When my grandmother, Eva Slonim, rose to speak at a ceremony at the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne on January 27- an event marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – she made sure first and foremost to apologize. She apologized to us, her children and grandchildren, for transmitting the evil curse of guilt. She apologized not only for her own idiosyncrasies, for ‘allowing’ guilt to fester in everything she does, and by extension, everything she can’t do, but also, for transmitting these feelings down to us, the next generations.
Guilt. That is what it means for me to be the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. Constant, unremitting, burdensome guilt. Though not yet medically confirmed, guilt is undoubtedly hereditary. It manifests in weird and wonderful ways seventy years after the fact. Only with the gift of hindsight have I begun to gauge that this is not a natural phenomenon. That beginning every phone call with ‘Mum, I feel bad because [insert inane reasoning here]…’ is not the norm. That my inability to simply ‘be’ in the moment or to feel at ease when I’m away from my family for more than a few hours was not born in a vacuum, but is inextricably linked with the survivor’s guilt my grandmother has carried on her shoulders for seventy years too long.
The amount of times I have heard my Savta ask ‘Why me?’ when alluding to her own survival I cannot enumerate. It is part and parcel with who she is and how she functions. Nonetheless, every time she utters these self deprecating words it hurts just the same. You survived so we could have you.
Yet, more than anything my Savta’s own sense of guilt evokes a deep sense of sorrow within me. Her lack of a natural joie de vivre despite how hard she may try; her inability to smile or laugh unselfconsciously; to buy a pair of shoes without agonizing as to whether she is worth it; to go to a movie that doesn’t have the words ‘Shoah, Holocaust, dark or horror’ strung together in some variation, all tell the story of a matriarch crippled by feelings of inadequacy.
Indeed, I am blessed to have a unique bond with my grandmother, Eva, which transcends age and era. This also means that we can communicate telepathically. I can read her thoughts as if they were my own. Often I see her actively trying to ‘be present’ and sometimes the bliss of forgetting even takes over for a moment. Yet, just as quickly she is transported from this world back to yesteryear where the word pleasure disappears from the dialect and food tastes like ash.
The stories she has recounted to us time and time again, both in private and public, have not become mundane. Rather, each and every time they evoke the same stomachache producing acidic taste in the mouth. Hearing my Savta recount stories of unimaginable torment whilst under the sadistic ‘care’ of Dr. Joseph Mengele in the Auschwitz experimental barracks hurts every time just as much as it did the time before. Notwithstanding the sheer depth of the physical pain it caused her, it is equally gut-wrenching that it happened to her, Eva; a woman who radiates compassion and gentleness of spirit like no other. These stories of Savta’s trials and tribulations are as entrenched in our family’s genetic make-up as the cells that keep our blood pumping.
Yet, I juxtapose this with the other side of my family tree. My grandfather, Marek Debinski, who does not have the same zest for recounting his experiences, though they are equally harrowing. His absence of words does not mask his pain, but rather, underscores it. Zaida has taught us grandchildren so much about the value of forgiveness, moving forward and rebuilding one’s life from the depths of despair. He is my hero. Yet, his solemnity and quiet nature tell the story of a broken man who lost everyone that mattered at the age of nine. Most frustrating is that we cannot rescue him from the constant hurt that manifests as a deep wrinkle between his two ‘Albert Einstein-esqu’ eyebrows. Like for Savta, it is a burden my Zaida must endure alone. He was there.
This is what it means to be the granddaughter of my Holocaust surviving grandparents, warts and all. Pain, pleasure, adoration, cynicism. And hopefulness. I am hopeful that the scourge of anti-Semitism, and indeed discrimination of all kinds, that robbed my grandparents of happiness and continues to burgeon today is dealt with once and for all so that the words ‘Never again’ come to bear some meaning beyond mere tokenism.