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Kitty Hoffman

Images of Survivors

On Yom Hashoa a friend, also 2G, wrote:
What strikes me on this day is the simple heroism of those that survived against all odds, in such dreadful conditions. We owe them our lives, our children’s lives, grandchildren’s lives – so much living that was not supposed to be. Let us honor their memory through the way we live our lives!

And I replied:
This is so beautiful, and so true. We often forget that all the photos we have of Jews during the Shoah were taken (and often staged) by Nazis, designed to make the subjects look abject and subhuman.

All the survivors I knew, including my own parents, were tough, determined, strong-willed, independent-minded, resourceful, quick-witted, irreverent. Not that that guaranteed survival against those odds. Just to say that these characteristics are very familiar to me — from the Jews I know now, from the Jews I read about in our classical texts. From, frankly, myself and my own children.

I’ve lived long enough to see shifting patterns in the way the Jewish community at large deals with and commemorates the Shoah. For a very long time there was no wider community commemoration; instead, I remember small gatherings of people who spoke with heavy accents, weeping and mourning their own dead. No one else came. It was the survivors themselves who had to fight for wider community commemoration, for museums, for funding. Mostly things were, for the longest time, paid for by those survivors who had thrived economically.

Then came a period of general cultural fascination with the Shoah, and of making it a cornerstone of Jewish identity and Jewish education. As the survivors’ English improved, and their accents got lighter, they were suddenly in demand to testify, to recount all the grisly details, to go over and over the worst unspeakable traumas of their lives. People couldn’t seem to get enough of the horror.

Then, as the second and then third generations came along, the survivors were transformed into symbols of hope and continuity.

These days, now that the ‘victims’ have mostly died, everyone wants stories of ‘resistance’ and examples of ‘resilience’. As another friend, not of Shoah lineage put it, we need stories of resistance ‘to shift the narrative’.

But the truth is, surviving was in itself resistance. Helping another to survive was resistance. Knowing when to defy, and when to keep silent, fighting and also staying alive, all of it was resistance. All the stories that I heard growing up, from my parents and all their friends, included the reality that no one made it alone, there was always someone else who kept them going, whom they kept going, they helped and were helped. None of it was a guarantee, but all of that was resistance.
I say this as the daughter of a ghetto fighter and partisan. And also the daughter of someone who saw their entire immediate family murdered, and was themselves shot, and yet somehow managed to keep going, day after day, for years in hiding and daily stubborn persistence.

All of it was resistance. The darkest of unbelievably dark humour was resistance. Laughter was resistance. Choosing to make new life in the DP camps — literally, they had one of the highest birthrates in recorded history — rather than sink into a spiral of violence and revenge, was resistance.

Of course all of these things – isolation and alienation, horror, hope and continuity, resistance and resilience – all of them are true. Plus much more.

If my tone isn’t quite right, it’s because in my lifetime, to be honest, I haven’t seen all that much real interest in survivors or their later generations as individuals. They, we, tend to be symbols for some wider narrative, and the narrative keeps changing.

What never changed is the horror, the triumph, the humanity, and above all the individual specificity of each and every survivor, and of those of us who came after them. There is no general story. There are six million lost stories, and a handful of individual stories of those who managed to make it through, and of their descendants.

There is no doubt that every survivor was marked, and the horror was beyond describing. And yet, almost all of them chose life immediately, and acted on a strong urge to create new life. My father felt the destruction and loss every day of his life, and he felt the ghosts of all the missing people most acutely at times of joy, when there was no family with whom to share. Yet he also loved singing, dancing, joking, literature, movies, intellectual debate. From him came my joie de vivre. From him I also get my rage, and my passion for justice and social improvement. My mother was much more marked psychologically, and clinically depressed; that, too, became mine to deal with. And yet, also, she was incredibly strong — like a force of nature. So, as my children and friends will tell you, I have that too…

This year I spent part of Yom Hashoa listening to Polish tango. Jews played a substantial role in inter-war Polish tango — which may be a little sentimental by our standards, but is still today considered a major part of Polish popular culture — as composers, singers, band leaders, record producers, and club owners. Most of them were murdered, and now they tend to be remembered as Polish artists.
My father was an avid tango dancer in Warsaw, and tango was a favorite at the survivor simchas of my youth. It is one of the small ways that I connect with that life that was destroyed, the modern secular European Yiddish life that we lost.

I still remember all too well how much the survivors were mistreated and mocked when I was growing up; and yet, the older I get and the more I see and experience others, the more I realize how truly extraordinary the survivors, these ordinary people, were, even in all their complex humanity. Above all, they had huge hearts…
The uncomfortable truth is that I couldn’t get away from them soon enough, away from the dark legacy and the holidays spent with ghosts.
Now, I miss them all terribly.

About the Author
Kitty Hoffman has lived in several cities and travelled the globe. Conceived in a refugee camp in Germany, born in Norway, and raised in Montreal, she has a deep interest in identity, exile, and spirit. Her award-winning writing has appeared in literary anthologies and journals including The New Quarterly, Boulevard, The Commons, and Prism. A spiritual director in Montreal, she is presently working on a book of literary nonfiction about her medieval ancestor, the father of European kabbalah, and the weight of her Holocaust legacy. More info at kittyhoffman.com
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