Senior Associate Vice President of Marketing Communications, the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago
Holocaust Remembrance Day: Shouldering an Inheritance of Grief
To be the child of Holocaust survivors is to grow up in the company of ghosts. By the time I was born, our large German-Jewish family was reduced to an inverted pyramid. My father didn't remember his grandparents and never knew half of his aunts and uncles, but the lost generations were palpable in their absence. You could smell Grandpa's sorrow in his cigar, taste Grandma's grief in the chicken soup. They missed their parents and grandparents, whose ashes lay in the dust of Buchenwald; their brown-eyed sisters and brothers, finished off by the SS; their many cousins; and all the children and grandchildren they would never have.
At our family's Passover Seders, in addition to the four children scripted to ask symbolic questions, there was always a fifth child at the table, the child who did not survive the Holocaust.
I struggled for decades with what to say to this fifth child, my emotional Siamese twin, a child whose voracious hunger for a life unlived I could never sate. Long ago I realized that I could never laugh loud enough, study hard enough, run fast enough or sing beautifully enough to make up for the joy she will never experience, the lessons she will never learn, the races she will never run and the songs she will never sing.
There were days when this martyred child wouldn't let me have a moment's peace; she was my personal Anne Frank who followed me everywhere. At Wrigley Field, while everyone else was guessing the crowd count, she'd pinch my arm and whisper: "Do you know how many stadiums-full it takes to reach 6 million dead relatives?" When I was stopped at a train crossing, she'd sit in the back, kicking my seat, daring me to imagine a one-way ride in a cattle car. She clung to my legs whenever I heard a German accent.
She brought out the worst and the best I had to give, and she was my constant companion -- until I had a child of my own.
One day, I had a vision of my own daughter intercepting the little girl and taking her by the hand to go outside to play. For the first time, I imagined the sound of the little girl's laughter. And then the burden that had sat on my chest since I have had memory began to melt away.
I began to feel my great-grandmother stand behind me and nod approvingly as I made chicken soup. I sensed my great-grandfather putting his hand on my shoulder when I took a job in the Jewish community. I pictured my brown-eyed grand-aunt smiling as I sang my daughter a Hebrew lullaby.
On the day of my daughter's Bat Mitzvah, the little girl and I watched as a new generation assumed the mantle of our Jewish tradition. Finally, I was able to promise her that Hitler didn't win.
I never saw her again.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day, I still light a memorial candle for her, and pray that she is at peace.