Saturday, May 13, 2006

Type Cast 17

I was raised in a family overshadowed by secrets. At 41, there are still huge chunks of my parents’ history I know nothing about, and now that my father is gone and my mother has become the merriest widow in New Brunswick after Mrs. McCain, I’m unlikely to uncover any more useful material.

This is not an unusual predicament for children born to pre-Me Generation, pre-talk show parents. My parents’ generation believes that talking about the past, especially any nasty or shameful events buried in that past, only causes hurt feelings, useless drama or worse. I still battle an inherited superstition that says if you talk about bad things, bad things will happen. In my family, silence isn’t a golden treasure, it’s insurance.

Reading Bernice Eisenstein’s gripping memoir-cum-comic book I Was A Child of Holocaust Survivors (McClelland & Stewart, $32.99), I was surprised to find myself nodding with recognition at Eisenstein’s depiction of her own haunted family and its attempts to shield her young mind from the horrors of the Shoah.

Now, let me be clear: I am not Jewish and do not pretend to understand the Jewish diasporic experience. Furthermore, and far more important, in no way would I ever compare my family’s particular turmoil (juicy as it might be) to the unimaginable suffering and unique evil of the Holocaust. Nobody in my family was ever hauled off and murdered by fascists, so of course whatever commonality I or any other non-survivor reader might feel with Eisenstein’s story must be understood to be, at best, a kind of thematic familiarity, a mere glimmer of understanding – but it’s a damned powerful light.

As Eisenstein’s book unfolds, we learn about everything from the daily domestic rituals practiced by her mother and extended family, to the intricacies of kosher cooking, to her aunt’s love of singing Yiddish songs and on to her own life-long affair with books and movies – and all of this seemingly mundane material, from the bread baking to the bat mitzvahs, the fodder of a hundred such family memoirs, is occluded and darkened by the ever-present shadows of her parent’s terrible experiences during WWII.

The Holocaust is not merely a bad memory, Eisenstein shows us, it is her family’s permanent, default reference point for everything that followed. It’s as if Eisenstein’s parents began life in Technicolor and were abruptly, malevolently forced to forever after live in black and white. Eisenstein’s keenly observed (and gorgeously illustrated) depiction of a family burdened by too many unspoken fears, of a house weighted with remorse and unresolved (indeed, impossible to resolve) traumas, will speak to anyone who has ever grown up in a home papered with secrets and whispers.

In one telling chapter entitled “The Group”, Eisenstein recounts how her parents created a separate social world comprised entirely of fellow survivors, and how, even in the most innocuous social moments, that group always preserved “an air of a reunion being held. They adhered one to the other with the kind of bond that would be hard to duplicate – at times, it felt, even with their own children.”

Therein lies the fundamental disconnect that makes Eisenstein’s narrative so compelling. While everything around her constantly refers, in hundreds of big and little ways, to the evils of the concentration camps, she, as a child of survivors but not a survivor herself, can never fully share the experiences that so profoundly shape her world. It’s a blessing and a curse, to be fortunate enough to have escaped her parents’ fate and yet to be continually living with the consequences of that fate – all the while knowing that no matter how much you learn and listen, you will always be an outsider looking in.

How Eisenstein manages to avoid bitterness is well beyond me. As a bit player in my own parents’ dramas, the silent epics of neuroses and disappointment that I sensed (and overheard) as a child but was never given full access to, I still wonder what I have not been told and still resent being expected to tip-toe around the invisible furniture.

But Eisenstein’s memoir makes it very clear that her parents and their friends not only wanted to protect their children (and were willing to accept the psychological risks of that strategy), but, for practicality’s sake, had either to carry on with their lives or give up entirely. In other words, they had to chose between a calculated silence or a waking nightmare. This heroic determination to simply proceed with ordinary life, to live as fully as possible, fills I Was A Child of Holocaust Survivors with luminous moments, with acts of quiet, sensible courage, occasional bouts of melancholy and black humour, and a handful of joyous (but ever-alert) attacks of the sillies.

Eisenstein’s childhood was full of ghosts, but the ghosts never won. “If, over the years,” she writes, “I had a sense of benign parental neglect, eventually I saw it differently. The circumstances of my parents’ lives had taught them to guard their stories … once outside, I would discover my own.”

This sounds like a better solution than any therapist ever offered me: If you can’t get to the bottom of a family secret, go get your own life. Amen to that.