Thursday, February 2, 2012

Survivors' son (Part 2)

Rose and Louis Van Thyn

    I often think about this: What must it have been like for my parents coming back to Amsterdam after more than two years in the Auschwitz concentration camp?
   Their lives had been shattered in young adulthood; their families (parents, siblings, first spouses) and many friends gone by way of the gas chambers.
   Rose and Louis had been in the midst of death, disease, starvation, filth -- the smell of the rotting bodies all around -- and they had survived.
   They always said luck had a lot to do with it -- one day the healthy ones were chosen to be exterminated, next day it might be the sick ones.
   But so did their strong will, their determination to live.
   That strong will helped them give up much of what they had -- friends, what few family that was left (my mother's first cousin, my dad's sister-in-law from his first marriage and her husband), possessions -- to make the move to the U.S.
   It carried them through health problems and to lives that lasted until they were both almost in their 90s.
   But -- understandably -- they were fractured, fragile people, too. They rebuilt their lives, but that never went away.
   My parents never thought they would have kids; my mother had been among the women used by the Nazis for medical experiments in the Auschwitz concentration camp; all but a handful of the women were sterile. But my mother was among the lucky ones, and she was stunned to find she was pregnant (with me) late in 1946.
   So with two kids -- two miracle kids, if you will -- there was a lot of love in our house. We were spoiled kids. Anything we wanted, within our means, we got..
   But with that love, there was something else: anger, sometimes rage.
   Our house was loud, lots of screaming. My best friend for years, Casey Baker, said a few years ago that it was the loudest house he'd ever been in -- and he was there a lot.
   My dad was mostly a sweetheart. He could -- and would -- talk to anyone, and it was easy to tell he was an upbeat, pleasant guy. But he had his frustrations, sometimes because of the language (he spoke a broken English, and I found out when we went back to Holland, a broken Dutch).
    I saw his temper more than a few times. But he never took it out on me in a physical sense.
My mother was the engaging person and great talker so many people saw when she spoke on the Holocaust in public. She had a zany, crazy sense of humor -- we got it honestly -- and she was opinionated. If an opinion didn't match hers, she didn't give in very often or very easily.
   She also was depressed at times. There were crying fits -- screams -- for long periods. You remember these things as a kid; it was scary, puzzling and frustrating. In those times, my dad was always gentle with her.
   (Once when Elsa and I went with her to the Louisiana State Fair, we went into a house of mirrors, a maze. It was like we were trapped, we were in there so long. When we finally got out, my mother was a wreck. She was crying and screaming, and my dad had to come pick us up. And you wonder why I never liked the fair?)
   She had a fierce temper, and at times she struck out at us. She raged. She was the disciplinarian in our house.
   My wife points out that parents are our first loves, who comfort and protect us in every way they know. And in the process, we are scarred for life by their best intentions.
    It was passed down. Anyone who has been around me for a period of time -- family, friends, co-workers -- has seen the temper ... and the rage. It's not pretty. It's harmful. It is, unfortunately, memorable. It's cost me some jobs, it's caused me more trouble than I could have imagined.
   My family has paid for it. I'm lucky -- extremely fortunate -- to have a wonderful, understanding spouse and two great kids who came through it all in pretty darned good fashion.
   This isn't an excuse or a copout. I'm a survivors' son, but I'm responsible for my actions. Still trying to do better every day.
   Rose and Louis carried me a long, long way -- and they still do today. I miss them more than I ever thought I would.

1 comment:

  1. Incredible and touching life story. I'm one of those that never knew this. Thanks for sharing.