I don't ever remember not knowing. The word Holocaust was not used in our home. "During the war" was how the stories began. Everyone told them. In lieu of living family, my parents belonged to a large network of Polish Jews. All were survivors. The women played canasta and men, poker. As they tossed their bright plastic chips and picked up cards, blue numbers flashing on the insides of their arms, the stories multiplied.
"Pish posh. I knew Mushka in the camp when she wasn't such a fancy lady. She cleaned toilets with the rest of us."
"If Bolek hadn't given me his piece of bread, I wouldn't be here. Lucky me, I was dealt two red threes!"
"I wouldn't give Uzek a broken cent. Now he's an important man in B'nai B'rith. During the war, he had a big mouth."
The delivery was usually off-hand. Lineups, beatings, starvation were discussed as casually as yesterday's weather. Their voices rose with excitement as they regaled one another with tales of daredevil escapes, morsels of wartime gossip, teasing each other's memories as at a college reunion. After all, most of them had been in their teens when the war broke out.
"You remember Yola? She was the not bad-looking one with crooked teeth, who went with the German. He gave her crabs."
I understood Polish so none of it escaped me. None of the innuendoes. I knew the cast of characters from summers spent in bungalow colonies in the Catskills with names like Blue Paradise. The survivors and children vacationed en masse, sometimes fifty families or more, where they organized poolside beauty pageants, champagne balls, and mock weddings. The bride wore white (as few of them ever had) and was always played by the hairiest man among them. I listened for hours as I changed Pier Angeli's cut-out ensembles.
Few outsiders understand the survivor sensibility. It is profoundly and terrifyingly cynical about human nature. Yet funny. But the humor is definitely dark. "The streets of Piotrkow resembled Hollywood. You never saw so many yellow stars." They had names for the enemy. My mother referred to the a woman guard who tormented here as Marchevka ,"carrot", because of her hideous red hair. She imitated her graceless walk and cursed she should die of cholera. When I was young, I took it for granted. I knew we weren't Father Knows Best. Americans, the survivors say, what do they know of life? But I thought all Jewish families were like mine.
I am named Zosha Hanna, after both of my parents' murdered mothers. I spent my first year with hundreds of Jewish refugees, orphans of large familes and communities, in the American zone of the Displaced Persons camp in Landsberg, Germany. Polish and Yiddish swelled the air.
I have one memento of that period, my portrait from the German photo shop on Augsburgstrasse. I am posed like a Spanish infanta painted by Goya or Valesquez, crowned with a white satin bonnet, its sash tied in a bow. The dress is white with lace on the collar and bodice, puffed sleeves from which two plump arms unfold.
"Such eyes. The very spitten image of Elisabet Tailor," proclaimed Ruzha, one of my mother's Landsberg cronies. "You should definitely go to Hollywood and get her a scream test." Lots of girls are told they look like a movie star. But to my mother, who had lost everything, this was a sign.
The Displaced Persons Act of 1950 raised the ceiling for Jewish refugees from 205,000 to 341,000. We arrived via the ship General Hersey on Roshashona. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society found us a room at the St. Mark's Hotel, near its offices on Lafayette Street. The Rescue Information Bulletin featured a photograph of my mother and another woman from Czestochowa, with the caption: "New land, new tastes -- these H.I.A.S. proteges eat their first popsicles."
My parents learned to speak English, my father got a job in a factory in New Jersey, and my mother a large apartment in Brooklyn, which she kept spotless. They made new lives for themselves, had babies and bankbooks, covered avocado crushed velvet couches in clear plastic.
I forgot my Polish. I was an American girl with no accent. I had friends, my own life, which I longed to grow into like a pair of oversize shoes. When I left home, I intended to create a self that had nothing to do with my parents' past. But I wanted to be a writer. A dangerous vocation.
It is our way to tell tales, bug-eyed people of the Book. We become writers and therapists because we believe in the power of storytelling. As if the right arrangement of words could release us.
As a child, my parents' stories held me with the power of prehistoric myth. How on Roshashona 1942, my mother's mother had forced her to tie a white woolen kerchief around her head. The family was lined up at the Umschlagplatz during Selection. She had been sent to the right side along with her parents and brother. All of a sudden, a Polish policeman searched the line. "Bialy szalik! White kerchief. Where's the girl with the white kerchief?" She had tried to hide behind her mother. He spotted her, then shoved her into the other line, which was destined for a labor camp.
Was it the white scarf that saved my mother's life while her whole family was sent to the gas chambers? She kept it through the war. Even when the kerchief was only a small square. She kept it until she was liberated by the Russians. "Then -- I lost it," she told me. "Maybe Momma thought I didn't need her protection anymore." After surviving until the Lodz ghetto was liquidated, then several months in Auschwitz, my father's Lager was forced to march from Poland into Germany. When a guard turned his back to pee, my father ran into a forest near Gliwice. It had been raw impulse, as he didn't have the chance to warn his brother who marched only several yards ahead of him. My father weighed less than 47 kilos when he was found by the Russians.
Such stories. Lives saved by split-second decisions, coincidences that strained credibility, amazing reversals. One of my parents' friends had been in the showers when the gas failed and her execution was postponed. Another had been dropped in a mass grave, pretended to be dead, and climbed out in the dark. Like the Ancient Mariner, my parents and their circle of refugee friends repeated the moments of their miraculous reprieves as if they still could not quite believe them. An implicit question haunted their stories: Why them? Why did they live and others did not? If asked, they had no answer. "We were not any smarter, hardly better human beings. The best people were killed."
Stories of the others were told too, of the unlucky one who lit a cigarette and was shot, of the young mother who was taken away. My mother and several women in the camp hid her little boy, Izieu, in a crack in the wall. Somehow he knew not to cry. They watched fearfully as he grew larger, knowing he would soon be discovered. One day they returned from work and he was gone. The night my father escaped, his brother was locked in an airtight potato cellar; he couldn't get close enough to the crack under the cellar door to breathe.
I don't ever remember not knowing. I believe I sucked the knowledge in my mother's milk. It gave me a secret inner life that was as voluptuous as it was tortured. I supplemented my fantasies with movies. My mother was Ingrid Bergman and my father, Tyrone Power. I embellished his heroic escape into the woods. He fought the Germans and saved my mother's life. At the war's end, they locked in passionate embrace.
Then I saw my first documentary footage of the camps. I had walked in as my parents sat in front of our black and white Westinghouse television. I watched hundreds of naked bodies, more bone than flesh, being dumped in the bottom of a huge cavity. The skeletons dropped like debris into the mass grave. I observed close-ups of faces with vacant, wide-eyed stares. My mother wept. My father peered intently at the television set as if he might recognize someone he knew.
We call ourselves 2Gs. Group shorthand for Second Generation, the survivors' children. There is a cabal of us. We have organizations with names like the Generation After, support groups and kinship meetings, well-attended conferences in the States and Israel.
I've always been troubled by the term Second Generation, which implies something that's passed on. Diabetes, blue eyes, twins, and -- genocide? One even hears of 3G. When my son was born,The PiotrkovTrybunalski Relief Association Bulletin ran an announcement: "God bless the Third Generation."
Many 2Gs become psychotherapists. The theory is that growing up, we nurture our parents and grow accustomed to intuiting their need. Surviving the survivors. Thus, the natural career choice. Some become disturbed.
"What's the difference between pizza and a Jew," asked Uly Oppenheim, a professor of Holocaust Studies. He answered himself.
"A pizza doesn't scream when it's put into the oven." His mother survived Bergen-Belsen.
I've often been struck by the irony that the survivors seem to have the ability to go on with their lives. The Bar Mitzvahs and weddings of their children are huge, festive affirmations of life.
It is these same children who spend much of their time, not to mention money, talking to Ph.D's, and M.S.W's. In unaccented, well-reasoned English, we speak of anger, guilt, trying to separate ourselves from our parents and their Holocaust past.
The Holocaust is our scar, distinguishing us like stigmata. It gives our life gravity and we cling to it. We would be ordinary without it. Secretly, we believe that nothing we can ever do will be as important as our parents' suffering.
From the Statement of Purpose of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors:"As the heirs of the six million Jews who perished during the Holocaust and as the sons and daughters of those who survived its horrors, we pledge ourselves to forging our future by remembering our past."
Yom Hashoah. The Day of Remembrance. Survivors light Yortzeit candles and say Kaddish for the dead. In Israel, a siren goes off at eight A.M. It is an eerie sound, reminiscent of deportation wagons in war movies. All traffic stops except for the Arab buses and cars. For a full minute, there is silence. On the street, people freeze as in a game of statue. The soldiers in fatigue uniforms, holding their guns and plastic bags of yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, and oranges. A gnarled old man bent over like an ancient tree. The peasant woman who sells buttons and thread closes her eyes and weeps. At the end of the day, one of my Israeli friends mutters, "God, I'm shoahed out." An American flag flies full mast at the entrance to the Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue. Inside, people wear black and white stickers on their lapels: "Remember 6,000,000."
My mother is one of the women who march in a memorial candle lighting. A black lace veil floats over her face as she lights a white candle for the dead from her city. There is a hierarchy of suffering. Treblinka survivors feels superior to the ones who were in Terezin - summer camp in comparison - who are above those in labor camps, who supercede the escapees to Sweden, Russia, and South America. They key question being: Where did you spend the war? The more dire the circumstances, the more family murdered, the greater the starvation and disease, the higher the rung in this social register.
Suddenly, a nervous hush fills the sanctuary. The spotlight catches the dark hollowed sockets of his eyes, the thin wisps of hair, his deeply lined face and gaunt body. In the realm of remembrance, Elie Wiesel is unsurpassed "Let us tell tales..." he begins softly. Temple Emanu-el reverberates with his chilling voice.
Most of my life I've been urged, goaded and beseeched to remember. I even receive letters that begin, "Dear Survivor" and end: "We serve notice to the world that the Holocaust can never be forgotten, must never be repeated. Your commitment to bear witness must go on. We are not a people who forget."
Parrot-like, the Second Generation echo the injunction of memory, the commandment Zachor. Remember. But memory is our secret bogeyman. In spite of all the decrees to remember, I am afflicted with amnesia when it comes to this "war business." The names of dead relatives, the dates and places of their internment, the cities and ghettos my parents lived in -- seem to vanish into black holes. No matter how many times I hear these facts, I just can't hold onto them.
I once asked my father to help me draw a family tree. "A tree!" He laughed mirthlessly. "Without branches or leaves."
I used to feel ashamed of these memory lapses. I knew James Joyce's birthday, Malcolm X's death, and the places where Georgia O'Keefe had lived. How could I care so little for my parents? And what of their relations who had perished during the war? I just couldn't understand my forgetfulness.
At a meeting of 2Gs, the subject of memory came up. One young woman admitted that she couldn't remember the names of her family's dead relatives. She began to cry shamefully. Someone else confided his inability to remember the name of his mother's concentration camp. Soon everyone was confessing to one kind of amnesia or another. No one could keep the names and places straight.
Something snapped. I wanted to demand: Remember what? Lives extinguished? Privates mutilated? Dead grandparents? Non-existent uncles, aunts, cousins? Childhoods, entire countries and cultures lost? I knew no one. I had seen nothing.
"Ya pamientam." That's how my mother's stories began. I remember. I remember.
I was their first seed of life after so much death. A living monument to their survival, a shrine to their murdered mothers. But I am not a Holocaust survivor. All that I survived was my childhood and my parents' fierce, anxious love.
As their child, I find myself in limbo. I had no personal experience of the war. But I was born on the other side, lived my first year in a refugee camp. My father had numbers, my mother nightmares, and me, the legacy. The last act of the horror show of the century. I had almost not been born but for a whim, a white scarf, and an impulse to run into the forest.
"2G" originally appeared in "7 Days" in 1987, introducing the term for Second Generation. The essay was reprinted in Visions of America (Persea Books, 1993).