I sometimes feel as if I don’t have any rights to the Holocaust narrative; that it was my grandparents’ or even my parents’ story. I sometimes feel that even those who don’t have a family connection to the Holocaust have more of a right to the story than I do. The reason being that, in the strangest way, I am a beneficiary of the Holocaust.
Had my grandparents not been ruthlessly transported from the town that their family had lived in for hundreds of years at the base of the Carpathian Mountains, to the place that is beyond any nightmare we can ever comprehend — Auschwitz and Siberia and Mauthausen — I would not be here today.
Had the events of the 20th century not transpired — my mother’s family being economic refugees from Israel, and my father’s parents refugees from war-torn Europe — neither family would have made their way to America in 1959. My parents would not have met and the experiences, sounds, and flavors of my childhood — my very being — would have been different. And I don’t know if I want to be anyone else.
So when studying and even teaching the Holocaust, when guiding trips to Poland, I always feel somehow distant from the events not just by time, but by placing myself outside them. Because without them who would I be?
We can probably pinpoint the day my grandmother Eta Kaim arrived in Birkenau, as there is extraordinary photographic evidence of the people of my grandparent’s town, arriving, stepping down from the cattle cars, being separated by those who would live and those who would die. There are pictures of children and women and old men waiting to be sent to the gas chambers, young women with their heads shaven standing in humiliating row after humiliating row. I dare not look too closely.
It is not a fear that I would recognize my grandmother in the pictures. It is a fear of placing her inside a cattle car. Of placing her in a line. Of her standing in front of a Nazi doctor who sent her parents to their deaths but saved her for a slower death. Of her having her arm tattooed like cattle. Of her sleeping or not sleeping on a wooden bunk amongst hundreds of women. Of her attending to her bodily needs with others watching. Of her being ill and uncared for. Of her being a slave. Of her, so young and strong, made so old and weak. If I were to allow my mind a moment to place her in these situations, if I allowed my mind to picture her standing to attention amongst those other women, head shaved and bowed, trembling with fear and cold, I don’t know what would become of me or whether I could make it to the other side of that vast divide. Because I don’t know how she made it to the other side of that hell. I don’t know if she ever left that place.
What I do know is that there is so much pain surrounding her, and in my own way I have tried to make it better. I have tried for years to find those recipes that are traditional to the Jews of the Carpathian Mountains. I don’t know that I have succeeded, as I don’t really tell others of my quest. Yet occasionally I will cook something and my father will say “That is just like my mother used to make,” and the gratification in that moment is insurmountable.
My search continues, for her place and my place in this story. I have drawn myself a map by searching for the recipes: If I could recreate the recipes from before, perhaps I can grasp the woman that my grandmother was before the Holocaust. A woman whom I never met: not the one before the Holocaust and not the one after.
My grandmother, Eta Spitz née Kaim, died just ten days before I was born at the age of 56 from illnesses she had contracted in Auschwitz that made the remainder of her life challenging in so many respects. I carry her name but know so little about her and, in an effort to find out who she was, I search through her history and mine for memories.
The history of the Holocaust is huge and the collective pain is enormous, and the story of one person – not a hero, not a warrior, but nevertheless a survivor – may be too small to search out. And yet, in my small way, I don’t know who I would be — who my family would be — had my grandmother not been to hell and survived.
Do I have even a small part in the narrative of the Holocaust? Of course I do, as does all of Humanity. We live in the post-Holocaust era, and I’m not the only one who is who I am because of the Holocaust: We all are. Not one of us has escaped the effects of the Shoah in one way or another, nor should we. The Shoah has changed the world and all of us along with it. We can’t extract ourselves from the narrative, as we cannot extract ourselves from the world. We are all products of the Shoah. So what will we do with it?
Will we just remember? Or will we engage? Will we be active participants in healing the world? Or will we be bystanders? The power for good is immense, stronger than the power for evil and every choice we make will pay dividends in a future that is still waiting to unfold. For me, I will go back to my kitchen and keep on trying to recreate my grandmother’s dishes, because through them I can speak not just of her pain, but of her generosity of standing over a hot stove and cooking a family meal every day despite illness and loss; of her capacity to give, even after so much had been taken away.
Now that is a lesson I can teach and a narrative that I can be a part of.