Rosh Hashanah dinner. My friend — like me, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors — settles into the seat next to his grandfather. The two exchange pleasantries. Then my friend mentions that he’s recently taken his toddler on her first choo-choo ride.
“Trains,” says the grandfather. He splays his hands on the tablecloth, and sighs. “I remember when they put us on a train. This was during the transport from the ghetto to the first work camp.”
The story of the grandfather’s wartime suffering — tragic, inexorable, hypnotic in its familiarity — spins out as the Rosh Hashanah meal is brought to the table, served, and consumed.
“But that’s history,” the grandfather intones at last, as the plates are gathered. “Life is for the young.”
A college buddy of mine — Jewish, though not a descendant of survivors — once observed that his family dynamics follow the rules of a sport: Guilt Judo. The sport requires a range of moves: arm-twists, throws, the art of the pin. Grace and style matter, and it is, of course, imperative to master that most fundamental skill: learning to fall without injury.
“Oh. You’re home. No, it’s just that I thought you’d be home an hour ago. It’s OK, it’s just that the dinner got dry and ruined in the oven. And your uncle went home. He was upset not to see you, though he didn’t want to let on. So tell me, how was your drive?”
To play successfully, my friend maintained, you need to understand the rules. Family obligations pin the needs of single people. The needs of the elders pin the needs of the young (except when said young are infants). Safety pins punctuality.
Q: Why were you late?
A: I wanted to come earlier, but the roads were wet…. I just didn’t want to take the chance.
You get the idea.
The Holocaust pins everything.
Many Holocaust-survivor families — at least the ones I’ve encountered — have powerful vocabulary for everyday troubles. The missed phone call is terrible, as is the stained blouse. The over-seasoned soup? Disaster.
Disaster, in fact, lurks around the most innocent-looking corners. Mountains hang by a thread. I’ve known survivors who are impossibly controlling in day-to-day life — worried about the weather and the canned goods in the pantry; consumed with planning for traffic patterns; beside themselves because you haven’t made reservations, dressed for the cold, put a dust-ruffle on your child’s bed (“It’s hygienic!”). They seem nearly undone by humdrum disorder.
Yet in an emergency they shine. They turn into the heroes you always knew them to be. To varying degrees the same goes, I believe, for us children and grandchildren of survivors. Calm waters may disorient us, yes; small matters may evoke overblown responses. But when you’re raised to anticipate disaster, it’s no big deal when it comes. (The one time when, living in a group house in college, I actually had to say, “Mom, I have to get off the phone, the house is on fire,” my mother barely batted an eye.)
Here is what my mother says about her own mother: She would threaten to jump out the window when she was upset. She would open the door of a moving car and threaten to jump.
Though I didn’t have many years with my grandmother — she died when I was 5 — I adored her. She was a brilliant, artistic, beautiful, rebellious woman who’d lost her community and most of her family in the war. Her hard-won law degree (not a small achievement for a woman in 1930s Poland) was useless in post-war New York.
“She would say she was going to kill herself,” my mother says, “then lock herself in the bathroom for an hour.”
It was only in my 20s that I read Helen Epstein’s “Children of the Holocaust” — a book first published in 1979, with page after page detailing nearly identical behavior. Children standing anxiously outside bathroom doors. Parents enclosed in darkness.
My grandfather told me to have six children. (“They killed one-third of us. We need numbers.”) He said I wasn’t safe in the United States (“We thought we were safe in Poland.”) He counseled me endlessly to remember the stories of the Holocaust. If we grandchildren did not remember no one would. This truism was solemnly echoed in my Jewish school and summer camps. To remember, to remember actively, was to ensure that these things could not happen again. To forget was to let the survivors’ experiences wither away. To forget was to let Hitler’s victims die all over again.
There was never any danger, for children and grandchildren of survivors, of forgetting.
At every Holocaust-related lecture I have attended, there is one. She stands on line for the Q-&-A microphone — it’s usually a she. You can see her coming. Waiting behind distinguished professors, doctoral candidates and a few elderly Holocaust survivors who wearily, politely, offer small corrections of fact to a scattering of interested hums.
She waits on line. Pent up, straining forward, her hair white or perhaps heavily dyed. Something about her dress is often strange — the colors too bright or the blouse askew, the buttons of her sweater misaligned. When at last she reaches the microphone, she seizes upon something one of the speakers has said: the American graduate student’s stray assertion that most refugees traveled a certain route, or perhaps the French professor’s assessment that in the wake of Chirac’s historic speech and the creation of a commission to enact individual restitution, the French government’s rapprochement is, at long last, finished.
“No.” This woman’s hand chops the air. “My uncle traveled this route. My aunt was imprisoned. My cousin traveled a different route so this is not true what you say, that Jews traveled only the Vladivostok route. There was another.”
Often she holds documents, which she reads from in a quavering, accented voice: the aunt’s prison papers. Her voice strains with fury at the betrayal she has just heard.
“Here is the documentation. I brought the documentation. My family was in France. It is not finished.”
The sheaf of pages rattles. Her voice is thick with rage.
This is an academic setting. It is not a place for fury. Of course her specific case may be true, but this is irrelevant to larger historic questions. Speakers are lined up behind her, eyes averted, faces impassive; the session is running late; every extra minute is coming out of the lunch break. Someone rises — everyone has been waiting for someone to rise — and takes the microphone from her: “Thank you. Others are waiting. Your contribution is appreciated.”
I come to think of this woman — this survivor who refuses to be polite — as a Jewish prophet, a wrathful Job or omnipresent, ever-witnessing Elijah. Long after the last of the survivors has died, she will continue to appear at lectures: throwing a wrench into academic discussion, rattling her sheaf of papers, raging with the choking grievances of Lamentations.
I am wrong about this. She will not visit these gatherings eternally. In a few years she’ll be dead.
In college and after, I was periodically asked to speak at Holocaust-commemoration events — I’ve been entrusted with stories. I’ve researched and written fiction and nonfiction about the Holocaust and its aftermath. I’ve felt, all my life, fiercely protective of survivors. And now, as I watch them enter old age, many with a prodigious, stunned contentment at having made it there at all, I understand it’s my job to keep the flame lit.
But does that mean suiting up for a lifetime match of guilt judo?
Perpetuating memory, passing on the stories of the survivors I love: I’ve been committed to these things as long as I can remember. The horrors that were done, and the pure human evil displayed by the doers, need to be known and pondered today and always. But I don’t think that gives me carte blanche to use the Holocaust in any way that happens to feel satisfying. And I don’t believe the point of never again is to render everyone reverent unto silence; to pin everyone else’s suffering to the mat until the end of time.
I refuse to be so intimidated by guilt that I don’t speak up against what I see as misuses of the victims’ memory. I’ve seen Holocaust-education programs that seemed so invested in emphasizing Jewish annihilation that they couldn’t tolerate acknowledging that some Eastern European Jews are still alive. (The March of the Living, an international program that brings teens to visit the Polish concentration camps, initially prohibited Polish Jewish teens from participating.) I’ve met students who can tell you all about Auschwitz but nothing about the pre-genocide lives of the Jews who were murdered there. I’ve been rebuked for my participation in German-Jewish dialogues (“I can’t believe you talk to them”) by a second-generation writer who told me he thinks a 5-year-old German is culpable; I’ve heard the same writer tell audiences, to applause, that Jews have no business living in Europe today. (Isn’t that what Hitler said?)
By birthright, I’m a natural-born black belt. I know the moves. But here is what I now wish I had asked my college friend: What happens to the people who win at guilt judo? If we pin all comers, what then? What is the game’s endpoint?
Like it or not, we’re in this together: descendants of victims, of bystanders, of perpetrators, locked in our holds, straining. Guilt judo isn’t going away any time soon, because the sport was invented for a reason. It’s a wearying but sometimes necessary way of making sure unredressable wrongs are at least acknowledged–making sure you get heard. We all know how to play it, whether recreationally or in self-defense, in our families or in politics.
Of course, this endless contest is not limited to those affected by the Holocaust. Look around and you’ll notice that most of the globe — at least wherever the philosophy of might makes right has evolved into blessed is the lamb–is engrossed in its own intergroup matches. Black vs. Jews (how dare they compare slavery to the Holocaust); Native Americans vs. African Americans (slaughter to slavery); Palestinians vs. Jews (their suffering to ours?).; Catholic vs. Protestant vs. Jew vs. Muslim vs. Hindu. The Hatfields have suffered — but the McCoys have suffered more. You say your population was decimated? Decimated is one-tenth of your population wiped out. Decimated would have been an improvement, compared to what happened to us.
But exactly what — in our homes, in our political conferences — is the point of the game? What is the point of determining who hurts more; whether my tears were more important than yours; whether the Holocaust was worse than slavery? Does it render the opponent’s suffering lesser, unmentionable? Does it guarantee sympathy? Love? Compensation? A better future? Does it work?
We all conduct ourselves as if we believe it does. And sometimes we’re right –sometimes guilt judo is an effective tool for important practical ends. But it’s also, if we’re not careful, poisonous: “You were only in Auschwitz for two weeks. I was there two years. What did you survive? You have no right to call yourself a survivor.”
The person who makes such a declaration is not malevolent; he or she has simply been destroyed in spirit.
May I say something, now, about guilt? I think it has a bad name. American culture presumes guilt is something manipulative, something to be washed away with a good jet of therapy. Guilt, though, is nothing more than a cue that we have a choice to make: Do something to repair the situation, or accept it and move on.
Guilt is a powerful, important road sign. The trick is to remember that it’s not the destination. In truth, it’s a fundamental error to believe that the word for the burden we all carry — we children and grandchildren and neighbors and acquaintances of survivors — is guilt.
I don’t feel guilty about the Holocaust. (I didn’t do it.) Nor do I feel guilty because my family survived. And now that I’m an adult, I no longer feel any guilt about the contrast between my own privileged life and the traumas my family endured. My grandparents wanted me to have a good, safe life; if tragedy should befall me, I know how fervently I’d wish my own children a joyous life. My family’s legacy neither devalues my own experiences, nor does it make me somehow holy. It just means I inherited a history, transmitted by people doing the best they could. So now I need to do the best I can.
What I feel is not guilt — it’s responsibility.
I don’t care who suffered the most. All I care is what we do about the Holocaust’s legacy now, for the generations behind and ahead of us. Getting mired in guilt (mine, yours, theirs) is a waste of all our time. There may be infinite ways to feel guilty about the Holocaust, but the “Your life is good and they died” varieties and the “How dare you compare other people’s suffering to ours” varieties are moral dead ends.
The only one worth sweating over is the one that asks, “What are you going to do about it?”
I have a responsibility to carry on my relatives’ stories; to speak out about anti-Semitism and racism when I encounter them; to do my small part to keep crosscultural dialogue going; to make sure victims’ individuality isn’t lost in thickets of tragedy; to respond actively when I see harm being done, and to avoid posturing and self-importance in the process. I have a responsibility, too, to make sure I enjoy life’s wonders to the fullest. I would be remiss if I neglected to laugh; to make the most of this country’s freedoms; to teach my toddler how to imitate a pterodactyl, talk to the moon and delight in a train ride.
Memory fades. Tomorrow’s children will never know survivors. The responsibilities I bear have no statute of limitations; I’ll always do my best to protect the survivors and their legacy. But that doesn’t change the fact that the history of the Holocaust will grow distant, even abstract. No amount of guilt judo can prevent this. And while strenuously broadcasting that the Holocaust was worse than any other human suffering may be justified, it can’t keep the survivors alive any more than it can undo what happened … and it is going to damage us.
If the memory of the Holocaust recedes, let it not be because I failed to do my part to keep it alive–I’m committed to that labor. But if the Holocaust comes, in some unknown number of generations, to occupy a smaller place on our cultural landscape, I don’t see this as cause for guilt. The point isn’t to pin everyone else ad infinitum, but to carry forward the important pieces of memory so that people see, and understand, and act differently in the world because this happened.
If we can accomplish that, then whenever it comes, the inevitable decrescendo of memory — which some will call abomination and others will call healing — will be, in truth, neither. It will simply be life. It won’t signal that we’ve failed — that we’ve let down the Holocaust’s survivors or, worse, its victims — but rather that we’ve simply, regretfully, tragically, hopefully, moved forward. And that has nothing to do with wrestling each other to the mat, and everything to do with standing up.
Excerpted from “Guilt Judo” by Rachel Kadish from “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson. (Dutton, $24). Copyright (c) 2005 by Rachel Kadish.
Rachel Kadish is the author of “From a Sealed Room,” as well as numerous short stories and essays. She has been a fiction fellow of the NEA and was the recipient of last year’s Koret Foundation Young Writer on Jewish Themes Award. Her new novel, “Love [sic],” will be published by Houghton Mifflin next year.