How did you survive? Corresponding With the Past

How did you survive?
At the age of 25, I found myself facing my own mother, daring to ask this question. Apparently, a simple one. Four words only. But a question unthinkable before. This was in the early 1980s.
We were sitting in the kitchen, a place so familiar to me. I was already a young mother myself, but only at this point in my life I found the courage to confront the dark shadow of my childhood. I was opening the door to the past, trembling, almost paralyzed, scared not for myself but mostly for my mother. How would she react?

The reason for that question was a book I had begun writing, titled "A Hat of Glass". To my amazement, better to say my surprise, I discovered that all my characters were children of Holocaust survivors - Second Generation. The term didn't even exist back then. But I always thought that "first" is my second name. A proud Israeli, a Sabra, bearing my intact identity like a flag.
The revelation that my characters corresponded with the past was a turning point for me. Mama, how did you survive? It was their question too. I was merely putting their voice on paper.

I am a typical child of the 1950s, driven by an ambition to achieve an Israeli identity and immediately become part of a future. We were brought up to break the old stereotype, being told again and again that we must build a totally new model that had no connections to the Jews of the Diaspora. We had to reject the Jewish and European identities that have betrayed us. Israelis were to become a newly turned page in Jewish history. My generation had a particular set of hopes and dreams pinned upon it as a result of the Holocaust. Our parents' hopes, sometimes unrealistic ones, were laid on our shoulders. We were supposed to compensate for the horrors of the past. So the past was pushed aside, hiding secretly behind closed doors, waiting for the right moment to claim its rightful place.

A textbook for first graders, published in 1957, follows the cycle of ISRAELIANA in the making. On page 110 Pessach (The Jewish Passover) ends. Page 111 celebrates Israel's Independence Day.
Although at that time the law of "Yad Vashem" already existed, as was the official Holocaust Memorial day, which in years to come will follow Pessach, The Holocaust is mentioned in the book only as an echo, implied by the opening lines of the chapter for Israel's Independence Day, declaring proudly: "Israel is our land, the land of our forefathers, homeland to every Jew in the world."

We grew up under a secret treaty of mutual silence "You won't ask and I won't tell". Home was fortified against direct memories or their echoes that were restored in the public ritual. It was our parents' decision that we should grow up with healthy spirits, immune. The past was a constant threat. It could pull us back and endanger our ability to fulfill the Israeli mission. We were the new warriors, strong, aggressive, aglow with youth, promising ourselves and the world: "This will never happen again".
As a result of the general atmosphere, our parents amputated their past. Although the Israeli system made sure we had all the historical knowledge, we became emotional ignorants, confronting the Holocaust only through its public ritual and ceremonial dimensions. Never on a private intimate level. But even in its absence, mysteriously, the amputated past, like a missing limb, continued to send the ache through the nervous system. The loss and the torment penetrated, without anyone ever verbalizing them.

Somehow I always knew that my mother survived Auschwitz. It was a code word for all the terrors possible, the "Open Sesame" of death that had touched her once. A black hole constantly indicating a danger zone. Not only did I learn not to use the term - so terrifying - but I felt it was my duty to distance my parents from the memories, to provide a protecting shield. In fact we reversed the natural pattern in the family, acting as fathers and mothers to our own parents.

Our break from the Jewish identity was traumatic. It was not a natural stage in the development of a people, one of many luxuries we could not afford. Normans and Saxons had become British through long years on one island, but our transformation from "Jews" to "Israelis" was harsh, painful, and costly. It was as though we put on a uniform cut to our size, lest we resemble those poor wretcheds sent to the gas chambers like "sheep to the slaughter", the stigma attached to them through no fault of their own, a slogan grounded in the teeth of politicians, worn out with such cheapness.

The worst tragedy visited upon the Jewish people was the crushing of the family unit, of the natural continuum to which every person in the world is entitled: mother, father, child, grandchild, and great grandchild. The chain of generations was cruelly crumbled. How will we know where to put ourselves if those who came before us are lost? We who bear the names of the dead.
Nava. I'm named after my great grandmother Sheindelle who died in Muraffa, one of the notorious Ghettos of Transnistria. Such a Yiddish name was unacceptable in Israeli society those days. Every name was quickly Hebraized.

Eitan Lieberman, one of my characters, says:
"The child of survivors cannot grow up under the aegis of heroism, like the child whose father fell in battle or risked his life for the land. Under the dome of humiliation I grew up, a frightened weed. I tormented myself for the shame of wretched father and mother. You cannot understand that I was born to a man and woman who, at a certain time in their lives, stopped being human creatures. We are the children of creatures trapped in disgrace."

I was not the only one to discover the shadow of the Holocaust. A number of artists - and not only in Israel - dealt with their parents' past and it became their central theme.
It took my generation more than three decades to reconcile ourselves with our ancestors' identity. To stop seeing it as a negative image. The 1980s marked the time of grave change in the concept of Heroism - "Gvurah" - from the Hebrew word "Gever"- Man. (Please note that the official Memorial Day is called in Israel "Holocaust and Heroism Memorial Day".) This change involves the Lebanon War, a controversial war, the only one, which was inconsistent with the concept of "Israel Defense Forces". At last, we became mature enough to face a different self-image, a more fragile, vulnerable one, and to ask ourselves, perhaps for the first time, what would we have done in our parents' shoes?

Mama, how did you survive?
Posing this question marked the transition from a ceremonial Holocaust to a private Holocaust. The survivor wasn't a character in a black and white film, in a history book, a slogan in school. The survivor was very close, right in the kitchen where I grew up, next to the pan with the meatballs and mashed potatoes. The tattooed arm belonged to my own flesh and blood.

In its ancient meaning, the art of story telling is also the art of healing, when the story succeeds in pulling something from the deep hinterland. Through my story telling I embraced my mother's personal account of pain and loss. In our dialogue I was conscious of the virtues of healing, yet I was also well aware of the fact that a complete repair - Tikkun in Hebrew - isn't possible. In English this word means also ‘mending', or ‘healing'. In Hebrew it means much more.

For me writing is a way of coping with fear. According to both survivors and their children life takes place on a thin sheet of ice. Suddenly, with no advance warning, just when everything seems safe and calm, you are liable to trip and sink without a trace. Israel - the only country possible for my parents was never a safe place. The area around them refused to take them to its bosom, seeing them as stepchildren, not part of the tribe. It is my generation's task to break the deceptive mirror of fearlessness, to overcome the fear that we might resemble our fragile ancestors.

Writing is a desperate attempt to define a territory in an uncertain world. I see myself as a caveman who, in absolute darkness, drew out the lines of terrifying bisons and mammoths. Blindly I trace the borders of my fear, perhaps in a naive hope to control it.

There is indeed a cycle in the Israeli awareness regarding the Holocaust - from silence into varying degrees of openness. This curve goes up and down, as Israel continues to live under threat, unable to find real peace, and as long as our thirst to normalize ourselves dominates. Israel is engulfed in its present, which grips her against her will. Israel mistrusts the future, and therefore she is scared of her own past, for it might pull her backwards.
In this era of hedonism, post-Zionism, the illusion that we can be as any other people in the world, is more compelling than ever. The Holocaust is pushed once again into a ritual corner. You're entitled to speak about it on the month of May- the memorial month, but try to discuss it in December. Few would listen.

A year ago I went on a mission to Transnistria, the death land of the Jews of Romania - now part of the Ukraine. I joined my father and the Israeli Television crew, in making a documentary about the forgotten cemeteries. Transnistria is indeed a forgotten chapter of the Holocaust, rarely mentioned, almost hidden. Following our return I published an article in the Israeli press - for me it became an important revelation regarding the present situation of Holocaust awareness. I was bombarded with letters from survivors who wanted their story to be heard. The realization that so many untold stories are still out there, yearning for someone to pick them up before they sink into oblivion, moved me so much. Holocaust presence is an undercurrent. Sometimes it surfaces, triggered by current political events such as the recent results of the elections in Austria. Too often it is a phantom that we choose to suppress, so it won't haunt us on a daily basis.

In their yearn to reach normality, the younger generation of authors in Israel tend to focus on the present. They limit themselves to the "here" and "now" of Israel, demanding that we become universal, untainted by localism. Their characters' ambitions resemble any other young person in modern places on the globe- from Bombay to New York.
We often hear contemporary writers voice their wish that literature free itself from both the Holocaust and the Arab Israeli conflict.
But in my eyes, these are the two deep scars that mark the Israeli psyche. There are no shortcuts into the future. Imagine me sitting in a coffee shop in Tel Aviv. The buzz. An image of pleasure. Across the table sits an Israeli film director. A man in his 60s, the embodiment of success. But whenever the door opens, he raises his eyes and I detect a strange expectation, deep down his pupils. In a nonchalant way, he tells me that he was a hidden child. When his mother left him in the hands of good Christians, she had made a promise: "One day I will come back for you". And this grown man is still waiting...

Listening to him I realized that the past will catch us no matter what.
In Transnistria I discovered how it is transformed into dark folk tales. It hovers over the peasants in places where once the Jews lived and died. They whisper: "Down by the river there's a mass grave. We know, because the earth is still shaking in the darkest nights."
This is one of the ways for memory to preserve itself.

Memory as an entity in its own right intrigues me. Memory which is growing and shrinking at the same time. On one hand, people make a tremendous effort to remember, if not for their own sakes, than for the sake of their descendants. On the other hand, they subconsciously wish to erase the memory entirely, or at least be able to censure it.
How does the soul protect itself against the most horrible experiences?
In the story I'm currently writing, an old woman is finally persuaded by her granddaughter to reveal her past as a hidden child. But how can she recall her life as a five-year-old, in total darkness, locked in a cellar, infested by rats, being raped night after night by her keeper?
The dialogue between the two becomes an emotional torture.
"The entire story should be fully recorded, the old woman hears a voice inside her, echoing the public demand, for this is the last moment. The owners of such tales are numbered. But she and her kind will never be able to act as the perfect storyteller. The little that comes out of their mouths is only the shell of the story. We shall have to settle for that."

People still ask in open amazement: About the Holocaust? Usually they lower their voices, Couldn't you pick a happier subject?
I still find myself in an apologetic position, or at least obliged to explain. Although voyages to the death camps in Poland are a common social phenomenon nowadays, writing about the past is still considered somewhat old fashioned in Israel.
I do not do it out of nostalgia, but from a deep need to seek those primeval components under our Israeli shield, that are still in operation today. First, we had to trace them down, than acknowledge their existence. Writing about the scar of the Holocaust is my rebellion against the rigid model of the "Neo Israeli", supposedly untainted by the past. Sabras like me are slowly departing from the fear of the "non-Israeli" reflection they see in the mirror, coming gradually to terms with that inner drum which echoed in the Israeli psyche all those years, while we refused to really listen.
In Transnistria I had to communicate with the survivors in Yiddish. The embarrassing language of my childhood was the only language possible. At first it felt awkward. Slowly my Israeli shield cracked. Strangely, it felt familiar.
We are the no-man's-land generation, neither here nor there. This is how I felt before I went to Transnistria. Following my journey I changed my mind: we are both here and there.

Will our future generations choose to deal with the Holocaust out of their own independent choice? I don't know the answer. I can only hope.
I continue to excavate my childhood and my characters attempt to unravel the unfathomable families and social ties. How is our present life affected by whatever happened before we were born? Is it possible to open up to each other after such tragedies? And most of all, where does the real power of survival come from?

This is an ongoing dialogue. With my parents, with other survivors, mainly with myself, knowing full well that time is running out. It is our last chance to hear about the private Holocaust as a first-hand testimony.
I'm no longer threatened by some "Old Diasporic Jew" surfacing to undermine my identity. My Israeliness is solid enough. As a writer, my challenge is to accept the disturbing, less presentable components of my identity - the scared, the vulnerable, the stubborn and entrenched self.
Only now it is clear what a high price we have paid for becoming instant Israelis. Many of the Jewish traditions were swept away, along with the original worldview and the delicate threads that wove a rich Jewish fabric throughout the long years of exile. One of my tasks as a writer is to try and restore some of the treasures before it's too late.

This sinister century is nearly over. The millennium is at our doorstep.
The issue of remembrance transcends the survivors' domain and the State of Israel. The imperative form of the verb "remember" appears in the Bible 172 times. Remembrance in Judaism is a religious Mitzvah.
It is now the quest of every Israeli, every Jew, every human being. How shall we lead memory into the future?

More than fifty years after the Holocaust we witness with amazement the fragile reconstruction of the Jewish family. We are the generation with no grandfathers and grandmothers, but our mothers and fathers are now grandparents themselves. Each year three generations sit down to the Passover Seder in my home. At last the living has outnumbered the dead. I look across the table at my parents, who began a family from less than nothing. This is their triumph, much more than mine. It is a TIKKUN.

image001_368Five minutes away from my house there's a park. I often take my nine -year old twins to the playground that bears the name "Zelina's Park". Three years ago, when my children began to read, they discovered that their lovely playground was named after a girl their age, who perished in the Holocaust. Zelina's parents survived and they had built the garden in her memory.

The past is at close range. Right under our noses, entwined with the present. We often indulge with the illusion that finally we reached the peak of ultimate normality. The more we try to escape from the past, in its cunning ways it will always force us to acknowledge its validity.
Corresponding with the past is in fact communicating with the very present. Like a determined detective I trace the undercurrent everywhere. One only has to scratch the thin layer of mundane reality to reveal the scar. Five decades later it's still bleeding.

When asked by my publisher to add a new story to the new edition of "Hat of Glass", I dedicated it to Zelina's Park - the childish haven next door.
When the story was broadcast on Israeli radio, the phone rang in my house. I heard a woman's voice crying. "I'm Zelina's aunt", she said. "Thank you for bringing my dead niece back to life. She'll be forever engraved in your words".

Mama, how did you survive? Replacing the ‘how' with a ‘why' - "Why did you survive?" this is the question that will haunt the survivors for the rest of their lives.
In the closing lines of "Zelina's Park" I wrote:

These are my last children. I will be buried beside her. Parents and children in a geometric progression. One day the children of my children's children will come, point to the graves and say: Here is grandmother, here is mother. That is the right order. A world made of the colored sticks, with which they learn arithmetic in school.
But one and one is not always two. Nineteen Thirty Eight till Nineteen Forty Four. Zelina is my children's age. Her park, Nineteen Ninety Seven. It isn't fun when they kill you just like that when you're a kid, my children say. A park is not enough, they say. We would have done more things. A candy store in her name, for example.
My neighborhood. Tel Aviv. The Holocaust in a playground, on my corner. We shall be buried together, mother. That is the only way to heal. This is Tikkun.

Published in: Studia Judaica (no 9) Cluj University, Romania 2000


Nava Semel and her children in Zelina's Park, Ramat Gan Israel 1997
Photograph by: Shirley Barenholz

Shirley Barenholz, a Dutch-Israeli photojournalist, was born and raised in Holland. She studied journalism at the Academy of Journalism in Holland and studies photography while assisting Magnum-photographer Burt Glinn and attending workshops at the International Center of Photography, New York.
Based in Amsterdam as a freelancer, she directs reportages for Dutch Jewish Broadcaster ‘Joodse Omroep' and works on different photography projects around the world.
Her photos have been published in several international magazines and books and in 1998 she published her first photo-book Children of Hope and had a selection of these photographs exhibited in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.
In 2006: "Frighten(ed)" at Ifa-gallery in Berlin, Germany multi-media installation combined with work of other Israeli artists in including Nava Semel.
In 2007 Shirley completed her first documentary-film "open Eye - open I" together with Shvil-Track Filmmaking/Israel for the Dutch Jewish Broadcaster, in co-production with the ZDF in Germany. This documentary has been screened in Holland, Germany, Toronto/Canada and Israel.

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