Monday, 27 January 2014

The Holocaust: Views of the children of survivors

On Holocaust memorial day we should remember the relatives and friends who died or were permanently affected and those who would have lived had the others not been murdered. The Holocaust affected not just Jews, but Gypsies, other Poles and the generally viewed as useless or different by the Nazis. We must never forget, we must never stop being vigilant to racism and hatred in general, be it social or government sponsored. If we do stop, it will happen again and again and again. The official numbers put the toll at between 11 and 12 million, but the truth is closer to 15 to 20 million.

 The Holocaust wasn't just another genocide, it was the the consequence of forgetting about or ignoring the Armenian genocide. It happened because Hitler saw the world pretend the Armenian genocide never happened. NEVER FORGET, NEVER IGNORE, NEVER DENY. 

And yet there is more to the day than just that sentiment .

There is a permanent black spot on the heart of every Armenian regardless of where they live now. It affects generations who otherwise grew up like anybody else, much like my family who have those who died in Katyn, Siberia, the camps or right where they stood. We'll never be quite the same and sometimes it seems like we're the only ones who see the ghosts and what could have been. 

You'll note I said have not had;  in dying in the manner they did, those people became permanent individual black marks on the hearts of millions of people. They live still in the moment they died  and in the lives they led and in the lives they would have led. The children they would have had, the words and actions they would have given us had they lived. Where some of you see ruins and anonymous bodies or piles of shoes and suitcases  or just an empty space, we see the people, the villages and towns, the homes, the churches and synagogues and shops and schools that were forever wiped out. We hear them talking to themselves, to us. They tell us to live like nothing is impossible, they tell us to beware of  the signs of danger and treachery  but to never stop being kind, never stop protecting the weak and to never stop laughing. Because when we stop laughing and caring, Hitler and Stalin and all the other haters win. 

They tell us to never stop trying to succeed, never stop learning, never stop living, because in doing so.... they too still live. You may not see them, but they are there and every time somebody acts like none of it mattered, they kick us in the shins and we try harder still. 

Every family has a roll call of the dead brought up at supper, in school, while making breakfast, when we have a moan about having to wait for something  or not having our way NOWWWW. 

There are survivors of the Holocaust: Jews of every European nation, Gypsies, Polish Catholics, political prisoners etc, survivors, anonymous faceless historic figures, we called them Father, Mother, Uncle, Auntie, Babcia, Zaydie. To us they are our relatives. Some have tattoos with a number, some have a triangle, some have nothing, but all of them played a role in raising us. Guilting us, teaching us, making us who we are, and in turn we have passed this on to our own children. The effects of the Holocaust did not end when the last camp closed or when the last bullet was pumped into an innocent brain, it is a scar on humanity that keeps on affecting generations for decades after the event. 

Some of the signs are the ability we have acquired to spot bullshit when it takes ages for others to see it. Our fight or flight instinct is more acute and we are far less innocent than the doe eyed prophets of love and mushiness. As well, we cannot and will not tolerate the kind of political expediency that sweeps under the rug the building blocks of fascism and hatred up to and including when it's done by our own kind, be they Catholic, Jewish or some kind of patriot  speaking for the good of the nation, regardless of how they frame the nation. 

You'll find we're also a lot less tolerant of ambivalent overly emotional reactions. We are blunt, life is short and cruel and if we stop to waffle about so as not to offend somebody, we waste precious time. We don't have time to debate when  the truth is plain, we don't have the  patience or the ability to wait for cooling off periods if that means something bad will happen like it has in Syria or just in our own neighbourhood. 

As for the act of  mourning, unlike those who have never had to have the complete and unadulterated effects of total war and genocide personally delivered on them and their families and communities, we don't cry nearly as much as accepted social norms require of us. We don't break down in quite the same way other people do. We bottle, we don't do emotion, we don't feel that dying at the age of 87 or 90 is a great tragedy for which we need to tear our shirts and weep bitter tears. For us it's a chance to celebrate that this person didn't die of natural causes like the rest of his or her generation did. They lived long enough to have children, to laugh , to cry, to teach and not die from a bullet between the eyes or the back of the skull or worse. 

In my family, my step mother who finished the war in Ravensbruck, witnessed appalling horrors as a 12 year old, I know because she told me.  As a catholic girl she was taken to the walls of the Warsaw ghetto and forced to watch as they slaughtered babies, old people and dangled the dead from windows as dogs ate them. If  anybody flinched, they were shot on the spot or arrested. 90 % of the people in my parish who survived the war were in the camps or lost somebody in the camps and the firing squads and the Soviet Horror that is Katyn, I know because I was told by the time I was 7.  The fact that my father views the time he spent in Siberia and the subsequent death march of the Poles to Iran where 80 % died on the way as "being lucky", speaks volumes. My wife's grandfather was given a full crucifixion by Ukrainian partisans for being Jewish  but somehow survived, survived three separate firing squads, was interned but escaped Treblinka, was the only person to survive his village untill we learned  thatt some of his siblings were saved by the catholic church. Uncle Abie  shovelled corpses into the furnaces. Her Bubbie was in Bergen Belsen and was so desperate to die by the end she punched out in SS Guard in order to be guarantee a quick death, as her two older brothers had been killed earlier in the war, after being arrested for blowing up train tracks in the village so the Germans couldn't transport  munitions or people to the camps, and were thanked by being sent to Warsaw to brick up the Jewish ghetto,  when that finished ,each received a bullet in the brain. One aunt was sterilized in the camps so she could never have children, another was implanted with cancerous cells and died in the early 1950s from the disease. Another uncle was saved by being arrested by the soviets first and sent to Gulag in Siberia instead of a death camp. I could go on and on but the crimes are gruesome and not for the faint of heart.
These people long after the war, found coping mechanisms and habits we take for granted but you would find odd and strange. These people gave us a sense of humour and irony that you just don't get. These people have taught us that nothing is ever as bad as it seems if you're still breathing the next day. These people taught us to not waste the time we have on Earth as it may end tomorrow and we should not be an afterthought but something that stands out as special , important and relevant. To never forget that it's a fucking miracle some of us were even born at all. 

Of course that makes us a bit fucked up too, and that is the point, we are not like you, we will never be. That's why when you go to the ceremonies today and in the next few days you'll see the survivors, the children and the grand children up front. Not because they are somehow more important than the dignitaries or the rabbi or the priest or the organizer, but because they will react in ways that are nothing like the rest of the room. Where you think we're covering our faces in sorrow, we're actually hiding the fact we've heard these stories before, we're sometimes smirking, laughing, we are immune to the emotional button pushing of the words and take comfort in the company of others like ourselves. It makes us feel 8 years old again and we're being scolded for wanting to skip on our veg or something. And the fact is that what you will hear is nothing compared to what we heard at home or read in the books readily available on the shelves of the house library. Through books and testimony we see the Europe that was erased, we understand why we were scattered all over the planet and Poland emptied of it's jews, aristocrats, intellectuals, scientists, merchants, it's political and mercantile classes. In fact , some of us even create the lie that our families were humble farmers back in Poland  when in fact we were all of those things and the loss is too much to bear or think about and maybe also the knowledge that we are here and not others is down to some survivors having had to sell their souls or bribe others to live another day. Country by country, you can do this if  you make the effort, or you can just pretend that no lasting effect aside from a few million dead ever happened. You'll never know of the courageous gentiles ( priests, policemen, teachers, neighbours) who saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives and paid for it with their own, you'll forget that being one of those unwanted people worthy of being exterminated was good enough for Hitler. It didn't matter what you thought you were, in fact that holds true today even, of all intolerant racist xenophobic fascist scum.

There is a further poisonous legacy that I have seen with my own eyes and saddens me deeply. There are some small but vocal parts of the Orthodox Jewish communities that have decided they and they alone can determine who and and what is a Jew. There was a boy, raised catholic at a thing we attended last week. He had Pearlmans and Bergs and others as relatives who'd died in the camps. Why was this boy who in the US or Canada would have been proudly Jewish and incredibly modern, a Catholic?  Because his parents drifted away from a faith structure that was too specific in it's definitions and was not open to the massive wave of reform that still defines 90% of Jews in North America.  Where the Catholic Church seeks to bring people home from wandering away through pope Francis, and Chabad and other brands of Judaism welcome home and educate lost Jews, here the leadership has closed the doors. My friend the Catholic, who's parents are Jewish, who is married to a Jewish woman , A Cohen no less, and wants to become educated in the ways of his lost faith is forced to  wander in ignorance and joins millions of Jews in the UK who are not counted as such and so are allowed to drift away from a culture and faith that gave humanity so much.   The survivor at our event is not an orthodox Jew and so by some, not a Jew.  Both that boy and my friend are the children of survivors, they know where the still missing mass graves are, but are not good enough Jews for some. In this small sad way, Hitler has won. 

Eugene Black - Survivor

When the last survivor dies in the next ten years or fifteen years, there will only be us left to carry on the message. And if you are smart, you'll listen to us, we are them, we speak for them, they speak through us, the 15 to 20 million dead speak through us. And wherever we are in the world, events like those of today will not be complete or true if they ignore the reasons why the Holocaust happened or what it did to us as people and to the shape of humanity today.

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