Live Long Enough…
Live long enough, and you find out surprising things about yourself. For instance, I had no idea I was the type of person who would be fascinated by pictures of meals about to be eaten by friends I have not seen in more than 30 years.
Facebook brings me these dinners, and so much more — simchas, heartbreak, snark, rants, memes, keen insights, spectacular misapprehensions, videos of cats being frightened by cucumbers. What’s more, I enthusiastically share my own complicated business — overshare, some have told me, but so be it. At the risk of oversharing here, I confess that I’m the kind of person who does not easily let go of the past, and so I find it comforting that the community assembled in my brain also exists as a (surprisingly intact) virtual community on social media.
Every day, social media delivers news from people on the peripheries of my life, more activity than I can keep track of or feel strongly about. But every once and awhile…
This popped up in my feed last year, posted by one of my oldest and dearest friends, someone whose life remains genuinely connected to mine. In its entirety:
I’ve never posted this picture before. For Holocaust Remembrance Day. The girl is my mother. The boy is her twin brother Israel. Within a year of this picture, my Uncle Israel was shot in the streets of the Vilna Ghetto. My mother is one of the very few Jews to survive the ghetto thanks to a Catholic woman who hid her in the cellar and fed her scraps of food. She couldn’t take them both because he was rambunctious and she was afraid he would betray the hiding place. The last thing my mother did was call out his name before she died in 2004.
No Facebook emoji “reaction” for that. I knew the story of my friend’s mother and uncle, and also his father’s story, about how his family was jeered at by their neighbors in Hungary as authorities removed them from their home. Beyond these stories, I knew, 30 years on, the personalities shaped by that history. My friend’s father was an energetic if not entirely effective hondler, someone who often seemed most optimistic about things that were least likely to come to fruition — but a genuine optimist, nonetheless, determined to move forward. My friend’s mother was broken by her ordeal, and was emotionally unfitted for ordinary domestic life; she left while her son and daughter were young, and lived much of her life in challenging circumstances.
I met my friend when we were sophomores in high school. I remember that on the first day I met him, he asserted that he was going have a big family, live in a big house, and make a big amount of money. I have never been future oriented, so that seemed to me then (and still seems now) like a strange aspiration for a 15-year-old to express so forcefully. But my friend was sure of it, and we’ve stayed close as he ticked off everything on that list — he is a successful physician who married another physician (though they divorced), is father to three lovely daughters, and has resided in a succession of big houses, presently one in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, where he lives and skis with his delightful second wife. A life not without its dramas and traumas, but overall, a not-unusual arc for a man in midlife.
I also remember his relationship with his parents, both difficult people who were emotionally incapable of fully providing things he needed when he was younger, and eventually incapable of fully accepting the kindnesses that he was able to offer as an adult. An unfortunate family dynamic, but not a particularly unusual one.
What is unusual about my friend’s story is the picture he posted of two children, and what he shared about the little boy on the left: “Within a year of this picture, my Uncle Israel was shot in the streets of the Vilna Ghetto.” What is unusual is his father’s family being forcibly removed from their home. These are the experiences that shaped them as people and, inevitably, as parents.
As editor of a Jewish community newspaper, I write stories about local youth groups’ visits to places like the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where they learn about the Holocaust through exhibits, and then get to meet a Holocaust survivor and listen to his or her story. These encounters are invaluable, precious tangible connections to not-so-distant Jewish history that will be cherished by all those privileged to have experienced them. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether these encounters feel like part of an interactive multimedia museum experience. The young people meet an older person who possesses a fierce inner resilience; whocan share a story of horror, loss, and survival; who is willing get up in front of an audience of strangers and then be cheered, embraced, and photographed. I wonder if the Holocaust narrative the young people take away is primarily about overcoming, and whether that is the narrative that, 75 years after the fact, is most appropriate and useful for them to learn. All I can say is that it is not the Holocaust narrative I grew up with.
Growing up in Miami Beach in the 1960s and 1970s, survivors were people like our next-door neighbor and dear family friend with whom we walked to shul every Shabbos; the handicapped gentleman who sat next to us at services whose body was twisted by the medical tortures he endured in the camps, who used to pat my cheek and call me a “shayner yingaleh”; our cantor singing on the bimah, whose parents and 14 siblings were murdered; the flamboyantly-clad beachgoers whose tattooed arms we noticed as they took a refreshing dip in the ocean — ach, vot a mechayeh.
We were surrounded by survivors, but no one really talked much about the Holocaust. It hovered above us, however, and was strongly felt. A few months ago I interviewed Florence Grende, author of the memoir The Butcher’s Daughter, and she told me she was accustomed to treading lightly about the past because, “as a child of survivors, you don’t want to open old wounds.” It was the same for those of us who did not have survivors in our immediate families. We may have been aware of facts about survivors we knew, but did not often hear their stories, at least not from them. Needless to say, we would never intrude on their privacy by bringing it up. Strangers, on the other hand — people I might start chatting with on the beach — would often share their harrowing tales, perhaps feeling free to talk because they had no particular emotional investment in me.
As editor of a Jewish newspaper, I’ve made it a point to publish stories about how the children of survivors are processing their parents’ experiences, through essays, fiction, films, and activism. Though the works are very different, at some point they all arrive at similar practical questions: What are the key lessons of the Holocaust that must be preserved, the essential messages that need to be shared? What level of responsibility do members of the next generations have to share those messages, both now, when survivors are still with us, and in the near future, when they will all be gone?
Many of the authors of these works also arrive at the similar realization that, as children of survivors, not talking about the Holocaust is what they are accustomed to — partly in deference to the gravity exerted by living survivors’ own testimonies, partly because, as for Florence Grende, the impulse not to open old wounds is ingrained. Florence told me she only started exploring her parents’ story in middle age, after both had passed. “I could see them not only as brutalized people who could sometimes be brutal themselves,” she said. “I could see them as people who had reasons for what they did, which I couldn’t have done when I was younger.”
I don’t know if feelings of that sort motivated my friend last year on Yom HaShoah to share the picture of his mother and his Uncle Israel, who did not live long enough. In any case, my friend was compelled to provide his own testimony — his post conveys something meaningful about his inner life. When I asked if I could write about the post, we got to talking about who will keep the raw memories of the Holocaust alive once the survivors are gone. Not everyone is a “memorial candle,” inclined toward activism, no more so in the next generation than in the survivors’.
I wonder if it is going to be the generation after my own who will do the job most effectively, those young Jews who may have heard or heard about their grandparents’ experiences, or who were simply fortunate to have met a survivor at a museum. Maybe, owing to their distance from the historical events, they will have a broader perspective that not only takes in the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s, but also how the people who endured them raised their children, and how those children fared. Maybe future generations without an ingrained dread of oversharing will come up with an as-yet unconsidered narrative, and provide a clearer idea of what about the Holocaust actually is or is not over for the Jewish people.
However the story is going to be told, my friend said, we all better figure it out soon. Not only are the survivors dying out, he added, “We’re not spring chickens anymore, either. I hate to break it to you, Al.”
As I mentioned, live long enough, and you find out surprising things about yourself.
This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Jewish Voice.