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.
33 thoughts on “Who Will Remember?”
Thanks for sharing this story. You have given me much to consider and to try to comprehend.
I’m still trying to absorb it – it is too large to fully integrate I think…thanks for writing!
The little “difficulties” in my life. Wow. They seem so inconsequential. And there is so much to be thankful for.
I couldn’t agree with you more – some times my feelings of gratitude for all that I have in my life overwhelms me!
Each story is riveting. And each life deserves that their story be told. Thank you for sharing your mother’s story. You do her proud.
I am not sure I did as wonderfully and powerfully as you did. But it is important to bear witness – and I hope that my children will hold these stories in their hearts and tell them to their children, and so on…Btw, I think your blog is fantastic!
Never forget- two of the most powerful words in the English language. How proud your mom would be of today’s blog; a Kaddish, for lack of a better word. May the memory of your mom, your ancestors and the 6 million be for a blessing – today and always.
Thank you Jo – I shudder to think about all I have forgotten, so it becomes that much more to remember the few memories I have…
Your family story is so profound, I don’t even know how to respond. It’s even more humbling to understand there are millions more like it. Thank you for finding the strength to share it.
You are so generous with your praise…I agree with you – such thoughts are so humbling, and almost demand our gratitude for all that we have – and all that we will never know (hopefully)…Thank you for your thoughts! 🙂
Beautifully written. I’m sure this was painful to write, because even though you didn’t live through what your mom did, she created memories for you with her words, her tears, and her screams at night. You carried her torch very well, and I’m sure she is beaming with pride in her daughter. You did good kid, you did good.
Thanks, Mimi, for not allowing me to be lulled into apathetically looking the other way. We cannot forget, for if we do, we lay the groundwork to see it repeated.
You are not one to be lulled! 🙂
Thank you Mimi – Beautifully expressed. My parents were also from Vienna – My father born in 1902 was an assistant Cantor and he also worked for HIAS which is what saved him after he was arrested by the Gestapo. He escaped in 1939, by boat from Genoa to the US. My mother was 17 when she and my aunt who was 13 escaped to the US in 1940. My grandparents could not obtain visas for themselves. I managed to get copies of the visa applications from the Vienna Kultusgemeinde records which had been discovered and digitized a few years ago. I have letters and postcards written to my mother from her parents while tghey still lived in Vienna – although moved to more of a ghetto location. The letters and postcards stopped when they were deported to Theresienstadt. After two years they were deported to Auschwitz where they were murdered in May, 1944. I also located my parents’ immigration records and I have a picture of my father on the boat from Italy. I posted pictures of my mother’s parents on Facebook. Now, my chjildren are having children and my wifes mother is enjoying all of her great-grandchildren. All living proof that Hitler did not succeed.
For what it is worth, I read a book called My Parents Went Through the Holocaust and AlI I Got Was this Lousy T-Shirt”. I was so put off by the title when I read about the author coming to speak here in Miami, that I went to hear the author’s presentation at Books and Books. I was stunned at the similarity of “disfunctional” upbringing experiences we shared. Hanala Stadler’s experiences in sinking into the depths of “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” and then pulling herself up is fascinating and her use of humor as her hook to tell her story is refreshing.
Hi Steven – thank you for your poignant and moving thoughts. I will definitely pick up Stadler’s book – I have read a great deal on the subject of children of survivors and would love to learn more. As painful, unbelievable and truly unimaginable as these stories are, they connect us all, with a fiber so strong that in my view it is unbreakable.
Thank you for sharing so eloquently the story of your precious heritage. God’s chosen people have been through so many horrible times and brutal treatment. Please know that I remember. We remember. And celebrate the survivor in you mother, that has contributed so much to thr woman you are today.
Thank you so much…I aimed for eloquence, but the words too control. Thank you for letting me share this story with you, and for receiving it with such warmth and grace…:-)
The similarities between your Mom’s story and my mom’s story (also a Hitler refugee) are astonishing. Or maybe not. I guess there must be many others that are very similar. My mom, her sister and their parents were reunited in a rural, impoverished Connecticut farm–owned by a distant relative who vouched for them– where they survived cold winters by candlelight eating root vegtables from the cellar. My mom and my aunt practiced English with each other well into the night, striving (successfully) not only to learn the language but to speak it without a trace of an accent that would remind them or others of their tragic early years. My grandmother (who died of mental illness before I was born) was the only one of 11 siblings to survive. We found the names of some of the others in the data base of Yad Vashem on a trip to Israel three years ago. The others’ names are lost to history…but not to our hearts.
Keep up the great work. I have only recently started following your blog. Now, I need to go back and read all of the old posts. JDS
Thank you for sharing your mom’s story..you’re right of course, there is a similar thread that runs through them all – and connects people who have never met, yet know a part of each other very well…
Thank you John – I have on idea how you’found’ me, but I am thrilled that we can stay in touch. I remember our conversations about our moms – and as you note, there were probably many who had stories with such close, incredible parallels. I hope you and your family are all well…Mimi
Thanks so much for sharing your story . My father,born in Lithuania, was never able to talk to me and tell me about his early life and his family. I do know that he was one of eight children, and lost 32 members of his family. A whole generation of stories I am never able to share with my daughters, and now my grandson. Thank you again for reminding me…never forget.
Capt., we will whisper our stories in the ears of our children and our grandchildren, ensuring that they know their histories are greater than each person’s moments in life. You will do this for that is who you are – and your grandson will always cling to all the wonderfulness that his grandmother is!
Always remember that the most important thing our parents and grandparents would want would be for us to LIVE. Live in every sense. Remember the past, embrace the present, welcome the future.
very well said!
Overwhelmed – extremely important that this story, and all the stories, be told and rememberd. Write all of them down, tell everyone – not one of us should every forget!
Thank you Gail – and hi! I’m so touched that you read my blog…
Beautiful. The size of the pain is so unmanageable that it tends to skew our representations of the Holocaust toward the totally maximal (something like the film Shoah, at 10 hours) or minimal (like the memorial in Berlin, or the shelves of names in Yad Vashem). I think there’s often more meaning in giving voices to the individuals who made up that whole, and you do a wonderful job of it.
Thank you Paul…Thank you for affirming the voice I was trying to recall – a voice I know you remember with love…
What an amazing story, thank you for sharing it with us. I have read a lot about the events of the Holocaust and it chills me to think that such atrocities happened such a short time ago (and that war crimes and genocide continue to happen today.)
The lost will not be forgotten as long as people like you continue to write about their stories. Speaking for myself, the more of these stories I read the more real and less textbook such an impossibly wicked page from our history becomes.
Thank for so much for reading it! These stories are truly unbelievable. And yet, when I think of the atrocities that still occur to humankind throughout the world, I wonder why history must repeat itself…
Not had a chance to respond to this despite ‘liking’ it some time ago. A wonderful and provocative piece of writing that really moved me. I loved the photos too but it is the thought of your 16 year old mum that moved me the most. Thank you for sharing this.
Thank you so much for commenting – it is almost impossible to imagine how she went through such experiences, and informed her life from that point forward (understandably). She was a remarkable woman – I miss her very much.