Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Ghosts of Relatives Past, Part I

[I wrote this last night, and was going to wait to finish it before I posted it, but now I don't know how quickly it will get done. It might take a while. So, here is the first part, and whenever I get have the time and inclination to continue, I'll post more of my thoughts about this. It's a little deeper than, say, the post about Duplex.]

I was in my 20’s before I realized that not everyone who is Jewish has family who was killed in the Holocaust.

It’s not something that comes up very often, but I’m always shocked when, upon hearing that my grandmother’s family was almost completely wiped out in the Holocaust, other Jews give me a sympathetic look and say “that must be so hard.” Apparently a lot of my friends’ families arrived in America long before World War II, and so for them, the Holocaust is a little more academic than it is family history.

I’m shocked because, just as my mother, who grew up in post-WWII Vienna, assumed that part of being Jewish meant that you have no grandparents, I grew up assuming that part of being Jewish is that you are a descendant of at least one Holocaust survivor. The fact that my mother’s parents had met in a labor camp, after my grandfather’s first wife and son were killed, was something I took for granted. The fact that before the war my grandmother had had six brothers and sisters, and after the war she had only one, was a fact that I absorbed as part of the natural course of the world. We’re Jewish. We eat kosher food. We use vacation time to take off for Rosh Hashanah. We pray in Hebrew. And Omi’s family was killed in the Holocaust. It was as normal as breathing, as much a part of my family’s landscape as the fact that my other grandparents lived in Arizona, or that my grandfather, the one whose first wife had been murdered, earned a living after the war making special shoes for people with disfigured feet and died of lung cancer in the late 60's. It wasn’t something to analyze or feel sorry about, it just was.

I did wonder sometimes about my mother’s dead half-brother. We have a photo of my grandfather with his first family. His wife was a moderately attractive woman, friendly-looking and fashionably dressed. Their son had straight hair – I hear that it was red, like my grandfather’s, and my mother’s – and that he had a bad arm. In the photo he’s about five years old, and his weak arm is resting on a ball. He and his mother were killed shortly after the photo was taken.

I wondered about them, that woman and the boy, the people whose death freed my grandfather to remarry and produce my mother, and in turn me. I wondered about them, and I felt sorry, too, for my Omi, who never talked much about her dead siblings, because it hurt too much to remember.

But I myself never really considered what the Holocaust meant for me until about a year ago, when my cousin Danny married a Catholic girl. I attended the reception, and sat with my uncle and a few other relatives of my uncle’s wife. At one point, my uncle whispered to me “Look at this! Practically the whole wedding is from the bride’s side! There are a few tables with friends of Danny and his wife, and one table for our family, and everyone else is from her family!” I looked around, thinking it over, and said “Right. Because her family wasn’t killed in World War II. Imagine if there’d been no Holocaust, if Omi’s brothers and sisters and all their children hadn’t been killed. You’d have a ton of cousins.”

At the time I felt pretty matter-of-fact about it, but later, when I was alone, it hit me that Hitler killed my family. I would have scores of first-cousins-once-removed, and who knows how many second cousins, except for the fact that one day, when by a twist of fate my grandmother was away from her Polish village, everyone in her family was taken away to Treblinka.

Now that I’m in Israel, I feel very keenly the lack of family. My grandmother’s one surviving brother, Simcha, moved to Israel after he was liberated, and his son, Meir, is my only relative here. Meir and his wife and two boys are very nice to me, but between their living a little far from me and not being Sabbath-observant, it’s hard to find mutually convenient times to get together. I’m envious of those who have family to visit for Shabbat and holidays. For the first time, in my early 30’s, I feel a sense of rage against Hitler, and whoever the faceless Germans or Poles were who killed my relatives, killed the family I’ve never had a chance to meet, the dozens of cousins I’ll never have.

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