For me, being Jewish and being the child of Holocaust survivors growing up in postwar Canada meant being different. I lived as a minority within a minority — in an established Jewish community in a predominantly white city. In Toronto, I had friends – part of our new family – whose parents were also Holocaust survivors. Our parents had lived through unspeakable horrors and deprivations. Siblings, parents, their home — all gone. But what was it like for us, their children?
How have we been affected? The literature in the sixties said that we had inherited our parents’ trauma. It was a pathology borne out of their lives. How have we come through this? How do we remember these heroes who came to a country — no family, no language, no job and often with a small baby or child.
Utilizing extensive interviews along with social and historical background, this book will bring us through the journey and where we have come — with resolve and determination and even with humour.
Bruria Lindenberg Cooperman, PhD
“Erudite and wry. Warm and endearing. The humour is always witty and intelligent. The translations of yiddish sayings spot on. The message is the triumph of the Jewish spirit.”
One significant aspect of the collective memories, arising out of the narratives of their lives, was how the children, who were middle aged and now senior adults, learned to live severally, both in and out. They became adept at what I call ‘gliding.’ For me, the movement of gliding sums up the apparent seamlessness of our early lives, negotiating in and through, as well as navigating the cultural representations around us. It was the one thing we all shared. It was also the way they saw themselves, living within and without their worlds. They had the capacity to interpret the world and still define themselves. It was a survival strategy that many of us learned to rely on if we were going to get along. If playing a role – in actuality, many roles – could get us through our lives, then that is what we did. Many who were interviewed said that it was no big deal.
I think it was, and is, a big deal, and knowing more about their stories can teach us not only about children’s lived experiences but how they negotiated the divides of their lives and the consequences they suffered. Their narratives certainly reveal that through the changes they enacted and the accommodations they made. Constructing narratives imposes meaning and order in their lives.
Through my participants’ personal testimonies, I heard how they both acted and were acted on, usually bracketed by their view that it was normal. Their words and stories spoke of being, in many respects, just like everybody else. If they were different, it was only because all immigrants went through these initial stages of adjustment in a new country. Much of the literature written from within and about other cultures seems to support this claim. Yes, these children did live ‘normal’ lives. They played with other kids – Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, immigrant and Canadian-born – they all hung out together. They went to school together. They were invited to each other’s homes. Some joined clubs, some swam, others took music lessons. They took ballet lessons and were involved in all the activities thousands of Canadian children took part in during the buoyant postwar economy. Hana and Jake went to camp – maybe not expensive sleepover camp but close enough. Paulina was president of her BBYO (B’nai Brith Youth Organization) chapter and elected Sweetheart one year. It mirrored what popular culture representations showed children doing.
As I revisit the interviews, I never hear that the Holocaust was insignificant but it was never the centre of the discussions. But then, neither was it a part of the culture out there. When I brought up the subject, it was gently brushed aside or discussed within the broader context of their lives. It sounded very much like the responses to being Jewish, the two factors often tied in to each other. Parent experiences in the Holocaust, contrary to what much of the early literature disclosed, were not, the participants insisted, a major contributing factor in their lives. Yes, it happened and yes, it was tragic but parents lived their lives for the future, not the past. Even with those parents who never quite seemed to adjust, except for a few, no one really felt cheated. Eva certainly does not think of herself as deprived. Suzanna felt slightly different but it was always part of their background, their everyday life. You went about your business just like everyone else.
Even for those in the group who felt insecure, or who never quite felt comfortable or who never belonged to the mainstream, in the end, the issue of the Holocaust, they said, did not engulf them. The same seemed to hold true for the discussion around antisemitism. Like David Parker’s young Chinese people, these individuals have compartmentalized their lives, constructing “a segmentation between the private and public aspects of their lives marked by a keenness to downplay incidents of racism and discrimination.” The fictions afforded each one a sense of being ‘just like everybody else’. And it was so important to be normal, to be accepted in a culture that made it hard for anyone who stood out. That was part of the personal script we wrote. We all knew what our parents had gone through – directly or indirectly – but that was separate from our lives as new Canadians.
Another interesting feature that came out in the course of the interviews was how we have, after finally learning the stories, forgotten – perhaps blocked? – the details of what happened to our parents during the war. It was the usual problem of chronology. Gaps in memory were common during the interviews. More silence? Or more, perhaps, of wanting to make sense of their lives, trying to convince others with their own fiction stepping in for history.
With a fierce commitment to desire, the ‘authors’ of these stories construct and perform through the language of the narratives in ways that are not always apparent or comprehensible. Brooks, Haug and Steedman presented me with the tools of analysis for interpreting how they, as children and now, as adults, have constructed their own narratives of self-production; for example, Sy’s obvious reluctance and unease. His interview was one of the hardest for me. At first, I just said to myself, “Oh, that’s just the way he is – always was.” My questions during our interview elicited, at best, one- or two-word answers or he would bring the conversation to an end by saying he just couldn’t remember. I gave him the option, several times, of removing himself from the interview and the study entirely. He said no every time; he would continue. I felt certain there would be nothing to use. I should have known better. Despite what I thought would be a very lean interview, it contained insights that still came through the gaps and the inconsistencies and the nervous laughter. Insinuating itself was the sense of being apart, being different from the others and being unable to participate. Perhaps his resistance, an element that was present to varying degrees in all the interviews, reflects what must have been and continues to be contested issues for all of us. Was there a reluctance, an ambivalence on all our parts for I too, am implicated.
Despite the discourses operating around them, no one in this group succumbed entirely. Rather, they did and do exert some agency in their lives. They all lead Jewish lives. They strongly identify themselves as Jews and they openly talk about their parents’ histories. Past stories have been incorporated into present stories. The fluidity and flexibility reflects, to repeat Stuart Hall’s expression, “the extraordinary diversity” that comprises our subjective positions, our social experiences and our cultural identities.
It was at these points of discussion that I felt there was an appeal to me, the listener, to understand more than the words. Here was a counter theme, of “not only what the narrative appears to say but also what it appears to intend.” Throughout each person’s script, an underlying leitmotif would wind its way through the narrative and that was the admission of yes, they were different, remembering how it felt being who we were. While they have been affected in diverse ways and have interpreted their lived experiences in distinct transformative ways, the sense of dislocation and the desire to belong was always there – sometimes out in the open, at other times, as Cynthia Comacchio describes it, just hovering out of the corner of your eye, “never fully centred in their own lives and histories.” It was this appeal to normality that was so bound up with the notion of fitting in, variously and vigorously promoted during the postwar years in Canada.
In the years following the war, media images especially not only told but showed us who belonged and who did not, who was part of the larger Canadian group and who was out at the margins looking in. Each participant’s ability to engage with the culture of their childhood speaks to the strength of their parents’ desires to make life normal for them. Their memories are so consumed with this that they have convinced themselves that they were normal.
This leads to another aspect of these testimonies and it has to do with exclusions and their consequences. Living in both the Christian and the various Jewish communities was, they said, an everyday, taken-for-granted assumption, to be dealt with as necessary. The suggestion that it was anything serious or traumatic was either brushed aside, explained, or completely denied. Each person’s one remembrance of a ‘Jewish incident’, the one that stands out in his or her memory, reveals how these Jewish children of Holocaust survivors did, despite protestations to the contrary, lead racially structured lives. Each story, different from the next, illustrates how racism is not a singular social phenomenon. Not essential, it can be tracked in many places, at various times in history and with different consequences. And yet, all racisms “fundamentally structure social experience, people’s interactions with others, their life chances, and the meanings that they can make.”
When Anna’s teacher demanded to know what kind of Jew she was, at that moment he was classifying all Jews into one fixed, homogeneous category, not allowing for any one else’s meaning but his own. Racializations are not necessarily racist but when he essentialized her Jewishness, he was separating her from the dominant group, his group, pushing her out of the inner circle. She had chosen to define her own Jewishness and initially, had the courage to say it. But the unequal relationship between them, the power exerted by a teacher over a student, soon silenced her. After lunch, she did not return. He had erased her identities, including her own sense of what it meant to be Jewish. She had no choice but act the role of the Jew he had constructed.
Racisms can operate through language as in the case with Jake’s neighbour who used the derogatory Polish word jid and Ilana’s friend’s father who used the word kike. When I asked Ilana how she reacted, if at all, Ilana told me she “didn’t know what to do, what to say.” Both she and Jake kept quiet, not calling attention to themselves, not stepping forward to confirm their Jewishness. They were silenced. Jake insisted that it was just an expression. It wasn’t, and isn’t, though, ‘just an expression’ because those two little words denied their meanings. Many Jews I know, including myself, when we meet people for the first time, almost immediately, directly or indirectly, make some remark or reference to our Jewishness, thus announcing who we are. Our history, our remembered ‘one incident’ – or more – is enough to keep us on guard against any possible menace of antisemitism. Rob, when he perceives a social situation that threatens to move in that direction, removes himself physically. That is why we remain, as Ilana suggests, vigilant, looking for other Jews, feeling safer in numbers. Jewdar?
Racisms involve the organization of exclusions based on racialization. It can be discursive, as in the name calling or it can involve exclusion from a group or institution. When Eva was ‘outed’ by her Gentile neighbours – good friends of her parents up until then – she was told to go to her own synagogue, where she belonged. That was deliberate. In Barry’s case, I don’t think it was deliberate. His mentor’s ignorance, though well-meaning, labelled Barry without his approval or prior knowledge. It also caused Barry anxiety, leading him to question his own security, whether he had committed a faux pas so egregious that his job was on the line. Ironically, Barry was the one who tried to smooth things over, convincing his boss that it was okay. In a later incident, the roles were reversed, with Barry now the senior man. His junior, fearful of ‘coming out’ – even though he could have stayed hidden because of his name – did not know what to do about the Jewish holSuriys. He knew Barry was Jewish but still he moved cautiously, taking those tentative steps, seeming to ‘look around to see if it was safe.’ Hiding, whether purposeful or ascribed, is part of the essence of racism, having to do with non-trivial consequences. The hiding, the passing – these were common in the face of the messages and the representations in the fifties. And nowhere was this more prevailing than on TV. The imagined, white community constructed a norm, one that became so accepted that it went practically unnoticed. As a result, some, just like those Hungarian Jews Suzanna described, went to church to hide only to find other Jews doing the same thing. In the small towns, their efforts at passing as Christian were often so successful that their Jewishness and their Holocaust history was lost. Deliberate or intended, the exclusions – and inclusions – are still the same.
Racialization is not just done to another person. It can also be a process of self-defining. Sy’s Jewish teacher, though not hiding his religion, had marked out his own boundaries. When he sent Sy to the school office for wearing shorts that day, he was, Sy felt, acting as a Jew, not as a teacher. It was Sy’s perception that his action was perhaps antisemitic.
These examples also brought to mind the notion of ‘performance’ where the performativity of Jewishness could be trotted out or not. This is very suggestive of what Judith Butler talks about in regards to gender. Butler’s idea of identity is that it is just that, a performance, not an essential core that is biologically inherited. Our identities, gendered and otherwise, are the dramatic effect of our performances. Seen in this way, each person’s sense of self – our ‘being the same but different’ – came about because of the roles we performed everyday. The performance is the identity – and identities – we adopted and which formed us as subjects. We measured ourselves in relation to what we saw every day. Whether against our wills or voluntarily, the fictions become our identities.
Butler would argue that these performances are part of working towards change and understanding how contradictions can operate within the same individual and within groups of individuals. These sites of contestations point to how individuals cannot easily be slotted into neat and tidy categories. Just as culture is a hybrid, so too are their identities. Rather than looking for that one story that tells it all, future research must be capable of articulating the wide variety of historical subjective positions. Interrogating the intersections of their multiple and contradictory subject positions leads to a discussion of the consequences of the everyday practices and representations of the culture around them and how these children ultimately structured their lives. The analysis must shift the emphasis from the notion of an essential universal self to one that is socially constructed – multiple, complex and unendingly reconstituting itself.
While people are different, they do also share certain points of similarity, writing and playing out their scripts in a particular historical context. Everyone in this group would have wanted to belong. While no one wanted to be anything but Jewish or anyone other than the children of their heroic parents, it was because of who they were that made them different; not only different but missing from the larger picture. Their images and their stories were absent. It was such a denial, though, of who we were, of what our families had gone through and miraculously survived. At certain times, certain details or occurrences will trigger early memories, reminding me – and my contemporaries – of these messages, still influencing who we are today.
“I know the author slightly and always liked and admired her playful demeanour when setting about solving those serious problems that life sends us all. The book shows where this way of coming at life originates with a defiantly funny response where sadly we often see victim identity as a response to much lesser tragedies. This is funny kind and life affirming memoir of the survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants.”
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