That knowledge came much later, and then only by degrees, in what I can but describe as a gradual dawning. It seemed to seep in around us in our early school years like something dense and cloudlike. Yet, once we knew it, we knew that we had always known it. It was that sort of knowing. The gaps and crevices in my parents storytelling were suddenly part of this huge, immeasurable black hole of history. This, then, was what
they had fallen into, sucked in with their childhoods indeed, their entire pasts -- an abyss from which they had crawled and clawed their way back to normalcy. All this, including us, the comfortable house, the neighbors,
the Englishness superimposed onto our personae -- in short, the present -- was this side. And on the far shore, receding painfully inch by inch -- was their other world.
It was then that we began truly to feel their sadness.
Not that they were miserable or oppressive. No. They were, on the contrary, bright, convivial, ambitious, conscientious. In time, we came to realize that they were truly all these things -- but overly so. It was
as if nothing could ever again be casual for them. They simply had no time for a thoughtless remark, a lighthearted phrase, all those things which are the hallmark and the inalienable right of children.
One does not survive eight labor camps to fritter away ones life
aimlessly. If one survives while everyone, literallyeveryone
perishes, one carries around a sense of duty and purpose like a cup of precious liquid. In this connection, there is a story that springs to mind concerning a certain yeshivah student. He once asked a rabbi how to avoid unseeming thoughts which came to him when he should have been hard at work studying Gemara.
My boy, the rabbi said kindly. Go and get a wine goblet and fill it to the brim with liquid.
The boy thought this a little strange, but he complied.
Now I want you to take a walk around town without spilling a drop.
The boy did this, but understandably with great difficulty. He then
returned to the Torah sage.
Well, tell me my boy, he said. What did you see in town?
Nothing, the boy said. I was so busy concentrating on not spilling the liquid that I kept my head down all the time.
You have answered yourself, the Rabbi said. If you will concentrate on your Torah learning with the same degree of diligence, you will have no time for other distracting thoughts.
This story presents us with an image of my parents. They walked around,
or so it seemed to me as I grew older and understood more, head down, intent on not squandering a drop of that precious liquid we call daily living, and which we often, G-d forgive us, take for granted.
Take a minute of it for granted? their disappointed looks would seem almost accusatory. For this I survived eight concentration camps? For this I survived Auschwitz, Kole, Blechhamer, the IG Farben Industrie, Gräditz, Faulbrück, Markstedt, Fünfteichen, Gerlitz, and finally Zittau where I was liberated?
Imagine saying to my parents something as commonplace as, I flunked my homework, or, I got a bad mark in an exam.
And there it returned, unbidden like an over-familiar guest. The old accusation. For this I survived --? Did they say it out loud, or
did we simply imagine them using this particular formula of words, words that hung in the air, as palpable as the threat of snow on a darkening December day?
Sorry mother, sorry father. Sorry, for rocking the boat, sorry for denting the carefully constructed façade of a liveable life into which you have invested no less than your
youth, your tears, your lifeblood ...
But out on the street, where the air was free, I would shout
at the wind, shout at the trees, at anyone who would listen:
Why does it have to matter so much? Why?
Why is so much invested in me? Why must I be their past, their present
and the future all rolled into one?
I want to be perhaps a little irresponsible! I want to
fail exams, or bend the spines of my books!
I want -- oh, what do I want? Nothing more than this -- not to have to
carry their happiness carefully balanced in my upturned hands!
But wait, my dearest parents. Dont look so shocked, so alone, so hurt. Be strong again, and cheerfully ambitious. Its OK. Ill protect you from the coldness of the world outside. Ill live up to all
your expectations. I will try harder, much harder. I promise.
Only do this one thing for me: Dont look sad.
Returning to the stories, it was at about the same time that we realized the huge potential of the word Shoah. From the whispered murmurings of schoolmates, or smatterings gleaned from newspapers, we began to understand the symbolism of what we had called, up to now, dead end.
All their stories, I confided to my sister come to a dead end.
Suddenly, we had an inkling why, one day, their world had simply
stopped. At this, I began to imagine what would happen if our whole world as we knew it, were one day to simply cave in. No more house, no more neighbors, no more school, and, of course, no more parents. In my dreams, it was just me and my very much younger sister, marooned in a world grown suddenly unrecognizable. What should we do? Where should we run? How to survive? And if all this happened to us, would we still be who we thought we were? Who or what would we be? Even a beggar possesses a past, and with it the freedom to return. We would own less than the beggar, who in all weathers sat in his tattered coat on the cold park bench in Clapton Common, throwing bread to the birds. How exactly had my parents survived? They must be endowed with some special power, be somewhat superhuman. The why and how of their survival now began to haunt me day and night. We
wondered, we surmised, we theorized; yet still we dared not step over the invisible dividing line that was their war experience. We had not heard their stories, the stories that mattered. For this,
we would have to wait, with a terrible unassuaged longing for the truth.