[note: this post is 2-3 times longer than usual]
“Oy, es iz shver tsu zayn a Yid!” — Oy, it’s hard to be a Jew
The world changed in large and subtle ways in early November. The day before the U.S. election I received a short e-mail from a distant cousin in Munich. She told me that her mother, a Holocaust survivor, had just died. She had turned 92 in April.
I first met Yolan Roth in 1995, when I was 28 and she was 71. That year we honored my father’s 50th anniversary of liberation from the Nazis with an intimate, weekend long gathering at his house. Mrs. Roth, a dentist and a longtime widow, flew by herself from Germany. Another couple I’d met several times before, of which the husband had also been a distant relative, drove from Montreal and stayed in one of the spare bedrooms. I don’t recall who else, aside from immediate family, attended. I believe that, for the special occasion, my father made some of his favorite Hungarian recipes, including palacsinta, thin crepes filled with sweetened cheese. The strangest part of the unusual event was getting to know a relative whose existence had not been mentioned until a few weeks prior. I wondered why my father had decided to invite Mrs. Roth after so many years of keeping her a secret.
Very much the Central European matron with her shock of white hair, tailored suit, sturdy hosiery and pumps, Mrs. Roth brought an air of formality to the gathering of eclectic if not eccentric souls. Her very being commanded respect and attention. At one point, she sat to the right of my father at his round wood table, and I to his left. As she drank coffee she spoke in Hungarian, the only language she and I shared, about the Holocaust. She spoke with a startling immediacy, as if she’d been transported to Auschwitz in the recent, not the distant, past. Her manner of sharing left no room for questions, expressions of empathy or other interjections. She needed to expel the memories, still as fresh and plentiful as the corpses she most likely saw decades before.
“See,” my father said, leaning towards me with a twinkle in his eye and a chuckle, “did you really want me to talk about it?”
Actually, I had. Just not the way she did. Not with so much intensity that I would become numb, unable to take it in. Wasn’t there a middle way, some means of sharing what happened, some method of titrating the information so it could be slowly and coherently unburdened by the speaker and received by the listener, creating some kind of order around the chaotic experience? At the time, I didn’t have the ability to articulate this desire. Such had been the implicit taboo against speaking about my father’s experience in the Holocaust, a taboo so large it had become lodged in my throat like an enormous uncoated pill, keeping me from fully expressing myself. I just glanced at my father and put another forkful of his delicious food into my mouth. The sweet soft cheese of the crepes slid down my throat and landed softly in my belly, soothing me, as it had many times before, from nearly unrelenting unease. As I chewed, I wondered if maybe he had decided that, because five decades had passed since the war had ended, and his children were grown, the time had come to introduce her to us. Maybe he wanted us to meet her before it was too late. Perhaps he had felt guilty for his decision to not introduce her to us sooner.
I met Yolan a second time when she and her daughter came to my younger brother’s wedding in 2001. Several of my father’s Holocaust-era friends attended, and his only cousin flew in from Israel. Since I did not bring a date to the event, I assumed my habitual role as documentarian and snapped pictures of my father with his buddies and far flung family, one of the few times they were together. I didn’t interact much with anyone at length, including Yolan, one-on-one.
My father’s unexpected passing in May 2003 put me in contact with her again when I shared the news of his death. She either told or wrote me that my father had planned to travel to Europe that summer to spend time with her. Perhaps I could visit her in his stead? Although I’d been to Germany twice before, both times to see an American friend who had moved there, I didn’t relish the idea of going again. There were so many other places I had not traveled to, why return to a country whose Nazi past still spooked me and whose language I not only couldn’t speak but also couldn’t stand? The Bavarian food landscape, dominated by pork and beer, neither of which I consumed, didn’t offer a glimmer of temptation or, if the visit itself didn’t go well, the possibility of culinary distraction if not outright redemption.
By the time the shock of my father’s death had subsided enough to make such a trip, in 2004, she had turned 80. I worried that, like my father, she could die at any moment or, barring that, her memory would fail. I feared that if I did not visit her soon, I might forever lose the opportunity to find out how she and my father were connected, adding yet another mystery to the countless other unasked and, therefore, unanswered questions I’d had about my father’s life before World War II. I hoped that she remembered something about my father’s family, especially the five women after whom I was named, since he’d barely spoken about them. I could no longer recall which name corresponded to which person; they’d turned into a jumble of syllables, a puzzle whose pieces lay scattered across my psyche. I imagined that getting the names straight and learning something about the people would complete the puzzle, bringing with it a greater sense of internal coherence and peace for me, plus a more detailed family tree to pass on to my nieces and nephews.
Given the limits of my rusty Hungarian, asking her about our shared ancestry was not a conversation we could easily have over the phone. Given her temperament, I expected she would have been offended had I tried to have such a personal conversation through trans-Atlantic cables. Still, I feared that she’d interpret even one visit as a commitment to future trips to a place I didn’t want to go. In the end, impelled by the tribal duty of “never forgetting”, which included preserving and cataloguing memory, the invisible scraps of a destroyed world, I booked flights for August, using frequent flier miles. I also planned to spend a few days visiting my American friend on the German-Swiss border and, finally, to stop in Paris as a reward.
The visit did not get off on the right foot and stumbled if not careened from there. I’d sent her my itinerary by mail and we’d confirmed it over the phone. She said she’d arrange for a driver to meet me at the Munich airport, a small luxury to ease the final leg of a transatlantic schlep. After my flight landed, I looked around the modern, glass walled terminal for someone carrying a sign with my name. Such a person did not materialize. Disoriented and exhausted from sleeplessness and jet lag, I called her from a payphone to find out what happened. She’d confused my flight number with the arrival time. There would be no driver. My heart sank and my aching head spun. Unwilling to spend $100 for a cab directly to her house, I took a regional train and then a taxi to her suburban neighborhood. By the time I made it to her doorstep, more than an hour later, my already fragile mood had shattered into fragments. At the time, I hadn’t started meditating. I lacked a spiritual tool kit to help me recover myself and wasn’t fully aware of how to best care for my high sensitivity. That I had recently stopped taking an antidepressant prescribed in the depths of my despondence over my father’s passing did not help, neither did the monthly wave of hormones crashing through me. It’s as if every brain cell, blood vessel and endocrine gland in my body screamed against being in her home, which I recall as dark and stuffy. The next day, while she took care of some appointments, I trudged around Munich under a drizzling sky. As I wandered, my guide book disappeared, doubling my disorientation. Aside from no longer having an easy reference for the transit stops, I didn’t particularly care about losing the book, another sign my heart hadn’t come along for this adventure. I wondered why I had ever thought that visiting her had been a good idea, even if spending time with the elderly was, as they say, a mitzvah.
That night she and I stayed up until 11pm, talking about the family. I hoped that she’d speak in a linear, intelligible manner, one that could be easily transcribed and recalled, so that I could leave with neatly written notes, mission accomplished. It hadn’t occurred to me that visiting a keeper of memory is like going to a restaurant where the chef decides not only what you’ll eat but, also, when and in what order. One can’t select only the choicest memories, or the most interesting, funny or relevant at the exact time one wishes to hear them. Indeed, the conversation rapidly derailed. She kvetched about one of my father’s two surviving aunts (“difficult!”, “unfriendly!”) who’d moved to Israel and, while I’d heard about her, had never met. That this woman had died many years before did not exempt her from rebuke. My father had not been fond of this aunt, one of his mother’s sisters, either. He’d repeatedly complained, his tone rising in anguished disbelief, about how after he made his way back to Hungary after the war she’d refused to lend him, a teenager orphaned by the Holocaust, a blanket. Decades and continents later, the wound remained open and sore, her moment of miserliness still paramount as if deserving of a spiritual booby prize in perpetuity. Given what I knew about the cast of characters who were my surviving relatives, I frequently wondered if not obsessed about the rest of my ancestral line: would I have found greater kinship and connection with the ones who perished than with the few who lived? I would never know. Yolan’s rants, what I now understand to be the palpable shards of unresolved trauma, left me wishing I had remained home.
The next day the sun emerged and we visited two art museums, the Neue Pinakothek and Pinakothek Moderne, and stayed for lunch. While waiting for our meals to arrive I admired her cheery pastel plaid jacket; I took the lens cap off my camera and offered to take her photo. After a bit of protest, she smiled genuinely and beautifully, a flash of joy bursting through the gloom like an early crocus in late winter. She took my photo, too. If Facebook had been around then, and all you saw were those images, you’d think we’d had a blast, even though it was more like being blasted from the past, a past I believed I wanted to know about, and believed I was supposed to know about yet, when push came to shove, couldn’t bring myself to ask and didn’t want to hear. This convoluted conflict gnawed at me, like termites in my psyche, for much of my life, including the days of my visit. Still, though the mood had shifted towards normalcy, she chastised me for visiting when her daughter had been out of town.
“Sokkal jobb lett volna….” she said, the soothing Hungarian syllables softening the impact of the scold. It would have been much better had I come another time, when her daughter could have showed me around, taken me out with friends, etc., something that I hadn’t considered when I decided to go. I tried to tell her that the visit would have been different, not necessarily better. Still, I wondered if my determination to do what I believed was the right thing, plus the sense of urgency to check off an unfinished piece of family business, had boomeranged and whacked me in the head. Perhaps it had been selfish of me to show up when I did, even though it felt selfless in that I had barely wanted to show up at all. Without another person around to act as a buffer and lighten the atmosphere, to relieve Yolan of the burden of believing she had to entertain me all the time (she didn’t), to assist with translation and interpretation when my rusty Hungarian was no match for her more antique forms of expression, normal stresses morphed into distress. I felt acutely aware of her irritation that I’d come for just a few days, and not just to see her. A more leisurely visit would have better suited her European sensibilities but would have felt excessive to me, given that I barely knew her. Her annoyance triggered my own. We became locked in a tango of willfulness.
That I didn’t feel relaxed in her house amplified my normal stubborn independence to a level that bordered on embarrassing and extreme, even to me. She tried to be a good hostess by continually foisting food upon me. Yet, more often than not, I rejected her overtures. A fly on the wall might have judged my behavior as rude, and perhaps some of it was. Yet each refusal functioned as a sand bag to protect myself from becoming flooded by her cantankerousness, the expression of an anguished heart. Other than creating distance between us, I didn’t know how else to interrupt the loop of suffering, how else to listen to her without feeling as if I were drowning. After the first night, we retreated into separate camps. While she watched the Athens Olympics on a blaring television whose German commentary I could not understand, I wrote in my journal. Among the many things I penned, I wondered if it was at all possible to have connection without obligation.
Still, she shared snippets of our shared ancestry, an erratic recitation of my family’s equivalent of the “begat” chapter in Genesis. Her patience wore thin at unpredictable moments, making the task of clarifying fraught as I didn’t want to ask questions that would invite rebuke and further rattle my nerves. I jotted the connections in a notebook, creating a crazy diagram I wasn’t sure I could fully explain to another yet, also, didn’t wish to focus on any further. What I understood was this: one of my father’s great grandmothers and Yolan’s great grandmother had been sisters, making them third cousins. Still, the names and blood lines I thought would lighten the existential burden of not knowing much about my father’s family did no such thing. Becoming aware of the magnitude of the annihilation of his extended clan, something I had not completely absorbed as a child, made it worse.
When she told me that she hadn’t fully “kisírt” (cried out) her Auschwitz experience from her heart, I did not know how to respond. When she told me that she’d give any amount of money to unburden herself of her Holocaust memories, I did not know what to say. When she told me that she’d give any amount of money so that her neighbors and other Germans could experience Auschwitz for just one day, I again met her words with distraught silence. I could not console the inconsolable. I could not repair the irreparable. Nor could I tolerate my lack of skill, if not outright helplessness, in the situation.
When the time came for me to leave for the airport, I could not wait to evacuate. The morning of my departure she offered me a banana. A calmer, saner person would have accepted it, but my monkey mind hopped around and screeched so wildly about getting out of there that, even though monkeys typically enjoy bananas, it couldn’t keep itself still enough, long enough to graciously take the fruit.
In subsequent years she and I exchanged letters and talked on the phone occasionally, usually around Jewish holidays or her birthday, when her daughter reminded me of it. She must have appreciated my visit or simply forgotten the rough spots, as she’d ask me when I’d come to see her next. She suggested we meet in Prague, where she often spent part of the summer. I demurred, again and again, even though I sensed the longing in her voice and, in it, heard echoes of my loneliness, of my own unfulfilled desire to travel with a companion. She had limited family, and I was the only person amongst my siblings who could speak to her without an interpreter. Once, believing money had been the obstacle, she offered to pay for my plane ticket. Although I’m not one to turn down free travel, I couldn’t accept it. I did not wish to return. I had trouble admitting that simple truth without enormous guilt and sadness.
When I spoke to her when she turned 90, she sounded like a surprised child, astonished at how old she had become. Perhaps her longevity had been her personal rebuke to Hitler, a feisty and formidable “fuck you” to the fate intended for her. The last time we talked on the phone, for her birthday in April, she became confused and seemed upset about something I wasn’t sure had actually taken place. I couldn’t follow along. Her daughter told me that her mother had only a few good hours a day, and often didn’t know where she was, even though she remained at home.
Since Yolan’s faculties declined towards the end of her life, she might not have been aware of the film Son of Saul, which brought viewers into an immediate experience of Auschwitz, the one she would have paid a fortune for her fellow Germans to have. If she had heard about the movie and its international acclaim, perhaps that might have brought her some relief and allowed her, a courageous keeper of both the family tree and of some of humanity’s most appalling memories to, finally, rest in peace.
Shortly before Yolan died, her daughter asked me via e-mail how we were related. I assumed she knew but, like me, she hadn’t been able to keep all the names and connections straight. By the time she sought clarification, her mother’s memory had deteriorated. I sent her a scan of the diagram I’d drawn, the original either misplaced or lost. I hoped the awkwardly gathered information might, at the very least, ease her distress, and thus prove to be redeeming. Yet the image, while vivid on my computer screen, appeared blurry and illegible on hers, as if scrambled by Internet gremlins. The irony is not lost on me. At this time of political change and potential global upheaval, a period that feels almost as destabilizing as my father’s death did many years ago, I am reminded that rooting around in the distant past for information to aid me in the present might not work. It could even complicate things further.