Stories were one commodity we were never short of during our
childhood years. My father told stories, long, circuitous tales, of his childhood in Poland: the family timber yard, the cheder, the chassidic courts. My mother told of her childhood in Hungary: the grocery store in Sarospotok, the picturesque town surrounded by mountains and vineyards. We grew up absorbing these stories like sponges, so that they permeated our souls.
It was only much later that we realized that these represented more than fairy tales with which to tuck us into bed. This realization came with the growing knowledge that certain basics were mysteriously absent from our secure and loving childhood. If there was so much that seemed stolid and rooted, like our heavy bookcases, there was also something strangely missing. What was missing turned out really to be quite simple -- grandparents, cousins, relatives of all shapes and sizes, the very people, or their offspring, who peopled these stories with their rampantly colorful personalities -- in point of fact, the past. There was a gap, a hiatus, a disturbing lack of continuity, for my parents stories never progressed beyond their childhood years. It all sounded so wonderfully cozy, warm and intense. It was as real to us as the colorful wallpaper of our nursery, and we carried this reality around with us every waking moment. What had happened to it all? Why were we in autumn-leaved London and not in fathers Chrzanow, or mothers Sarospotok? We had the feeling that something vast and inexplicable had happened to dislodge and dislocate them, and our curiosity grew and grew. We agreed with one another that something awesome lay at the bottom of it all. There were certain tell-tale signs, certain glances that passed between my parents when they thought we werent looking. We noticed other things too, such as my mothers inky blue-black tattoo on her forearm, which she never took pains
to hide. Or my father, catching his breath sometimes, sucking in air as if there could never be enough for him.
How come, we reasoned, they told so much, so easily -- and then
One day I dared to ask the inevitable question.
Well, and where are they all now, these people?
Ah, my father said, assuming a look both dreamy and stern. Now thats enough talk for one night. Please say Hamapil, for you have to be up for school in the morning.
The lights were promptly switched off, and so was our line of
But then parents are sometimes strange. Who could say that our parents strangeness was different than that of others? How were we to
know that my parents belonged to that species, rare enough in England, called Holocaust survivors?