Death was no stranger to me in childhood. It’s a simple truth, yet so much more lurks behind it. Attending my Great-Aunt Francie’s funeral is one of my earliest memories, and I’m pretty sure I went to about a funeral a year through high school, with Grandpa Phil dying my sophomore year and Grandma Esther my junior. By the time I met Doug, in the summer before senior year, I had no living grandparents. I dreaded funerals and took no comfort in the Mourner’s Kaddish, which I’d learned by heart when I was far, far too young.
Though my immediate family of six is considered large, my extended family never really was, made up mostly of a smattering of cousins from both sides of the family who we’d see only occasionally. The Holocaust wasn’t to blame for all of the scarcity, but it surely was responsible for part of it. After all, although my father’s parents escaped Poland in the late 1920s, most of their family members weren’t so lucky. Research on their town of Biala Podlaska during the Nazi years yields stories of synagogue burning, taunting, torture, forced ghettoization, work camps, forest shootings, and, ultimately, dispersal to two of the worst death camps: Sobibor and Treblinka.
Even before the Nazis, Biala Podlaska and that whole part of Eastern Poland, where the border flowed and ebbed over the centuries–once part of Eastern Galicia, then part of Prussia, then the Kingdom of Poland, then occupied by Russia–was rarely a safe haven for Jews. As a child, I’d sometimes ask my grandmother what life was like in the “old country,” and her answer never changed. “Ach,” she’d say, waving a hand in the air, “better you don’t know.” It was a tale she’d never tell. Cossacks raided at will, leaving death and destruction in their wake. The Jews were always targets.
I was raised in suburban Central New Jersey, with a childhood that in no way resembled my grandparents’ childhoods. When they fled from Poland, the intention was to ensure that they and future generations had a better life. In a way, it became an obligation to make their journey and their effort amount to something. It was an obligation owed to the living as well as to all of those who perished.
Hebrew school seemed to enforce this sense of obligation to those who’d died merely because of their status as a Jew and, whether planned or not, a sense of guilt became inextricably bound with my feelings for both my religion and my culture. How could I be anything but a Jew when so much of my family was killed for it? How could I walk away from any of it when the weight of their deaths lay across my shoulders–a mantle of guilt I yearned to shake off for a lifetime.
Overexposed to stories and movies and images of the persecution of Jews throughout the decades, I inadvertently, but necessarily, developed a coping mechanism I still use to this day. Because I can’t absorb it all without breaking, I remove myself from it emotionally, distancing my two selves from one another as efficiently as if I’d put up the glass divider in a limo. There’s the “me” seeing the piles of bodies stacked so casually like firewood and then there’s the “me” who cannot allow herself to wonder, not for a second, if any of them were my great-grandparents, my great-aunts and great-uncles and their children.
I scour black-and-white photos, looking for some facial feature I might recognize, scared to know the truth. There is an indescribable pain in not knowing whether you’ve witnessed the proof of a relative’s death. These are the herds of the lost; these are the ghosts of my people.
While religious school taught us more than this–and I’m grateful for the ability to read Hebrew–when I was done with it, I was done with religion. I purposely skirted around the Jews on campus at Rutgers who would guess that I was a wayward Jew and try to get me to join Chabad. I resented that they could look at me and know. I resented the guilt that still lay squarely across my shoulders. I resented that my family tree had upper branches obscured by shadows. I resented the guilt, and felt guilt at the resentment.
I couldn’t walk away easily. I spent time in Israel after college graduation, to try to come to terms with the place that Judaism had in both my life and my heart. While there, I met long-lost cousins on my grandfather’s side who showed me a rare photo of my great-grandfather: a shtetl rabbi with a long white beard. I would never have recognized that piece of myself. Unfortunately, the cousins, and that photo, became lost again when they failed to respond to my letters. But Israel, among so many things, did give me back a piece of Judaism that had more to do with joy and celebration, and less with death and horror.
Speeding through the following years, I married a non-Jew, and we’re raising our two children in the Jewish faith. We switched from the Conservative temple of my youth to a Reform one that seems to celebrate and just generally embrace a happier brand of Judaism than the one I’d been raised on and in. My guilt, while never totally gone, is no longer the heavy weight it once was. After 40 years, I’ve found a kind of peace I can live with.
But my memory is long, and feelings always hover underneath the surface. When I sat down and wrote what became the framework of “Unless You Know,” it was in direct response to a conversation Doug and I had just had. In it, I try to explain to someone that–yes, you can absolutely have compassion and empathy and imagine how horrific it must be to have lost family in the Holocaust–but unless you actually experienced it, either directly or a generation removed from it, you just can’t KNOW. How could you? The evils of something like the Holocaust still exist beyond the realm of comprehension. It’s one of the reasons that people can deny it ever happened.
When I wrote “Unless You Know,” I imagined that my feelings were unique. I now know otherwise. But I really had no idea, for all those years, that others felt the same way I did (which only increased my feelings of guilt). A recent fan of the poem messaged me on Facebook to thank me for it, and tell me: “This was the first piece that actually felt right about the emotions of my generation.” When I expressed to him that I was surprised that so many people had felt this way, he responded that he was “surprised that I was surprised.” I simply was not prepared for the fact that I’d found a common voice for so many of us.
And I never imagined that I’d be reading my poem to, and with, Holocaust survivors. But that’s exactly what happened.
(To Be Continued)
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