Children of Survivors
“‘Father, why is the word Auschwitz so frightening?’ I immediately sensed that I had made a mistake. I hurt my mother, and she doesn’t have the power to help. Why did I hurt her? I feel the tears running from her eyes on to my arm, on to my hair …” – Cila Liberman
That time so long ago and yet, so near …
To this day, the most memorable scene in Schindler’s List to this author, was the ending. Moving from black and white to color, Spielberg takes us forward in time, as we see the long line of Schindler’s Jews from all parts of the world, pay their respects to the man who, “had greatest thrust upon him” – and saved lives which begat lives. Families! Living! Surviving! And they were adding thousands of links to our Jewish chain for generations to come.
In this new century, we’ve seen Survivors pass on. Few are left. But their children, many now Boomers, are still with us. And many still bear the scars, the pain, the plight, the confusion, and yes, the awe of their parents’ unfathomable experience and survival.
“I always felt like my parents didn’t really want to tell me everything. And sometimes I would read things or look at some pictures from Auschwitz. I couldn’t look at it for too long. Sometimes I would go and ask them about if something happened. And I would wonder why didn’t they tell me before I asked. I felt like they were keeping things a secret from me.” – Child of a Survivor.
When I was young, a new girl, Leah, an only child, moved into our neighborhood. Leah was the child of Survivors. (They were, we believed, distant cousins.) I remember playing at her house. While all families are different, hers was especially so in a way I hadn’t before seen. Anxiety and tension wafted through her home. Her parents seemed distant. They kept to themselves, quiet, afraid, nervous, even abrupt.
Deeply curious, I asked Leah about it. She knew only two things: that her parents escaped from the camp, and now couldn’t abide looking a German Shepard, the dogs the Nazis used to find escapees. The second was the story of a lone old man in the camp who, despite the horror around him, kept reciting Hebrew prayers. He, too, survived. Her father and other camp Survivors continued to support him through the years.
Beyond that, all I saw was an inconsolable sadness and loneliness.
I thought about my own family. Though my mother and her parents “got out” before the escalation of the Holocaust, they, too, in fear and longing, left their families. Except for a few amusing anecdotes about the old country, my bubbe rarely talked about the old photos in an old scrap book. And then I came across one. It was a photo of a relative, lying dead on a sidewalk. Tossed during a pogrom.
We can only imagine the wounds that Survivors carried with them. Wounds that never heal. While some turned their rage into activism, others found that coming back from deliberate madness could never be understood by “outsiders.” And when they married, and had children, how to explain it? Should they explain it? How does one relive the horror, the humiliation, to a child with no reference? How does one “parent” when one’s soul, and trust in the world has been shattered?
I am in my grandmother’s kitchen, in Buenos Aires.
“Mami, where are your parents?”
“They’re dead. [Whisper] They were killed. …”
She stares out the window, her left hand covering her mouth.
“Were they killed with a sword?”
“No answer. What’s happened here? I’ve never seen my grandmother cry. Her bright green-grey eyes become water as I approach her, fearing whatever it is, what the shadow, the terrible thing is…
“And she hugs me and whispers in my ear, “No, my ‘muggetcita,’ my little flower, no…” “Holocaust .The word that symbolized my family’s taboo subject. To me, it is a word that encompasses it all, yet will never be enough. It is a word that has followed me throughout my life. It is also the wound of my heart that will never heal. It is, in short, my family legacy–one that, I have sworn to myself, I will pass down to the generations–the most important lesson to teach my kids. – Excerpted from “In My Grandmother’s Kitchen” By Jackie Ruben
The effect of Survivors on the lives of their children has been powerful, and sometimes difficult. Many, like Leah, were raised around secrets, or silence. Some, I believe, felt like outsiders in their own homes.
As we know, sensing deeply painful feelings and behavior in our parents without fully knowing can cause horrific anxieties, guilt, depression, and fantasies. “What did my parents do? What did they resort to in order to Survive?” Yet, for many the unspoken rule was: “Don’t ask. Don’t talk about it,” which evoked ambivalence in both parent and child. If the parent wondered, “should I?” the child wondered, “Do I really want to know?”
Child of Survivor: I remember my mother telling me that she worked sorting dead Peoples’ clothing, and this was a good job because you could exchange the shoes and stuff for food. But somehow from her reaction I felt that she almost felt like it was a crime to have worked there. She was able to Survive because she had access to dead peoples’ things. I got sort of afraid to ask her more questions about it.
Yet it was critical that these children make sense of what happened; critical to understand what made their parents who they were; critical to realize that their parents, having lost their own childhoods and families, were in some cases, too traumatized to parent without passing along Survivors’ guilt, withdrawing, or severely over-protecting.
Child of Survivor (crying): When I first realized what my mother went through, when I really understood the horror of it, the pain, the suffering she experienced I felt guilty almost. It evoked maternal feelings in me for my own mother. Although I wasn’t born yet I felt like I wished I could have protected her, shielded her. I had this feeling of how unfair it was. She was only 17-years-old. And I would look at pictures of her brother. He was only 12 and he was killed in Treblinka. I never could understand how another human being could do that. And it left me with this feeling of outrage.
Certainly that’s only part of the story. Many Survivors not only managed to resume their lives but have done so stunningly. No doubt the very traits that helped them Survive, adaptability, initiative, and tenacity, played a large role in their later success and these traits, too, they taught their children.
Perhaps the difference was in their ability to open up, and find meaningful outlets for their rage. By taking it out of the shadows, their children were able to develop their own personal identity, even if that evoked shock, rage, shame, and a profound sense of personal and social injustice. And many of my peers, and our children have taken on the battle themselves, trying to right this horrific wrong done to their parents and grandparents.
A poem by the child of a Survivor says it all:
That time so long ago and yet,
They gassed the beaten then,
Like the hot wax of a shabbos candle
The blood stained ball of each rising sun,
formed only by God’s will not word,
living only on the dreams of
the two that would conceive me,
cried out in anguish,
in my invisible, outraged soul.
For those whose earthly screams,
were forever silenced,
In a world where few can still hear
their tortured echoes.
Crimes against humanity never die,
only the victims.
And we all suffer the legacy.
– Maxine Shoshanna Persaud, Toronto, Canada:
Marnie Macauley, whose work has garnered her Emmy and Writer’s Guild Best Writing nominations, is the author of the acclaimed “Yiddishe Mamas: The Truth About the Jewish Mother” and the award-winning “A Little Joy, A Little Oy” calendar. These, as well as her new Joy of Jewish Humor: 2013 Day-to-Day Calendar can be found on Amazon.com, other online calendar/book sites, as well as fine booksellers. Marnie is also a counselor on Liveperson.com and invites you to connect with her on Facebook, Twitter LinkedIn, and Singularcity.com.
Marnie Macauley is listed in The Full Wiki’s Top Jewish American Writers, living or dead. (She’s busy deciding which)