A Very Different Experience

The legacy of the letter from the priest is many layered. Of course, there was the profound impact of the loss on Leo Brody, my grandfather, and thus on his immediate family. I had not considered the ripple effects of the atrocity and the silence surrounding it through the generations until now. My family stands in stark contrast to Gary’s family experience – where the impact was more obvious.

As I got to know the Bakst family, when Gary and I started dating in 1979, I was aware that Gary’s parents were Holocaust survivors. Our shared Jewish identity, and the differences in our experiences, was a subject we talked about quite a bit as we got to know each other. My parents were American born and college educated. As I described in prior blog entries, we were culturally and ethnically Jewish, but God was conspicuously absent. No one in my family attended synagogue regularly and when we did it was obligatory, certainly not heartfelt. The Holocaust was discussed, but in a more scholarly way, despite my grandfather’s tragic loss. It was at a remove from our day-to-day experience.

Gary’s parents, while not Orthodox Jews, were far more observant – religion was part of their practice, they kept a Kosher home, didn’t drive on the high holidays and went to synagogue on Shabbat. Gary’s Dad believed in God despite his harrowing experiences – or maybe because of them.

While I would not say that their Holocaust experiences were spoken about often, they were not shrouded in silence either. They attended the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C in 1993, were involved in the organization (Holocaust Survivors and Friends) that was instrumental in establishing the museum and attended the annual meeting of the Iwie Society (a group of lansleit from David’s hometown in Poland). Their status as survivors was an essential part of their identity and of Gary’s (and his siblings).

As I got to know Gary’s family I came to recognize some of the scars from their Holocaust experience. Paula, Gary’s mom, who was about nine when her life in the shtetl of Sarnik was upended, was anxious and fiercely protective of her children. The first time Gary and I went on a date when we were home from college, Gary drove to my house using Paula’s car. This was long before cellphones. When Gary arrived in Canarsie (20 minutes away), he asked to use our phone to call home and let Paula know that he had arrived safely. Years later, when I was pregnant with Leah, my doorbell rang one evening in Albany. I went to the door to find my brother. He had come to deliver a message, “Call your mother-in-law. She hasn’t been able to reach you and she is worried.” Apparently our phone was off the hook and I didn’t realize it. Paula, ever resourceful, long before the Internet, found my brother’s phone number, called him and dispatched him to check on me. Needless to say, I called her immediately.

To say Paula didn’t trust easily would be an understatement. Years before he met and married Shari, Gary’s older brother, Steven, was dating a woman, Jenna, who wasn’t Jewish. I sat at Paula’s kitchen table in Rosedale while she shared her fear that if Steven was to marry Jenna, she might kill him in his sleep. I was at a loss as to how to respond. I asked her why Jenna would do that. She shrugged and said, “Because she is Christian and he is Jewish.” I began to understand the depth of the damage done by her traumatic childhood.

Gary and I were together for four years before we married and had children (at least another 5 years later) before I felt I had earned her trust.

When Steven Spielberg, as a companion to Schlindler’s List, undertook the Shoah Project (the effort to record the testimony of all living survivors before their numbers dwindled), the Bakst family participated. We went to the Pines Hotel in the Catskills and waited in the lobby while Paula and David were interviewed separately. Then all ten of us – Rochelle and Doreen (Gary’s sisters), Steven, Shari, Laura and Jordan (Gary’s brother, wife and two young children) and our family (Gary, me, Leah and Daniel) – went in to be filmed as a coda to their testimony.

Over the years I had heard the stories of their survival. David fought in the Russian army and with the partisans in the woods in Poland. Death was all around him. Paula survived by the guile of her mother and, for several years, with the assistance of a gentile Polish farmer. They told how they met in a displaced persons camp and of Paula’s resettlement in Cuba where she had family and David’s in New York. Ultimately David went to Cuba to propose marriage and a year later, on September 3, 1949, they were married in Havana. David brought Paula back to New York and they settled in Queens and started their family. Paula’s mother, brother and sister survived, her father was murdered as they fled their town. David’s father and sister survived the war, though his father, having navigated the war itself, tragically died from complications from hernia surgery in Germany just before they were to immigrate to America. There is so much more to their story than can be told here in a blog entry.

Despite his travail, David’s experiences reinforced his belief in God. He felt he was spared by God’s hand on several dramatic occasions. Over the years I attended synagogue many times with David and Paula and it was impossible not to be moved by his faith, in particular. He chanted the prayers from his heart. Paula also took comfort in the rituals. They felt part of a community that shared beliefs and customs. It was very different than the synagogue experience, limited as it was, that I had growing up.

The process of integrating our two families and creating our own is still a work in progress.

2 thoughts on “A Very Different Experience

  1. To say that survivors bear scars would both be stating the obvious and a gross understatement. I grew up surrounded by survivors. The so called “Green” people who had moved to America after their brutal experiences. Essentially all of them came from Poland and they were damaged. They were unable to experience happiness in any persistent way. They were anxious. Yet they were able to build a new life out of the ashes and raise children and give them a life that they themselves were denied.

    The children of survivors have our own psychopathology. There is a sense of guilt and unworthiness. Many children of survivors are driven. They work hard and long hours and they are often high achievers. And, hopefully their children can be more emotionally healthy while still embracing the lessons and the pride that such a legacy brings.

    My father in particular is like no other survivor I know. He is able to find happiness. He is optimistic (except when watching the Mets game). He is able to find joy and seemingly will do what it takes to do so. Whether in singing groups or in synagogue or in the company of friends and family, he finds pleasure and meaning. He overcame the horrors that he lived through, the death of his mother, sister, brother and then of his father. He overcame the difficulties of starting anew in America and now overcomes the daily losses of elder life.

    I don’t exactly understand what makes him tick. It seems like he is able to see and hear the positive and block out the depressing realities while still being aware of them. It is a gift of will and temperament that is rare and special. And it makes him an amazing role model.

    Like

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