Please Don’t Call Me A Survivor

As one of the first American authors to publish fiction dealing with the experience of children of Holocaust survivors, I’ve been invited to do hundreds of talks and readings across the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, and Israel.

I’ve appeared at a wide range of kinds of venues: colleges and universities, libraries, book fairs, synagogues, churches, and writers’ conferences.  For my memoir/travelogue My Germany I did between fifty and sixty presentations alone.  Being invited to be a speaker has been tremendously satisfying because sharing my experience as the son of two Holocaust survivors through my work has been a mission of mine for many years.  It’s my personal tikkun olam, the term derived from Jewish mysticism which means healing the world.

Hearing myself introduced is often a humbling experience. Sometimes, though, I have to gently correct the person who’s introduced me–and it’s something I will work into the Q&A so as not to embarrass anyone. Why do I need to do that? Because I’ve been called a “second generation Holocaust survivor.”

That label couldn’t be more wrong. My parents survived the Holocaust. I did not. They lost their homes and their countries, and dozens of members of their family were murdered.  My mother was in a slave labor camp at the end of the war–but before that she was in a ghetto and a concentration camp.  My father was a slave laborer for the Hungarian army and wound up near the war’s end in Bergen-Belsen.  Each one witnessed and survived horrors that are staggering to contemplate.

Many children of Holocaust survivors, known as the Second Generation, cope with a difficult legacy.  Growing up with parents who survived horrific events is very complicated because it can feel like living in a minefield.  Your parents may or may not want to talk about what they endured, but either way, it’s easy for you to say or do the wrong thing and enrage them, or make them cry.  While their own childhoods were normal, their childrens’ aren’t because their  parents are coping with mammoth trauma and loss.

Psychologists have studied the Second Generation and found many of us have problems ranging from anxiety, depression, and a predisposition to PTSD, as well as issues with relationships, self-esteem, and identity.

I’m proud to have keynoted several international conferences bringing together children of Holocaust survivors, child survivors of the Holocaust, and their allies.  And I’m glad that there’s been an international audience for my work.  But if I labeled myself a “Second Generation Holocaust survivor,” I would be blurring important distinctions.  I would be elevating any personal trauma I grew up with and making it equal to what my parents suffered.  It isn’t.  It never will be.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery, including the memoir/travelogue My Germany.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

 

American Soldiers Saved My Father From The Nazis

In early April 1945, my father was packed into a train with 2,500 other prisoners from Bergen-Belsen as the Nazis insanely tried to keep British and American troops from rescuing them. The train was made up of 45 cars with their doors sealed shut; the crowding was horrific and of course there was no food or water.

In the chaos of war, this hellish train wandered for a week and finally stopped not far from the Elbe because the commander couldn’t get clearance to move across that river with communications so disrupted. He fled ahead of the American troops he knew were coming and the remaining guards escaped when two American tanks appeared on April 13th.

Frank W. Towers, a first Lieutenant of the 30th Infantry Division, reported that the stench when the locked cattle cars were opened “was almost unbearable, and many of the men had to rush away and vomit. We had heard of the cruel treatment which the Nazis had been handing out to Jews and political opponents of the Nazi regime, whom they had enslaved, but we thought it was propaganda and exaggerated. As we went along [in Germany] it became more apparent that this barbaric savagery was actually true.”

(Frank Towers in France, 1944)

The troops that had found this train were racing to the Elbe because it was the last barrier to their advance across Germany. Now they had a totally unexpected burden of some twenty-five hundred prisoners to house and provide for. The answer was about nine miles to the west. American troops had just captured several hundred Germans at the Wehrmacht base and proving ground in Hillersleben where tests had been conducted for giant railway guns manufactured by Krupp.

It was an ironic place for Jews to be sheltered, cared for, and brought back to life. But then what place in Germany wouldn’t have been?

This verdant military setting with clean, heated quarters for officers and soldiers was a virtual paradise for people who had been treated like animals for years. That’s where my parents met and fell in love. My mother was in Hillersleben because she had escaped from a slave labor camp in Magdeburg 16 miles away and been brought there by American troops now using it as a temporary Displaced Persons camp.

She and my father had each lost everything in what would come to be called the Holocaust: home, families, countries. There wasn’t any time to play pre-war games. “Do you like me?” he asked. She did, and as my father tersely put it years later, from that moment on, “She was mine and I was hers.” My mother moved in with him that night, beginning their fifty-four years together.

I’ve had the honor of meeting Frank and shaking his hand. On Memorial Day, with the survivors of the Holocaust and their saviors dwindling faster and faster, it’s more important than ever to remember these heroes.

The account in this blog is drawn from My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped.

Travels Through Europe’s Heart of Darkness

I was born in New York City to immigrant parents, and when I was young, the question “Where do your parents come from?” wasn’t an easy one to answer.

My father had grown up in the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia which had different names over the course of his youth: Subcarpathian Ruthenia, Carpathian Ruthenia, and the Carpatho-Ukraine. But it didn’t belong there anymore. It had been absorbed by the Ukraine and was now part of the USSR.

Some people didn’t even seem to know where Czechoslovakia was, anyway. Now of course, it’s not on the map at all, having split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The city my mother grew up in northeastern Poland was Wilno, but as Vilnius, it was the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. In her years there as a child and a young woman before the Holocaust, it had been variously part of Russia, Poland, Lithuania–but for the majority of those interwar years a Polish city. It had also twice been invaded and ruled by the Germans.

Both my parents spoke a bewildering array of languages and lived in borderlands, as Pulitzer-winning author Anne Applebaum calls them in her dazzling travelogue Between East and West.

Armed with fluent Polish and Russian, the author records amazing interviews and fascinating, lost history as she travels from the Baltic to the Black Sea, visiting almost two dozen cities like Odessa and Minsk whose names are well known in the West. But she mainly stops at smaller cities and towns who have been pinballed over the centuries, swept up in endless wars, invasions, and border changes. En route, she also traverses some areas of Eastern Europe likely unknown to most Americas, each with its own dramatic, many-layered history: Ruthenia, Bukovyna, Moldova.

Some cities have been crushed by neglect, Sovietization, bombing—or all three. Others seem like lost jewels. Everywhere she goes, people from peasants to professors open up to her to reveal contradictory identifications. Russian speakers across these lands, for example, might think of themselves as Ruthenian, Polish, or Ukrainian. The locales she travels through have known immense suffering and chaos, and many of her interviewees come across as shipwrecked. Best of all, her grasp of complicated history in every location is faultless. She’s as observant, canny, and in command of le mot juste and just the right quote or anecdote s Rebecca West was in her masterpiece about the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Here she is in discussion with a fascinating Ukrainian linguist with a Turkish surname who tells her he feels like an outsider in his own country:

“And that, he said, was the most Ukrainian thing of all: to read the history of your country as if you were reading it through an outsider’s eyes. It is the fate or borderland nations always to know yourself through the stories or other, to realize yourself only with the help of others.”

Between East and West is one of the most compelling and thought-provoking travelogues I’ve read in years—and vitally important cultural/historical background now that places like Crimea and the eastern Ukraine keep blasting into the news.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love, A Novel of the Gilded Age, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.