Let us travel back in time, to where I lived, after the war. To the southwestern corner of dreary communist Poland where Polish Jewish citizens after surviving throughout Soviet Russia were forced to settle. To our prewar apartment, with had a sunny kitchen and a massive wooden table. The table had seen better days. It was wobbly, actually, barely standing upright, but was always covered with a spotless, white, tablecloth, that hang low to the floor.
Imagine a small child, growing up fearful of the world around her. To protect me, I created a sanctuary underneath that table. Nothing and no one could hurt me there. In our apartment, my mother talked about unthinkable things. About the month long bombing, her city being on fire, devastation, horror and death. How she survived and ran to Russia and Asia.
She had read Mein Kampf, what Hitler planned to do to Jews terrified her. After Nazis entered Warsaw, she escaped. She said good-bye to her entire family, thinking she would be back in a few weeks. To stay alive, she kept going east into the unknown on trains crammed with other refugees. Full of remorse and regret. However, this decision saved my mother’s life.
Barely a woman, she was 22. She took with her only a few personal items. Photographs, keepsakes, her entire identity, all that, she left behind. After she returned to her beloved city, six years later, she learned of the details, of what Hitler did to her people. Surrounded by a Jewish Graveyard she lost part of her sanity when she discovered Not One Member of her family had survived. Running away is what saved her, pain and helplessness came next. Overwhelmed by grief and remorse she lived among the ghosts of her family from then on.
Photographs are used as a way to remember and connect. However, Not One Photograph existed that connected my mother to her family. She mourned and brought them back to life daily. She painted pictures of her loved once, with words. I saw no tangible evidence that Mother’s family ever existed. I tried to understand how her brothers and sisters could just, vanish, Adek, Sala, Anja, their husbands, their wives, and their children. I was frightened and distraught, but also ashamed. I did not believe my mother. In order for my child’s mind to reconcile something I could not grasp, I decided that my mother was making up this family, that those people had never existed. Freud said that in order to mourn you have to know what had lost. As a child, I remember my mother, mourning her five nieces and nephews. “So young and innocent, they should be among the living,” is what she repeated, often. Growing up with this I was connected with what had happened. I went from feeling sympathetic to feeling hate. I was angry and overwhelmed for being attached to my mother’s continuing grief.
To protect myself from this anguish, I looked for ways to feel safe. I focused on her stories about Russia, which I spun into incredible adventures. I pictured her living in exotic places. The beautiful cities of Saratov and Moscow where my mother fell in love. She lived in Central Asia, in the desert, under hot sun, and ate exotic food. My mother was heroic and strong, blond, blue eyed, splendid and beautiful, in her brand new, custom tailored, black coat. I would never allow myself to see her be hungry, chase after a piece of black bread, be sick with malaria or get arrested by the NKVD, secret police.
The Russian stories, of where she survived, made me want to be like her, to travel to faraway, exotic places, to follow in her footsteps. After all, I was her daughter, I inherited her spirit, and we saw the world through the same set of eyes. I followed in my mother’s resolve; I lived under hot sun, slept in a tent, rode a camel and ate exotic food. I excavated the desert at Tel Beer-Sheva, Israel. Observed the lives of Arab men and women, evoking my mother’s stories of distant lands.
It was during my time, at City College of NY, in Prof. Elie Wiesel’s classes, that I connected the dots, of how the Holocaust effected my mother and me. I see him clearly, slender and frail but determined, full of great urgency. The horrors he lived through were visible on his face. He was 15 when he with his family were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Romania. He was liberated at Buchenwald. Wiesel’s horrors triggered in me my childhood memories, of growing up with the ghosts of my mother’s murdered family. Freud called it “shadow memories,” acquired traumas. Trying to atone what can be neither undone nor ever understood, much less resolved. My childhood in Poland now made sense. I understood that in losing her entire family my mother could not escape her past. By taking part in my mother’s emotional world, I assumed the burden, and become the link between past and future. By engraving her stories into my memory she pledged me, as the “memorial candle”. I was to be their voice by way of dedicating my life to the memory of the Shoah.
When I told Wiesel about my mother, he said, “Your mother must write her story. Future generations must know. In the words of Elie Wiesel “silence is never an option”. And so that her entire lost generation would not have perished with their stories untold, my mother added her voice and agreed to commit her memories to paper. It was a great risk to her sanity and health to reenter her unbearable past, but for the sake of the truth, my mother wrote. She bravely brought her family and her Jewish life from before the war back to life and left me with a priceless, living document. And on the day she died and for the next six years I entered my mother’s world. It was my turn to confront the ghosts of my childhood. Wiesel’s advice to me, “do not be afraid of the journey ahead.” Prof. Wiesel was the catalyst, my mother conveyed strength and perseverance, and gave voice to those whose voices were silenced.
What happened to our parents’ and grandparents’ had an impact on the 2Gs. Far too many of us are unable to free ourselves from the Holocaust aftermath, always lingering in our life.