Holocaust Remembrance Day: How can one witness memories never known?

By being forced to bypass the mourning process in environments inconducive to listening to their agony and grief, our parents were forced to remain silent.

 THE WRITER is with her parents, Fania and George Brodsky, in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, in 1952.  (photo credit: BETTY BRODSKY COHEN)
THE WRITER is with her parents, Fania and George Brodsky, in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, in 1952.
(photo credit: BETTY BRODSKY COHEN)

Elie Wiesel refers to the obligation of the second generation to take on the role of witnesses by telling their parents’ stories. This expectation is challenging beyond words, especially in view of the fact that the events we are expected to reveal are not only horrendous and unimaginable in their content but their details are not always known to us. How does one witness memories never known, never experienced and never owned?

Only decades after our parents settled in their new home countries did most begin to speak of the horrors they experienced. A great collective silence pervaded for years between them and the world at large. Also referred to as the conspiracy of silence, the first survivors did not speak, partly because of their own inability to do so and partly because the world would not listen.

Our parents’ early years can be divided into three periods. With mourning a luxury that they couldn’t afford during the Holocaust years, the immediate post-war period of the 1940s did not provide them with time to mourn. Besides searching for loved ones whose fate was unknown, they were busy crossing borders to eventually reach a displaced persons camp.

There they became involved with rebuilding families and planning their emigration to different countries and continents. Their journey of surviving survival involved both physical recuperation as well as the emotional toll of trying to come to terms with their many losses, a largely impossible task due to the sheer magnitude involved.

CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST Yael Danieli quotes one 74-year-old survivor, re-widowed and the sole survivor of a family of 72, “Even if it takes one year to mourn each loss and even if I live to be 107 (and mourn all members of my family), what do I do about the rest of the six million?”

 Entrance gate at Auschwitz concentration camp (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS) Entrance gate at Auschwitz concentration camp (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

During the second post-war period of the 1950s, our parents were engaged in immigration to and absorption into their new countries. Once again, they had no time to stop and mourn the dead in their pressing search for work and housing, learning new languages and customs. Rather than being made to feel welcome in their homes, they were often looked upon with a mixture of suspicion (“What did you do to survive?”) and/or pity (“God help you poor things”).

During the third period of social adjustment to new home countries, the 1960s and 70s were characterized by intensified efforts on the part of our parents toward integration into the new culture and economy. Still lacking the time to mourn or reminisce, everyone made an effort to move forward and leave the past behind.

A heavy silence 

By being forced to bypass the mourning process in environments inconducive to listening to their agony and grief, our parents were forced to remain silent as they integrated into society. They learned to suppress their emotional wounds and painful memories for many years, sometimes forever. With stories of the Holocaust evoking terror and anxiety among veteran residents, they learned that silence was the price for acceptance and integration into their new societies.

Even trained mental health professionals reported to have wished the survivor to forget so that they, too, could do so. Journalist Howard Reich refers to psychiatrist Milton E. Jacoby’s term “the curtain of silence” for the tendency on the part of his colleagues to evade hearing of the unbearable horrors experienced by their patients.

Reflecting on the early years after liberation, Elie Wiesel recalled, “We were mad with disbelief. People refused to listen, to understand and to share. There was a division between us and them, between those who endured and those who read about it or would refuse to read about it.”

With the 1960 English translation of Wiesel’s bestseller Night having taken more than a year to find an American publisher, Wiesel reckoned in a 1985 interview that the Holocaust was not something people wanted to know about in those days.

With most of us born and raised in the first two decades after liberation, the dearth of knowledge many of us possess regarding our parents’ wartime experiences should not be surprising. Having recently completed a massive research project whose results will be presented in my upcoming book, Tunnel of Hope: Escape from the Novogrudok Forced Labor Camp, I have proven that the Novogrudok Tunnel Escape was the most successful known prisoner escape of the Holocaust era.

Working with a genealogist, I tracked down members of the second generation to learn about the postwar lives of those who survived the escape. Most of the children did not know about the tunnel, nor of the partisan units their parents joined after the escape. The son of one survivor even told me that his weak and sickly father could never have participated in such a daring escape or survived in the partisans.

TO THIS day, even after sending him his father’s Red Cross file, this son continues to deny his father’s connection to the escape. After all, he asked, wouldn’t his father have told him about it?

As a result of my calls to the children of tunnel survivors and my having researched their families from genealogical and Holocaust-related websites beforehand, many learned for the first time the names of their grandparents, as well as the names of the displaced persons camps where their parents took refuge.

One admitted, “I knew my father was in a labor camp... but I didn’t know where. I knew he escaped but I didn’t know how.” One daughter of an escapee was first provided with the most basic biographical information about her own father, admitting that her parents’ past was an unspoken taboo subject and the few questions she did dare ask were met with the type of silence I’d described.

Yet another daughter who had never heard of Novogrudok or of the tunnel escape admitted that her father’s resistance to providing information about his past and his family history had long led her to suspect that she was adopted.

All the second-generation Holocaust survivors interviewed expressed their appreciation for making their parents’ stories known, not only to themselves but to the third generation and to the world. At the very least, my tribute to the tunnel survivors of this great prisoner escape of the Holocaust has helped them view their parents in a new light: that of brave, courageous individuals who daringly crawled to freedom, contributed to their new societies and most importantly, chose life.

Yet what about those among us who have not been contacted by a researcher and do not know their family story? How will they pass on a legacy they know nothing or little about? Even for those of us who do know the facts, how will we will able to relate them with appropriate effect?

My mother was a tunnel escapee. My father carried his silence to the grave. Beyond the names of his murdered parents and sister, I know little else about them. How can I be expected to tell their stories? How can we fulfill what we are told is our obligation to future generations, to the dead and to the world? How can we be expected to fulfill an impossible responsibility? This is our challenge. We will meet it as best we can.

The writer is a doctor of clinical social work, a logotherapist and a certified grief educator. She is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. Her upcoming book on the Novogrudok Tunnel escape will be published by Gefen Publishing House in the coming months.