When my mother-in-law was 13, she returned home from a friend’s birthday party to a find a mob ransacking her family’s home, located in a 12th-century village north of Frankfurt, Germany. The date was Nov. 9, 1938, which came to be known as Kristallnacht.
Hers was the only Jewish family living in that village, where she and her ancestors had resided for hundreds of years. Six-and-a-half years later, after witnessing many of her extended family members murdered, she was liberated from a concentration camp. Though she soon emigrated to the United States with my future father-in-law, that fateful November day in 1938 marked the end of her innocence and the beginning of a watershed moment, the kind from which you can point to a before and after.
The anniversary of Kristallnacht reminds me of the trip I took with my mom in the spring for the JCC of Central NJ’s “Poland & Israel: A Journey from Darkness to Light.” For my mother, it was a return to her birthplace — she spent the better part of her childhood in a Polish ghetto and then hiding in an attic. My own reason for wanting to visit Poland was to try to look forward and backward.
Because the scale of the atrocities committed in the places we visited was so overwhelming, I had trouble processing them; it felt as if someone was reaching into my chest cavity and squeezing my heart. My way of coping has always been with words, and those devastating moments inspired me to put these to paper:
I have never been to these places, but these places have always been with me.
They were with me on the day I was born, a trifling 19 years after my mother’s liberation. As they beheld their infant daughter, my parents mulled over names, but when there are so many dead to name for, how do you choose? The oldest, the closest, the youngest, the most tragic?
They were with me in 1966 when I was a 3-year-old living in Israel. As the din of war drums began to sound, my parents anxiously packed our bags returning to the U.S. earlier than planned, foregoing their dream of aliyah because, as my father explained, “Your mother can’t fight another war.”
They were with me when my mother informed me early one school day morning, as I choked down a bowl of hot farina, that I was now the protagonist in her recurrent nightmare in which, first she, and now I, was being pursued and ultimately shot dead by the Nazis. What makes the nightmare darkest Mom, you as the victim or me?
They were with me on the day I met my husband, also the child of survivors, who when I suggested that one day we might have to sew gold coins into the linings of our jackets and flee, nodded understandingly.
They were with me on the days I birthed my three sons and my first thought upon seeing them was that, by the sheer act of living, I had triumphed, but by giving life I had spit on Hitler’s grave.
They were with me when I taught my sons who they are and where they came from, because that too was an act of defiance. And this week I am here in these places with my mother.
And today, although I know that these killing fields are sacred for the dead who are memorialized in them, this is, after all, only a place; a place where the birds sing and the trees rise and sway majestically over the forest bed.
And today, I realize that I didn’t need to see these places to know them, to feel them, to taste them, to smell their putrid stench because these places and the people lost here have been with me always.
I will never return to these places, but these places will always be with me.
I had hoped that the trip might provide answers, but it only raised more profound and disturbing questions. I was chasing that elusive concept of closure but now I know that closure will elude me for eternity, as it should, because if I find answers, I am lost.