Odette Meyers, poet, professor, survivor, dies at 66

Abigail Van Alyn first met Odette Sarah Meyers at an artists' retreat in 1983. It fell during Passover, and Meyers decided a seder must be held.

"We spent many hours because she had to explain every single thing, in terms of poetry and song and literature," said Van Alyn, who lives in Berkeley.

It was the beginning of a long friendship, and Van Alyn would accompany Meyers to seders for years to come, to sing "Let My People Go."

"She was determined to teach me to be Jewish," Van Alyn said. "I can hear her saying, 'She's an honorary Jew.' That was a great honor when she bestowed it on you because it meant you had a certain kind of spirit."

Odette Sarah Meyers of Berkeley died on Feb. 2, of cancer. She was 66.

The child of Polish immigrants to France who still live in Berkeley, Meyers was born in Paris in 1934.

In 1942, she and her mother were saved from being deported by the Nazis by the concierge of their apartment building, who pushed them into a broom closet.

Later, the concierge, whom Meyers called "Madame Marie," put her on a train and sent her to the French countryside. Meyers spent the bulk of the war living among peasants, posing as a Catholic.

Both she and her parents survived the war, her mother active in the French Resistance, her father in a prisoner of war camp in Germany.

She immigrated to Los Angeles with her parents in 1949. She received her bachelor's degree from UCLA, and then received a master's degree and a doctorate from U.C. Riverside.

In 1957, she married Bert Meyers, also a poet and professor. Odette Meyers taught French literature at several universities, including U.C. Berkeley. While teaching at Scripps College in Claremont, Susan Flynn of San Carlos took a class with Bert Meyers, who was teaching at Pitzer College.

Flynn recalled how the couple regularly opened their home to their students, treating them as colleagues and equals.

Coming from a Midwestern Irish Catholic background Flynn said she had never been exposed to someone with a life story like that of Meyers.

Flynn and others said that Meyers had a certain way of inspiring people to have confidence in themselves, a lesson that she has held dear to this day.

Bert Meyers died in 1979 and Odette Meyers moved to Berkeley in 1980.

While she had many friendships with people of all races, ages and backgrounds in the Bay Area, she was especially active in the Holocaust survivor community.

Meyers was featured in her son Daniel Meyers' short documentary "The Courage to Care," about Righteous Gentiles. The short film was nominated for an Academy Award in 1986.

Together with Berkeley resident Rita Kuhn, she co-founded Yaldei HaShoah in 1987, a local organization of those who survived the Holocaust as children. Through the efforts of the organization, both Meyers and Kuhn spoke to thousands of schoolchildren about their wartime experiences.

"It's a Jewish custom to tell stories," said Kuhn, who later became Meyers' neighbor. "We felt that in telling our own stories, we started a kind of a healing process."

Meyers was remarkable in that "she took something very dark in our lives and showed how to turn it into something positive — that was her outlook on life," Kuhn said.

In 1990, Meyers founded Tikvah, a support network for local Holocaust survivors. "There's a phenomenon that's been observed worldwide — that elderly survivors are having a difficult time and respond better to help from other survivors," she told the Jewish Bulletin at the time.

Meyers wrote poetry and in 1997, she published "Doors to Madame Marie," (University of Washington Press), a memoir about her wartime experiences and afterward that took her 10 years to write.

In the book, "I was able to lament for my cousins, the children who were taken away…but I was then able to praise the people who acted so decently," she told the Jewish Bulletin in 1997.

In addition to the survivor community, Meyers volunteered for non-Jewish programs, including Christmas in April.

"She wanted to put her hand out to the Christians and Catholics," said Lea Mendelovitz, a Berkeley neighbor of Meyers, who had a similar background in wartime France. "She has always been a fighter and an advocate of the people who don't speak."

Her daughter, Anat Silvera of Oakland, described her mother as having the utmost respect for her children, supporting their choices and their dreams.

"As much as she was our mother, we shared her with this extended family of adopted sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles, many of whom are also our close friends," Silvera added. "I don't know of too many children who can say they share as many good friends with their mother as my brother and I do."

Berkeley resident David Shaddock was first introduced to Meyers in 1979. He recalled one incident during their long friendship that epitomized what Meyers was about.

In 1991, he and his wife met Meyers in Paris in 1991 and she took them to her childhood neighborhood. That encounter epitomized to him what she was about.

Meyers showed them the apartment where she and her mother hid in the broom closet, and the public school where she was pushed into a urinal by fellow classmates for being a Jew.

She also took them to the Metro station where she was taken and handed off to strangers for the ride into the countryside.

"It wasn't like she was saying, 'Look at these horrible things that happened,'" Shaddock said. "It was as if she were bearing witness."

While he could detect some sadness in her voice, he said, "she just had this incredible sense of strength."

In addition to Silvera and Daniel Meyers, who lives in Paris and Berkeley, Meyers is survived by her parents, George and Bertha Miller, and her sister Anne Marie Miller, all of Berkeley.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."