There’s a hierarchy of suffering – concentration camp survivor trumps partisan, trumps hidden child, trumps kindertransport, trumps extended families being exterminated. And so it passes on to the next generation. In hindsight it should be have been obvious, but it has taken me over 50 years to understand where I stand in the hierarchy.
I was fortunate to be born and to grow up in sunny and free Australia where Nazi Germany and the Shoah happened a long time ago in a faraway place. My mother escaped from Vienna in 1938 to London, and my father escaped from Offenbach, Germany to England in 1939. He was then deported to Australia in 1940 on the infamous Dunera boat, and detained in Hay and Tatura for the next three years. Unlike many of my friends whose parents bore the tattoos that in my youth required no explanation, the concentration camps were not part of our family narrative.
In my late teens, Helen Epstein’s groundbreaking book, Children of the Holocaust, was published and gave a public voice to the children of survivors – labelled the Second Generation – and the transmission of trauma. Although this was interesting, I was always on the outside looking in. This was not about me or my sisters or my family. Our parents were fortunate enough to have escaped Europe and it would have been sacrilegious to label ourselves “second generation” as this was reserved for the children of those directly affected by the Shoah.
Had I been more reflective, I would have understood that we had a connection. I can see myself as an eleven-year-old uniformed school child, standing on a chair in our classroom during morning recess passionately declaring my hate for the Germans as they had murdered my grandparents. I also remember that I got down from the chair feeling slightly puzzled as to the source of my vehemence, considering that the murder of my father’s parents was not generally discussed at home.
Whilst still in primary school, I would sneak upstairs to my father’s study and read his books about the Shoah. Books with scenarios and graphic descriptions that would never appear in the books that were downstairs or in the hallways. No one ever talked about me reading the books. I never discussed them or wondered how, or why my father had acquired these books, or if he had even read them.
On the rare occasion that my father mentioned his ‘Mama’ or ‘Papa’, a soft look of longing would come over his face. On one of our trips to Israel to visit our grandmother (on my mother’s side) we made a stop at the JNF offices. Staff gave us some medallions and showed us a book explaining where forests had been planted in the names of our relatives who had been murdered in the Shoah. We did not go to the forests, yet, had we gone, according to satirist Ephraim Kishon, someone at the forest may have quickly put together a plaque with our name and then changed the plaque for the next donor scheduled to visit. I did not ask any questions about the forest – it was just one of a series of stops that we made during that day.
My mother escaped Austria on one of the kindertransport, arriving in London on Christmas Eve 1938. Via luck or miracles, all her immediate family left Austria before the war. A few years before she died, she was granted $5,000 dollars from the Austrian Government for ‘Interrupted Education’. Despite her education effectively ending at the age of twelve, she was able to help us with our math and English homework, even when we had long passed the age that she left school. Therefore, her leaving school did not affect us and as such, in the selfish way of children, if I was not affected, then my mother was not a survivor.
In my mother’s stories, Vienna remained the place of her happy childhood. She talked about the Viennese cream cakes, uncles who spoiled her, her acceptance into the exclusive Grammar School and about the pranks of her brothers. Even the Nazi era stories had a positive slant and we heard about the family Torah Scroll that was successfully rescued by my Uncle Ephraim after Kristallnacht. We heard about the neighbor, who despite being a high ranking member of the Nazi party, intervened and aided the family when they were evicted from their apartment. Even my mother’s story of being taken by her Austrian nanny to greet Hitler in the Anschluss was told as a curiosity and she was seemingly not fearful.
Esther is my second name. All I knew was that Esther was a cousin or an aunt of my mother and I never asked for any more information. Today I know that Esther was my mother’s aunt and she was the person who arranged for my mother and my Uncle Fritz to be on the children’s transport escaping Vienna in December 1938. Esther did not survive the Shoah. In fact, many of my mother’s aunts, uncles and cousins were murdered by Hitler’s regime.
Many of my friends communicated with their parents in Yiddish and many of my parent’s contemporaries had fading, blueish numbers on their forearms and whispered of horrendous memories, fears and nightmares. In our home, we spoke English and as our parents were fortunate enough to have escaped Germany and Austria mere months before the beginning of the war, I did not make the connection to the horrors of Europe.
However, in 2018, I believe I can be included as member of the Second Generation – so posthumously, this means that my parents were in fact Holocaust survivors.
This eventually dawned on me when my three sisters and I made Aliya and my parents established a second residence in Israel and purchased a car. Although my father, died in 1997, it wasn’t until 2012 that I finally went to the Licensing Authority to update the registry on his car, which had to be done in person. Unconsciously (or perhaps consciously), I went to their offices on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust day in Israel. This fifteen-year delay was liable to cause complications so it was with some trepidation that I approached the clerk. She started looking at the papers and at the computer.
“Was your father a Holocaust survivor?” she asked.
Startled, I thought for a moment. ‘Yes, as a matter of fact.’
The update went smoothly, which I attributed to the fact that the clerk wanted to do her part to aid a holocaust survivor.
I left the office feeling a little guilty but then began to consider that my father, aged 16, left his parents who were murdered by the Nazi regime five years later. In this respect, it was reasonable to consider him a Holocaust survivor.
Another major influence was our family’s trip to lay Stoppelstein (memorial stones) outside my grandparent’s home in Offenbach Germany, the home that my father grew up in and the home from where my grandparents were transported to Treblinka. During our four day trip, I was exposed to the depths of the loss and tragedy which befell our family in those terrible years and for the first time read the correspondence between my father and his parents between 1939 and 1943.
And most importantly, the passage of time has shaped my thoughts. Whilst surrounded by the extraordinary survivors of the unspeakable hell of the camps, I could not see the suffering of our parents but only their extraordinary good fortune, which allowed them to escape being direct victims of the horrors. Today, when unfortunately almost all of those survivors are no longer among us, I am able to understand that I grew up in Australia because of the Shoah. My father was deported to Australia because of the war and chose to make his life there because he wanted to be as far away as possible from the hell of Europe. Although he did not discuss it, much of what he did was directly connected to the Shoah. His visits to distant relatives, his adoption of lonely elderly people as family, his ceaseless search to discover the fate of his parents. My mother lost not only her education but also many of her family and friends in the Shoah.
I was born in 1961 – thirteen short years after the end of the horror but it was a different world and a different era. Today in 2018, seventy-three years after the Holocaust, it all seems closer and more relevant.
Paintings of Tatura Detention Camp Painted by our family friend Theodore Engel, who was interned in the camp with my father, and he and his wife were adopted members of our family joining us for the Seder every year.