domingo, 28 de junio de 2015

Auschwitz, memory and truth: how trauma passes down the generations

Alison Pick: 'My family had repressed the horror of the gas chambers.
The unfelt grief had been passed from my grandmother
to my father to me, like an heirloom.

I was a Christian child. I went to Sunday school. In the cool church basement, I drew pictures of Jesus and his disciples. Then one day, in the playground, another child approached me. “Your dad is Jewish,” he said. “No he’s not,” I replied instinctively. But deep down, in some profoundly buried part of myself, I knew this was true.

I knew it was true while at the same time not understanding what it meant. Jewish was something that belonged to my friend Jordan – the one who had accused me – but what did it mean to be Jewish? Jordan brought matzah (unleavened bread) to school on Passover, and went to Hebrew school. He was studying for something called a barmitzvah. That was all I knew.
The year passed. Despite the fact I was almost 13, the Easter bunny still came. My younger sister and I hunted for eggs in the rooms of our suburban home.
Easter, I knew, meant rebirth. It meant dying and coming back to life. I felt, deep down, that rebirth could happen to me too.
I came to know the truth about my family’s history slowly. I first learned the facts – my great-grandparents died in Auschwitz; my grandparents came to Canada and hid their true identities. They had been assimilated, non-practising Jews and Canada in the 1940s was hugely antisemitic. They wanted no part of it.
Later, as a teenager, I understood this more profoundly – what it meant to hide who you are. The effort that had gone into their charade, and the sacrifice.
Even later, I came to understand it on a bodily level, deep in my cells below my rational mind. I suffer from depression. My family had repressed the horror of the gas chambers. The unfelt grief had been passed from my grandmother to my father to me, like an heirloom.
Intergenerational trauma can be difficult to make sense of. It is like saying that, 80 years ago, my grandmother tripped on an apple core and now my ankle is sprained as a result. This transmission of trauma has been corroborated with research. The legacy of the Holocaust was influencing – three generations later – my daily experience of being alive.
I set about to reclaim what had been lost. Judaism resonated for me at a profound level, and I studied to convert. As Judaism is matrilineal and my mother isn’t Jewish, I had to take a year-long intensive class and meet monthly with my sponsoring rabbi.
For me, this was frustrating and challenging. My relatives died in Auschwitz. Shouldn’t I already be accepted as Jewish?
But I was pleased to do this. I wanted to belong.
Both were true.
Every family story has a thousand other stories contained within it, like an unending series of nesting dolls. I set about learning more about my ancestors, and who they had been. I have a cousin, a historian, who I respect deeply. She is a decade older than me; 10 years of extra conversations with our grandparents. I told her how drawn I was feeling to our family’s lost Judaism. She empathised, and told me she had gone through something similar. We talked about my grandfather; she remembered, she told me, that he used to hate Christmas. “He looked so sad and despondent among all the presents,” she said.
This made sense to me. Our grandfather was Jewish. There must have been part of him that resented pretending otherwise, even if he believed it was for the safety of his family. Later, though, my cousin changed her mind. She had been thinking and had revised her opinion. “He loved Christmas,” she said. And, when she said it, I realised this was true too. We have pictures of our grandfather not despondent, but laughing beside the Christmas tree. And though I was just a child when he died – not yet batmitzvah age – I remember this too.
I had a deep desire to settle on one version of the story. As a writer, I had a semi-conscious hope that by organising it into a consistent narrative, I could finally heal my pain. But the problem with words is that they are fixed in time, in a way that history and memory are not.
A family story varies wildly between members. I knew this. What it took me time to understand was the multiplicity of stories that existed within me.
The depression I suffer from has always felt pre-formed, ancient, like it was given to me in its entirety at birth. My father experiences something similar. He calls it “the bad blood” as though there is a faucet deep within him; when the faucet is turned on it floods his body with weight. His mother, my granny, was melancholic too. When I was a child we spent our summers with her. I remember her crying at the end of August when we loaded up our family car and said goodbye. She told me she hated being alone.
Later in life, she took Prozac, which helped. But Granny had been exceptionally close to her own mother, Marianne. We have pictures of the two of them skiing in Europe before the war, their arms thrown around each other like sisters. Marianne was murdered in Auschwitz. How could Granny not be depressed? My cousin objected to this depiction of Granny too – and, again, she was right. I went back, remembering again. Granny was the life of any party. Dripping in jewels, she was feminine and strong. A flirt, a worthy opponent on the tennis court, an excellent conversationalist for anyone on any topic.
She loved being alive.
This was true too.
To wrestle with a family story is to be humbled as a writer and as a person. You cannot include everyone’s versions. Sometimes you cannot even nail down the truth as it exists within yourself.
More years have passed. I have converted to the Judaism of my father’s family. I have a five-year-old daughter who I take to synagogue on Saturdays. In the basement of the shul – so much like the basement of the church where I grew up – there is a miniature ark stuffed with toy Torahs. The leader asks, “Who can help me open the ark?”
My daughter rushes forward. She prises the door open and chooses the biggest stuffed Torah she can find. With the other small “Israelites” she parades it around the basement proudly. She has done this for years, and every time I cry. I see myself in her; I see my cousin, who I love dearly, and my granny, who was changeable and full of human contradiction. I see my great-grandmother Marianne, who I never knew, who died in the gas chamber.
A long line of women bent low with history’s weight; a line of joyous women celebrating their stories. Both are true. And nothing can change that.

Survivor returns 70 years after internment

Holocaust survivor Sol Lurie and Laurie Gang in the lobby of the Elephant Hotel in Weimar, known as Hitler’s favorite hotel, where visiting Jewish survivors and their guests stayed while attending the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald.     
Photos courtesy Laurie Gang

On his 15th birthday in 1945, left Buchenwald, the sixth Nazi concentration camp in which he was imprisoned.
To mark his 85th birthday, he went back to Buchenwald, joining other former prisoners and their families, German leaders, and schoolchildren to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the German camp’s liberation by American troops.
“I was also at the 65th anniversary, and I’ll be back for the 75th,” Lurie vowed in a phone conversation from his home in Monroe after his return. “Germany has really changed so much. I find there’s less anti-Semitism there than any place in Europe.”
The Lithuanian native was accompanied to the ceremony by Laurie Gang of Monroe, a member of the Henry Riklis Holocaust Memorial Committee.
“I’ve been sort of looking out for him since his wife, Raja, died in January, so when his children couldn’t come he asked me,” said Gang. “He was much stronger than I thought he was. In fact, all the survivors I met were so full of life and had such stories to tell. We even met one survivor from Austria who was 102 years old, and he looked great.”
Lurie, who frequently speaks at schools about his experiences, said he tries to teach students respect for others.
“I teach the kids to love, not hate,” said Lurie. “That’s the most important thing. My payment is getting a letter from a child. That’s enough for me.”
Lurie said he could trace his family roots in Lithuania to 1492, when his ancestors fled the Spanish Inquisition. At the start of the war, he was living with his parents and three older brothers in the town of Kovno. 
Gang said each of the 70 returning survivors was assigned a student volunteer by the German organizing committee to escort them during their April 9-13 stay. Lurie’s student arranged for him and Gang to have a private tour of Buchenwald and for members of the press to meet them there.
Gang said his interview was seen on the TV news in Germany. “It was like he was coming back as royalty.”
Also impressive were the accommodations at the Elephant Hotel in Weimar, which Gang described as “the most beautiful five-star hotel” — and where Hitler kept a suite.
“Can you imagine it was Hitler’s favorite hotel, and it was so thrilling to see all these Jews taking it over while Hitler turned in his grave,” she recalled.
“It was just such an amazing experience,” said Gang. “Sol ran into people he knew from the camp who he remembered because many of them went together to live at an orphanage in France after the war.”
Among the 522 boys taken to the orphanage was author Elie Wiesel, who was in Lurie’s bloc at Buchenwald. The Nobel Prize winner did not attend the commemoration.
“Oh sure, I knew him,” said Lurie, who carries with him a photo showing him in the group with Wiesel at the time of liberation.
Gang said commemoration events included a program involving some of the survivors, including Lurie, who was paired with a former American soldier who refused to call himself a liberator because he “stumbled” on the camp after its gates were open. Although the program was in German, guests were provided with a listening device translating it into a variety of languages.
“What I found fascinating was that it was primarily a young crowd, many of whom had traveled from other parts of Germany,” said Gang. 
Lurie’s father and three brothers survived Dachau; his mother was killed two days before liberation. However, the surviving family members returned to Lithuania and got trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
When asked at the orphanage if he had any relatives in America, Lurie recalled he had an uncle living there, and a cousin later saw his name on a list.
“They asked me if I wanted to come to America, so I came in 1947 to the greatest country in the world,” said Lurie. 
He didn’t see his father again until 1969, when Lurie was able to get a six-month visa for him to visit, although he had to leave the rest of the family behind to ensure his return. One of Lurie’s brothers was murdered in 1952. Another brother immigrated to Israel in 1973, the other in 1976.
“In my mother’s family of eight brothers and sisters not one survived,” said Lurie. “My father’s siblings were shot at the beginning of the war.”
Lurie settled in Brooklyn and had a career doing home repairs, plumbing, and electrical work before retiring to Monroe. He has three children and several grand- and step-grandchildren.