Every family has a story, and I have always been fascinated by how the narrative a person receives shapes who they are, and how they view themselves. Our parents decide which stories are passed down, and which are forgotten either by design, lack of information, or both. This is particularly the case when it comes to the Holocaust—how do parents, either survivors or children of survivors, describe and characterize that dark and tragic period in their family’s history, their people’s history, to their own children?
My grandfather, Mendel Farkas, was born in Solotvina, Czechoslovakia (which is in present-day western Ukraine) in 1927, and survived Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Buckenwald. He lost both of his parents, five of his eight siblings, as well as many half-siblings and cousins. Due to the war, my grandfather did not finish the third grade, and he was a man of action rather than words or complicated thoughts. After surviving the Holocaust, he immigrated to Palestine in 1947 and fought for the creation of the Jewish state. He was a baker who worked all night and slept during the day, showing his love for his family through his sacrifice and hard work. He loved two things above all else: Israel, and babies. His Zionism was strong and manifested in the way he lived his life: in the 1950s he met and married an Iranian woman, my grandmother, and they were among one of the first mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi marriages in Israel. Perhaps this was his way of starting fresh in a new land, and washing out the diseases of the European diaspora—the identity of their four children was firmly Israeli, and grounded in values of pragmatism and love of the Land.
Each of his children, including my father, was named after one of my grandfather’s deceased family members—but the lives they led were to be very different. We carry the memory of the deceased, and in some cases even their names. Yet the story of those who perished or survived in Europe is not our story, and my grandfather never told his stories in a way that terrorized us, which inevitably inspires fundamental insecurity and fear. He talked about what he experienced in a natural way, and we were never afraid. The stories he told us were always of heroism, miracles, and adventures, without idealizing the past. I cannot remember the first time I heard about the Holocaust, though my grandfather’s tattoo on his forearm, A-6745, was a constant reminder that he had survived the concentration camps. The Holocaust was presented to me like a natural fact of life, and perhaps I believed that everybody’s grandfather had a similar tattoo.
He was most fond of telling the story of his escape from the Nazi death march. When word got out that the Soviet army was fast approaching the camp, the Nazis sent the surviving prisoners on the infamous death march. My grandfather struggled to keep up: he was very weak and constantly falling to the back of the line. When he saw the fate of the stragglers—to be shot and killed—he made up his mind to catch up. In three days, with sheer determination and willpower, he made it to the front of the line. One day, it was pouring rain and their fate was sealed, so decided to run into the woods and escape. As he ran, a Nazi guard shot towards him, but at the same moment he tripped on a wet tree root, saving his life—he was already presumed to be shot and dead.
Once in the woods, he lived off squirrel meat, or food stolen from Soviet partisans. Survival was the main goal, and he utilized whatever he could in order to stay alive. When there was eminent danger, he went to hide in the treetops until the threat was gone. He told us the birds would tell him when it was safe to come down. It sounds unbelievable, but perhaps there was some underlying logic to it for a man who was so connected and in touch with the natural world. We should not be too quick to dismiss this sort of thinking as mere primitivism— there are limits to reason, and sometimes a good intuition and courage is what’s really needed to survive.
There is a way you can tell only heavy stories and pass an unfair burden down to the next generation. With this approach, the next generation is likely to disconnect from the story because they don’t want to deal with it—it is too much, and the brain inevitably shuts down in self-protection. I appreciate that my grandfather told us stories that engaged us and strengthened our connection to his experiences, rather than turned us off to them. It would be equally mistaken to pass over the stories in silence, because silence also inspires fear. That which is hidden or buried can be just as harmful, as it denies the very past that changed the world and makes us who we are. My grandfather struck a good balance between passing down his stories and keeping his focus on the present and the future.
Every day we lose more survivors, and fortunately we have a great amount of documentation they leave behind: their stories are preserved through videos, through books and art, for the next generation who will not know a survivor personally. How these stories are told will influence whether they choose to distance themselves from the past, adopt the past as the defining point of their own identity, or perhaps something in between.
If there is one lesson we can take from the Holocaust, perhaps it is this: to embrace life, make children, and view life as a blessing. We should appreciate the sacrifices and suffering without making them our life story, and celebrate the miracle of our existence every day—for indeed it is a miracle.