Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Unburied

TGF just told me about the 60 Minutes episode yesterday which aired while I was at a board meeting. Sixty years after the fact and long buried records of holocaust prisoners, survivors, and those destroyed at the camps are now accessible. Sixteen miles of cabinets containing pages upon pages of details about prisoners' lice, illnesses, and for far too many their torture and death.

There was a conference recently in Iran where the concept of holocaust denial is a center piece, however this is a tricky confluence of issues, including Iran's refusal to acknowledge the existence of Israel. Iran and the holocaust is a completely different conversation.

The topic knots my stomach, brings tears out of nowhere, and logic fights with emotion when trying to form a sentence. It also makes me wish I had found a way to coax any words, memories from my grandfather before he died. However that is a hollow wish as I was told from the time I was a toddler that he "never speaks about it". My father cautioned, bordered on threatens for me to never broach the subject. To the best of my knowledge he never did talk about it, any attempts to draw him out were shot down. The reality that he was in Dachau didn't sink in for a long time. I remember being in my maternal grandmother's bedroom when I was, um, maybe nine? I really am not sure. Perhaps there had been something on television about it, I do not remember the lead in for the exchange but she mentioned the numbers on his arm. I had never noticed them, I never did. My grandfather was a believer in being very tan, maybe after the war it became a way to ward off questions. When I say tan, I mean dark enough that he was refused service in restaurants that did not "serve coloreds".

Many, many years later I saw letters my grandfather wrote on Dachau stationary. Stationary, they had frigging stationary like it was the Ritz Carlton or something. The letters are in German so I don't know what they said but I do know not only the content was regulated but the number of words on a line. Here is an example of what it looks like though I would swear my family letters look different.

It is hard to imagine what it was like for my family, I have nothing to compare the experience. I have a cousin who, just once at a family sedar, mentioned his memory of when they came for my grandfather. His daughter and I made visual contact, mouths agape- this was completely unknown to us. I did not follow up on that opening for learning more, for soaking up what that was like for him and time is running out as my cousin ages more rapidly than I can bear. My grandmother was hidden by a family during the time her husband was imprisoned. In hushed tones there is reference made to money changing hands which resulted in my grandfather's release from the camp. I don't know the specific of when and where everyone was taken but it's possible my grandfather lost siblings as well as other family members. I do know my grandmother came from a sibling set of 13 and some were lost in the camps.

I have always acutely felt the loss of the large family that I was sure would have been intact and could have surrounded me with the cloak of a family that would have protected me differently, that would have offered a myriad of role models if there had not been that war. In my dreams my grandmother would have lived past my first year of life, but even if she hadn't there would have been aunts and cousins that would have wrapped their arms around me, telling me stories about their lives in Vienna, taught me the family recipes, and scolded when I stayed out too late. Instead I received the splintered family, bitter by the new life in the states, unsure of whether under the cover of night a new force would rise up to shatter dreams, force them to rebuild again.

Tonight on the fourth night of chanukah, I take comfort in the tradition, in knowing that thousands of other families are lighting candles during this time. My family today is small but mighty in my heart and I know that those who died before I could meet them have left their mark on me.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful and haunting post, Dharma. It makes the tradition of Hanukkah even more real and important.

I'm stunned about the stationery too. I wouldn't have dreamed of that. Then again, who would have dreamed of the Holocaust?

Wishing you peace this Hanukkah and always.

Anonymous said...

i can't believe he kept the stationery. i would've kept it as far away from me as possible, but otoh, it's almost a testament to his survival that he was *able* to keep it.

anyway, wow. what an excellent post. people need to remember that this happened, so good thing you are documenting since no one else in your family is. and, hugs to you.

wen said...

Wow. My grandmother, her sister, and a handful of other relatives were already in the states by that time, and had been here for perhaps 10-12 years, but she (we) lost relatives as well.I remember hearing a couple of times that "we didn't know what happened to him/her" after the war. Other than that, it's not really mentioned in my family, either. I can understand it, but I also wish there were more people speaking about it in graphic and concrete terms otherwise I believe we risk something similar happening again, elsewhere.

Rae said...

I just cried when reading your post. It makes me so mad when I hear theories that the holocaust never happened. I am not Jewish, know no one who suffered at the hands of the Nazis and I guess it never affected me....but it did. I am so sorry that your family had to endure the most horrible event in history. I'm sorry you lost family. I'm sorry you have so many unanswered questions. I'm so sorry that you are hurting. Huge hugs to you, my friend.
love
rae

Andrea said...

awesome post.

i relish stories from the older generation, though i always feel a sense of loss for the relatives i never knew. (when the japanese invaded singapore, they killed a couple uncles. my mom's family in malaysia hid in the woods, as far as i've been able to discern, unsure how many were killed.) i want to get their stories recorded but it's difficult being half a world away and people not really wanting to relive that time.

i can't imagine anything on the scale of the holocaust...it's humbling and makes me so thankful for my easy life.

Jennie said...

Such a powerful post. I read it when you first posted it but was speechless. Wanted to let you know I saw it, read it, digested it... {hug}