The Toughest Questions

The toughest questions any child can ever ask his or her parents are:

“What was the greatest mistake you ever made?”

“Did you ever do anything that you’re ashamed of or that you regret?”

“Assuming you could, how would you remedy your mistake or regret today?

For the children of Holocaust survivors, these questions were verboten.

I, being the child of two survivors, knew that in my household there were unspoken rules.

Rule #1—Survivor parents didn’t talk about their experiences in the camps.

Rule #2—Their children never asked any questions of their parents about what happened during the war.

My parents hardly ever mentioned the Shoah.

And I never quizzed them about it.

Accordingly, my father failed to transfer much of the weight of his past onto my shoulders.

He did this because he loved me.

He did this because he want to protect me.

To protect me from his weighted-down baggage which carried way too much pain and too much death.

So in dribs and drabs, I learned his war-time story from his friends and acquaintances.

But from his mouth, I hardly heard a peep.

After he passed, I carefully listened to his Holocaust tapes.

And I understood so much more about this man that I loved.

In a monotone voice, with his heavy Germanic accent, he talked—without bragging—of his luck, his courage and his intelligence.

Dad took risks.

He gambled knowing which cards to hold and which ones to play.

Like a mathematician, he knew how to calculate the odds.

He understood the power of sharing, friendship and making trades.

To a Steven Spielberg interviewer he uttered, “In our three hour session, I have only told you one per cent of my war-time experiences.

I saw cruelty 1,000 times worse than I described.”

I wondered, “Do I even know one per cent of my father’s horror story?”

On those tapes, Dad talked about survival.

“People often asked me, ‘How did you survive?’

I told them, ‘I was lucky.’

I told them, ‘I was not so smart but I had alert eyes and ears.’

I knew:

how to behave;

when to work;

how to steal;

how to go two or three days without a meal.

And I knew those without hope perished.

Something kept me going.

I looked for signs, for the magic in numbers, for any good omen.

Those superstitions kept me alive for an additional day.

But if the war lasted an additional two weeks, I would not be here making this audio tape.”

Like my dad, I too believed in superstitions, looked for signs and studied numbers.

In times of crisis or when I have suffered from one of my mistakes.

I begged, “G-d give me a sign?”

From my dad’s Holocaust tapes, I learned my dad’s biggest mistake.

“I believed Germany would never attack Poland; the two countries would never go to war;

Hitler would demand some territory from Poland; and Poland would capitulate.

Hitler would be satisfied.

I believed in appeasement, like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

I thought Hitler’s desire for territory could be satiated.

Both of us were very, very wrong.”

My dad added, “Even if the Nazis invaded Poland, the Jews throughout history have mastered the ability to adapt.

Jews survived the Black Plague massacres, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Russian pograms.

Jews negotiated, bargained and found workable solutions.

And if there were no workable solutions, they’d pay a price and be allowed to leave.

My dad knew the options: fight, flight or negotiate.

His mistake cost him dearly.

He thought, “Somehow we’ll survive this tough new reality.

We are the chosen people.

A people with a tough will to live and preserve.

Programmed to look for signals or patterns of behavior of even the most criminally insane.

And once we learned Hitler’s rules, we’ll know how to play his game.”

I had known, even Adolf Hitler, in Mein Kampf , repeated this Jewish theory of self-preservation.

In hardly any people in the world is the instinct of self-preservation developed more strongly than in the so-called “chosen”. . . .

Where is the people which in the last two thousand years has been exposed to so slight changes of inner disposition, character, etc., as the Jewish people?

 What people, finally, has gone through greater upheavals than this one — and nevertheless issued from the mightiest catastrophes of mankind unchanged?

What an infinitely tough will to live and preserve the species speaks from these facts!”

 My father never read Mein Kampf  nor did he ever picture death factories.

Death factories, where Schutzstaffel men stood on top of the roof of a gas chamber, placed olive grey metal canisters, labeled with skull and cross bones filled with Zyklon B pellets into a machine.

The machine opened and dumped the pellets into the roof’s vents.

The crystal amethyst-blue pellets fell into rooms packed with children and the elderly and then dissolved into a poisonous gas.

Part of my father’s biggest mistake was failing to comprehend what the Germans meant by the final solution to the “Jewish problem.”

Maybe my dad should have read Mein Kampf.

Maybe if he had, he’d have understood flight was the only answer.

And he wouldn’t have had to tell me, one of those rare death camp stories.

A story in which he said, “Son, I used to use my medical training to help other concentration camp prisoners.

I massaged a prisoner’s wounds, and sometimes they’d rewarded me with a crust of bread.”

Even this innocuous story could have lead to a multitude of inquiries;

A never-ending river of questions.

But I, the wise son, followed Rule #2 and never asked.

Nor did I ask my father, “Dad, did you do anything during the war that you were ashamed of or that you regretted?

If so, how would you have handled it differently?”

But I did not ask because I loved him too much;

I lacked the courage;

I knew the meaning of chutzpah;

I knew ripping off scabs causes great pain;

I knew my dad had suffered enough;

I knew Rule #2.

Only a wicked son would think that any good would come out by asking such questions?

How dare a son who never walked a single foot in his father’s holocaust shoes, ask these questions?

I the privileged son of a doctor, who attend Hebrew school, graduated law school and became a lawyer, knew the Biblical admonishment, “Honor they father and mother and do not cross-examine them.”

I knew on the High Holidays the wicked son was required to atoned for the sin of curiosity and the violation of Rule #2.

But being the child of two survivors, a wise son with alert eyes and ears, I knew that some questions are better left unasked.

Photo from 1950, Mom, Dad and me on boat to America.

About the Author
Florida's Jewish short-story writer, speaker, film producer and retired attorney. He has authored, "A Hebraic Obsession", "The Hanukkah Bunny" and "The Greatest Gift." He produced an award-winning short film entitled, "The Stairs". Movie can be viewed on my TOI blog. ChatGPT says, Mort is known for his works that often explore themes of love, loss, and the human connection. Laitner has published several books , including “A Hebraic Obsession.” His writing style is characterized by its emotional depth and introspection. Laitner’s works have garnered praise for their heartfelt expression and keen insight into the human experience.
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