A Mother and Son Confront the Holocaust — Part I: A Mother’s Memory
What role do personal memories play in retelling the history of the Holocaust?
March 22, 2006
Sixty-six years ago, I was caught in the avalanche of hatred cruelty and death that swept Europe.
I moved on and, since 1945, built a life and family and took a most modest part in the creation of a Jewish state.
And very late in life, urged on by my daughter and son, I wrote “What Time and Sadness Spared: Mother and Son Confront the Holocaust” (University of Virginia Press, 2006).
Writing is hard for someone who does not have a language to call her own. Thoughts freely and rapidly race in my head in a mixture of sounds, uncontrollably switching from one tongue to another, each having a moment of dominance only to be replaced by another.
Polish is no longer my mother tongue — I rarely speak it. Hebrew will never assume that position. The other languages that I learned through the years — English, German, Yiddish — retain their acquired-tongue status.
After all those years of silence, I felt the need to write, though I wondered, could I tell anything new? Is there a special meaning to my narrative?
The dry facts of the Nazi project, after all, are more or less known. What is the meaning of telling another story of pain and suffering? Has the well of Holocaust memories run dry?
And even if my own story deserves a hearing, could I actually tell it? Could I tear off the layers of insulation that I wrapped around myself for all these years?
The variety of Holocaust experiences is equal to the number of survivors. A terrible common reality engulfed all of us. And yet, when I speak to other survivors, I sometimes have the distinct impression that each of us, despite having been in the same "there," had been in a different place.
We experienced the horrors as differently as we reacted to the events at the end of the war: to the sudden freedom, to the liberation we dreamed of, and to the return home to find nothing — and, most horribly, nearly no one.
Some turned to writing. The number of survivors' accounts — a strange literary genre whose audience is the future rather than the current reading public — had thus far discouraged me from telling my story.
I used to say: "So much has been said. The world must be tired of these gruesome accounts." But in recent years, I underwent a strange transformation.
I feel that I am running out of time and oxygen, and that if I don't open up now, my story will die with me and so will the people that inhabit it. As if they never existed.
I no longer need to plan for a future. More and more, I see my past in front of me.
The memories come and force themselves on me with a power and frequency that overwhelm my resistance. I allow them to come — and do not push them away.
In contrast to my inclination in the years following my liberation — which was not to dwell on what I had been through — I now fear I will forget the little I can recall. Suddenly, it is important to remember.
The dread of pain has left me. It has been more than six decades and I am now troubled less by the pain of remembering than by the realization that I can no longer recall the faces of those I lost.
I need to think of specific circumstances as to create the context that would allow me to remember their faces.
I resort to the same methods to bring to mind their voices: my mother's beautiful alto as she sang me Mozart's lullaby, "The Little Prince is Already Asleep". My brother's slightly hoarse speech. My father's recitation of German, Polish and Latin poetry (his friends joked that he was the only living person who could actually speak Latin). My grandfather's singing of traditional Jewish songs at the conclusion of Saturdays' lunches.
I clearly remember the house and the furniture. Why is it that I can easily envision in my mind meaningless places and possessions and have great difficulties recalling the faces of those that were so dear?
I am frustrated by my need to locate them in a specific situation — just so that I could imagine their faces.
At Auschwitz, during the long lonely nights and in the few days of rest, I had no difficulty recalling their images.
I dined with them. I talked to them. These were the only rays of light in that chamber of fire and torture.
I wonder how it feels to be 17 or 20 — and not realize that you are alone. That every move or decision you make is yours only. That you cannot lean on the experience, wisdom and love of a mother, father or brother.
I could never share my experiences. To be sure, I could talk and tell, but no one could lighten the load. No one could relate to the loss.
I was married for 47 years to a man who immigrated to Israel from Turkey and could not relate to my past. For a short time, I had a grandmother. My mother's mother had moved to Palestine in the 1930s and had been spared.
I could not, however, confide in her. She had lost siblings, children and grandchildren. I did not want to cause her any additional unnecessary suffering. I was alone. A most significant part of who I was I could not share with someone who did not come from there.
I never really allowed myself to mourn them. Mourning would mean finally accepting their death — something I fought against.
Putting words on paper made them real, while at the same time, in an odd way, allowing me to let them go.
I naïvely thought that I could put it behind and spare them the horrors and suffering — allow them to grow and develop free of my tragedy. I failed.
It turned out in the end that we have all been hiding things from each other. Both my children have in their own way been preoccupied with the Holocaust.
My daughter chose to study the subject in college and my son not only collaborated with me on the book, but I recently learned, has written a play which takes place, of all the locations, in the Birkenau latrine. Am I leaving a threatening dark cloud on those most dear to me?
Co-author of “What Time and Sadness Spared” Roma Roma Nutkiewicz Ben-Atar is co-author of “What Time and Sadness Spared: Mother and Son Confront the Holocaust” (University of Virginia Press, 2006). She is a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and numerous Nazi labor and death camps, including Majadnek and Auschwitz.