This is one of the few pictures we have of my mom and her family before the war. She was an adorable little girl who grew into a beautiful and haunted woman. I think some of the relentless, unforgiving thoughts that defined so much of her persona were driven by memories such images evoked, further fueled by the unanswerable question, “what if?”. “What if” there had been no Holocaust? “What if” they could have remained in Vienna along with their sizeable extended family? “What if” she had been able to grow up with frivolity? “What if” her back story was so benign, so unremarkable that it didn’t inform her entire life?
Holocaust Remembrance Day – I wrote of it last year. I honor it again. Elie Wiesel once said, “To forget the Holocaust is to kill twice”. With a bowed back, I realize that he is right – for this is a lesson the world has yet to embrace. The irony of unanimous agreement that humanity is precious and the disparity that clearly exists in its definition. And we bear witness over and over again – the self-righteous rationalization about the expendability of some people over others. We’re not talking about Darwin. After Kristalnacht, my grandfather went to schul with the conviction that the answer to this horror would be found in more devout prayer. This is not about evolutionary theory. This is a human tale.
My mother’s story lives now in my sister and I. It has been with us since we were born, whispered to us as we were carried by our grandfather, packed in our lunch boxes, tucked into our clothes. We honored it because it was so big and inconceivable and intangible, yet as real and palpable as mom herself. It was every nightmare that would wake us when she screamed. It weighted every argument in mom’s favor when I fought my way through adolescence. It remains as a part of every prayer I mouth to the sky in the morning – sending love to my parents, appreciation for this life, my family and friends, and imploring that we all continue to be blessed with health and love. It lives in me. Perhaps it will remain in her grandchildren, and so on. Time has a way of diluting even the starkest memories. The ones you swear you’ll always remember. Maybe the details will get lost, and what will survive within them is a more sophisticated palate – able to taste the exquisite, indescribable sweetness to life. The passionate advocacy for the value of humankind.
When mom passed away in 2005, her obituary ran in the New York Times. It read in part, “Dee was born and spent her early childhood in Vienna, making her one of that shrinking cohort who experienced and survived the monstrous storm of Nazi violence. Her father and mother…took the family out of Austria shortly after the Anschluss, making their way first to Belgium and then through occupied France. The family made its way to Portugal, where on August 16, 1941, they found passage among 765 other refugees on the Spanish freighter Navemar – one of the last voyages of escapees from Europe. Dee’s children and grandchildren bear in their hearts eternal, existential gratitude for her family’s valor and persistence. Her intelligence, humor and immense energy were a gift to us all. Our family’s particularly gladdened that Dee lived long enough to know of the safe return..of her eldest grandson, Matthew, from Iraq, where for the past year he has served in harm’s way the country that gave his grandmother safe haven.”
In acknowledging this day of Remembrance, I honor my family. I honor the memories that once glared in every corner, and now have softened to shadows. I will do my part to make sure that though they may dim and blur, they should never be forgotten.