Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Holocaust Remembrance Service speech -- April 19, 2015

     (This is my presentation of Sunday, April 19, at the 32nd annual Shreveport-Bossier City Holocaust Remembrance Service, at St. Mark's Cathedral in Shreveport. This is lengthy, but several people requested to see a written copy.)

Living With Survivors

      What was it like to be the child of two Holocaust survivors? This is something I have not discussed publicly in much detail, although I have written about it on my blog. Some of what I say might surprise some people who knew my parents. Some are more familiar with parts of it.
     To begin: It was interesting. It was always a learning experience, and still is. However, it was difficult at times. There was a lot of love in our home, but there also was a lot of anxiety, stress and tension ... and anger. I was proud of my parents, but there were too many uncomfortable moments through the years. It's not unusual to have conflict in a home, but what was unusual was that the parents were Holocaust survivors. More on that in a moment. 
      I am honored to have been asked to speak today because it is a family tradition. For more than a quarter century, my mother and father -- both Holocaust survivors who spent roughly 2 1/2 years as prisoners in or near Auschwitz -- took part in this service, often as candle lighters (my sister Elsa also has done this, and so have I). My mother, who for the last 25 years of her life was a Holocaust educator and speaker for school groups, civic groups, churches and at military bases, on several occasions was the keynote speaker here.
      She always had a strong message about her experiences, about the Holocaust and the threat of evil that remains in the world today. We just have to look at the rogue nations and the terrorist groups such as ISIS, and we know it’s up to world leaders to deal with the types of genocide we still see. And we know the threat also is here in this country.
     So I think of my parents today and of Mr. Isaac Ain -- also a Holocaust survivor who came to live in Shreveport, who loved fishing and was a good friend of my parents. He regularly attended this service with his family. 
      Each time we light these 11 candles at the service, it is personal. It is about those 11 million who were murdered -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- and it is about our family, mostly wiped out on both sides. My parents were the only survivors from their immediate family. They lost their parents, my Dad's brothers and my Mom's sister, and their first spouses. 
     An example: My mother's parents came from large families, so my mother had 35 first cousins. Only one survived World War II; he was hidden with his parents on a farm in South Holland. All the other cousins and their parents died in the gas chambers or otherwise. I knew the surviving cousin; he became the editor and columnist for the Jewish newspaper in Amsterdam for a couple of decades. So newspaper work is part of our family.
      The Holocaust was their first-hand experience. Rose and Louis and Mr. Ain are gone now; the survivors are dwindling to a few. It is up to my generation to carry on the story, to tell the world of the terrible misdeeds of the Nazis and the aftereffects. 
      I am no scholar on the subject, but I learned from my parents. I read and heard the newspaper and TV coverage on them, and I watched the Shoah Foundation interviews they did in 1996. To be honest, there were times when I could not watch the interviews; it was too difficult. This was especially true just after their deaths (in 2008 and 2010). But when I felt that I was ready to write about them and could deal with it, I watched the tapes, and transcribed them.
      The blog -- which I began three years ago after retiring from full-time newspaper work – has many pieces on our family, especially a 34-part series on Dad’s story, which was never told fully because he did not speak English well enough to tell it publicly. 
      In fact, as I began to write these pieces, some of my friends I'd known for years -- for instance, a college coach and some of my high school classmates -- were surprised to hear that I was the son of Holocaust survivors. Most people knew I was Jewish -- I got kidded about that a lot, but in a good way -- but they did not make the connection. It was not something I made a big deal of when I was in school; it just didn't fit into the situation and kids would not have understood. Once we moved from Holland and from the Line Avenue area in Shreveport, there were only a couple of Jewish kids in my schools. More of Elsa's friends might have known about our family history because my mother spoke to her classes at times. 
      My parents were beautiful people -- engaging, talkative (anyone who was around them knew that), they talked about the Holocaust to anyone who asked or wanted to listen (unlike some survivors, who did not want to deal with it at all, or those who were obsessed with the subject). My parents balanced that well. Another thing: They loved to eat (again, many people knew that ... when you're basically starved for 2 1/2 years, you appreciate food when it is abundant). 
     They were charming and my mother could be very funny. Dad enjoyed a good laugh and he was a storyteller -- which came through in the blog series -- but he wasn't a jokester; he didn't initiate the laughter. My mother was a prankster, she was zany, and her speeches always had some one-liners. Elsa and I got this nutty sense of humor from her.
      But we also got this from her: a rage, a fiery disposition. Yes, she was very sweet at times, and she loved sweets, and she was a great cook and seamstress. But she had a temper, an anger, and so did we. 
      Because there was another side to my parents -- the residue of the Holocaust. Our house could be anxiety-filled, and it could be loud. My good friend Casey Baker, who was there a lot, told me it was the loudest house he'd been in. Voices projected naturally, and screaming was natural.
      As I was writing this speech, about a month ago, Bea saw a story from Scientific American magazine entitled: “Descendants of Holocaust Survivors Have Altered Stress Hormones.” A research team project in New York City studying mass trauma survivors and their offspring has determined that Holocaust survivors often are linked to the same post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that is associated with soldiers coming back from war. No surprise, I suppose, but I'd never seen PTSD used before in relation to the Holocaust. 
     Two portions of that story:
      -- Their latest results reveal that descendants of people who survived the Holocaust have different stress hormone profiles than their peers, perhaps predisposing them to anxiety disorders. 
      -- They had previously established that survivors of the Holocaust have altered levels of circulating stress hormones compared with other Jewish adults of the same age. 
      So that was Elsa and that was me -- altered stress levels. Subjected to PTSD? Perhaps. But this is not an excuse or a copout. Much too often I've done a poor job of handling stressful situations and that has caused me much trouble. And to this day, I still cope with it. 
      Dealing with stress was something my parents had to endure from the late 1930s when the Nazi German threat grew so large in western Europe. Think about the stress of being a POW, as my Dad was when the Nazis overtook the Dutch Army; being restricted in all they did -- curfews, jobs, having to wear the yellow star, seeing your parents and your family "arrested" and taken away to who knows where, and then yourself and your spouse, and going through all the camps-- the degradation, the horrors, the killing, the labor, the starvation, the beatings, not knowing day-to-day, minute-to-minute, what was going to happen. Knowing that people were dying in gas chambers closeby. Not knowing where the rest of your loved ones where. Knowing that each day might be your last. 
      And then, when they did leave Auschwitz, to wander for a couple of months in foreign territory, the world in total disarray for them and everyone. What was going to happen next?
      They were still unsettled when they were fortunate to meet back in Amsterdam met late in 1945. Each had lost their spouse; they had not known each other, although they grew up only a couple of blocks apart -- and after they married in October 1946, my mother soon found out she was pregnant. She didn't believe the doctor, she told him he was crazy, that it was impossible.
      And here is why: My mother never thought she'd have children. Many of you know this: She was subjected to medical experiments by the Nazis in the infamous Block 10 at Auschwitz, was told she would be sterilized. She took many, many shots in places you don't want shots ... and yet, she was one of the few lucky women who survived the war and did have children. 
      When I arrived 2 1/2 months early and at 2 1/2 pounds, a preemie in 1947, I didn't go home for several months. More stress for them: They didn't know if I'd make it. When I did get home, I think Mom actually was scared to deal with me ... that's what she always said. Things went much more smoothly when Elsa arrived four years later.
      So here we were, these two "miracle" children, if you will. I think about how Mom talked about how she was such a spoiled, overprotected child,and I know we were that way, too. I got most everything I wanted –within reason. 
      And we were not disciplined a great deal. Dad almost never dealt with that; it just wasn't in him. I think the beatings he had taken in the camp -- four beatings he talked about -- and the brutality he had seen kept him from being hard on us. He wasn't a harsh person; he was a basically gentle man. He wasn't a philosopher; he was an in-the-present person -- you knew what he was thinking. He was a true survivor in that he figured out what he needed to do that day or in a particular situation to survive another day and move on. I think this served him well in the camps.
      So my mother handled most of the discipline at our house, and at times, she could rage. The wrath of Rose was not a good thing. 
      No question we were "difficult" children -- at least I was, and I can be a "difficult" adult -- but as I look back parenting was "difficult" for my parents. Maybe having a baby 2 1/2 years after escaping the death camp was too soon for them. The trauma and the shellshock might not have worn off, especially for Mom. 
      It was tough in those early years, a struggle financially in Holland and then -- more stress -- after we immigrated to the U.S. through sponsorship from Jewish people here in Shreveport. The adjustment -- getting settled in this new land, this city in the Deep South, not knowing anyone, learning a new language -- was so great. It was totally foreign.
      As I got old enough, I went my own way. I escaped into my world -- athletics, and then tied in with journalism -- with a single-minded dedication to something that I always loved and thus I missed out on much which might have done me some good. Dad also loved athletics and we enjoyed a lot together, but he also had a life -- much of which was trying to keep Miss Rose happy. Tough task at times.
      They tried hard to be good parents, but along the way, there were things that we missed out on, personal things -- physical and emotional -- that I came to regret and had to learn on my own later. I could give you details, but I'm going to leave it at that. 
      Dad was not negative about the Holocaust; he somehow always could take a positive view of things. What hurt him most, as he expressed it, was the loss of his little brother (age 10) and of his baby nephew (named Nico, age 2). He could not understand how the Nazis could kill such innocents.
      But there were times that he could be anxious about things -- work-related issues, plane trips, money matters, and dealing with Mom. I know he was subjected to some anti-Semitism; I remember that once at work a guy making anti-Semitic remarks struck him in the back with a board. No major damage, thankfully. But Dad usually was good about adjusting to people and situations.
      He did, however, have his prejudices. He never embraced Germany as a recovering country, as a benevolent world power. He never liked German products. No way was he going to ride in a Volkswagon; a couple of my coaches had Volkswagons and they teased him about riding with them, but no way.
      And here is a story. When Bea and I first married, Bea had a rustic coffee table, a nice piece of work, she had put it together and adorned with labels off wine bottles. German wine bottles. First time Dad came to our house and saw that table, saw those labels, he said, "This has got to go." 
      The table went, thus saving our marriage. 
      There is what is known as survivors' guilt: "I am alive and the rest of my family isn't, and why God, is that? What did I do to deserve this?" While that did not seem to affect Dad much outwardly, I think survivors' guilt greatly affected my mother. She did not own up to that, however. She didn't like the "guilt" connotation, nor did she want extensive counseling, at least not until much later in life.
      My mother was more complex than Dad, more a "big picture" person. She was not afraid to speak her mind or face audiences. She could be outspoken. She was a wonderful, courageous woman, very smart, well-read, self-educated. She was a prolific writer -- for every speech she made, she wrote a script. She wrote some profound poetry about the Holocaust. 
      Publicly she was positive. But what you saw in public was not always what was going on with her. In private, she could be harsh about some things, whether it was at home or in the world. 
      And here is a truth: At times, my mother simply could not deal with life. She would have periods of mental exhaustion; there were times when she had to be hospitalized to recover.
      When we were kids, a year or two after we came to the U.S., she would have hours, days of screaming, crying fits, wailing ... she could not stop. These weren't nightmares; this was just terror. Who knows why? I suspect it was survivors' guilt, the flashbacks to the concentration camp and the "Death March" through Poland and Germany.
      As a young kid hearing this, it was frustrating. It was painful. It was unsettling. I remember wondering if it would ever end. And in a sense, it never did. Through her life, my mother never was a very good sleeper. Any noise or light would keep her awake. But more so, it was her mind that kept her awake; her past haunted her and, yes, even though she didn't like this word, kept her depressed. And she often was in physical pain because of nerve endings in her legs.
      Dad did the best he could with it, but sometimes it was too much for him and frustrated him greatly. Thankfully, there were always people to step in and help.
      One story: We went to the Louisiana State Fair during the day -- Mom, Elsa and me. This was about 1960, so I was 13 and Elsa was 9. We went into the House of Mirrors, a maze of mirrors. We could not find our way out; this went on for minutes. My mother grew frantic, panicky. Finally, someone noticed and helped us get out, but once outside, Mom went into hysterics, and we had to call Dad to come pick us up. The feeling of being trapped was too much for her.
      Here's what else being children of Holocaust survivors meant for us: Elsa and I were aware always that (1) we did not have living grandparents; and (2) we knew what those number tattoos on my parents' left forearms meant. My parents told us these things, they were as open as they could be about the Holocaust with us, told us what they thought we could handle. 
      In Holland, I never thought much about our grandparents not being there; we had people -- most of them survivors --who cared for us. But when we moved to Shreveport, to Sunset Acres, and the kids who lived around us would get visits from their grandparents. I think back on it now and remember a sense of envy.
      We were fortunate, though, to have some surrogate grandparents in Shreveport -- Mrs. Janice Cahn was like a mother to my mother; Mr. Abe Gilbert, my dad's boss, and his wife and the extended Gilbert family did so much for my parents and we were like family.
      Still, it's not quite the same thing. So you might understand why my parents enjoyed being grandparents (five times) and how much we enjoy our grandkids.
      About the number tattoos: People my parents met would notice and sometimes they would ask what the number meant. When my mother spoke to groups, especially students, that number was a good "show and tell" item. 
      Dad was No. 70726. Mom was No. 62511. His number was large, and had an extra mark where the person doing the tattoo screwed up as he started. My mother's number was smaller, which kind of matched her physical size. She was a little woman, for those who don't know.
      I mentioned that my Dad encountered some anti-Semitism. I can say this; I was quite lucky. Never in my 67 years have I encountered anti-Semitism directed toward me personally. I think that's remarkable, and it's probably a good thing because I might not have handled it well.
      Here's what else I could not handle -- visiting Auschwitz. I have no desire to do that. I know some of you have seen the camp. Dad did return, in 1952, to help dedicate a monument for the people who perished there. He was one of two people to do the honors at the Dutch portion of the monument. And in 1986, he returned to Germany to testify in a trial against a Nazi SS officer accused of killing groups of people during the "Death March." Dad did not remember him from Auschwitz and told the German government that, but they insisted he come to testify. They paid for the trip, so he took it -- and took a side trip to Holland afterward.
      My parents were honored publicly repeatedly in the latter part of their lives, and we were grateful for that. Maybe their sense of entitlement at times -- feeling they should be treated  special because they were survivors -- bothered me some, but writing and speaking about them is a way of honoring them again because there is so much to be admired.
      Probably the most admirable aspect was their remarkable willpower and their pride. Hope some of this got passed down, too. 
      Almost to the end, at age 88, my mother made her speaking appearances. The last couple of years, it would take a great deal out of her; she would be physically and mentally exhausted and it would take days for her to recover. she took a great deal of pride in standing before an audience; in the final years, she could hardly walk and she had to make a concession -- she had to sit while she spoke. That was difficult for her, but she did it. She didn't want to give up.
      She never wanted to give up -- that's how she made it through the Holocaust in the first place. 
      I borrow from one of her last speeches at one of these services: "There are people who trivialize the Holocaust or bend the brutality of it to their convenience, making it a symbol. It was not, it was a fact. The memory of the Holocaust is the black sun into which we cannot bear to stare." 
      Those are her words. Here are mine to those who deny the Holocaust: I heard the crying and screaming at my house. I know about the sleepless nights. I saw the numbers tattooed on my parents' arms; they did not ask for those. And, yes, I never knew my grandparents, aunts and uncles. I wish I had. 
      Near the end of his Shoah Foundation interview, Dad was asked if he had a message for humanity.
      "Oh, that we have peace," he answered. "I pray for that. I still pray a little bit. I pray we have peace, and I hope we see it in our lifetime, [but] what's happening in Israel, I don't think I will see it in my lifetime. They're fighting for so many years there already, [even] before Israel."
      Dad, we are still praying for that. The world always must keep peace as its top priority and repel the threats and actions of the terrorists, of those with evil intentions.
      The two people who brought me into this world and the families they lost, are unforgettable ... and cherished. Those 11 candles are personal.
      We won't let people forget the Holocaust. We can't.


  1. From Jack Thigpen: Great! Thanks so much for sharing. No one really knows what it was like growing up as the son of two Holocaust survivors, but you helped all of us understand better.

  2. From Judy Touchstone Graves: I heard you mom speak several times. It was heart-wrenching to imagine what she, your dad, and countless others had to endure. I'm thankful she could share her story with others, and I'm thankful you were able to share from your perspective. We must never forget!

  3. From Mark Murov: Very insightful; I am always learning from you. My Mom told me about your speech, especially the PTSD part, and of course it makes sense and adds new layers of understanding to read the full text. ... People can acquire empathy from speeches and blog postings and books, documentaries, etc. But what can teach best is to find oneself in the others’ shoes, or something even somewhat like the others’ shoes. ... I realized that, until Hurricane Katrina, which of course was mild compared to what happened to [some people] and to Louis and Rose, I only thought I grasped their plight. ... I knew their lifelong pain, and their strength, more deeply than I ever could have before. So, not to diminish the power of your speeches, or your Mom’s, I believe that, ultimately, people can only grasp others’ reality, particularly their hardships, one layer at a time. ... Keep up the good work. I got a layer deeper into the Van Thyns reading the speech.

  4. From Robert Levy: My father’s unit, the 82nd Infantry, liberated a few camps and some of them wrote about the experience.

  5. From David Worthington: Thank you for letting other people get a small glimpse into your life and the lives of your parents with regard to being "survivors of the Holocaust." Your transparency and honesty in expressing your knowledge and feelings help me to have a greater understanding of the emotional and physical pain so many people went through. We will remember your parents as survivors, and also those 11 million people who insanely lost their lives at the hands of ruthless tyrants. We will not forget them! May God help us all to pray for and work for peace in this hate-filled world.

  6. From Kitty van der Woude: Great speech, thank you. It gave me an insight in Rose’s character that I have never experienced.

  7. From Ronny Walker: Thank you first for speaking on Sunday from your heart. Also Jody and I appreciate this copy of your speech. It is never too lengthy to talk about someone’s life that impacted so many others. Remembrance means “you take all the time and paper you want to.”

  8. From Jerie Shirley Black: A powerful speech we will always remember. Your haunting words very thought-provoking. After visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., on the confirmation trip, I was forever changed. Standing inside that box car, touching the sides, recalling Rose's many speeches about the horrors ... palpable.
    We were blessed with the friendship of your parents, and Martin and Palmer were honored by their attendance at their B'nai mitzvah. As always, there is never enough time to really visit. ... We will never forget.

  9. From Ross Montelbano: Great story about the Holocaust Remembrance. I went to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam about 20 years ago. Very emotional. I was equally aware of the pain, but also the determination that the Nazis would be shown that they would be defeated in the end.

  10. From Tammy Ain Willson: I want to say how much your speech meant to me as a child of a survivor and all that goes along with it.

  11. From Reina Spier: Kitty (van der Woude, her sister) sent me your mails about the terrible history of your parents, told in your Remembrance speech.
    Let’s keep their memories alive. Here [Amsterdam], in the month of May, there are so many ceremonies for that purpose, especially now 70 years after the Liberation.
    I sent Rose’s story to one of my friends; her mother must have been one of your mother’s room- and fatemates. Her mother lost her husband and her fertility, but my friend was born before Auschwitz and left behind with strangers here.
    Let’s pray for a better world once, although the future seems not promising!