Becoming the Matriarch of a Holocaust Survivor Family in 2020, Seventy Five Years after the Holocaust

becomingIt is not without irony that 2020 is ushered in with the death of the last living Holocaust survivor from our family.

My Mother, GG (Great Grandmother) Frieda always used to say that “everyone has something.”  She said we each have that something, tsuris, Yiddish for troubles or woes or aggravation.  You may think your troubles are the worst troubles anyone could have, but everyone thinks that, GG used to say.  She concluded that it was better to keep your own tsuris, as you know them (always multiple troubles) and are used to dealing with them.

My parents’ “something,” their troubles, their worst tsuris, was the Holocaust.  I must admit that whenever my mother heard of another traumatic Holocaust story, she always said, “that is nothing.  What I experienced was the worst of the Holocaust.”  I have to totally agree with my mother after experiencing through her the horrors she experienced, which were part of the Nazi intentional plan of psychological destruction of even those who might survive the Holocaust.  As a child of Holocaust survivors, I also totally agree with Eileen Lavine, the author of “Nobody Knows the Tsuris I’ve Seen…” that  [t]here might not be another word in any language that quite captures the meaning of tsuris.”  You have to read her article to begin to understand the meaning of tsuris and how deep the Holocaust tsuris runs.

Yes, Holocaust tsuris spans the generations and consumes those of us children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.  My tsuris includes the Holocaust significantly, when, on a daily basis, something reminds me of their torture and deprivation and how fortunate I am.  When I get into bed each night, I touch my cover, and think of my starving mother freezing with no cover in a straw concentration camp bunker with lice and vermin crawling over her.  I was born right after my parents’ experiences in the Holocaust, when as a baby and young child I became the receptical of raw emotions and stories that my parents thought I could not understand when even psychologists could not listen to them, as I was told later.

Sometimes, I wish the Holocaust, as evil and incomprehensible as it remains, were my only tsuris.  I have lived with the Holocaust as long as I can remember, and even before that for which I have memories, with those sensations and feelings that bring unwelcome nightmares and anxiety.  It is better for me to not remember, to push the Holocaust away.  However, as much as I am the optimist, I have more than this as my tsuris in my seventies.  I think that those of us fortunate enough to reach our seventies do not realize also how fortunate we are to have made it and we underestimate the tsuris seven decades of living life brings.

My Mother even had a saying for that, “life is hard, and then you die.”

My Aunt Berta just died at age 95.  She is the last of her generation of our Holocaust family.  As the end of her life neared, dementia, and Holocaust survivors suffer from dementia in greater numbers than the general population, put her back in the concentration camp.  Her suffering nearly seventy five years after the Holocaust was almost beyond what we could imagine, to the point where she plummeted herself with punches, causing great bruises and black eyes.  Everyone, including her caregivers, worried not only about her safety and suffering but that others would think she was being abused.  That horrific Nazi abuse she suffered over seventy five years ago was being played out before our eyes, as if Nazi torture, abuse and murder did not always permeate our lives in some way.

With her passing, as the oldest, I find myself now the matriarch of this multigenerational Holocaust survivor family.  How the Nazis would despise that term, “multigenerational Holocaust survivor family.” They did their best to wipe us from the world. What is frightening are the numbers of those living today who would also despise that term.  It is still beyond my comprehension that America is not safe for Jews but the news in the last several weeks of 2019 makes it difficult for me to keep my head in the sand.  In this melting pot of a country, we again must hide our identity to be safe.  And now I am the leader with the responsibility to try to keep us safe. I can hear Aunt Berta’s advice to be careful, how to survive.

I come from a small close Holocaust survivor family.  As with most Holocaust survivor families, most of our extended and immediate family were murdered by the Nazis.  The horrors that those Holocaust survivors of my small close family witnessed and experienced are beyond evil, diabolical, and life altering.  To know what our parents and aunts and uncle experienced is also devastating for us, the next generation, now in our sixties and seventies.  When we hear people say the Holocaust was over seventy five years ago and is history, not current, we know that is not the truth.  The Holocaust was part of our parents’ and aunts’ and uncles’ lives every day that they lived their lives.  They picked themselves up from that horror and did their best to create a life for themselves.

We, the next generation, became their diamonds and gold.  We were coddled and smothered, and the ground we walked on was hallowed.  Yet, their experiences broke through, on a daily and nightly basis, through daymares and nightmares.  We lived the Holocaust with them and it forever impacted their lives and ours.

For those who deny the Holocaust, I respond that I wish I could deny the lifelong impact of the Holocaust on those who survived and us, their offspring.  In the last few months of my aunt’s life, in dementia, when she was back in the concentration camp and punched herself, so much she gave herself bruises, black eyes, she was tortured again.  The trauma she experienced over seventy five years ago broke through her survivor barriers.  It was a blessing when she finally passed.  As a perpetual survivor, with no food or water and the maximum dose of morphine, in her terror, she still lasted six days in hospice.  Her survivor instincts kept her a survivor to the end of her life.

After her funeral, we looked at family pictures.  We looked at my aunt and uncle’s wedding pictures from 1949.  I was the only child in the pictures, the flower girl, then about two and a half years old.   Already you could see only one generation of survivors and it was the one child who was the central figure in the pictures.  You could see the bittersweet beginnings of the creation of a new life.  But we children of Holocaust survivors could still see their eyes in the pictures and the lingering pain in those eyes.  We know too much.

There are only four of us total in our generation in our Holocaust family.  One said the Nazis won, looking at the suffering that our aunt endured in her early life, the hardships she endured her entire life, and at her torment in the end.

With her passing, as the oldest, as now the matriarch of this Holocaust family, it was my responsibility to immediately set the record straight.

I responded.  No. The Nazis did not win.  There are our survivor children and grandchildren.  GG Frieda had another saying, “Out of the Darkness and Into the Light.” It is the title of her book we donated to the United States Holocaust Museum.  Our Holocaust family has survived the darkness.

We, the next generations, look into the light and must follow the light of life.  We are now the first, second and third generation of Holocaust survivors and we are the future. Proudly the matriarch of this Holocaust survivor family, I think it is appropriate for our family to be led by the eternal optimist.  It is our time for creation of our new rituals and traditions and family

 

Joy,

 

Mema,

 

 

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