A few weeks ago I was asked to give a keynote address at a middle school. My ever-proud Jewish mother insists on attending. As I’m waiting to be called to the stage, the principal and I start talking. He finds out my mom is in the audience. She’s been a teacher in his district for over forty years. He asks if he can go on a tangent before he introduces me. His eyes light up when he says the word tangent.
During his introduction he asks my mom to stand up and then he announces that she’s a Holocaust survivor. People applaud. This is the worst thing ever. It’s like pinning a bull’s-eye to my mom’s forehead. (If you don’t know, she’s the one in my book who reminds us each Hanukkah just as she wraps our menorah in an old rag and hides it in a mop bucket underneath the sink, “Don’t tell anyone your Jewish. They will find you. They will kill you. You will die.”) In some way, I know this is my fault. I’ve breached not only our family contract, but something more – I’ve put her survival at risk.
From backstage, I imagine my mom hunching over and figuring out how to make an exit. Finally, she stands up and runs out of the school.
When I call her afterward she says she’s sorry she couldn’t stay.
“The problem with being Jewish is they make you do stuff,” she says. I’ve heard this before. She’s quoting her favorite Jewish author, Eliezer Sobel. Whenever she wants to prove a point she turns to a certain page in his book “Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That is Heartbroken.”
To make matters worse, Sobel is my friend, so whenever she quotes him it’s like she’s spooning on the Jewish mother guilt. “Eliezer says there are prayers for everything – upon rising, upon going to the toilet, upon eating fruit, upon smelling a new smell, upon seeing a deformed person, for baking challah, for building a sukkah.”
I mostly tune her out and this gets me thinking about the 614th commandment that was added to our already long list of commandments that reads, “Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories……They are commanded to remember the victims of Auschwitz, lest their memory perish……They are forbidden escape into either cynicism … and a religious Jew who has stayed with his God may be forced into new, possibly revolutionary relationships with Him.”
My mom says she doesn’t care about doing stuff anymore. She says she’s leaving that up to me and my nephew, Cody. She calls us The Walking Jewish Exhibitionists. Continue reading
One of the great pleasures of writing for me is researching historical events and details that help me understand and more fully realize the lived experience of my characters. The research I did for my second novel, Your Mouth is Lovely, for example, opened up a world to me—that of early 20th century life in the villages and prisons of the Russian Pale of Settlement—that I had previously only encountered filtered through the imaginations of the great fiction writers of that era. For my most recent novel, however, I decided not to do to any formal research. The Imposter Bride is set in the Jewish community of Montreal in the years immediately following the Second World War. It is told from the perspective of a young woman named Ruthie who is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. I wanted to stay true to the knowledge Ruthie would have had at that time—the 1950’s and early 60’s—both within her own family and within the larger Jewish community, rather than superimpose onto her narrative the knowledge that we now have about the Holocaust. I wanted to convey what it was like to be a child—as I myself was—at a time when the truth of what had happened to many of the adults in the community was just slowly beginning to emerge.
In the years immediately following the war the details about what had happened in Europe were not widely discussed and taught as they are today. The refugees coming over from Europe faced a wide variety of reactions, including compassion, of course, but also aversion, a certain condescension and varying degrees of ignorance. What had happened during the Holocaust was not yet taught in schools, and was not written down in history books, nor did the adult survivors who lived among us expressly articulate what they had experienced. The truth of what happened in Europe was revealed to us slowly and often indirectly, through behaviors, the lingering fears and reactions that we witnessed, the tattooed numbers that we could see on the arms of some of our teachers and parents, and only the occasional verbal comment or description. It was Ruthie’s experience of that time that I wanted to convey and to do that I relied on my own memories of that era and those of my siblings, friends and cousins, rather than doing formal research about the facts of the time.
I always have a valid passport. I keep it within easy access and I know just where it is, and I’ve made sure my kids have one too. You never know. It’s not that I’m paranoid – well, maybe it is, but that’s not how I think of it – it’s that I’m a child of Holocaust survivors. I used to think of my need to be exit ready as a fear of being trapped, but I’ve realized it’s got very little to do with what I think about the present or future. It’s about the past. It’s a link to my parents, a way of keeping their worldview alive in me. As bizarre as it may sound – at least to those who aren’t children of survivors, but I expect those who share my background will understand – not to have a valid passport feels to me like a betrayal of my parents, a failure to heed hard won lessons.
Actually, I should clarify that, when I speak of myself as a child of Holocaust survivors, the identity I really claim is that I’m a child of temporary Holocaust survivors. What I mean is that while my parents survived the war years, they both died younger than I think they would have had they not had to endure the hardships and traumas of those years. They survived, but only temporarily, my mother having died by age 49 and my father by 59.
My mother was German and my father was Polish, and I know that after the war they contemplated moving to Switzerland, but our citizenship status wouldn’t have been as firmly secure as that of native-born Swiss, and they weren’t about to accept any sort of second-class citizenship.
Here’s a story my father told me about how he got his US citizenship:
The procedure was that he appeared before a magistrate or judge of some sort and was asked basic civics questions, presumably by an immigration official. (I’ve got only my father’s version of this.) One question put to him was as follows: “You say you’re going to be a law-abiding citizen in the US, but in Europe the law required Jews to turn themselves in. You didn’t. So why should we believe you?”
You can imagine the time I’ve spent trying to puzzle out what could possibly bring someone to ask such a question. Perhaps my father’s English wasn’t good enough and he misheard the question. Maybe the interrogator thought he was lobbing my father an easy pitch, expecting some pat answer like “Oh, I know that would never happen here.” Or maybe the guy really was that much of a fool.
In any case, whatever was actually said or meant, that’s how my father heard the question. To his eternal credit, as I always say when I tell the story, my father turned to the judge and said: “Bring in someone else to ask me questions. I’m through talking to him.”
The judge reassured my father not to worry, he would get his citizenship.