When historical and personal trauma mingles, it often leaves survivors determined to erase their memories. But there is an emotional and social cost to this “forgetting.” Jonathan Gil Harris is a New Zealand-born, Jewish writer and academic, who currently lives in India.
In this multi-part series he traces the story of his mother, Stella, from her childhood in a bourgeois Jewish family in Warsaw in the 1930s, through deportation to camps in Russia and Uzbekistan, to undivided Palestine, and finally New Zealand.
Step-by-step he unfolds the secrets that his mother kept folded away in a Chinese chest in her living room. In the process, he draws evocative, and worrying, parallels between the India of the present, Europe in the years leading up to the second world war and Israel in the years since the war.
People keep silent for many reasons, he concludes. But this silence can be as toxic as the events it conceals.
My sisters and I always regarded our mother’s narrative about her supposedly halcyon days in the Archangelsk camp with great scepticism. It was Exhibit A in her long-standing case that she was not to be regarded as a Holocaust survivor.
She made the same case in refusing reparation from the German government when she was living in Israel in the 1950s.
We were willing to grant that what appeared unspeakably horrible to us, might look rosy to the eyes of a small child. What we found harder to stomach was her equally rose-tinted narration of the next phase of her life.
In 1942, as Hitler’s army advanced on western Russia, my mother’s family were notified that they would be deported again—this time to a refugee camp for displaced Poles near the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan border.
The train journey to Central Asia, spent in crowded container-carriages without seats, took a week. The food was awful and the sanitary conditions worse.
Stella and Nathan both contracted typhoid fever en route. Delirious and running a high temperature, she remembered little of their arrival in Uzgen. Her few memories of those first days were of waking intermittently in the camp hospital.
Her father, in the adjoining bed, would call out to her, comforting her and singing to her. By the fourth day, her fever had broken. But Nathan was no longer there beside her.
She inquired where he was, only to learn from a nurse that he had “skonchalsya” (passed). Stella didn’t quite understand what this meant, and for a long-time expected Nathan to pass back. Apparently, she waited for weeks at the gates of the camp convinced that he would reappear.
Nathan’s death proved a deadly blow to Lola. She had saved the precious family silverware, just as she had saved her sense of superior class breeding by looking down upon the working-class Jewish family in the neighboring hut.
But she was no longer willing to save herself. Lola weakened, sickened, and lost the will to live. By 1944 she, too, had died. Stella was orphaned.
Decades later, Stella narrated her time in Uzgen as a time of hardship, but also of many joys. The horrors of the train trip from Archangelsk to Uzbekistan were erased.
Instead, she focussed on a single defining memory: of the carriage’s beautiful blue night-light that would comfort her as she lay awake in the middle of the night. The rest — the starvation, the illness, the nightmares that kept her up and forced her to look for a light in the darkness—she folded and filed away in some other partitioned part of her memory.
The “wonderful” market
Uzgen too became, in her account, a happy town. She woke up each morning in a pool of her sister’s cold urine and an unresponsive invalid mother. Yet she recalled Uzgen as the place with a wonderful market where she learned to count in Uzbeki and drive bargains.
She talked about the wonderful one-room school where she and the other students would do sums and sing stirring songs to Batushya Stalin (Little Daddy Stalin).
The “wonderful” Speigels
She recalled it as the place with the wonderful shoe-making Communist neighbors — the Spiegels — who, when her mother died, selflessly took in Stella and her sister. And gave them the coveted sleeping position on their stove.
My sisters and I wanted to believe our mother’s stories. But from an early age we intuited how much they concealed.
Silencing the din of memories
The folds of her narratives got unfolded for us in a variety of ways — the panicked cries for her “Ima!” (Mother!) that she would repeatedly utter at night.
Her constant, aimless, whistling when she wasn’t talking, as if she needed to silence the din of an orchestra in her head that was always playing private symphonies of unwanted noise.
I was always sceptical of our mother’s narrative about her supposedly wonderful time in the Soviet camp. It was Exhibit A in her long-standing case that she was not to be regarded as a Holocaust survivor.
Stella chose to only focus on positive memories of the camps. The rest – the loss of her parents, the starvation, the illness, the nightmares - she folded and filed away in some other partitioned part of her memory.
The folds of Stella’s narratives got unfolded for me in a variety of ways. Like her constant aimless whistling when she wasn’t talking, as if she needed to silence the din of an orchestra in her head.