Whether Again

Lisa Herman, Ph.D.

I learned about the Holocaust in my mother's kitchen. It was in the 1950's and I was ten. I had just recently discovered I was Jewish when Sonya Marishewski and Kathleen O'Hallahan called me a 'dirty Jew'. They caught me in the changing room at the Bathurst Heights High School swimming pool and started punching me. I denied I was one and was still slippery from my swim so I got away and ran back into the pool. They left. I didn't even know what a Jew was. I asked my mother if I was Jewish and Mom, in the clipped tones she used when uncomfortable, said yes. Up until then, I thought I was a non-practicing Christian like everyone else. We didn't celebrate anything. No mention was made of a God.

A few weeks later, I was sitting at that kitchen table with my orange juice, soft-boiled egg and Fry's cocoa, reading the socialist paper we subscribed to. In that period I was mainly plowing through the Nancy Drew series but in the morning read whatever was in front of me. My attention was caught by a picture. It was a heap of skeletal bodies. Later, when I was translating a survivor's testimony, I made up a word for this heap: a Jewpile. The caption said the photo was taken somewhere called Auschwitz. I asked Mom, what was Auschwitz. My mother, at the sink washing dishes, didn't even turn around. She told me it was a place where fascists killed Jews in the Second World War. There was no more explanation, though I think she may have said something about corpses being the inevitable result of a capitalist society. That was all before my parents found out about Stalin and began to question the party-line.

To this day, I walk around seeing that grainy black and white picture of horror movie bodies piled on top of each other, large and small limbs flung every whichway. Sitting at the yellow and green plastic laminate table, surrounded by the shiny, clean counters of our kitchen, I thought I knew what those bodies felt like.

I brought my obsession to therapy and my psychiatrist told me genocide is not uppermost in most people's minds. But since that day at the kitchen table, genocide has been uppermost in mine. I've tried to work it through but it hasn't worked.

In my neighborhood growing up in Toronto - before my parents moved to get away from the influx of their fellow Jews- there was no synagogue. During the High Holidays, old men would set up a place for prayer in a parking garage underneath their apartment building. As soon as I found out I was Jewish, I started hanging around there on Saturday and peering down through the small windows that let fresh air into the packed underground sanctuary. Especially on Yom Kippur, I loved to listen to them droning, wrapped in their prayer shawls. I would sniff the odor of sweat and the smelling salts that they used to keep from fainting as they fasted all day and asked forgiveness from God. Occasionally, if I was lucky, there would be some excitement and one would keel over from a mixture of heat, hunger and fervor, and have to be helped outside to get some less sanctified air.

I imagined what they looked like naked and if their bodies were like those skeletons in the newspaper. Sometimes, I would sway in rhythm with them. I breathed the pungent fragrance of their strange reality until dusk, and everyone went home for dinner. I made my way home too after I'd scraped off those tiny pebbles that cling to your knees when you kneel on gravelly concrete. I wondered how the old men were connected to me and missed their sad bodies when my family moved further north beyond the last subway stop at Eglinton and the Chaplin bus to our house into the outer suburbs.

We have no pictures of relatives in long black kaftans and side-curls, or even ones from Western Europe with stylishly dressed figures in the tailored suits of the 1940's. It figures there must have been some family left behind to be obliterated after my great-grandparents from Russia and Lithuania and Latvia made it through the Jewish quotas to come to Canada. But there are no real family stories of anyone before arrival in North America. My grandparents only shared sketchy sentences about Eastern European towns with Jews no longer left in them. Since my family lineage can be traced back only three generations, beginning with arrival in North America, I have no claim as a survivor or a child of survivors to the Holocaust.

People have told me it's the worst kind of arrogance to say I have knowledge of what happened. Survivors have ordered me to remain silent with my made-up stories, admonishing that I have no right to appropriate others' true and terrible ordeal. "You can't presume to say you know what it was like for Them - your morbid imaginings demean what happened to real people." They've told me that even actual survivors of the ghettos and death camps, out of respect for the dead, won't venture to say what it was like to die there. People who make up stories blaspheme the martyrs. There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.

But I persist. I found out about a Belgian, Didier Polleyfeyt, who wrote we don't live in a time after Auschwitz; we live in the time of Auschwitz. An American professor of Holocaust Studies, Beryl Lang, said the evil that is Auschwitz is an historical phenomenon existing in time and space, evolving in the present. Paul Ricoeur, a French philosopher, confirmed my knowing that evil is in process and is developing in its complexity. Auschwitz broke the mold. Evil made a quantum leap. It founded a new paradigm. Human beings are operating in a new system. Those philosophers and I all ask, what will come next?

As is my custom in the spring, I go to the Jewish Film Festival in Toronto. The movies start late and you have to stand in line in the rain but they serve you snacks while you wait and everyone's very friendly. This time, at the Bloor Cinema, I saw a movie 'The Grey Zone' with a standing-room only audience, including the second balcony. It was with an actor I adore, Harvey Keitel, who was the aboriginal in 'The Piano'. In 'The Grey Zone' he's a Nazi commandant who gets a Jewish doctor to help with the evil Dr. Mengele's 'scientific' experiments. The doctor could save his wife and child this way. The main plot was about the rebellion of the Jewish men - the Sonderkommando - who staffed the mass gassings. The Sonderkommando's job was to soothe the victims into undressing for the gas chambers. Twenty minutes later, this elite team removed the corpses and hosed the place down to remove the residue left by the bodies. Then they slid the corpses into the ovens on iron pulleys to disappear in the fire. Their last task was to scrape out the ashes and put them in dump trucks to be buried. In return, the Sonderkommando lived a few months longer than others, under much better conditions: plenty to eat, beds, clothing… They held their minds together by saying they didn't do the actual killing. They didn't actually pour the Xyklon B pellets into the hole on the top of the chamber and release the rat poison and then put the cover on the hole so the Nazis could get maximum cost/benefit. The Nazis did that. This particular Sonderkommando crew managed to rebel and blow up one of the gas chambers (with explosives smuggled to them from the women's camp) before they all died.

There was very visible security at the Jewish Film Festival. The organizers said the policemen cost quite a bit of money and asked everyone to donate beyond the price of a ticket. I did and was a little frightened after September 11th. That date also happens to be my birthday. It had been suggested to the Film Festival organizers that the word 'Jewish' not be displayed on the marquee of the theater. I felt my donation was making some contribution to combat anti-semitism.

When I got home, I wrote a note to myself on a large-size purple post-it. "I must remember to remind myself that I am no smaller than any other. Each of us with our story. Stories are what is destroyed by genocide: all the little details of people's lives." I believe I am fighting for my own survival by not abandoning the Holocaust. Sometimes when I have my doubts, I look at the post-it on the bathroom mirror.

One summer, I worked in Connecticut as a technical apprentice on the pre-Broadway production of 'Man of La Mancha'. Ray Middleton, who was the Innkeeper, sang a song, 'Knight of the Woeful Countenance' as he placed the sword on the Don's shoulders. I felt a connection. It's not only that my grandma sometimes told me I had a sour face and if I didn't smile my face would stay that way. It's also Don Quixote and I live an imagined life. When in doubt, I ask myself if I will cease to exist without the Holocaust.

My parents come from Eastern European stock. Their parents escaped Europe well before Hitler arrived. As the children of greenhorns, they were taught to melt into the pot. They became socialists in the ultimate meltdown of difference. Unfortunately, those Russians they emulated got rid of the Jews in their ranks, but during my childhood that was a well-kept Russian secret. In the 1950's, the world was not complex. The line between good and evil was neatly drawn. Socialism was bad/good, capitalism was bad/good, depending on your point of view. Bertolt Brecht was my cousin Norman's babysitter. My family knew where they stood.

The family sang labor union songs and Negro spirituals on Jewish holidays and safe in Canada, railed against American imperialism. Though my parents were convinced socialism would triumph, I was sure that neither the Russians nor the Americans had feasible plans for saving the planet. I knew something was lurking in the shadows that they hadn't accounted for. An entirely new kind of evil had been born to our world: the planned extermination of entire peoples - not for territory, not for belief systems, not for slave labor or other material gain - but because that people existed. A new word had been born and neither socialism nor capitalism was equipped to engage with it. They knew nothing about combating genocide. I too was at a loss.

When I read and write about Auschwitz, I'm often stuck, paralyzed. My tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth and my right hand seems to have lost its cunning. But I continue to uncover information that compels me to continue.

Today, I read again how Heinrich Himmler instructed the SS in 1943 that they were to exterminate an entire people. It had never been done before and he told them that it was difficult for their leaders too. "The hard decision," said Heinrich, "had to be made that this people should be caused to disappear from the earth."

One cold November, I felt I must visit Auschwitz and went on a meditation retreat there in Poland. I wrote a poem about it:

I travel to the children's space
and smell the molding concrete coldness
On my knees in supplication
begging for their lives
I say - take me instead
Let me die here
amid the tiny ghosts

I place a few jellybeans and sparkles
in a circle with the candles and toys my friend gave me for the journey
She knew I would need them in Poland

Without a sound
Shrieking
I mourn
the twins
at the marker for what is no longer barrack #31
where they did
Science
Silence now
Was this a nursery?
I can't follow the storyline
I have no way round the shivering

I am tired of grieving

Night has come
There is no dawn

I go on

That visit to Auschwitz is now in the past. I go on in the present. In the future, I write my story as I remember the others. I am still in my mother's kitchen.