Thursday, January 29, 2015

Seventy Years On

Somewhere along the way from childhood to adulthood, we cross a line—a personal, often private, always wholly idiosyncratic line—that leads us from being one tadpole among many to growing into the individual man or woman we eventually become. For many, that line is constituted by a discovery of some sort, by a moment of revelation that grants the child in question a worldview that, for all it might be (and surely is) similar in some ways to other people’s, is in its essence that child’s alone. As a result of crossing that line, we begin to see the world through our own eyes and thus, eventually, to become ourselves in a way that serves eventually as the hallmark of the kind of individuation that leads eventually to the assumption of true identity. In our American culture, this line is often presumed to have something to do with sex, with finding out about how that all works in the adult world, with taking first tentative steps towards romance and intimacy. For others, particularly for those who suffer grievous loss as young people, it has more to do with encountering death, with the experience of finding oneself face to face with the truth about life’s brevity and awful fragility. But for me—and I somewhat paradoxically see this more, not less, clearly as I become older—for me personally, the boundary line between tadpole and man had to do with learning the truth about Jewishness in the twentieth century, the century I was born just a few short years after the precise midpoint of which and which remains the foundational context, even now, for my sense of who I am and what I am to do in the world.

My initial exposure to the Shoah was through the large number of refugees who lived in the neighborhood in which I grew up. My American-born parents never spoke of the Shoah, but neither did the survivors in our midst. I knew they were from Europe, obviously. And I understood too that they had gone through “a lot” before landing in Queens. But that “a lot” was as far as my parents went when the topic came up, which it only rarely did. Were they protecting me from the truth about the world? I suppose they were, at least a little. Or were they willing themselves not to know something about the world that all of us would prefer not to know? That was surely part of it too. But it also bears saying that I think my parents felt that they were being kind and generous by allowing the neighborhood refugee types to “get past” (that was another of my parents’ expressions) their earlier experiences and embrace life in these United States without being endlessly burdened by memories of earlier misery. The bottom line was that the chasm between wartime Europe and post-war Queens was deemed unbridgeable by my parents…and they definitely considered that a good thing for all concerned.

I always knew there was something I didn’t know. How I knew that, who knows? But children are sensitive even to subtleties of language and inflection…and I always “just” knew that there was more than I was being allowed to know, just as I somehow knew that the numbers on the arms of some of my friends’ parents were not just “wartime tattoos” as my Dad once said to me vaguely when I screwed up my courage and asked. It’s hard to conjure up the precise feel of things after all these years, but my parents’ disinclination to discuss the Shoah was part of their general disinclination to discuss the past at all: the last thing my parents wanted to think was that they were somehow less than 100% American because they lived in a neighborhood (and belonged to a community) that included so many immigrants and refugees. Nor did they ever wish to discuss their own families’ origins in Europe—that too was a taboo topic in my boyhood home. My father occasionally mentioned the name of his parents’ shtetl in Poland, but only under duress and always with the clear sense that Nowy Dwór was Polish for “hell” and that only an insane person would wish to know more. My mother told me once in passing that she thought her father came from Odessa—I was too young at the time to realize how odd it was that she wasn’t sure—and it was only as an adult, after I undertook some research of my own, that I realized that she was more likely recalling the fact that the ship he took to North America left from Odessa but that he himself was more probably from the town of Zembin in Belarus. But these were isolated moments of unguarded recollection, and the far more general rule on Yellowstone Blvd. was that the past was gone forever and that that was a good, even a very good, thing. In a certain strange way, my entire adult life—and certainly my professional life—has been a kind of reaction against that will to forget what I have made it my life’s work to remember.

The entrance to the Hebrew School wing of the Forest Hills Jewish Center is on 69th Road, a street on the south side of Queens Boulevard that is exactly one block long. Upon entering, all the action was to the right—the school office, the Game Room where young scholars loitered over Nok Hockey tables until the beginning of class, the washrooms, the principal’s office and the rabbi’s, and the classrooms themselves. To the left was a door leading to the great sanctuary featuring the remarkable, slightly scary Ark of the Law created by the great artist, Arthur Syzk. But between the entrance to the building and the entrance to the sanctuary was a tiny library and it was there that I, even then proudly uninterested in Nok Hockey or Foosball (the other diversion provided to distract early arrivers from potential mischief), sought refuge when I arrived early for school, which was always.

Even today I can conjure up the peculiar, not unpleasant, odor of that room—some mixture of tobacco (smoking was allowed indoors in those days), old books, perfume, and coffee. It was there that I first began to read about Jewish history and about Jewish life in versions other than the one I knew from home. And it was there as well that I eventually noticed the books on the very top shelf just to the left when you entered, books stored so high up that even an adult, let alone a child, could not possibly have reached them without standing on a stool or a stepladder. We children were not granted access to those books, but the titles were visible. And it was there, in the contemplation of that shelf of books, that I first began to realize that there was more to being a Jew in the mid-twentieth century than I knew about.

The books were a mixture of famous and, even today, relatively unknown. William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was there, but so was Jacob Apensziak’s The Black Book of Polish Jewry, a book published in the winter of 1943-1944, and chronicling the agony of the first million Polish Jews to die at the hands of the Nazis. And there was another book with a similar, but much longer, title on that shelf as well: Vasily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg’s The Black Book: The Ruthless Murder of Jews by German-Fascist Invaders Throughout the Temporarily-Occupied Regions of the Soviet Union and in the German Nazi Death Camps Established on Occupied Polish Soil During the War 1941–1945, a book that it took me almost a year to get through because I could only read it when the librarian was away refilling her coffee cup or using the washroom. (The book I read, I now realize, was an abridged translation; the full book was only published in English translation in 1970.) Shirer, I only skimmed. (I was only twelve or thirteen years old, after all.) But the other two books I read, page by page in the course of more than two years, in their entirety. And it was there that my own journey began, with those unimaginable stories, with the testimony of people whose experiences were not so much unbelievable as unimaginable, with accounts the details of which imprinted themselves on my consciousness so deeply that they remain there to this day, enhanced—but also unaffected—by decades of further reading on the topic.

I never told my parents about any of this, but I was as drawn to those books as I was repulsed by them. And yet I was powerless, even as a bar-mitzvah boy, to step back, to stop reading, to look away. In some ways, that was the seminal experience of my childhood, those stolen minutes of reading forbidden books…and I can see how reasonable it would be to see my life’s path reflected in that experience of finding out in that specific way what it meant to be a Jew in a world of horror from which my own family had somehow escaped.

This, then, is the background I bring to my consideration of the
seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, up until just recently a strangely unchronicled event. (By comparison, for example, Vasily Grossman’s account of the liberation of Treblinka, available now as a chapter in his remarkable A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army 1941-1945, is among the most powerful—and by that I mean powerful to the point of overwhelming—pieces of on-the-scene journalism related to the Shoah that I’ve ever read.) Until this week, that is…when the Russian Defense Ministry, responding to a bogus claim by Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna that Auschwitz was liberated by Ukrainian troops, finally released—after seventy years of refusing to make them public—a batch of first-hand accounts by officers and soldiers of the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army who liberated the 7,500 survivors of Auschwitz that were still present in that place on January 27, 1945. (For more details about the release of these accounts and testimonies, click here.) None has been released in official or unofficial translation, and the photographs that were released are blurry and will be difficult even for Russian readers to decipher. But what counts is that these accounts exist and will now be available to all who wish to know first-hand what that day was like…not from the vantage point of the prisoners but from that of their liberators. I can’t wait for these stories to be published, and I will report back to you all when I’ve read them and tell what I’ve learned. Even if there are no surprises in terms of historical detail, though, the experience itself of communing with those present on that fateful day through the medium of their own recollective prose…that will be a prize for all those, like myself, whose lives have been informed and shaped by the experience specifically of reading about the Shoah and vicariously living through its horrors.

If it is true that life is a journey—and how could it not be?—then this is my specific journey, the path I have wandered forward from childhood through adolescence into adulthood. I am not a survivor in the sense that I was born after the war and am neither the child nor the grandchild of anyone who perished. But there is also a category of survivor to which I do belong: the category those who live their lives against the background of the Holocaust and who willingly or unwillingly bear the burden of history on more or less strong shoulders. The Shoah is not where I was, but it is who I am. As I contemplate the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and anticipate the testimony of the liberators, that burden feels marginally lighter…as if those brave soldiers from so long ago join me, even if surely posthumously for most, in supporting the weight of history and thus in making it that much easier to bear.

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