“To have in general but little feeling, seems to be the only security against feeling too much on any particular occasion.”
–George Eliot, “Middlemarch”
“The human heart is the starting point of all matters pertaining to war.”
–Maréchal de Saxe, “Reveries in the Art of War,” 1732
I’m amazed that I have never visited Auschwitz. It’s the grave of three of my grandparents, several great-aunts, uncles, and cousins, a site to be tended and revered, a monument to genocidal atrocity, despotism, disappearance without return, volcanic, irreparable loss.
Sometimes a friend or relative will mention they are going to visit Auschwitz on the way to or from somewhere else, perhaps Paris, the city of light, or Rome, or Barcelona, equally beautiful. I can’t say, “Have an enjoyable journey,” or “I hope the sun shines brightly on the day you are at Auschwitz.” I might think, silently, Please don’t show me any photographs when you return. And, these days, please don’t post anything on Facebook or Instagram.
Like many others of my generation born in the US, Israel , Canada, or other countries of refuge, I occasionally have dreams about the Holocaust, nothing specific often, just a sensation of flight, or a pile of suitcases, the clasps undone, clothes and jewelry cascading onto a floor, a table, or a bed. There are no Nazis in these dreams, the war is over, and we children are living in its aftermath without understanding what has happened, or why we don’t have grandparents, or why we are having these dreams. And though I am much older now, far from childhood, and have written a lot about the Holocaust and lived in Europe and visited Holocaust monuments and the house in Vienna where my mother grew up, and the town on the Hungarian border where my father’s family owned a sawmill, I have not exorcised this history from my daily life, or my imagination, or the list of essay topics, such as this one, that I want to write about. And even if I were able to forget, so to speak, would that be a good idea? When my generation, the Second Generation, as we are called, is dead and gone, who will remember? Who will do the “emotion-work” –as Helen Epstein calls it in her book, “Children of the Holocaust?” Our parents—the survivors—were unable or unwilling to do this work, mostly unable, I have decided, as the surviving itself took all their will power and energy. And our children and grandchildren? What can we ask of them? My daughter is interested in all I write, she knows the history and, thank goodness, I tell myself, is also, in many ways, free of it. And isn’t that what we want for our children? To be free of pain? Isn’t that what my parents wanted for me as they remained silent about our murdered relatives? And when the Syrian refugees return to their decimated country, or remain where they have found refuge, what will they tell their children and grandchildren? Or will they, too, remain silent as they learn new languages and build new lives, or return to their towns and villages. Will they be broken, or resilient, or both?
I had a dream this week that posed questions about the obligation of testimony and remembrance, as well as its usefulness. I was maybe eight-years-old, wearing a blue wool coat with a velvet collar, a hat to match, and patent-leather shoes. My mother was on one side of me, my father on the other, holding my hands so tightly they hurt. Note how well I was dressed, like a child on the way to a birthday party. I wanted to get away, but I couldn’t get away; I was trapped, imprisoned in a history that some who are religious might call “fate.”
In the dream, we had entered the infamous gate to the death camp, a windswept, gray day, ashes underfoot swirling around us. And my parents were forcing me to stand in the ashes and to look at the barracks and the crematorium in the distance, the barbed wire around us. In this dream, as in life, unless I witnessed what my parents had endured and survived, I would no longer exist myself, I would be worthless to them, and to myself.
Up until I went to college, Auschwitz was just a word, not a town or a killing field, just a word, a place on a map I had no interest in finding. During my freshman year, I read William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” for a paper, but can’t remember for what class I had decided to write the paper. I didn’t tell my parents I’d read the book or written the paper. But it was an opening, something had stirred, mostly virulent rage. I lashed out at my parents. I asked my mother how she could have left her parents behind. I asked her why she hadn’t resisted, fought in the underground. I can’t remember her answers, or perhaps never heard them.
I went to Germany for the first time in my mid-20’s. I was married and living in London with my husband , Jim, who was a graduate student at the London School of Economics. That is where he met Deter, from Dusseldorf. There was a good jazz scene there, Deter explained. Please come and visit during the winter break, he said. You can stay with me in my parents’ house. It will be fun. And then we can go on to Amsterdam together. What do you say?
I can’t go, I told Jim, the night before departure.
You can go, he said.
Jim is Jewish, too, but he is not Second Generation. His paternal family immigrated to America at the turn of the 20th century, his maternal family post-pogroms but before the Holocaust.
He’s easy going, compassionate, sensible, a historian with perspective. I should listen to him, I always tell myself.
And so I began to think of the journey as immersion therapy, similar to a phobic’s attempt to transcend a fear of snakes or flying. If I do this, I thought to myself, I’ll be okay.
I bought two of my favorite small orange-covered notebooks at WH Smith. I’ll take notes, I said to myself, maybe publish an article in the Times Educational Supplement where I’d been hired as a book reviewer. That calmed me. I had a tool to get through it.
I didn’t tell Deter my parents were Austrian survivors. I didn’t tell him I understood German. Was this self-protective, cowardly, or foolish? On the first night we were there, his parents asked Deter, sotto voce, if I was Jewish. Please note they didn’t ask the same question about Jim who is blonde and blue-eyed. My features are clearly “Semitic,” and I can be taken for Arab, or Spanish, or Greek. In Deter’s parents’ house, there was only one –possible—identity that mattered: Jewish. Nowadays it might be Arab, but then it was Jewish—the foreigner, the other.
Deter, did you say we would have fun?
You are not having fun?
Let’s go to a jazz club, I said.
What cake do you like, his mother asked in German one morning, turning to Deter as translator. I answered before he did—in English. Poppy seed strudel, I said. I wanted her to know, I had understood; I preferred strudel, with its delicate, flaky layers, to cake. And now Deter knew that I understood German, also. Though he looked hurt, or perhaps just bewildered, I did not try to console him, or explain.
We left after the meal of cake the next day—anodyne excuses, an awkward goodbye—and spent the rest of the holiday in Amsterdam without Deter and his fiancé. We stayed in the red-light district, which I found congenial. I’ve always wondered if I would have survived a death camp as a Feld-Hure, a field whore. Wikipedia statistic: 34,140 female death camp “inmates” were forced into sexual slavery during the the Nazi regime.
Back in London, we invited Deter over for dinner. It was my first, intense face to face encounter with a German of my generation. Our historical “fates” were intertwined; we had to talk. Deter was willing. I pummeled him with questions about his parents and grandparents. I told him about mine.
Carol Bergman is an adjunct professor of writing at the NYU School of Professional Studies, College of Applied Liberal Arts. www.carolbergman.net