|From Generation to Generation
By: Tamara E. Stieber
By: Tamara E. Stieber
Baycrest Conference: May 1999
I have come to this conference tonight from a slightly different vantage point than my fellow panelists. I am not a psychologist, a social worker nor am I an expert on the Holocaust. Most of what I know of the Holocaust has originated from my own eyes and ears. I am here tonight as a representative of the third generation that I believe has given me particular insights into the topic that others may not share. I stand, as all third generations do, in a very unique position. Though we stand on the fringes of one of the most horrific events in human history, it is an intrinsic part of who we are. We stand with enough distance so that we are not consumed by the stories or silence that the second generation was surrounded with as children, yet we know that they exist, impressed upon our psyches ever so delicately.
Both of my maternal grandparents are survivors of the Holocaust. Although they are now in their seventies, from my perspective, I have not witnessed their aging in the twenty six years that I have known them. And I guess this is the irony of speaking about the aging Holocaust survivor. Although I can see how they have aged physically, their experiences have always forced them to live a whole lifetime before me. Unlike my own life, my grandparents' lives have always appeared fragmented- into their lives before the war and after. It is the experiences that occurred in between that not only fragmented their lives but also continues to fragment my own understanding of them.
As a result of their experiences as teenagers, they have been given an identity, very different from the one that I took on as a teenager. As in all identities, they are compelled to carry it with them always, without their approval and often in pure frustration. My grandfather often tells me that he so desperately wants to be understood as an individual and not purely as what his identity as a Holocaust survivor defines him as. I too must confess that I have grown up understanding them in the shadows of their survival. Ever since I heard both my grandfather and grandmotheršs stories as a very young girl, I could only understand them as different. As I have grown up though, my own understanding of their survival and how it has affected my own life has evolved as I have matured.
As a young child, living in the shadows of a historical event such as the Holocaust, appeared to be a place of extreme darkness. This was always most apparent during the weekly Friday night dinners that I shared with my family. This was our time, when we could share with each other the events of the week. We always managed to take part in very heated discussions ranging from politics, moral and ethical dilemmas, you name it and we have talked about it at one point or another. Even in the most mundane of conversations though, there was always this very powerful undercurrent that always seemed to rear its head at one point in the evening. Without asking, without permission, it always managed to silence the room and stop everyone right in their tracks. I often resented the preoccupation my grandfather had with speaking about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. I resented how it forced each one of us in the room into silence, where nothing other than tragedy and pain could be heard. I could not understand his obsession, that compelled him to repeat the same stories over and over. I would think to myself-why is he never satisfied talking about what we choose as the topic of conversation?, why do trivial conversations about just about anything always manage to come back to the events of over fifty years ago? I could tell by looking around at the faces at the table, that I was not the only one who had these same questions.
In order to deal with these questions, I became a passive observer, a listener, allowing my grandfatheršs voice and my grandmotheršs silence to slowly see into my pores. I sat very still, taking in as much as possible without saying a word. As I sat and listened, I tried desperately to understand how it was that my grandfather seemed to be the happiest when talking about the war while at the same time, my grandmother was unable to speak a word. Dealing with their antithetical responses to their experiences. I think was always an extra challenge. Being sensitive to the person who wanted to speak but at the same time, recognizing the silence of the other.
Even when there were no words spoken, I resented their obsession with finishing the food on their plates, the trembling that resulted at the sound of a siren, my grandmotheršs unwillingness to speak her mother tongue of German, and the look in her eyes that never allowed me to understand her pain. I resented them because I could not understand who they were both before and after the war and what had transpired in between.
The way I perceived this enormous shadow that seemed to follow me as a child began to change almost four years ago. In May 1995, I travelled to Eastern Europe-both the Czech Republic and Poland. I visited four concentration camps while I was there-Terezin, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek and Treblinka.
Terezin was my first destination. Home to my grandmother over fifty years ago. Although she was not there to accompany me, to show me the carpentry building that she worked in every day making coffins, I felt her presence. Her absence allowed me to feel her silence in a new and profound way. Somehow I knew that one day I would hear her voice.
Treblinka, located 62 miles from Warsaw, was the final concentration camp that I visited before leaving Poland. Unlike the other camps that I had visited, Treblinka resembled a blank space in history. There was no evidence of tragedy as there was in the other camps I had visited-women and childrenšs shoes, menšs glasses, piles of human hair, gas chambers and barracks. I saw before me a landscape that was entirely void of history but yet was haunted by the shadows of what had come before.
I now understand that this very scene at the sight of Treblinka, exemplifies the predicament of the third generation. Unlike the second generation, memory has been suppressed, faded and has even changed with time. When sitting at the dinner table with my grandparents, I often feel like I am back in Poland looking out at a blank field that is calling to me. It know asks me to be patient-to not expect answers but to learn from my questions, to ask as many questions as possible. My role as listener had now been extended. My resentment and frustration had been transformed into a powerful desire to remember.
It was not until recently that I have come to a place where I am truly satisfied with my position in relation to the shadows of my grandparentšs past. They are no longer daunting and unforgiving and I have been able to re-envision my place within my own family. I know no longer understand it as a place of darkness but I see myself as holding a very unique position in relation to the past. The frustration no longer consumes me but is replaced with a powerful desire to transform my role as listener, to one of an educator.
My involvement with the Holocaust Education Centre has provided me with an outlet to do this. It has broadened my understanding of who I am in relation to my grandparents and my responsibilities to them. Through educating younger people, I have found a sense of purpose and refuge from my feelings of frustration and it has become my own challenge to try to begin to make connections between the third generation and survivors but also between the events of history and the present.
There is no easy way to deal with the aftermath of genocide. I have learned that there is no single response that is appropriate. The Friday night dinner table testifies to that. Three generations sit together at a table. There are my grandparents who sit on the pages of history, my parents who sit on the edges of the page, and my sister and I, still unsure of where we sit. I believe though that it is this very uncertainty that has brought me to the point that I am at today.
For the first time, I feel that I will be able to talk to my grandparents in ways that I never thought possible. Just this past weekend was the annual walk in High Park for the Hope For Rwandašs Children Fund. There I was with my family walking in support of the Rwandan community. For me this was a very significant event. To be able to walk with them on the same road, on the same journey, on the same mission, made the distance between us seem not so insurmountable after all. As we walked side by side, I was able to see them not as survivors but as people that I have the outmost respect for.
Their presence that day made my responsibilities seem even clearer. My future as part of the third generation must be about telling stories, weaving stories together, making connections and understanding genocide and Holocaust education within a larger context that will encompass all survivors of genocide.
I hope that as I continue to get older the spaces between us will get smaller,
and if not smaller, at least less daunting. This process has already started and
I am beginning to understand them as individuals, not solely defined by
fragmentation but rather what continues to make them whole.
Judy Cohen has my permission to publish
this on the web site called: Women and the Holocaust.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.