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When Holocaust Memories Are Too Heavy – A Survivor Considers Assisted Suicide

I didn’t lay a hand on her — all I did was propose a suicide plan.

My mother broke her hip this summer, and quickly went from being a remarkably mobile 86-year-old to facing a convalescence that began with a high degree of helplessness.

During her first week of rehab, when she still needed two people to move her from the bed to the wheel chair, she dropped some of her ruminations on me. We were sitting under an umbrella on a bright sunny day on the patio at the nursing home in Northampton, Massachusetts where she began her recuperation. A fountain was gurgling nearby. “You know,” she told me, “I could go to Vermont…” The rest of the sentence revolved around the fact that assisted dying is legal there. She intimated that she could get a doctor to bring her journey to its end.

“Mom,” I said. “I don’t think a broken hip remotely meets any threshold for…” getting help in bringing down the final curtain. I told her the only suicide joke I know, and we both laughed. It is about a patient who asks the doctor for help with dying. The doctor asks why, and the patient says that there is nothing in life she enjoys anymore. The doctor says, “you can choose to stop eating,” to which the patient responds, “Well, actually that is the one thing I still enjoy doing.”

Suicide is not a joke. Death isn’t funny. Is there any room for laughter?

Suicide runs in my maternal family.

My mother’s mother killed herself in 1982 at the age of 79 because, among other things, her hip was deteriorating, causing her chronic pain and a dread of ending her days with minimal physical self-determination. What little remaining family she had was on another continent. “If I can’t walk, I’m of no use to anybody,” she once said.

My mother’s father attempted suicide. He was in a nursing home and fed up with living. He died not long after, of Parkinson’s disease.

My mother’s grandmother, who was 63 at the time, participated in a double suicide together with her husband, my mother’s grandfather. The date was September 13, 1942. They had just received notice to appear for transport to points unknown. They lived in eastern Czechoslovakia, only 50 miles from Auschwitz in similarly occupied Poland. The Nazi death camp earlier that year became a killing site of the “final solution.” They hatched a plan to gas themselves at home with coal fumes rather than going off to near-certain anonymous deaths. He was Jewish, she was not. But their fates conjoined, they died together in the marital beds they each slept in for 41 years. 

My mother, their only grandchild, was 10 at the time.

My great-grandparents were in a so-called mixed marriage. So were my grandparents. That is to say, my great grandmother was not born Jewish, but she married a Jew. Likewise, my grandfather was not Jewish. He married my grandmother who, as far as the Nazis were concerned was a Jew. These distinctions, creepy as they are, became very significant in the convoluted Nazi legal frameworks and in my mother’s young life.

Wilhelm Allerhand & Janik - the author’s mother, age 1, with her grandfather in 1933. Image by Eric Goldscheider

Her formative years were in a world in which political lies were repeated unrelentingly in ways calculated to disorient and pave the way for the atrocities that followed. These were the waves of assaults on her sense of security during her coming of age. She was five years old in 1937, when the Gestapo again searched the apartment she lived in with her parents in Germany, prompting her mother to flee with her to set up a new life in Czechoslovakia. Her father followed. Then Hitler invaded and in the next years, Jews in her new city of Prague were rounded up and shipped off to concentration camps. Being in a mixed marriage played a role in the fact that my grandmother wasn’t shipped off until January 1945. By then, her parents had been dead for two years. She recalls arriving at Theresienstadt and seeing a building clearly marked as the Central Morgue.

The author’s mother, age 8, with her grandmother in 1941 in Prague. Image by Eric Goldscheider

At that moment, she wrote, her fear peeled off like a coat that you let fall to the floor. Her fate was clear and nothing more could be done to her. She became detached, seeing herself as a “reporter” peering in on her own life. She described experiencing significant memory lapses during her first weeks of confinement, but also attributed her survival in part to the calm her stance imparted. My grandfather was already in a work camp where many non-Jewish spouses of mixed marriages had been sent. My mother was taken in by a pacifist Christian sect that harbored her through the last months of the war.

My mother later left her parents to come to America when she was 19. She recalls thinking to herself as the shore receded from the ship that carried her across the Atlantic Ocean that she never wanted to see Europe again.

Is there a connection between this past and my mother’s musings about suicide? Undoubtedly, to my mind. This was not the first time she spoke of “Vermont”; talk of ending one’s life had popped up consistently over the last 20 years. But whenever my mother raises the issue, it is often in the context of the mistake she thinks her mother made by checking out ahead of schedule. “I wouldn’t do that to my children,” I’ve heard her say.

But this time was different. She seemed more serious about arranging a departure on a schedule of her choosing. She told me later that she has read scores of memoirs in which a broken hip is the beginning of the end. She lives alone in senior housing in Manhattan. Her windows are barely above street level, exposing her to sirens, flashing lights, fumes, and the noise of hundreds of internal combustion engines going by every hour during the morning and evening commutes. Her building is on the edge of the East Village where the Bowery becomes Third Avenue. She has lived in this neighborhood half her life, beginning above a methadone clinic when I was in high school.

She has struggled with mood swings for a long time. She grew up under a fascist dictatorship where weakness marked one for death — in Cologne and then in Prague. One of the abiding themes in her life has been to accept no diagnoses of mental illness and to abstain from all psychotropic drugs, sometimes vehemently rejecting entreaties to get chemical help for what looks like misery. She has inhaled marijuana exactly once in her life, and considers aspirin a hard drug.

Her mother, whom I called “Omi,” and who was one of the most significant adults in my young life, had a friend who gave her emotional support and help in researching the mechanics of how to pull the plug when the scale tipped to death. Though she didn’t share that level of detail with me, the subject of her own mortality often came up at our partings. An ocean divided us (she lived in Vienna), and long goodbyes were accompanied by her observation that it might be the last time we see each other. She was not overly shy about sharing her equanimity about ceasing to exist. To me, as a child, it was weird and uncomfortable.

The author’s mother and her parents. Image by Eric Golscheider

The time she chose coincided with her completion of a 2,000-page hand written memoir. It goes from as far back as she can reach into her family history, through detail-laden short biographies of her parents, through a remarkably happy childhood in an empowered working class community, followed by academic achievement, political and personal awakenings, career prospects, marriage, and then the meat grinder of a world gone mad. Besides her parents, she lost many of her dearest friends and countless acquaintances.

I recently returned to the passage in my grandmother’s memoir where she describes receiving the news of her parents’ death. It came in the mail, handwritten from them with the eerie opening announcing that they would be dead by the time she held the missive in her hands. They were. My grandmother describes it as the continental divide of her being, separating all that had come before from all that would follow. As it turned out it was at the midpoint of her life. The letter itself, which was the last of an ongoing correspondence, weighs the question of how to inform my mother, then ten years old. Better not to tell her right away, my great grandmother, whose name was Anna, advised. In fact, my German grandfather was able to retrieve the bodies, have them cremated and bring the ashes to Prague for a homemade funeral.

Anna Allerhand and Janik Landre - the author’s great-grandmother and mother - in 1935. Image by Eric Goldscheider

By the end of the war, her grandparents were part of a long list of friends and relatives who didn’t make it through. The impact this must have had on a child is still unfathomable to me. For my mother, death was a constant companion in a fascist police state edging toward defeat in a global conflagration. Thanks to luck and circumstance, my mother and my grandparents survived trauma upon trauma.

With this history, it is not surprising then that my mother should be weighing what role, if any, she wants to play in mapping out her transition to the void. The subject of self-annihilation comes up with some regularity in our family. Her role models did not wait for their fates but accelerated them.

The day after her musings on the law in Vermont, I came to visit her in rehab and announced that I had a suicide plan for her to think about. Was I calling her bluff? Was I being a wiseacre? Was I serious?

“I could write a press release,” I said. We could send it to the New York Times, which for decades has been her daily window on the world and an arbiter of reality. We could also send it to the East Village neighborhood publications she faithfully consumes. In it, she could announce that she would refuse sustenance until Trump leaves office.

Think of the possibilities. Her last days on earth could be spent with reporters, well-wishers and newly-acquired acolytes who would impart to her every word the wisdom of the ages. She has been a frustrated writer all her life. Now, if her message resonates, she could connect with an audience, who would in turn see her off. She has some serious cred as a Holocaust survivor. Who knows, she might even strike a cultural nerve and become a folk hero inspiring a movement of people who, like John McCain, send pointed messages from the beyond.

As a Holocaust survivor, my mother cannot help but see the world through the lens of her experiences. Recently, she has followed the Syrian refugee crisis with rapt attention through dispatches in the New York Times, often commenting that she, too, was once a “displaced person.” Now, the unceasing and disorienting lies coming out of the political establishment are taking a toll on her psyche in ways that, it seems to me, only survivors of beastly regimes can fully appreciate. She is also nearing the end of her journey on this mortal coil, by now having lived a longer life than any of her ancestors. Even before breaking her hip, she would comment that this is not what she expected or even wished for herself.

I think she was partly amused and partly horrified by the suicide plan that popped out of my head. It was calling her bluff and it required a response. In recent years, her social life has revolved largely around the Catholic Worker, a pacifist Christian sect with roots in her neighborhood. She sees symmetry in that Catholicism in some ways brings her life full circle. True, her grandmother married into a Jewish family. More to the point, her grandparents together married into a Catholic community, though their religion was rationalism and early socialism if anything.

Members of my mother’s activist community in New York would support and rally around her for not only advancing the death with dignity movement but at the same time taking a stand, albeit with a broken hip, against the erosion of democracy, I suggested.

With that, my mother had her out. She looked at me and pointedly pointed out that Catholics do not condone suicide because it usurps God’s supreme role in determining our lives. It would be the sin of pride, I suppose. One of the deadly ones. Whether she, in the present moment, believes that herself is unclear. But I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt, if she wants it.

Amherst, Massachusetts-based freelance writer Eric Goldscheider has recently become re-enamored of his grandmother’s memoirs and is organizing a crowd-sourced translation into English. Follow the project on Facebook and Twitter @BertaLandre. His mother is back on her feet and is again independent. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Boston Globe.

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