KNOWING AND NOT KNOWING
In the decades since the Holocaust, a “children of survivors” literature has grown up. The phenomenon is world-wide. From my days as a book reviewer, the following titles come immediately to mind: See Under: Love by David Grossman (Israel), Maus I and Maus II by Art Spiegelman (United States), What God Wants by Lily Brett (Australia), and Nightfather by Carl Friedman (Holland). Different as these books all are from one another—and each is wonderful in its own way—what they have in common is the child’s struggle to come to grips with the parent’s unspeakable legacy.
Inevitably, the iniquities visited upon the parents return to haunt the children. The ways in which this happens are as varied as the individuals themselves. Even when the children know very little of their parents’ ordeals, they cannot but be affected.
My poem Curse VII (“Now in her eighties...”) is about one such mother-daughter dynamic. In this case the mother’s life was saved by her inclusion in the Kindertransport. The poem was inspired by a Yom Ha-Shoah program at my synagogue. Erika, the survivor, told her story to a group of assembled Hebrew school parents and children that included her own grandchildren as well as her daughter. Erika’s personal journey to share her story took nearly 70 years—a Biblical lifetime. Until she began to speak out publicly, her own daughter was ignorant of much of her mother’s history.
For me, the cement that holds the poem together is the tension between what parents know and what they choose to tell their children—in this case, what Erika’s parents knew or suspected and did not tell her, and what Erika knew and did not tell her own children.
When someone like Erika, who has suffered so greatly, chooses to break her silence, it is important to pay attention. I tried to pay attention, and the poem seemed to write itself. I sent the poem to Erika. “I’m glad to know that at least one person was listening to me,” she said.
Now in her eighties,
“I was scared, lonely, unhappy.
“I never dreamed my parents were murdered.
“The bargain was one-sided.
“After Chamberlain and Munich,
“I was the youngest
Erika’s daughter Kim says,