This story by Lisa Reitman-Dobi resonated with me... I cannot find it in an online publication, so I will post it here.
You can find Lisa's book, Second Generation Voices, here: http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/bib63595
MEMORIAL CANDLE by Lisa Reitman-Dobi
She wrote both a book, “Second Generation Voices” and play, “ Tell Me About it." The play is based on her insight and understanding of how the Holocaust continues to affect us; and the Holocaust is not easy to understand.
I am the child of a child survivor. The biggest even in my life happened 20 years before I was born. It shaped my mother and therefore shaped me. I grew up the way she did: rootless.
She had few friends. Her life centered, and still does, around her family. Although she tried to give us normalcy, there was nothing normal about the way she got here.
There was something in me that needed to understand my mother, and that something drove me to write about it, first “Second Generation Voices”, a book that recounts firsthand experiences of children of survivors and children of perpetrators, then in the play, “ Tell Me About It”. The play is based on my insight and understanding of how the Holocaust continues to affect us. And the Holocaust is not easy to understand.
I grew up feeling confused and deprived. Not deprived of material things – It was a much deeper deprivation than that, I felt deprived of belonging to something.
With the best of intentions, my parents settled in a completely American neighborhood. There was no survivor community in my upbringing. Even if there had been, my mother would not have embraced it. “I am not a survivor,” she said for years. “We didn’t flee, we left.” Leaving, I told her, is going to Club Med. Fleeing is when they’re going to kill you if you stay.
I grew up with my mother’s notion of a pecking order of suffering. It measured and categorized loss, displacement, fear and pain. This was why my mother gave rank to her own experience, and by extension, mine. Not having been in a camp, she considered herself not only not a survivor, but a lucky person to boot. This is an odd barometer by which one is taught to evaluate pain, happiness and life in general.
As a friend of mine says, “It ain’t Auschwitz, keep on truckin’.” But this notion was how she undercut her own indisputable grief and bereavement and – by extension – mine. Maybe some people didn’t have numbers tattooed onto their forearms, but they have nightmarish memories seared into their souls just as indelibly. While he emotions had to go someplace, in an effort to spare her loved ones, and herself, my mother kept things bottled up. The result was tension, anxiety and fear.
She managed to dodge raindrops. She managed to escape the nightmare of her childhood, to grow up and to create new realities, which she then populated with children. And of course her children provided her with generous amounts of angst so essential to her existence!
Everything is a Big Deal either worth worrying over of worth celebrating. But what she didn’t see – and this was the Big Deal of my childhood – was that I didn’t belong. My mother was a refugee, self-educated, resourceful, intelligent and lonely. And I felt like the outsider.
I wanted my mother to be just as American as everyone else’s mother. I wanted her to play bridge. I wanted her to join a club. She didn’t and she never would.
Like any child, I wanted her to fit in somewhere so that I would fit in somewhere. She didn’t, and therefore, I didn’t. She was different, and therefore, felt different. And if you fell different, you ARE different.
After the war, my mother would have no part of a synagogue, because it meant having your name on a list.
So I grew up with both feet firmly planted nowhere, or more accurately, one planted here on American soil, the other in a decimated Europe…I also grew up with the implicit understanding that my life could turn on a dime. It happened before, why shouldn’t it happen again?
Nothing beats the humor of family discussions, where everyone is talking, no one is listening, your original question is never answered and there is a great big elephant in the living room, around which everyone tiptoes. What happened to Mom’s family? Why is Mom so tense? Why is everyone dead? Why are we having Chicken AGAIN? But under humor is sometimes sadness or anger and in this case, I felt both. Sad that my other had to go through what she went through, to lose so many and so much, and angry that the world stood by and allowed it to happen.
Sometimes we don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re put to the test. There’s a saying that a woman is like a teabag: you don’t how strong she is until you put her in hot water. That’s the way I see the generations after the Shoah. Even my sisters, who never expressed interest in our mother’s past, have a certain strength and perseverance that is not unlike our mother’s.
When I was little, I used to sneak into my parents bedroom when no one was around. In her closet, my mother had a box of photos. Those photos were a mystery to me, a treasure of immeasurable proportion. They were old and faded, but the people in them were smiling. These photos were of cousins, aunts and uncles who were murdered.
I used to look at this photos and scan them for my own features…I needed a sense of lineage, of hereditary qualities.
Apparently, I was like a lot of dead people I never knew.
It makes you feel like another casualty, without the visible wounds to prove your pain. But some wounds are not visible, and those can be the deepest wounds of all.
There was – and is – a history of which I ought to be proud, a history of musical, literary creative, and highly educated family members. But all that remains now is a box of photos and some stories. What would have happened if I hadn’t said, “Tell me about it” to the point of aggravating my poor Mom.
I’m the only one in our family who wanted to know more about my mother. My sisters never needed to know about that crack in time from which our mother came. It was a terrible crack in time, and for many people, it was easier to not look back but rather say, Kadima. As a child, I heard Kadima a lot, closing the door on the past and moving forward. This was necessary in creating a life out of nothing. But at a certain point, especially when the ripple effect of the war impacts the family, it becomes helpful to look at the past. My play deals with that ripple effect…Perhaps my sisters saw the past as too scary, maybe they thought it might swallow them up, or likely they were just following my mother’s lead and heading forward – Kadima – without needing an explanation of our mother’s tension level and her intense involvement with her children and now grandchildren.
They say that in survivor families there is often one child – perhaps a firstborn, maybe a lastborn – who is a symbol of those who didn’t survive. This child becomesa living testament to all that was lost. This child is called the Memorial Candle Child. It seems that is my role. It’s a privilege. It was my choice – and my destiny – to look deeply into my mother’s past and into the Holocaust itself. Writing helps me to dissect and understand the multiplicity of emotions I saw in my mother, and the refractions of those qualities that I see in myself.
Interspersed with the tension and anxiety comes tremendous appreciation of the continuity of generations.