In honour of Remembrance Day, this week First Person looks at the memories and heartache of war.
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When my Holocaust survivor parents arrived in Canada in the late 1940s, the accepted thinking was that survivors would be harmed by talking about their experiences, and that Canadian-born Jews didn’t need to know the details about what had gone on “back there.” It was assumed that not talking would result in their traumas being forgotten. We now know better. Trauma unspoken is often trauma unresolved, trauma that may persist and deepen when there is no sympathetic acknowledgment and guided exploration. Although such insights were not prevalent at the time, my parents, Bluma and Anshel, were helped by friends and family who rejected the idea that silence is golden. In fact, I am struck, more and more, by the tremendous gift that my uncle Peter, who had emigrated from Poland in the 1920s, bestowed on my mother and our family.
When I was in my early 20s, I learned from my cousin Shirley (Uncle Peter’s daughter), that soon after Bluma arrived in Canada, her brother Peter insisted on hearing everything that she had endured. Shirley was a young teenager at the time but was deemed to be old enough to listen since Peter overruled his wife’s objections that the stories would be too much for her to bear. Peter’s insistence on his family hearing, and really listening to what my mother had to say about what she had experienced in the Lodz Ghetto (between January, 1940, and August, 1944), in Auschwitz-Birkenau (August, 1944), in Bergen-Belsen (September, 1944), and in Salzwedel (October, 1944 to April, 1945), left an enduring legacy.
For as long as they lived, those encounters forged a close and loving relationship among the families. They also, I suspect, gave my mother, standing tall at 4 foot 8, the confidence to speak about her experiences: to close family and friends but also to more casual acquaintances. As I recall, within the first hour of meeting someone new, my mother would inform them that she was a Jewish Holocaust survivor. How people responded to this knowledge – whether they sought to know more or quickly shifted the conversation to other matters – was not my mother’s main concern. Informing them that she had been there and had prevailed to build a new life, were the key messages she wanted, and needed, to convey. Peter gave her licence to do so.
Although my father’s experiences during the war were very different than my mother’s – he had escaped from the Lodz Ghetto early on and spent the war in Russia, serving an army unit with his barbering skills – he, too, shared stories when friends and family spoke about those years, often recalling the material privations of not enough food and the desperate measures taken to find something to eat.
Growing up, I probably learned too much too soon – I remember nightmares as a young child about trying to defend my mother and younger sister Helene from Nazis who had invaded our home – and yet, I suspect that my parents' stories about the war gave me more than they took away. There were no “elephants in the room” about the extreme cruelty that they had endured. Rather, there were numerous, continuing conversations that took place within my hearing but not especially directed at me. Sometimes their friends would make a point of sharing certain specific memories, such as my mother’s generosity in dividing up the extra provisions she secretly received from a German prisoner of war.
In the mid-1960s, my parents travelled from Toronto to Ottawa to attend a commemoration ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. A clear memory for me is the excitement and joy with which they reported a transformative moment as a result of being there. They had reconnected with close friends with whom they’d lost touch at the war’s end. One couple, Henry and Ruth, had driven in from Montreal to attend the same ceremony – amid hundreds of participants, the two couples caught sight of one another and fell, laughing and crying, into one another’s arms.
A third set of friends – Fela and Abram – lived in Cleveland but also became part of a magical circle that involved back and forth visits between the three households, and conversations that circled in and out of their experiences before and during the war. Fela, in particular, was a larger-than-life personality for whom remembrance somehow could co-exist with humour as well as tears. Laughter, in fact, is one of my strongest memories of that period when all of them were healthy and in constant touch with one another. Aging bodies and significant illnesses, combined with the challenges of travelling between Toronto, Montreal and Cleveland, ultimately ended those gatherings, but the feelings of triumph about what they had survived and what they had achieved, was a lasting gift.
In later life, more friends provided further opportunities to process and remember and weep and heal, this time at a hotel in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., where they all stayed to get away from winter’s storms. Sisters Luba and Helen had experiences during the war that paralleled my mother’s, even insofar as having shared a plank of wood to sleep on in the same barracks. Together with my parents, they and their husbands carried on conversations that had the character of a continuing self-help session, according to my dad.
Thanks to Peter, Henry, Ruth, Fela, Abram, Luba, Helen and many others, my parents reaped countless benefits from the unofficial but continual “talk therapy" sessions. There was no guarantee that these encounters would be part of a healing process but this was the case, and I was the primary beneficiary.
Fran Klodawsky lives in Ottawa.