Surviving The Survivors
Tue, 12/29/2009
My father continues to breathe — huge, wheezing, unconscious but determined breaths — despite the doctor’s predictions, despite the Alzheimer’s that’s ravaged his brain and despite the broken hip and pneumonia that brought down the rest of him. And somehow, that continued existence seems entirely appropriate for this inadvertent survivor. Inadvertent survival was my father’s weltanschauung, and Met Schon Machen (“We’ll make it happen — soon”) his mantra. It was the way he described his own experience in getting through the war. (“Getting through the war” was what I heard growing up — there was no war but World War II and you didn’t “survive” — you “got through” the war.) For my father, chance was what got you through. And although my father was a deeply religious man, I rarely heard him invoke Hashgacha P’ratit or divine providence. I think it was an innate humility, a notion that it would have been presumptuous for him to claim God’s direct intervention. Like many of his generation, he rarely spoke of his wartime experiences, partly out of pain — having lost his parents and four siblings — and partly from a sense of embarrassment, as if he weren’t entitled to the mantle of war suffering. Unlike so many of the refugees among whom he later lived and prayed, he went through the war with relative ease, accidentally part of a yeshiva that traveled from Vilna to Japan and finally to Shanghai where he safely, if sadly, lived out the war. My brother and I took our cues from him, and as he always disclaimed survivor status, we didn’t think of him that way either. So when I speak about my father as a survivor, I say it almost with a sense of encroachment because that’s how he viewed it. He hadn’t been through the camps like his two surviving siblings and there was no number marking his arm. And unlike my mother, who at 9 years old wandered alone, scrounging for food in barns and surviving through a fair-haired, button-nosed resemblance to her would-be killers, my father described his perambulations almost as an adventure — Izzy’s excellent adventure. Still, survive he did. And he and his friends seemed somehow indestructible, little men with small hats, thick accents and hairy veined arms visible through their short-sleeved shirts. Watching “Four Seasons Lodge,” a documentary about a group of Holocaust survivors who gather each year in a bungalow colony in the Catskills, I closed my eyes and the thick Polish-Yiddish voices, the mordant humor, the toughness and resilience brought back my childhood. And like the survivors in the film, my parents and their friends are beginning to succumb to the inevitability of old age. Thane Rosenbaum, whose novels and stories delve into the effects of the Holocaust on survivors’ children, notes, “It’s an incredible paradox that these indomitable Jews — who through a combination of endurance, fortitude and moxie somehow escaped this incredible experiment in hell — are dying off. It is sobering and humbling to think that these people who for decades have been celebrated and mythologized and defined by their survival are now dying in an ordinary way. Auschwitz is not a natural cause of death; old age is.” Growing up in a community of refugees where all parents spoke with accents and came from places with unpronounceable consonants, their stories and their suffering belonged only to them. But unknowingly, we assimilated their experiences. As a child I went to Camp Naarah — yes, it meant Camp Girl — with others just like me, unremarkable pale-skinned girls in pedal pushers and fake Keds. It was only years later I realized that our color war songs and even the camp cheers all dealt with death: “We’re Naarah born, and we’re Naarah bred. And when we die, we’ll be Naarah dead. Rah-Rah for Naarah!” Still, when in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it became cool to be Holocaust-related, I was appalled at the notion of taking credit for my parents’ history. Thirty years ago, Helen Epstein’s book, “Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors,” horrified me — the very name was an affront. The notion that being the child of survivors meant anything, that we might have a story, made me feel unclean, grasping, a Holocaust name dropper. But over the years, it’s become easier to present myself as their child — perhaps, I should confess — even strangely pleasurable. I find myself dining out on their histories, enjoying in some way the frisson of interest it produces, the chance to share in the limelight of their ordeals. And certainly these days, with Holocaust denial increasingly common (who could have imagined it?) and the living evidence disappearing, making sure that the stories are recorded seems critical. I’ve made my peace with the notion of being the “child or survivors.” In an exchange with Helen Epstein, no longer the bugbear of my earlier days but simply another person trying to make sense of her childhood, we discussed her “need to record” her family’s history, and how many of us, increasingly aware of the inexorability of time, are urgently chronicling our elderly parents’ stories. As the previous generation dies off, we’ve become their survivors, attempting to complete their stories, anxiously searching for clues that we purposefully ignored earlier in our lives, looking for answers to questions we never asked. We yearn for a sense of connectedness, trying to piece together the broken shards of our own history. We determinedly seek to identify the long-dead faces captured on worn photos in decrepit albums. Diligently, we fill in the blanks on such sites as Geni.com or JewishGen.org, and proudly include the Zimmels and Sluvas and Shprintzas, names that filled our younger selves with a sense of queasy embarrassment. With the original memorialists passing on, it suddenly seems imperative for us, the graying children, to remember and to record, as if by so doing we can finally bury all these dead aunts and cousins appropriately and provide their scattered ashes with a virtual gravestone, a permanent survival. We live in a surreal universe where we have become the older generation — older even than our murdered grandparents. In the few photos that we uncomfortably glanced at as children, these family members seemed impossibly ancient and distant. Now, they’re shockingly young, and it seems unconscionable to let their lives pass without memory. When my aunt, my father’s one remaining sibling, recently noted my resemblance to her mother, my grandmother, I felt blessed, gifted with the benediction of history. Each new discovery, each new story is a triumphant refutation of untimely deaths and untold pain.   Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer based in New York City.