Holocaust Remembrance Day: ‘My grandfather deported yours’

“As a child I used to think that the time before – the time before the Holocaust – was so long ago that she didn’t remember it, that she wasn’t tortured by its memories, that she wasn’t pained by it.

May 2, 2019 09:57
Holocaust Remembrance Day: ‘My grandfather deported yours’

‘My grandfather deported yours’. (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)

My oldest son got married two weeks ago, and I felt extremely lucky and blessed that among those dancing at the wedding – well, shuffling – was my 88-year-old father.

No small thing, that. Not something to be taken for granted – neither that my son got married, nor that my dad was able to make the long and arduous trip from San Francisco to be here for it.

My mom, however, was not in attendance. Not at this wedding, nor at any of my other children’s weddings, bar and bat mitzvot, or even births. She wasn’t at my wedding either, having died suddenly two years earlier.

My mom was a loving, warm, caring, doting mother. She was also a Holocaust survivor, and over the last couple of weeks my mind has been flooded with thoughts of her. Yes, because of the wedding – there is always a tendency to think about those missing when celebrating great moments of personal happiness – but also because of the season: Passover and Holocaust Remembrance Day.

With numerous guests around the table, my dad gladly leading the proceedings, and the food memorable, our family Seders were always joyful – until we got to the part where you open the door for Elijah.

Just before that, we would insert a prayer for the six million Holocaust victims, and sing “Ani Maamin” (“I Believe”), the song we were told Jews sang on the way to the gas chambers. And every year my mother would tear up. She lost her whole immediate family in the war – her parents in the Lodz Ghetto, and her brother in Auschwitz – and thoughts of them and what she suffered seemed to come rushing through with that singing of “Ani Maamin.”

I remember every year casting furtive glances at my sister, as we both watched our mother tear up. It’s not easy watching your mother cry.

Then we would say another prayer to free Soviet Jewry, open the door for Elijah, joyfully sing “Next Year in Jerusalem,” and move on.

I always stood in sheer admiration of my mother’s ability to move on, despite everything she suffered as a child in hiding in wartime Amsterdam.

GIVEN MY mother’s history, it was obvious that anything German was verboten in our home. Like the homes of many other Holocaust survivors, we didn’t buy Deutsche Grammophon records or a Volkswagen, would not listen to Wagner – through my parents loved the opera – and would never dream of visiting Germany. A re-fueling stopover in Munich in 1972 on our way to Israel for the first time was trauma enough – and we didn’t even need to get off the plane.

IN 2000, some 16 years after my mom died, the German government invited me – as an Israeli journalist – to the country as part of their public relations efforts. After much internal wrangling – “it was for work,” I rationalized, “I would not spend any of my own money” – I decided to go, on the condition that I could visit my mother’s hometown: a small village called Goch located near the Dutch border.

I walked the quaint streets of this city, saw where the local synagogue stood until it was burned down on Kristallnacht, passed by the building where my mother lived and went to the archives where I saw pictures of my grandparents I had never seen before.

The local press wrote about the visit, and a couple of months after I returned to Israel I received the following email:

“I am 35 years old. My grandfather (father of father), Josef Kaut, was mayor during the Nazi time in Goch. I was told that he helped and saved a lot of people against the Nazis. Later I had to notice what he did to Jewish citizens. Following the order of the Gestapo Dusseldorf, he arranged the deportations of the Jewish citizens.

“The cruel truth is, my grandfather administered the deportations of your grandparents to the Ghetto of Lodz.”

Now there’s an email you don’t get every day: someone admitting their grandfather was responsible for the murder of your grandparents.

“Honey,” I shouted toward The Wife. “Come quick, you have to see this.”

The woman who wrote this email grew up loving her grandfather and believing the stories she was told that he actually tried to save the town’s Jews. As she got older, she realized there were truck-sized holes in that story and investigated further, only to find that her grandfather did not protect Jews, but rather deported them to their death.

She was tortured by it, and – as a result – reached out.

“When I was a child,” she wrote, “I had a fantasy that the Nazis came in a spaceship, landed in Germany in 1933, went out of their ship, ruled, murdered, made war, and those who survived flew away in their spaceship. In my child imagination, the Germans weren’t Nazis, but victimized by them – also my family.”

Her letters opened my eyes to something I had never thought of before. My mother’s story has always been part of my being. It had a deep and profound impact on my life, including my decision to move to Israel, build a home and raise a family here. The descendants of the victimizers, this woman made clear to me, had heavy baggage of their own.

I wrote back to her about a fantasy I also had as a child, not about a spaceship, but rather that my mother lived two different lives, the life before and the life after the Holocaust.

“As a child I used to think that the time before – the time before the Holocaust – was so long ago that she didn’t remember it, that she wasn’t tortured by its memories, that she wasn’t pained by it. That she somehow – magically – forgot about it.

“Only as I grew older did I realize how wrong that was. And only after I had kids of my own did I realize that one’s youth – even though it seems so far away to one’s children – is a very real part of one’s person. Which means that my mother never lived a life of before and after. It was all one. That she was able to piece her life back together is a testament to an incredible will and terrific power.”

That will and power – that sheer resilience – has come to mind each of the three times I have had the privilege of walking my sons to the huppah. Because without it, none of that would be happening.

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