I never knew a Holocaust survivor growing up.
My mother’s family came from Russia to America as part of the wave of immigration in the early part of the 20th century. My great-grandmother arrived by boat in 1916, to be exact, and lived until just shy of her 90th birthday. I knew her fairly well, even though she never really learned English, sticking to her native Russian and Yiddish.
These things I remember best: She called our car “the machine,” she only wore dresses (at about 4 foot, 11 inches, she never even owned a pair of pants) and when she visited, the house filled up with the smells of Eastern European cooking.
For the most part, my father’s family members, from Poland and Russia, were already here before World War II, though after it, his mother (my grandmother, who I was fortunate to have around until early adulthood) sponsored relatives to come to the United States through HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. But I never knew them.
In fact, I was never introduced to the Holocaust—no one typically spoke of it to children, after all—until I saw a 1979 TV miniseries starring Meryl Streep and James Woods as an intermarried couple, part of the Weiss family doomed to their fate (looking now, it was a star-studded cast with a young Tovah Feldshuh, Joseph Bottoms, Michael Moriarty and Sam Wanamaker).
It wasn’t a great show or even a very realistic one (these were the years of made-for-TV dramas), but it shook me. I didn’t sleep well for a while; I guess I wasn’t ready to take on such a heavy subject. Is anyone?
Still, I was hooked.
I realize that it’s an odd thing to say. But I was hooked on history. I read everything I could get my hands on about those years since they didn’t teach the subject in high school.
In college, I had access to films that weren’t found elsewhere (long before “on demand” viewing): Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” “Judgement at Nuremberg,” “Jacob the Liar,” “The Man in the Glass Booth,” “Au Revoir, Les Enfants,” “The Sorrow and the Pity” … the list was long.
Then I took a course called “Literature of the Holocaust.” A small group of students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, chose it, all with good reasons why we were drawn to such emotional content. We read copiously and had intense conversations on all kinds of subjects—Nazism, socialism, fascism, nationalism, anti-Semitism (all the relevant “-isms”).
That class led me to study abroad in the spring of my junior year at Tel Aviv University, where I could immerse myself in all the history the nation had to offer—and there was a lot.
And it was there that I met my first survivor—an elderly woman who gave me a tour of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai in southern Israel. She didn’t sugarcoat a thing. Not one little thing.
From then on, I had to see everything, watch everything, go everywhere. Attend Israeli and Jewish film fests. (You should see my Netflix list; there’s the light side and the very dark side; my husband doesn’t exactly call some films “entertainment.”)
It’s like an addiction. There are so many places that still reel from that war—that can attempt to offer answers to lingering questions.
My older sons know a good deal about the Shoah and have been to more concentration camp sites than me. My younger two sons are not aware of any of it. In a way, I wish it could stay like that; another part of me wants to start throwing information at them.
How do you speak of these things? How do you grasp it at any early age, at any age?
The books keep coming, the documentaries keep coming, the stories and firsthand accounts keep coming. I want there always to be more while knowing there won’t be.
And while it doesn’t seem right or fair to have just one official day to commemorate the Holocaust—its victims and survivors—I can’t change the calendar. I can only add to what’s on mine. I can continue to pay attention, to learn and to listen.
Because as much as you hear, it’s never enough.
Carin M. Smilk is the managing editor of JNS.
This Reporter’s Notebook will appear starting on March 16 until the end of the month (or when schools reopen).