In my many years of schooling across three continents, I’ve attended many Holocaust classes. Yet, during each lesson and every lecture, I felt that something was missing.
In high-school, we read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a beautifully written firsthand account – rightfully a must-read if there ever was one. But, as most of us know, Anne’s diary ends before her story does, saving the reader the worst of the Nazi atrocities. To my surprise, my high-school class covered little about the Holocaust other than Anne’s diary. And while the university courses on the subject went much further, there was still something missing.
Although, thankfully, the Holocaust ended many years ago, it was still much more real to me than any other historical subject I studied. If one were to guess who among all my family members had survived the Holocaust, no one would have suspected my grandpa. Nothing about him brought to mind the horrors of the Holocaust. He had an unassuming, easy-going demeanor, combined with an exceptional sense of humor. Whenever I think of him, I always remember him with a smile on his face. Most incredible, however, is that he was, without a doubt, the happiest person that I’d ever met.
For many years, I couldn’t reconcile my grandfather’s personality with all of the horrors that he and others suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Hope came when, many years later, I was asked to help put together his memoir. Of course, I was honored and agreed right away. Among the many reasons that I wanted to help with this important project was my hope to finally discover how Grandpa managed to survive so wholly.
Don’t we break down from much smaller problems? Don’t people in times of peace and plenty disintegrate and lose the will to live from problems that cannot even be compared with the atrocities such as the Shoah? What made my own grandfather so much more resilient?
There are two ways to look at Grandpa’s reaction to all that he had endured. The first, is that he had managed to be happy despite all that happened to him. He would have been a happy person no matter what. Had he lived a simple life in the Polish village of Nowosiolki where he was born, he still would have been an exceptionally happy guy. Having survived the Holocaust, and still retaining such contagious joy for life, suggests that he would have been a happy person no matter what would have happened to him.
The other perspective, expressed by some of my readers, is that Grandpa was happy precisely because of what he had endured. Seeing into the depth of darkness enabled him to gain a profound appreciation for all that is good in life. Indeed, I was delighted to learn that there were other survivors who had the same response as my grandpa. In contrast to what they have already been through, the trials and tribulations of normal life seem trivial. Instead of focusing on the negative, they are eternally grateful for what is good, appreciate the small things, and are glad to be alive. This is why, a small number of survivors are exceptionally happy people.
Which of these theories is true? One of these, or some combination of both? That’s the classroom discussion that I could have used. A discussion, a lecture, or a class that would proclaim to the world that there were people who the Nazis could not break. There were those who, against all odds, managed to survive the Holocaust both physically and emotionally, and went on to live vibrant, joyful lives.
Perhaps it makes a difference to know that there was a ten-year-old boy named Srulik Ackerman, who went on to live a life full of happiness despite all the horrors that he endured at the hands of the Nazis. After everything that he has been through, he must have laughed and smiled more than a dozen men in a single lifetime.
I hope that learning about Srulik and others like him will make it easier for students to digest this difficult material. Maybe this lesson on the strength of the human spirit will encourage teachers to cover Holocaust history more completely, instead of omitting the truly difficult, but essential parts of this dark spot in our history. Maybe, realizing humanity’s potential for resilience, and our capacity for joy and happiness no matter what comes our way, will help students find strength in their own lives.
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Most of my stories begin with an image or a line that arrives whole and I follow it into the dark, as if with a headlamp and supplies for a long trek, seeking to illuminate what lies in front of it, to the sides, or in the way of back story, behind.
But two stories announced their form first. One of these was “Cul de Sac,” which came to me as a theme with several variations. I imagined it as a collection of stories that loosely shared a theme, only in miniature, and envisioned these miniature narratives all woven into one short story. The relationships between the characters and the various story lines, which involved betrayal and loss, would emerge with the writing. Instead of bridges or a chorus, the pieces would be tied together in a Coda. I knew this early on.
The other, “Waltz on East 6th Street,” arrived as a Triptych and hence its three panels. While I knew the general questions I wanted to tackle, I had no idea at the outset what each “panel” would comprise.
Once I accepted and grew comfortable with the fact that for this story, the form was an important element, there was a much deeper challenge. I found myself, as I’m sure other writers and artists have, asking myself if I had a right to write this story, to even touch Holocaust material.
I am not a child of survivors. I did however grow up with many – perhaps a third to a half of my friends were children of survivors, as were many of our Jewish day school teachers. Sixth grade Talmud class would cease mid-discussion as, without any warning, something would suddenly trigger our teacher to begin a story of what he’d endured. Though we barely talked about it amongst ourselves, we all knew there was a profound difference between the parents of our American born friends and the survivors, and consequently there was a difference between us.
Those of us born to American parents seemed innocent, naive, tabula rasa. Where the stakes were high in terms of how we did in school, which spouse or profession we chose, it was clear that they were not quite as high as for our friends who were children of survivors. The Holocaust was extremely present in our day school education, from the guest speakers to the many films we were shown from the early grades on. And so it would seem that there was nothing left to wonder about. But there was everything to wonder about.
Except in the case of our sixth grade teacher, it was in whispers and innuendo that we learned of people’s histories. And one never knew where the kernels of truth lay. The true stories of the people around us were not always discussed. We might know some salient detail: “So and so can never eat blended food because of the rations in the camps” or “so and so was the sole survivor in his family.”
It was later, when I read books by survivors themselves, Ilona Karmel’s An Estate of Memory and books by Primo Levi, that the details began to take shape, and as any writer or reader knows, it is the details that bring a story to life.
It was when those details became vivid that a question began to take shape for me in a new way: How did one survive? And I don’t mean the logistics or details of what they might have had to do to survive – which was, to my mind, quite beyond my ability or right to judge, but rather how did the spirit survive in the face of such multiple trauma? And then an associated question - Did we have a right to ask our questions? Did survivors who chose to remain silent not have a right to their silence? Did we want to risk an unraveling of the very weave that enabled them to continue?
These are the questions that animate “Waltz on East Sixth Street.”
As writers we often don’t know what we know until it’s on the page. Similarly it was only when looking back at this story and at “Cul de Sac,” that I understood that, of all my stories, perhaps it was these two that had declared their form first because the material they contained was so painful, I had to be sure of its containment before I could begin.
I realized late in life that my parents weren’t your typical Baby Boomers. My dad wasn’t anti-establishment. My mother wasn’t a feminist. Ask them about Woodstock and my dad will tell you that he left early because the crowds made him nervous. My mom will tell you that her attendance was required on a family road trip that summer.
One of the things that they had in common was immigrant parents. Eastern European Holocaust survivors on my mom’s side. Israelis who lived on the land before it was a state on my dad’s side. You didn’t tell your Holocaust survivor parents that you wanted to go to a rock concert instead of sitting in the back of a sweltering car sandwiched between your two younger siblings the summer of Woodstock. And if you’re Israeli, it makes total sense to avoid any and all situations that might invite terrorism.
Jewish immigrant parents meant that you ordered your food – meat, fish, eggs – well done. You sent it back if it bore any resemblance to a living creature because at some point in the past there wasn’t high quality meat around. Jewish immigrant parents meant that you didn’t pursue a career in the arts, even if you could play virtually any instrument brilliantly and immediately by ear, like my dad could. You were to become a doctor, a lawyer or a businessperson. And girls weren’t supposed to major in math in college, like my mom did. They were supposed to major in Home Economics, or get their Mrs. degrees.
The way in which my parents do resemble Baby Boomers is the way in which they bridged respect for tradition with excitement about the future. My mother both understands Yiddish and loves Aerosmith. My dad’s wardrobe includes solemn high holiday suits and hip New Balances. And yet my issues with them – everyone has issues with their parents – are based somewhat on their residual ties to the old world. I’ve often felt I was deprived of the former hippies who are disappointed in how conservative I am. These guys seem to find my social activism impractical. They are clearly grossed out by how rare I like my steak cooked. And they’ve said very little about my so-called writing career, which was clearly little more than a hobby in their eyes.
But that all changed when I told them that my novel was being published.
My mother lit up when I told her. I will always remember that lunch. How we ordered another round of food to celebrate. She asked me about every detail of the publishing process with wide-eyed wonder. My father didn’t sleep the night I told him, as he was excitedly brainstorming titles. It reminded me of that scene in Man on Wire where the most skeptical member of Philippe Petite’s crew, the one who most doubted his ability to tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, was the most affected when he did.
Intellectually you can know that your parents want you to succeed. Of course they want you to succeed, they’re your parents. But they want it on their terms because they don’t know any others. And emotionally that can come across as a lack of faith. But as much as they want you to do things their way, it’s even more thrilling when you go your own, and against all odds, it actually kind of works. Of course, if and when I have kids of my own, I really hope they become doctors. But I guess if they wanted to be lawyers, that would be ok too.