My mother once told me that, during her labor with me in the living room of her Brooklyn apartment, she’d tugged on the long white drapes in her pain. The image of her on her knees, dark hair neatly tied back, mouth open, remains vivid to me. In this scene, I never see myself as a bulge in her middle; instead, I imagine myself as an angel, naked and pink and dimpled, hovering up near the ceiling, wishing her agony would end and fancying those curtains are the rope of a great bell announcing my imminent arrival into the world. This is my primal vision of pain: my mother on her knees in her living room in September, close to the end of World War II, while thousands were dying in the battlefields and concentration camps of Europe.
We were Jews, but we were safe in Astoria, New York, where my family moved from Brooklyn. My mother sent me to Hebrew school at Temple Beth Jacob — “House of Jacob,” son of Isaac, son of Abraham: House of Our Fathers. (My teachers rarely made mention of mothers.) Here, I would be fashioned into a Jewish woman. I would learn the prayers, beginning with the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” I would be diligently taught as God and my maternal grandfather, Menachem Mendel, a pharmacist, had commanded.
The sanctuary at Beth Jacob had swinging doors that opened onto rows of hard wooden benches nailed to the floor. (Many years later, I would see the same design in Odessa, the Ukrainian city of my grandfather’s birth.) The men sat on the right side of the room, the women on the left. The altar was capped by curved tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were carved. Below it was the holy ark that held the sacred Torah scrolls, wrapped in royal blue or burgundy velvet with gold trim and stitched Hebrew lettering. We stood whenever smooth-faced and kindly Rabbi Holtzer lifted them.
Mr. Danziger, the rabbi’s assistant and the temple handyman, was always at his side. Mr. Danziger had a thick accent and wore a dark coat. I loved him more than I did the rabbi, for the simple fact of his always being there, as God was said to be, and for his kindness. The war he survived must have cooked him sweet. I had to restrain myself from walking over to him. I wanted to give Mr. Danziger something fresh and pure, like the smell of my forearm. But all I could offer him was my plain face and smile full of teeth I had ruined sucking my thumb. Whenever possible, I’d stand next to him during kiddush, the ritual drinking of wine after services. The love in his eyes whenever he looked at me was so undemanding that, although a shy girl, I wanted his eyes on me. I knew next to nothing of his life, only that there was no Mrs. Danziger, nor did he have any relatives. Where had he come from, and why was he alone? I never dared think too hard about it.
No one ever said a word around me about Hitler or the Holocaust. That was too big and awful for little ears, such innocent shells. But I soon learned what had happened from books. I began, of course, with Anne Frank. Staring at her picture on the cover, I was stunned by the resemblance between us: dark hair, clear face, brown eyes, a bold yet shy look. Were she and I the same? More books followed: The Last of the Just, Exodus, The Wall.
“You shouldn’t read so much,” my mother said. “Your eyes will fall out.”
Sometimes we went to gatherings of the “family circle” in Manhattan, where I met my cousins. Some of them were recent arrivals from Europe, with odd accents and sad, loving smiles revealing a few gleaming gold teeth. Cousin Eva was my age and had no father. Once, we visited her and her mother in their tiny Manhattan apartment. I remember the terrible smells. “They are very poor” was all my mother would say.
I didn’t know their particular story, nor those of my other cousins, but I found clues in those library books. If what I read was not their story exactly, it was that of some more distant cousin. All that horror flattened into print on a page: it was real, but not real. Fairy tales were more real to me because I could imagine them clearly: Rumpelstiltskin and his straw that turned to gold, or the fisherman’s wife returning to the ledge above the sea. When it came to the stories I read about the war, I managed instinctively to keep the horror unfocused and vaguely distant — someone (not me) hiding in a trench, or eating a rotten potato, or being prodded in the back with the snout of a rifle.
But it was me, and oddly I basked in the confusion, flooded with a sense of identity, a me-ness that also belonged to the others. We were together no matter what, and we were queerly safe because we were not alone. It was tribal. Like zebras stalked by lions, we were running together, our breath quick, our skins sweating frightful odors, the earth below us stirred into dust.
And so I continued to sit on my safe bed, book in lap, devouring words like soldier, girl, candle, gun. I was scooped up and eaten by the stories of my people, who had been scooped up and eaten by the Germans, and I could no more stop reading about them than I could stop breathing.
“Your eyes will fall out,” my mother repeated, but she never ordered me to stop reading the books. She needed me to read them. Once, as she stood in the doorway to my room, she shook her head and said softly, “Your heart must be broken.” I didn’t look up. It was, but it had to be. I had to discard the sense of myself as an intact, separate package; I had to spread myself out over the terrain of the lost millions, spread my innocence over the hundreds of pages, the many thousands of words. I had to give at least that much.
Then one day, I stopped reading. The panorama contracted, the picture shrank until that terrible world became as distant as the miniature cities in the background of Renaissance paintings — perfect and small, impossible to reach unless you climb that steep hill, walk that long, curved road.
Forty years later, my husband, Bill, and I are at a hotel in Livorno, Italy. As we sit down to read in the lounge, I hear loud talking from behind a curtain between us and the dining room. I recognize the language as German, and I stiffen. “I have to get out of here,” I say to Bill. That night, as we prepare for bed, he tells me, “You need to work that out.” I agree.
That voice from behind a curtain is the first in a series of events that begin closing the distance between the Holocaust and me.
Attending a wedding, I find myself sitting next to Maxi, a seventeen-year-old German girl who is visiting her Uncle Jonathan, a friend of mine. We talk (we both love books), and I fall absolutely in love with her: her shiny, sweet face, her clear spirit, her long sandy hair. “I want to take her home,” I tell Jonathan. When I hug Maxi goodbye, we can hardly let go of each other.
A small boy bundled in a heavy winter jacket enters the book shop where I work and stands in front of a display, looking lost. “Can I help you?” I ask. He smiles at me and says nothing. “Would you like to see the children’s books?” I say. He points to his chest. “Me German,” he says. Then he grins and flies out the door.
I receive a letter from a German magazine asking for permission to translate a story of mine for publication.
Then comes the dream: I am a girl again and am standing beside a different mother at the edge of a huge ditch. My mother’s hand is big, and I hold it tightly. We are surrounded by lots of screaming people. Then there are shots. We fall over backwards onto an enormous pile of bodies. When I awake, I think of Babi Yar, the ravine near Kiev where, in September of 1941, the Nazis murdered thirty-five thousand Jews in two days.
The dream repeats itself over and over, like a video played and rewound obsessively. Needing counsel, I go to talk to a rabbi, a woman in a nearby town whom I’ve heard speak about the Holocaust. “I am haunted by this dream,” I tell her. “Maybe . . .” I lean over the coffee table toward her. “Maybe I really was killed in the Holocaust. Who knows? These dreams are more like memories, flashbacks.”
The rabbi touches my shoulder. She has dark hair streaked with gray, like mine. “You know,” she says, “I’ve had similar dreams. I’ve read that many Jews our age, born at the end of the war, actually were killed in the Holocaust; having suffered particularly traumatic deaths, we were reincarnated quickly, because the soul needs to return and get back to work fast. Maybe that’s why so many Jews are drawn now to meditation, to Buddhism, why so many of us are trying to find our way spiritually. That kind of death is shocking.
“It’s not crazy,” she concludes. “It’s real, and there’s a lot of healing that needs to be done, for us all.”
In the meantime, the German government is stuck in negotiations regarding the construction of a Holocaust monument. For years, members of the German parliament have been unable to agree on a plan from among the hundreds presented to them by artists from around the world. Some believe the camps, which are open to visitors, are the monument, and that selecting another site might artificially seal the ongoing process of grappling with this history. A facile “ending” may banish memory, rather than sustain it.
There is one memorial to the Holocaust that is not a place to visit. Rather, it’s an event that occurs once every April in Israel. At midday, a siren wails for two minutes, and everything — people, trains, buses, cars — stops dead in its tracks. People stare ahead or look down or close their eyes and, before the world starts up again, observe a few moments of silence: the fathomless silence in which all our dead reside.