When Pesach arrived at my childhood home, I looked forward to the Seder and especially to the bargaining with my father for the return of the afikoman which I managed to “steal” during the meal. We were relatively poor, so I never asked for anything big, but it was fun to have the upper hand. As I grew older, I sensed another competing theme permeating our household at this time of year. Eventually, I learned that it was on Erev Pesach that my parents’ world fell apart.
This was when the Nazis began rounding up Jews from Eastern Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Ironically, this is when my parents, grandparents and large extended family also became enslaved- or worse. For me and my family, Pharaoh’s decree to kill all male babies was not such a leap from making Europe Judenrein. So, Pesach was now seen in two dimensions and timelines. The themes of evil, depravity and genocide ran through both dimensions. My ultra-Orthodox upbringing taught me to accept both outcomes.
It seems to me that Holocaust survivors and their children have a much broader, nuanced and multi layered picture of what human destruction means. We are aware that there is really no such thing as a Holocaust survivor.
Every trauma leaves scars. Collective trauma puts its own special and unique stamp upon the minds, souls and lives of those impacted. It becomes a particular mark and creates a new and complex mini society. Most of my childhood friends and I grew up in such a sub group. That, in and of itself, was a way to defuse the tension and normalize our lives. Our stories and our parents’ coping strategies were often very similar.
First and foremost was the “new life” coping strategy. Survivors were obsessed with starting a fresh new identity in a new place. Their lives would now be happy. They needed to forget. They deserved to forget. And their children would make up for all their losses. This expectation was writ large throughout our upbringing.
We children did not realize at the time, that we were being asked to do the impossible. That this was not a part of a normative childhood. It was a heavy burden. But many of us saw it not so much a burden as our responsibility. Always trying to please and appease.
Some of us simply turned all this pressure off and learned to tune out what made us uncomfortable. These were the ones who were called “selfish.”
Others, myself included, went along with our “role” because it was the only way we could gain entry into our parents’ inner circle. It also kept us from experiencing our own reality and becoming a separate “self” — something all healthy children need to do. As a result, many of us ended up in limbo, until we gave ourselves permission to move on. Our parents, too, tried to move on. This proved to be difficult. One strategy that helped was talking.
They talked a lot, even too much, about what they went through. Others never said a word. Each of these parents had their own reasons for what they did and how they chose to cope. It is most unfortunate that the field of psychotherapy was still very young at the time and that what these new refugees and battered souls needed most was not yet available to them.
To add to the mix of emotions, there were times when we were very proud to be the children of these parents. These were people who found a way to go on. Many of them even went on with their education to become professionals or truly prominent members of their new society. They had made it in more ways than one. And we looked up to them for it. They taught us never to give up, not to take anything for granted and to stay close to family. On the other hand, these very heroes could be difficult to live with, demanding, often distant.
For our parents, “the war” never completely ended. It faded somewhat, but it was always there. Lurking. It served as a catalyst to deflate happy moments, and to compare lesser tragedies. Life’s inevitable bumps and bruises that we children experienced were “nothing” because no suffering was, is, or could be, as great as theirs. So, we children learned that we could never understand true pain, our needs could never compete, and so we either stifled ourselves or worked things out on our own.
It was different if one parent was not a survivor. That brought a breath of fresh air and normalcy into the mix. In my family and extended family all parents were “survivors”. In my husband’s family many were not. It made a big difference. It was difficult for our parents. They ended up in places that they never had thought of living. In jobs they had never planned to do. Now, they did anything to earn a living and go on. They were not only Holocaust Survivors, they were also immigrants. This point is often missed. Trying to fit in to a new country, a new society, to learn a new language and above all, to navigate a new type of bureaucracy, was difficult enough without carrying the additional weight of unimaginable loss.
It has taken a long time for us children of these survivors to speak in our own voice. Many of us want to let the world know that the experience of living through the hell of “the camps” was much more than the event itself. It went on to impact the lives of those who did not yet exist during the time of these atrocities. It is a case of the whole being much more than the sum total of its parts.
Many of us, myself included, have a difficult time talking about how our lives and childhoods were negatively impacted by the fact that our parents saw, experienced, smelled and heard the things they did. We feel it is terribly disrespectful to complain when our parents were the ones who really suffered. And yet, we had our own little tragedies that needed tending to. But how could we compete?
Now, as the Holocaust generation is nearly gone, many of us are scrambling to find someone who can work out our family tree. Most of us never knew our grandparents. Even aunts and uncles were an incomplete set. Many of us are looking for our story. Some are just finding out now, in their late middle age and beyond, that their parent had another spouse, other children. All gone. Now we understand why certain names were so important. Survivors who were silent all along are opening up, at least enough so that their children and grandchildren can get a grasp on who they are genetically and can finally feel that they are part of a group of people who once lived, worked, loved and mattered. This game of forgetting, denying, reinventing and then imparting what was long hidden is exhausting for all generations.
It is these shadows of the Holocaust that the world does not get to see.