Growing up as the fourth and youngest child of Holocaust survivors was both a privilege and a journey. Being born in 1960 gave me the advantage over my brothers of being raised by parents who were about 15 years away from the end of their personal suffering when I came onto the scene. In some ways, that gift of the passage of time meant that I was raised by very different people than my older brothers, whose parents were still in shock. I am grateful for that. In other ways, the scars of being hunted, hungry, orphaned, displaced, and “greeners” (immigrants) never healed and created a complex home life. While I always related to my parents’ oddities as you might to someone with special needs- with love, patience and compassion- living in the world of Corona has given me a renewed and deepened understanding of them.
On the surface, our family was normal and ideal, and I thank God every day for giving me the most wonderful, amazing and supportive parents anyone could hope for. I am who I am solely because of who raised me. A closer look, however, reveals behaviors that were unique to my home. Starting with simple things, like my parents’ obsessive reminders to us to always wash our hands upon entering the house, and before sitting down to eat. And our dog was never allowed upstairs. There were clothes that you wore outdoors and clothes that you changed into once you got home, although that never transferred to us kids. My Dad had a pair of slippers at the entrance to the house that he put on before stepping two feet into the house. And worst of all, woe to the child who sat on my parents’ bed in jeans that were worn outside the house. Not to mention that pretty bedspread at the few motels we went to when I was a teen — turns out it was actually filthy and germ-ridden and was hidden away upon arrival never to be seen again til checkout. I never really understood any of this, but did what I was told and respected their wishes… Having been home now for almost a month, I fearfully went to the pharmacy yesterday to pick up a package. When the silly 20-something-year-old clerk touched my phone screen to see the ID number of my package my heart skipped a beat. I get it now…all the rules…my parents lived in fear of infectious disease during their separate runs to elude the Nazis. The word typhus came up at home sometimes in conversation, but it has now taken on a whole new meaning…
I mentioned motels. So, we never went on too many vacations when I was a kid, and that too was just part of what was normal at our house. In the early years it was financial, but by the time I was in junior high school, things were a bit easier and I was sick of hearing my day school friends bragging about their winter vacation plans even before we climbed up the steps of the bus to summer camp (privileged as we were…). I remember very clearly one day coming home from school and raising cain at the dinner table not just about why everyone else was going on vacation, but how it was that their parents made vacation plans so far in advance. My parents looked at each other and then at me, and solemnly said, “de mentsch tracht und Gott lacht.” Man plans and God laughs…the mantra of my childhood…I fought against them, citing how that was then and this is now. I didn’t get very far. Today, there are endless philosophical posts and articles about the lessons of Corona: We are supposed to be assuming a smaller place in the Universe; we have become too arrogant; we have forgotten that there are forces greater than us…forces that can shutter a whole world in a matter of weeks. My husband David and I have clients writing us cancellation letters every day, using words that could have been penned by my parents… “Who knows what the future will bring? We can’t make any plans now, and we have to protect our family’s health.” My parents were just 50 years ahead of their time. They, and many others like them, who lived in fear and uncertainty for four long years, never were able to shake that feeling of being small in the Universe, of knowing that you could wake up on any given day, and life as you knew it yesterday would be over. Indefinitely. And again, I get it now…
I feel that I must add here that this is not unique to Holocaust survivors. I am sure the millions of Syrian refugees (and all others who have lived through unexplainable and seemingly unending suffering) experience this same PTSD, and are painfully aware of their place in the world.
Yes, there were many survivors who went thru things much worse than my parents and were somehow first in line to make those reservations at the Saxony in Miami Beach or Grossinger’s in the Catskills. I think they just had more confidence than my parents and their personality makeup made it easier for them to toss caution to the wind. So too, will we see that some of us will soon return to life as it was before, crisscrossing the Atlantic every few weeks, and others of us will think twice or more before boarding a crowded bus or airplane. Some of us will continue to sample an olive at the supermarket. Others will continue washing hands several times a day. Still others will develop agoraphobia or OCD, as they try to protect themselves from the insidious invisible enemies that lurk everywhere.
Tonight, as we gather together as a people, each alone in our own home, to remember our collective narrative of history’s darkest chapter, it is important to remember that we cannot compare the pandemic of the coronavirus to the horrors of the Holocaust. Even the worst parts of the coronavirus do not come close to the daily atrocities of the Shoah. Having said that, I do believe our current sense of economic uncertainty and our very real fear about our health and the health of our loved ones can give us insight into the minds and behaviors of Holocaust survivors for whom uncertainty was the least of their problems.
One thing is for sure. Humanity will never be the same. Our personal narratives will be punctuated by before the Corona and after the Corona. My father, Joe Magun, of blessed memory, died this past summer at age 97, at home here with my family. I could never have imagined, during those last few painful days, that “post-Corona me” would use the word “lucky” to describe being able to lie next to him as he took his last breaths.
May the memories of all the victims of the Holocaust, including the ones that survived and are dying alone at this moment from the coronavirus, be for a blessing.
Yehi zichram baruch. יהי זכרם ברוך
Dedicated to the memory of Holocaust survivor Riva Krom Lederman who died alone yesterday, 19.4. 2020, of COVID-19.