I wasn’t going to write about this today. A fellow blogger with far greater eloquence than I already posted her compelling thoughts about Holocaust Remembrance Day. My mother was a Holocaust survivor; my sister and I are part of the first generation of her family who were born in the States. We carry some of the neuroses and survivor guilt that is common to those who share such strong genetic connections with those who suffered through a large part of their life instead of living it.
In a metal sewing box of my mom’s are moments frozen in time that I can’t imagine. Unused food tickets for rations of meat, cheese and bread; certified declarations concerning the status (or lack thereof) of my grandparents at various points during the war and after; letters written in German between two sisters who represented a minority of an entire family who survived only in their memories – one settled in Basel, my grandmother in New York; a notarized request from a relative in NY to allow my grandfather to come to the States with a promise that this relative would employ, pay and shelter him (presumably so that the government would know it wouldn’t have to). Some pictures of my mom’s family in Vienna when it was still intact. The only other pictures are of my sister as a baby and toddler – proof certain that life continues with unfathomable beauty and hope.
I was told that after Kristalnacht, my grandfather’s response was to pray more. Ultimately, he and his son ended up in a labor camp, my mother and grandmother escaped to the city of Troyes in France, where they remained until their quota numbers came up. They traveled here on a cattle boat, infamous for its horrid conditions and the unforgivable number of people who died en route. My mother arrived with diphtheria, she had it when she left France. Were it not for the nuns who were willing to lie about her test results (she was being cared for in a Catholic hospital), she would not have been able to get on the boat at all, her quota number rendered worthless. They came with little other than what they were wearing – sterling silver Shabbat candles that my grandmother was able to keep hidden (though I have no idea how), a doll named Lotte…
When my grandfather and uncle followed, the family ended up in a one bedroom apartment, my grandfather got a job a Barton’s Candy Manufacturing. In the metal box is his pension document providing him with a $68.00 retirement benefit. How could it feel to have lived an aristocratic life in a country you could no longer claim as your own, while thanking God every Friday night for the gift of this new life in a one bedroom apartment, where my grandmother did piecework for $.75?
Mom used to have nightmares. She would yell out frantically in her sleep – perhaps we were more aware of them when dad was traveling on business, for there was no one there to reassure her that she was safe in Jackson Heights, Queens. There is no doubt she lived through my sister and I (my sister more than me, for a myriad of reasons), a burden that was pretty heavy for children to shoulder. Yet in retrospect, what kind of life did this woman have as a girl, when she experienced her first ‘introduction to womanhood’ in a bomb shelter, screaming for her mother because she was sure she had been hit? How does one turn sixteen once in the States and ask for a party only to be severely chastised at such selfishness given the reality that six million had died? How does one begin to live? I think through my dad’s gift of play, and the experience of two American children who would never know that growing up could be truly, unimaginably horrible. Mom, this happened to you? This happened to Poppy?
At the core of Eliot Perlman’s new book “The Street Sweeper”, is the repeated plea that our stories – regardless of what they are – be remembered, that we be remembered. Our immortality rests perhaps in the assurance that someone will carry our stories – the proof that we were here. That holds true for all of us – yet on this day of remembrance I needed to bear witness. I remember you everyday, your stories are woven into the tapestry of my life and my heart cannot hold all of my love.