It is said that in every survivor’s family, one child is unconsciously chosen to be a “memorial candle,” to carry on the mourning and to dedicate his or her life to the memory of the Shoah. That child takes part in the parents’ emotional world, assumes the burden, and becomes the link between past and future. I realize now that my mother chose me to be that candle.
My mother was forever haunted by her loved one’s images. She saw them starved and frozen in the streets of the Warsaw ghetto. She saw them in the cattle cars that took them to the Treblinka death camp. She escaped Warsaw in order to save herself, only to be captured and enslaved by the brutal Stalinist regime. Surviving in the remote corners of Russia, extraordinary courage and the hope of reunion with her family, kept her alive. In 1946, almost a year after the war ended, she was allowed to leave Russia, forced to settle in southwestern Poland. Still hoping to be reunited with her lost siblings, she made her way to Warsaw – only to witness the city’s devastation and the annihilation of her family.
My mother never stopped mourning.
My mother never forgave herself for saving her own life and abandoning them to the horrible deaths that followed. She never stopped mourning.
My parents’ huge losses were more than I could fathom. In time I came to realize it is impossible to recover from such a tragedy. They carried on with their lives, but the Holocaust was being played out in their minds every day. Understanding this became crucial in my understanding of myself.
I grew up in Poland, in a home where my sister and I experienced my parents’ daily quirks. I sensed my mother’s abandonment and helplessness. I felt her fears and resignation. I lived with her rituals, where every crumb of bread was important, where fear of being cold was magnified, and where suspicion of others, and secretiveness and mistrust ruled everything she did. Her scars became my scars.
Growing up in these shadows made me a witness to what had happened. Sometimes I was sympathetic. Other times I was filled with contempt – angry and overwhelmed at being connected to my mother’s ongoing grief.
I tried to understand how my parents’ family could just be gone, completely gone. My mother visibly mourned her five nieces and nephews, repeating often, with emotion, “So young and innocent. They should be among the living. They were all taken away and murdered.” I grieved with her.
And yet, I could not truly comprehend how her family was gone. I had never seen any photographs, concrete images that my mother once had an extended family. I was frightened, confused and ashamed that I did not believe my mother. In my heart I was sad, but in my mind I believed that her family had never existed.
I was also envious of my mother’s incredible adventures. Overwhelmed by the tragedy, I found that I could feel safe by focusing on her Russian stories. I loved the glimpses of hope and excitement that my imagination turned into exotic tales. I pictured her living in a foreign place, riding camels under the hot desert sun. I never imagined her sick or hungry. From those early childhood stories I decided I wanted to be like her, to travel and visit unusual and faraway places where she was heroic and a pillar of strength.
I also did not understand my mother’s fearful and anxious behavior. I remember her being especially tense during Christian and Jewish holidays. She seemed to want to make us invisible. This was a time to stay indoors, to be mistrustful, afraid of a possible mob mentality. The baffling, unexplained, anxious behavior only intensified the fear in my child’s imagination.
This was a time to stay indoors, to be mistrustful, afraid of a possible mob mentality.
In Poland, where I grew up, people had a deeply rooted belief that Jews were responsible for killing Christ. Christmas and Easter were times of great fear for Jews. The Jewish holiday of Passover was a time of anxiety, too. The widespread rumor was that matzah was made with the blood of Christian children. It was not until I got to the United States and was in college that I learned that Jesus was a Jew who was crucified by the Romans. To this day I do not have any emotional attachment to holidays, but now at least I understand how this disconnection came about.
Begging for Mercy
My very first memory is the sensation of fear. The Holocaust left in its path a darkness and despair that enveloped the consciousness of both survivors and their children. I am convinced that the fear my mother experienced was passed on to me through the sinewy strands of chemical inheritance known as genes. I was born being afraid.
As a child I had an abnormal fear of people. When people came to our home I hid under the large kitchen table covered with a linen cloth that reached to the floor. I refused to come out until the guests departed.
When I was five years old, our town held army maneuvers in the city square right in front of our house. Although I understood they were just exercises for showing off the Polish army, I was traumatized. Was my over-sensitivity that day to the sharp sounds of gunfire and tanks rolling through the streets related to my mother surviving the bombing of Warsaw?
At age six, my mother took me to an art exhibit that had come to our town. The exhibit was a tribute to mothers and children who suffered during the war. The art showed SS soldiers ripping children from mothers’ arms and killing them. Mothers being killed. Mothers begging for mercy. My mother cried bitterly as we walked through the exhibit. I was overwhelmed both by her tears and because the art was frightening. When I think back to that day, I realize my mother probably thought I was too young to understand. Yet her tears were enough for me to absorb the horror of what was depicted.
The next morning I woke up hallucinating. SS soldiers were standing on each side of my bed. I was not allowed to move. If I did, they had orders to shoot me. I remained motionless, afraid to breathe until my mother came looking for me. I never burdened her with my terrifying waking dream, because I remembered how she cried that day.
“You are Jewish. Poland is not your country. Palestine is where you belong.”
At age seven I learned that being Jewish meant that I was different from my Polish friends. My first day of school began happily enough, but as I approached the school I was confronted by some classmates who proceeded to taunt me. “You are Jewish. Poland is not your country. Palestine is where you belong.” I didn’t understand. This was the first time I’d heard that my home was in Palestine. It also was the first time I realized that being Jewish and Polish could not coexist. The day that began so happily dragged on. I could not wait to run home.
I was crying as I opened our kitchen door. My mother sat with me by the kitchen window and explained what it meant to be Jewish. I remember the sadness in her voice and the tears in her eyes. But I kept thinking how our true homeland was in Palestine. My response was a simple one: “Let’s go where we belong.”
We would often go to the train station to say goodbye to friends leaving for Israel or America. Why not us? I was angry with my parents for their choice to stay behind. Only as an adult did I discover my parents’ secret why we did not leave Poland. My father had contracted tuberculosis in Saratov in 1940 and we were denied entry to other countries because of his illness. Even Israel would not accept him because of the advanced stage of tuberculosis. We could not leave until he died at age 49. My parents concealed the seriousness of his health. Only my sister, four years older than me, finally figured out the reason. I never did. I mostly saw them as weak, indecisive and helpless.
My father, Abram Ejbuszyc, was silent about his past. He never uttered a word about what happened to him during the war or even about his life before the war. I cannot help but wonder if this was a form of self-imposed punishment. My father detached himself and didn’t talk, as if afraid to make a close connection and lose loved ones again. He sought to contain his trauma within himself and spare his children. He lived behind a wall of silence. That was his shelter. He took his burden to the grave.
In New York, we each went in different directions, and the family that we had been in Poland disintegrated. Our lives became turbulent as our notions of how things should be collided. My mother worked in a factory. She got up at six in the morning and took the one-hour subway ride from the Bronx to Manhattan. With an address scribbled on a piece of paper, she managed to ask for directions and got to work and back home again. She was a fighter and a survivor. She was not going to succumb to her fears. She was determined to make the best life possible for herself. And so, at age 50, after working in a factory all day long, she enrolled in night school and soon became fluent in English. I watched her navigate through her new life, never giving up. She did not burden us with her fears and problems; those she buried deep inside. Two years later she was working in a bank.
I had to return to Poland. I was looking for something, a piece of me I had left behind.
I took classes at City College in the department of Jewish studies. One of my professors was the author and survivor Elie Wiesel. In those classes I realized the importance of my mother’s story. I persuaded her to write about her tragic life. My mother listened. She understood the importance of history and of remembering, not just with regard to the Holocaust but also for the Jewish legacy in Eastern Europe. She wrote her story in Polish. Yet I did not share those writings with her. Somehow we never had the time to journey and emerge together from her trauma as adults.
After I became an American citizen, I went back to Poland in 1972. I was still haunted by the memories of our departure from Poland when my mother was inconsolable. I had to return. I was looking for something, a piece of me I had left behind. I had a nostalgia for my homeland, and the belief that my father was calling me back to the tiny, overgrown Jewish cemetery where he was buried. The ghosts of my past were clamoring for some attention.
I traveled through Europe and Israel. I lived in the desert, under the hot sun, in a tent. By 1979 I moved to the West Coast, far away from my mother in New York. I saw her a few times a year and we talked on the phone every week. I often remembered how, as a child, all I ever wanted was to follow in my mother’s footsteps. I wanted to go to exotic and far away places. I turned her stories about surviving in Russia into heroic journeys. Traveling made me feel courageous like my mother. She passed down to me her pessimism about life, suspicion of others, and assumptions about everything turning out for the worst.
Traveling, however, put me in touch with my mother’s strengths. It temporarily wiped out the negative themes that played on in my mind. While on the road, surrounded by unusual, new places, I was happy and at home. At the same time I had an overwhelming fear of putting down roots. I did not want to have them severed as my mother had.
“We must bear witness,” Elie Wiesel said.
The trauma of loss, the disconnection from community, and my frightened family all influenced how I chose to live my life. Like other children of survivors, I developed a self-preservation defense. I built a wall around myself to protect me from my traumatic childhood. I was torn between letting go and staying connected. At times my mother’s gloom was too intense, but I continually found myself being pulled back into her world anyhow. My conscience would not allow anything else.
On the day of my mother’s death in 2006 I found a box containing the pages of her diary, covering 30 years of her life. In a thin, shaky handwriting she recalled heart-searing memories that began in Warsaw in 1917 and ended with WWII, her return to Poland after surviving throughout remote corners of Soviet Russia. When my mother died, I first contacted Elie Wiesel. He encouraged me to start translating the memoir and not be afraid of the journey ahead. We need to rescue stories like this from obscurity and share them with future generations. “We must bear witness,” he said. “Silence is not an option.”
I was now ready to confront the ghosts of my childhood. And ultimately I came to understand how growing up with the trauma of Holocaust was transmitted from my parents to me, their “memorial candle.”
The author’s book has been recently published. Visit her site at http://memoryisourhome.com/.