as vice president of fund development, the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center has grown from an all-volunteer group to a staffed organization with growing influence in the community.
For the L’Chaim event, Keith Cromwell, executive director of Red Mountain Theatre Company and a long-time friend of Friedman’s helped craft a program that included “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” sung by Abijah Cunningham and Amy Johnson. The L’Chaim scene from Red Mountain’s recent production of “Fiddler on the Roof” was presented by members of the cast, featuring Kyle Holman and Brad Steele, except that dialogue and lyrics were revised to honor Friedman.
“We Can Be Kind” was sung by Kristen Sharp, and the Steel City Men’s Chorus closed the program with “Hallelujah” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
In her remarks at the L’Chaim event, Friedman said: “To be honest, I still have the same difficult time, as I did when I was child, in comprehending that the Holocaust was not an accident of history. It happened because individuals, organizations and governments made choices to legalize discrimination, prejudice, hatred and ultimately mass murder. How can we learn from such a hideous injustice when some of the world denies its very existence? How can we do this as we continue to lose the generation that was there, our witnesses?
“We become witnesses by making sure that every story is told, every experience is shared and every event is commemorated. This, my friends, is what the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center does daily.”
Deborah Layman is vice president of the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center.