POEM: What I Remember
I am a member of the third generation, a term that is relatively new and refers to the children of the children of survivors. My mother’s father, Moshe Nemeth, is a Holocaust survivor, and, growing up, my grandfather was a very important part of my life. I was born in Bloomington, Indiana and my family moved (back) to the NYC area when I was not yet kindergarten age. My grandfather was always a short drive away from our home on Staten Island — first in Canarsie (Brooklyn) and then in Bayside (Queens).
I remember sitting on Grandpa’s porch on 86th and Flatlands in Canarsie with Great Aunt Betty.
I remember the green awning, the plaid folding chairs, and the way she described the train tracks entering Birkenau.
I remember writing my “autobiography” in the third grade, taping pictures to pink and purple construction paper, describing my grandfather as a student of engineering. Before the war.
I remember my grandfather describing how he would walk to the well to get water for his family in Slatvina, Czechoslavakia, also before the war.
I remember the inside of my grandfather’s fridge in Bayside, Queens, and how no matter how empty it looked he always had a container of boiled chicken and some tuna fish for protein.
I remember when Great Aunt Betty told me about how she and my Great Aunt Raiza were in line for the showers, close to the front, when an older woman switched places with them. Aunt Betty was only 9. They survived.
This week’s Jewish Week has an article about the way the “third generation” is altering the landscape of “holocaust remembrance.” One short quote:
Members of the Third Generation, observers say, often learn more about survivors’ experiences than the Second Generation did, and they tend to have a less emotional and less traumatized perspective on the Shoah than their parents did. Survivors frequently were reluctant to discuss with their children what happened during the war; the children were hesitant to ask. Now aging, many survivors are more open with their grandchildren, who are more willing to inquire.
My experience is much different. My grandfather never told me his story. I would glean details here and there, and I knew the stories of his three sisters who also survived (Betty, Faigi, and Raiza), but my grandfather’s experience in the Holocaust, and the story of how he survived, was something I never had a clear picture of, and was something I didn’t quite know how to ask. I didn’t know what to ask. And, I also didn’t want to ask anything that might upset or anger him.
But, I could ask about where he was born, and my grandfather loved to tell stories about how beautiful the landscape of his childhood was — a shtetl at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. I could ask about life in Israel and even about his experience in Tzahal (Israeli Defense Forces). And, I could ask about what it was like to come to New York City and what he did for work here.
I think I learned my grandfather’s story from my mother, from listening to a conversation between them when she was filling out forms for him for the Claims Conference, and I was there, with them, sitting on the couch.
When the war broke out, my grandfather was away from his family in Budapest, Hungary, where his parents sent him in 1942, studying engineering. That was the last time he saw his parents, who perished in Auschwitz. His schooling stopped in 1944 when the Germans invaded Hungary and from there he was sent to the Budapest Ghetto, then two labor camps in Austria where he dug ditches. After he was liberated by the Russians in 1945, he went to a Displaced Persons camp in Austria for a year, and then to another DP camp in Germany until 1948. In all three camps he worked as an interpreter and a truck driver.
I remember that after the war my grandfather found his three surviving sisters (my Great Aunts Betty, Faigi, and Raiza).
I remember that they reunited on the steps of their old home in Czechoslovakia, but there was another family living inside. But, I don’t remember why I know that story.
I remember understanding that after the war, because she was so young, my Aunt Betty was sent to Canada with a group of orphans.
I remember that my grandfather was supposed to go to Israel with Aunt Faigi, her husband, my Uncle Mickey, and their son. But, Faigi was detained in Italy because of illness and my grandfather finished the move to Israel alone.
My grandfather was never a talkative person. Most conversations felt like a struggle, or a kind of predictable script — “How you feel? Did you hear the weather forecast?” But that was normal to me, and I was always very close with my grandfather. But, I also understood that there was a river of thin ice surrounding him and felt very much like my job, as the eldest grandchild, was to make him happy and proud.
My favorite memory of spending time with him was a day when I noticed a shoebox of old photos in his bedroom and asked if I could go through them. It was full of images from before my mother was born—grandpa in uniform with an uzi, leaning against a truck, grandpa with a group of men also in uniform smiling, a photo of what I think was a train station in Tel Aviv, and an array of group photos featuring my mom’s mom, who I never met. I asked if I could pick a few photos to keep, and I remember being surprised how quickly and easily he said yes.
- I remember understanding that I was different when I lived in Bloomington, IN. My friends from Montessori school all had Christmas trees and I didn’t.
I remember the first time I learned about the Holocaust. It was in Hebrew School at Temple Israel on Staten Island.
I remember the weekend of my Bat Mitzvah, sitting on my grandfather’s porch with Aunt Betty and my cousin, Elisa. I remember noticing Aunt Betty’s tattoo and asking what it was. I think that was the first time I heard her story.
I remember realizing that none of my friends had to call home every time they arrived or left a place.
The older I get the more I realize that what defines me, what constitutes my experience being part of the third generation, is not so much what I remember, but what I don’t remember. I grew up in a family that has always been amazingly supportive, but also very small and very insular. I’ve always called my parents at least every other day, if not daily. That was just what we did. I’ve always checked in with my younger sister with the same frequency. I never go anywhere without at least twenty dollars in cash in my wallet. I hoard canned goods just in case. I never leave home with any machines running because you never know what might cause a fire. I have a high tolerance for physical discomfort and a tendency to work too much and too late. I never let my car go below half a tank of gas.
Eva Fogelman, in an article called “Third Generation Descendents of Holocaust Survivors and the Future of Remembering,” writes, “What is transmitted to 3G’s are values, worldview, family interaction and love—not trauma.” And, all of these habits I just described are things I now recognize as being a part of my childhood, normal and security blanket-like for me.
I remember the spring of 2012, how nervous I was when I found out I would be traveling to Poland then Israel with a group of twenty-four non-Jewish teachers as part of the work I did with the Holocaust Educators Network.
I remember going directly from the airport in Warsaw to Majdanek.
I remember the room full of empty canisters of Zyklon B.
I remember being forced to take a “guided tour” of Auschwitz and how angry I felt, how I opted to ultimately refuse the tour, refusing to let someone narrate how I could see the place.
I remember standing on the train tracks in the entrance to Birkenau. The sense of relief I felt that this place was all ruins. The way that relief became tears when I began to recognize that place.
I remember the dream I had that night, in my hotel room in Krakow. My Aunt Betty’s face, the way she looked at my Bat Mitzvah, only she was in the train car, on those tracks, where I stood that day.
The moment I stood on the train tracks at the entrance to Birkenau is the moment I think I realized how important identifying as third generation is to me. For the first time I felt as though I could really see the stories I was holding—my nine-year old aunt hid in the camp and then on line for the showers, my grandfather digging ditches malnourished and frostbitten. I understood why it is important for me to always remember that I am Jewish and why missing a seder is something I would never contemplate. And, what surprised me, in that moment were that the feelings I was overwhelmed with were ones of pride—my grandfather and aunts survived.
I remember opening my eyes when the plane landed in Israel, and how even though the flight attendants were making announcements in Hebrew I understood what they said.
I remember thinking, as I looked out the plane window at the sun and the palm trees (the polar opposite of Krakow’s grayness or Warsaw’s biting wind), I understand why grandpa wanted to come here.
I remember how familiar everything was — the people, the food — even though I hadn’t been to Israel in almost 20 years.
And, I remember understanding why I must do the work that I do (have always been compelled to do)—teaching and helping people write and communicate. Literacy is one of the most powerful tools a person can possess. As a member of the third generation, literacy and remembrance are inextricably linked — I must continue to share my family’s stories, to do something positive with the legacy I’ve inherited, to educate for human rights.