I was nine when I learned about my mother’s relatives being murdered by the Nazis. I was snooping around boxes in the basement of my home and found the telegrams that had been wired to my mother.
My mother never mentioned anything to me about this traumatic part of her life. On my own, I learned more about the story as I reached my teen years when movies like The Diary of Anne Frank and Exodus came out and my father handed me a new book called The Last of the Just that reviewed the history of discrimination and atrocities against the Jews and ended with stories of the genocide that took place during World War II. The term “Holocaust” was not even used then and only later was it introduced in the seventies when the series “Holocaust” aired on television. Of course, I watched the whole series, but by then I was married and had children of my own.
As the stories trickled out while I was growing up, I began to understand why I had only one set of grandparents. Occasionally my mother would recall happy incidents from her upbringing in Germany, but never once did she mention why or how her family had died.
I was raised in Chicago in two different “assimilated” places, more gentile than Jewish. When my parents moved to the expanding suburb of Skokie in the early fifties, they would never have imagined that one day it would have the highest number of Holocaust survivors in the country.
When I was growing up, I was the first Jewish child in my fourth-grade class and, though as I grew older there were more Jews in my school, it was always clear that there was a division between the Jews and the Gentiles. There was even a schism between Jews whose roots were in Central Europe as opposed to those whose ancestors were Eastern European. As my mother had desired from the beginning, I tried to blend in with the majority, at that time White Anglo Saxon Protestants. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I wasn’t tall and blonde and so there were a lot of places I didn’t really fit. My efforts to be a cheerleader or to be photographed for the school yearbook were in vain. I don’t know whether I attribute this to the fact that I hadn’t the physical or inherited tools to figure out how to “fit in” or whether I was just not that charismatic.
My mother and father never associated with the Holocaust survivors who moved to Skokie. Their group of friends were all from the Reform Jewish congregation they had started when they arrived in Skokie. A few of the couples they knew had emigrated from Central Europe near the time when my mother had also arrived. Many had married first or second-generation Jews and mostly they were professionals or academics. They had missed first-hand the horrors of Hitler’s wrath. No doubt many of them had relatives who stayed in their native countries and perished, but I never heard them talk about it or bring up the subject. And never did their children who often became my friends ever discuss the subject either.
The only Holocaust survivor I knew growing up was my mother’s seamstress that altered my mother’s and my clothes. I still remember with horror seeing the numbers on her arm when she was pinning up the hem of my skirt.
Since I have grown up, the divisions between ethnic and racial groups has expanded and the noticeable discrimination of Jews has somewhat subsided. When I was becoming an adult, it was easier to get in to college that originally had “quotas.” And there was less difficulty buying a home in the neighborhood of one’s choice. It was even a bit easier to get a job in the corporate world if your religion was Jewish. Still, when I went to college and tried to pledge a non-Jewish sorority, it was recommended by its leader that I join a Jewish one instead. It is not surprising to me that even today we still see so many outbursts of displeasure and violent attacks on American Jews. It’s still a problem.
As I grew older, there were many incidents that made my thoughts about my Jewish past keep changing. I allied with the Jews moreso when I saw the musical Fiddler on the Roof even though I learned later that the way my relatives lived was different from how Tevye’s family lived in their tiny Russian village. I was deeply affected when I was a young mother and heard Gerda Klein, a Holocaust survivor speak at a luncheon I attended with my friends. And when I read Orphan in History about a Harvard graduate whose high-profile parents hid from him his Jewish roots, I had to think even moreso about my future relationship with my religion.
The more I heard personal escape stories or read about them, the more I questioned how to accept my past. I had been raised in a Reform Jewish home where we celebrated the major Jewish holidays and where both my brother and I were confirmed, but my brother, unlike his Russian Jewish father was not bar mitzvahed. I knew I wasn’t going to become an Orthodox Jew. I wasn’t even going to be a more observant Jew though I did send my children to Sunday School and Hebrew School. I wasn’t going to get active in Jewish organizations that I admired and donated to but of which I did not feel comfortable becoming an active participant. Yet I am still haunted by what happened to some of the people in my tribe even though they thought it could never happen to them.
I hope that I can contribute in my own personal way to help work toward a better world. And I’m hoping telling my story will help both Jews, Gentiles and people of other tribes make peace with themselves and then hopefully we can all learn how to get along with each other.
Look for the future publication of my first novel.”Sarah’s Tribe,” a fictionalized version of this story.