FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 4, 2016
Stark and remote, the Marriott in Woodland Hills, California, feels like a strange choice to host an international gathering — until one considers the conference organizers might be aiming to keep a low profile. Several decades ago, when this group convened in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, early arrivals were distressed to read on their motel’s marquee: WELCOME, HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS!
My mother was a survivor, and in one of her fitful yearnings for community she attended that long-ago event. I, her lone descendant, have come this year for a number of reasons: because today would have been her ninety-third birthday; because the venue this time is just an hour from my home in Culver City; because I need a break from the presidential campaign, which is in its toxic last days, and from my students, who seem less motivated and alert this semester, maybe owing to the same campaign; and because my mother-in-law — a survivor like Mom — would like the company but my wife has to work.
Lurking beneath all these rationales, however, lies a thornier motive: I was never able to answer my mother when she asked how her Holocaust experience had affected me. And she deserves my good-faith attempt, albeit these many years late.
My mother-in-law greets me with an impish smile when I arrive at her condo to pick her up. Mom Song, I call her: she married, then divorced a Korean man but kept his last name to match her children’s. Before we leave, she embarks on a prolonged last-minute inspection of her place, then asks if there’s time for me to solve her most recent computer problem. One might almost think she were stalling. Though attending this conference was her idea, and though she’s been to smaller ones before, three solid days on the subject could easily overwhelm her. “Call,” my wife has told me, “if she starts to lose it.” I’ve privately vowed to show my mother-in-law patience, something I often failed to do with my own mother in her last years. In a way Mom Song offers me a second chance, ready to accept whatever amends I’m prepared to make.
Hitting the road at last, we manage to outrun LA’s apocalyptic Friday-afternoon rush hour and make it to the Woodland Hills Marriott with time to spare. In the lobby we wait in line to receive our IDs and souvenir totes: blue bags printed with a slogan that delicately conveys the event’s theme: “Generations Together.”
We have reserved two rooms at the hotel. Mom Song picks the one she prefers, and I agree to come get her in an hour for the Friday-night Shabbat service, marking the start of the Sabbath. One floor below her, I settle into my room and resist the temptation to check CNN. Despite the FBI’s public reopening of its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, she is still projected to win. I regret that my mother won’t have lived to see America’s first woman president, but at least she’s been spared the Trump campaign, with its demonizing of undocumented immigrants; she was once an “illegal alien” herself in France.
After unpacking, I find a Starbucks in the lobby, and the woman next to me in line asks where I’ve traveled from and with whom. When I tell her I’ve brought my mother-in-law, the woman exclaims, “Oh, what a good son!”
The intensity of my gratitude for this compliment catches me by surprise, and I wonder: If my mother were watching over this exchange, would she agree that I’m a good son? She once remarked on other women’s sons being “good providers”; she was disappointed that my first marriage lasted only a year; and then there were all the ways I failed her during her final illness. So I have my doubts.
“Let’s test the door,” says Mom Song when I arrive to get her. Since it’s her habit to anticipate danger, I help her confirm the locks are working and that the latch will let her open the door just a crack. Satisfied, she collects her GENERATIONS TOGETHER tote, and we set out to find the Shabbat service.
Though both my parents were born Jewish, we were never religious. In all my fifty-seven years tonight marks my first Shabbat service, and I’m a little nervous. Certainly the Orthodox version being held in the Hollywood Room won’t do, but there’s an “egalitarian” service in the Woodland Hills Room, which we locate just before the seats fill. I would offer mine to one of the many people looking in from the hallway, but then I’d have to desert my mother-in-law. On my right a large, bearded man shifts in his seat, boxing me in further. His suspenders strain against his barrel chest, and I start to think of him as a Jewish Santa.
As we await the arrival of the rabbi, a middle-aged woman introduces herself to Mom Song and me, saying she learned about the conference just days ago. Her embrace of Judaism is fairly new. Previously she went through a Sufi phase, followed by an exclusive devotion to science. Finally, when she turned sixty, she celebrated her bat mitzvah. Having found her path at last, she radiates a joy and serenity I envy.
Mom Song is reaching to smooth the rumpled sweater of the woman in front of her when suddenly Jewish Santa bursts into song. His booming voice sounds like a cantor’s, and I wonder if he’s been planted in the audience as a surprise. My suspicion seems confirmed when he rises to assume a place at the front of the room, but then he confesses he’s not the person who is supposed to be conducting the service, but only a volunteer stand-in. He leads the room in songs that everyone else seems to know by heart; my mother-in-law translates bits and pieces into my ear.
The rabbi never does arrive, but people seem content. “A leader emerged,” beams the woman whose sweater Mom Song fixed. “It shows the dynamics of our people.” Though technically part of this tribe, I can’t help feeling like an impostor.
In the Grand Ballroom Mom Song and I wait for dinner with more than five hundred other attendees, many of whom have come a lot farther than my twenty-two miles — from most of the states as well as Canada, France, Peru, Poland, the Netherlands, Croatia, Australia, and of course Israel. At our table of nine sit a middle-aged systems analyst from the Midwest, a local college student and her sister, a slightly cross-eyed rabbi and his amiable wife, and an elderly Dutch survivor with her companion from Istanbul. The rabbi is ripping up pieces of challah bread and sprinkling them with salt.
“What’s that for?” I ask my interpreter-in-law.
“He’s blessing it,” Mom Song whispers back.
After tossing pieces of blessed bread across the table to the younger people, the rabbi deferentially passes a plate to the older diners. Not ready to think of myself as a senior citizen, I motion for him to throw mine.
One of the conference organizers, a stylish woman in her late seventies, takes the podium and attempts to shush the boisterous crowd. Losing patience, she finally snaps, “I know we’re all children here, but can we please listen to a few instructions? How did we make it through the horror if we didn’t listen?”
That quiets the room. A few eyebrows rise at such casual mention of the “horror,” but it’s the remark’s preface — I know we’re all children here — that puzzles me. Then I get it: the survivors among us were all children during the Holocaust. I’ll soon learn that child-survivors often felt their wartime trauma was discounted because they’d been just kids at the time and supposedly lacked the capacity to fully appreciate the tragedy. They were allowed to be “victims,” one guest speaker will explain, but the term survivor was reserved for adults — in particular, those who’d endured the death camps. This organization — the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants — refers to any living Jew who was directly hurt by the Nazis as a “survivor.”
After dinner Mom Song attends a break-out group for Dutch survivors, while I head to an orientation for first-timers. There, the woman who shushed the crowd at dinner recounts some of the group’s history before asking us why we’ve chosen to come this year. A rabbi sitting near me responds with a question of her own: “What took me so long?” she asks. “What have I been avoiding?”
The perfect place to start! I hear my mother whispering in my head. She was a therapist, and her training and temperament inclined her toward honesty in all cases. I admired this about her, but sometimes it caused me discomfort — like the time she asked how I’d been affected by her Holocaust experience. I simply had no answer. I may even have believed it hadn’t affected me at all.
On a summer day in 1942, when she was just eighteen, my future mother returned to her family’s apartment on the Boulevard de Strasbourg in Paris and found her own mother outside, frantically pacing the sidewalk. “Hurry, Shella!” she said. “Your father’s been taken!”
After fleeing Romania three years earlier, they’d moved to Paris not long before the Nazis invaded northern France. During the summer of 1942 thousands of Jews living in the capital were deported to concentration camps — eventually to be gassed. But police had yet to round up the Romanian Jewish refugees; rather, my grandfather was arrested because someone had denounced him personally.
His wife and daughter rushed to the police prefecture across from Notre-Dame Cathedral, where my mother, the more fluent in French of the two, cornered a detective and demanded he produce Rubin Zelzer, her father. Noticing the Jewish star on her lapel, the cop told her to mind her manners if she didn’t want to end up behind bars, too. Eventually, however, my grandfather was brought out. He tearfully hugged his family and accepted the care package his wife had brought. But his instructions were for my mother alone: “Go talk to the Germans,” he begged, hoping they might overrule the French for having arrested a Romanian “too soon.”
Talk to the Germans? Was her father really asking her to risk her own freedom, and possibly her life, for such a hopeless plan? Nevertheless my mother set out across town for the German high command, headquartered in the elegant Hôtel de Crillon. Unsure whom to speak to or exactly what to say, she asked for the commandant and was directed to the second floor. At the top of a winding marble staircase she found an imposing room occupied by two German officers and began to blurt out her story. With a look of disbelief, the officer in charge interrupted her. If she knew what was good for her, he warned, she should turn around and leave at once.
Aware that her life had just been spared, my mother raced back down the stairs and out into the warm sunshine. She felt elated. “I had done my duty, my crazy duty,” she’d recall for me, and had thereby freed herself from a regret that would have haunted her always. Having done so was “the greatest feeling in the world.”
Some weeks later, when the police did go after the Romanian Jews, she and her mother went into hiding. They never saw my grandfather again. But despite the hardships and the constant risk, my mother managed to make surviving the Nazi occupation sound almost like an adventure. She continued to love France, and even after she moved to the U.S. following the war, she’d return to visit as often as possible.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 5
In recent years a chronic nervous digestion has afflicted Mom Song most mornings, so our plan for today is to touch base via text and meet up whenever she’s feeling ready, which will probably be lunchtime.
Downstairs I pause to read the notes on the bulletin board where attendees leave messages for one another: “Dear Fellow Survivors, I am very interested in meeting others from the Warsaw Ghetto so I can add to my mother’s story. . . .” “Anyone who spent wartime in Cornwall Jewish Orphanage please contact . . .” I overhear the most disturbing conversations. (“They took them immediately to the gas chamber,” someone says. “If I hadn’t escaped, I’d be dead.”) Clearly this is no place for small talk. I sit down to breakfast and meet a spry octogenarian in a jaunty fisherman’s cap, who introduces himself by recounting how Kindertransport — an organized effort to rescue Jewish children from the Nazis — whisked him to England when he was ten but left his fourteen-year-old sister behind to perish with their parents. “It’s been the problem of my life,” he says.
Such brutal synopses are what attendees refer to as a person’s “family story.”
The tablemate to my left recounts how her parents — rebels based in the Polish forests — tried to reclaim her sister after the war and ultimately had to kidnap her. “My family’s story is very interesting,” she says before quickly adding, “Everyone’s is interesting, but my family’s especially, because they resisted; they weren’t victims.”
I’m struck by the woman’s understandable pride and the human impulse to assign status, even in suffering. That we should privilege survival over victimhood, resistance over survival, feels both natural and, at the same time, unseemly. Nonetheless, this is exactly how my mother would often prioritize her wartime experience, and how I’ve repeated it: her heroic gesture overshadows the fact that she ultimately failed.
It weighed on her, of course. As my mother got older, she tried to find any scrap of information about my grandfather’s fate and wrote about her belated grief. That “best feeling in the world” she’d enjoyed in the moments after having been spared had grown more complicated with age.
I spend the morning in small discussion groups. Avoiding those reserved for survivors only, I join a session for second-generation descendants — “2Gs,” we’re called — titled “How Have Our Parents’ Experiences in the Holocaust Influenced Who We Are?” This, of course, is the very question I failed to answer for my mother. Our facilitator is the daughter of a survivor and also a psychotherapist — all the facilitators are therapists, as are a great many of the attendees.
She counsels us not to retell our family story; we’re here to address our own issues. But most of us find it impossible to share without first providing some “context.” One woman was born to a father who’d been a Kindertransport child, while her mother had grown up in a Japanese American internment camp. Another is afraid we’ll shun her because her gentile uncle was a Nazi. Some of these “contexts” go on for quite a while. In fairness to the facilitator, though, it must be hard to interrupt the story of how a relative was tortured or killed and urge the speaker to get to the point.
“How many of you,” she asks, “were brought up to always have a valid passport, because you never know when you might have to leave? Like on November 9!” Her joke about a still-unthinkable outcome to the impending election gets a laugh. Nonetheless a show of hands confirms that many in the room feel the need to have a getaway bag ready at all times.
People begin to share their deeper feelings: about growing up with a “nameless fear”; of being “born into grief”; of having “lost the sense of what family is.” Whenever someone wanders too deep into a family story, the facilitator tries to steer the conversation toward how our parents’ experience affected us. She once had buttons made, she says, that read: “I Survived a Survivor.”
This makes me wonder: Did I have to “survive” my mother? Why don’t you say something? I imagine her asking. What would I share? How, whenever I think about the bravery she summoned on behalf of her father, its towering standard of loyalty seems like one I could never live up to? I can’t share this. In fact, whenever I consider speaking at all, my throat swells as if to shut off my voice, and I’m surprised and a little offended by my own frailty. But I don’t share that either.
“How did the morning go?” asks Mom Song after we find each other in the Grand Ballroom at lunch. I offer a brief summary, leaving out my distress; I am not supposed to be the one who gets overwhelmed. Her own morning has been an epic struggle with her digestion, but she’s looking forward to our lunchtime speaker, the head of the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation, which keeps an archive of survivors’ video testimonies, including Mom Song’s.
In his presentation the speaker demonstrates a recent technological advance: interactive holograms. Requiring a hundred camera angles and eighteen hours to prepare, they will allow visitors to the foundation or its website access to lifelike electronic respondents who can recognize and answer many questions. On a big screen at the front of the ballroom, the image of a survivor named Pinchas fields a sample query: Why didn’t the Jews fight back?
The projection of Pinchas grows livid as he proceeds to cite the many ways Jews did fight back, from disobeying discriminatory laws to fighting with camp guards — a pointed corrective to the idea that 6 million people were helplessly resigned to die. The demonstration goes over well, but I worry the legacy of the Holocaust will depend on whether future generations think to pose the right questions.
“Are you sure you don’t want your fruit cup?” Mom Song asks me as lunch concludes. I’m sure, just as I’m sure it will find its way into her GENERATIONS TOGETHER tote. Food, as any survivor knows, is not to be wasted, even if it will likely spill as we march up the stairs to the meeting rooms. Once a vigorous hiker, my mother-in-law seems winded by the single flight, and I wait for her to catch her breath. She’s chosen a discussion group that promises “intergenerational dialogue.” Though I should probably accompany her, I’m determined to participate this time, and I don’t need the added stress of speaking in front of her. So we part ways, and I head to a second-generation seminar about dealing with the aging and loss of our parents.
Around the circle several people bemoan their elderly parents’ stubbornness. It seems child-survivors, who endured such chaos growing up, are especially reluctant to lose autonomy in their old age. A guy in his sixties worries that his mom is no longer safe in her Florida condo and wants her to move closer to him. But maybe it’s better to accept some risk, another attendee tells him, if it means letting his mother keep her independence.
A woman across the room wants to know if it’s wrong to be impatient for her increasingly belligerent father to die.
What about you? urges my mother, trying to get my attention. My coma? My death? You must have some feelings on the subject.
I am full of feelings on that subject, but instead of addressing them, I find myself making, in a tremulous voice, a broad point about how, when a survivor parent dies, we have lost the last buffer between ourselves and the terrifying responsibility of preserving the memory of the Holocaust. Just those few self-evident words leave me wrung out, but my mental mother is not impressed. Come on, she says. You’re leaving out the good stuff — by which she means my crippling guilt over all the ways I let her down toward the end: my reluctance to be in charge of her living will; my short visits to see her in the hospital, because I was in the midst of a demanding journalism assignment; my squeamishness about anything to do with her bedpan.
In the hour left before dinner, 2G and 3G descendants are invited to meet with a survivor for an informal Q and A. I skip this. My survivor mother-in-law and I have already agreed to meet at the hotel pool. The twilight sky is a deep blue, the November air still warm. Floating on my back, I try to slow my heart rate by staring at the leaves of a lone palm tree, but it does little to calm me. I’m still thinking about my mother’s last days.
Twenty-one years ago I decided to move from the East Coast to Los Angeles because I’d fallen in love with Mom Song’s eldest daughter. I’d arranged a teaching job here, and classes were to start in two months. Then my mother had a heart attack, and another. She would need bypass surgery. Fortunately I hadn’t moved yet. I stood with the surgeon behind his desk, looking at images of my mother’s clogged heart on his computer screen. “This won’t be easy,” he said.
Nonetheless, after more than six hours in the operating room, he seemed pleased with the results. I felt grateful to be in town to monitor my mother’s care, but her recovery was slow. It didn’t help that she would perform small acts of rebellion against the “medical establishment,” like hiding pills beneath her tongue until the nurse left, then tucking them into the soil of a potted plant.
“Why are you doing that?” I asked.
“Because they’re not necessary,” she said.
“Pretty sure they are,” I said.
“No,” she said, “the doctors just like to control everyone.”
Despite this, she improved enough to be transferred to a nursing facility — there was one in particular she wanted, and I nagged the hospital social worker to make it happen. She would receive physical therapy there for a number of weeks before, we hoped, going home.
As my departure for the West Coast loomed closer, my mother and I both seemed to avoid the topic. One day, shortly before the move, she asked, “Are you planning to fly?” Her innocuous question seemed to veil larger concerns.
“I’m planning to drive,” I told her, a car being essential in Los Angeles, “but I can always fly back in an emergency.”
This is where we left things: murky and unstable. Perhaps we would have discussed it further, maybe even come to a more agreeable resolution, but sometime in the night, as she worried no doubt about my leaving, a blood vessel burst in my mother’s brainstem, plunging her into a coma. She was rushed back to the hospital, where I found her being wheeled on a gurney, unresponsive.
After arriving at the pool, Mom Song describes a pleasant afternoon session in which the different generations conversed. As she glides past me doing a leisurely sidestroke, she doesn’t seem at all distraught, and I’m relieved (if not entirely convinced) that she’s doing well. Of course, she could still “lose it” at any moment. Then again, so could I.
So could Jane, the survivor who sits to my right at dinner. That’s not her real name, but ever since she escaped the Holocaust by hiding out in a Belgian orphanage, she’s felt an affinity for Jane Eyre. Now in her eighties, she radiates a dour beauty, though she insists her looks were recently destroyed when a vindictive landlord tore down a wall in her apartment, exposing her to toxins that withered her bones and complexion. I’m unsure what to make of this diagnosis — especially as it comes after several other seemingly tall tales — but I nod along so as not to upset her. She goes on to describe a treatise she’s authored on Western civilization, in which she reaches the inescapable conclusion that white men have ruined everything. She can never publish it, though, “or they’ll kill me.”
Her thesis, if not her paranoia, sounds reasonable enough. It’s only when she mentions that Donald Trump has “awakened” the people that I feel compelled to question her: Can she possibly support him?
“Oh, no,” she assures me. “He can never be president.” I realize that I had misinterpreted what she meant by awaken. Sleeping giants, of course, can also be stirred, as can angry mobs. This very night a protester at Trump’s rally is getting roughed up by the crowd.
But here in the Grand Ballroom, dining tables are being rolled away to make room for the evening’s promised highlight: Jewish folk dancing. Soon the floor is roiling with an immense hora — a circle dance. Mom Song stands on the sidelines, imitating the steps, clearly eager to join in. “You’ll have to dance with her,” my wife warned, knowing my many aversions include crowds and klezmer music. But having no wish to squander my provisional status as a “good son,” I turn to my mother-in-law and shout, “Shall we?”
We’re in the thick of it now, bumping into this stranger and that. The man in the fisherman’s cap — the one who told me the problem of his life — dances past, grinning. The circle contracts before expanding again, and I get the appeal of the dance, but it would be a lie to suggest I feel any disappointment when, a half-hour later, Mom Song decides to go back to her room. As we prepare to leave, she glances around and realizes she’s mislaid her bag. “Mine was blue,” she adds helpfully. My heart sinks as I realize she means her GENERATIONS TOGETHER tote, identical to hundreds of others in the room.
“Blue, you say?” Immediately I regret the barb in my tone, the breaking of my vow to be patient.
Bag by bag, we search for hers. After finding it, we head upstairs to our separate rooms, and I take a sleeping pill and go to bed.
My mother’s living will was intended to help her avoid any needless suffering. Given the bleak prognosis of a brainstem coma — she could die at any moment, I was told — the diagnosing physician advised we forgo a feeding tube and limit treatment to pain relief. But when the neurologist on call finally weighed in, and I sought to clarify whether we’d embarked on the right course of action — or, in this case, inaction — he may have heard in my inchoate question the grumbling of some future plaintiff, because he assured me they could certainly intubate her going forward, if I wanted.
If I wanted? Deep in my chest some blood vessel of my own seemed to burst, releasing every thought and feeling I could have about my mother — among them a needling concern over how her condition might affect my teaching commitment, quickly followed by the desperate scramble to brush aside that unworthy distraction. I told the neurologist what I wanted was to make the right decision. We went over the major points again — the certainty of the diagnosis, the provisions of her living will — before he concluded that, given the scant odds of any decent quality of life, the correct medical response was indeed to let my mother go.
Although I’d been told she could die at any moment, my mother did not die that first day, nor the next. It occurred to me that she was just as stubborn in her coma as she’d been while awake. By the sixth or seventh day my visits were growing less frequent. Practical concerns got in the way, such as arrangements for her memorial and for my drive across the country — which, depending on when she did eventually die, might need to be pushed back. And I needed to prepare for that class I’d be teaching. Many times over the years I have wished that when my mother asked, “Are you flying?” my answer had been “No, I’m going to tell them I can’t come.”
That’s what a good son would have done.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 6
After waking from my drug-induced sleep — my dependence on such pills has only grown over the years — I drag myself to a breakfast panel on the future of Israel. The Holy Land once united the Jews, but less so now, the audience is told: while older American Jews tend to view Middle East politics through the lens of the Holocaust, the younger see it through the lens of human rights and the plight of Palestinians. The discussion leaves me more confused than ever. It’s of only limited consolation to hear one speaker admire the Jewish mind’s ability to hold two opposing ideas at once “and still make lunch.” He urges us to cherish that gift, and not to cut out of our lives people with whom we disagree. At least, he jokes, Donald Trump has come along to reunite us.
During the morning’s 2G discussion, our facilitator asks if the election has sparked people’s fears. A near-unanimous show of hands confirms that most of us are distressed by the campaign, with its overtones of fascism and anti-Semitism. Have we been inclined to downplay the fact that we’re Jewish? Always! my mother shouts from the afterlife. Once again the question about getaway bags is raised. I’m warming to the idea.
We talk about losing loved ones, and a woman asks if anyone is thinking of cremation. The question elicits an audible gasp, since cremation not only breaks with Jewish tradition but carries the whiff of death-camp expediency. Nevertheless several hands go up, including mine. One woman says she’s planning to have her ashes scattered in the ocean, so her children can live anywhere in the world and still be connected to her. The woman who initially asked the question says her survivor parents wanted to be cremated — because that’s what had become of their parents.
My mother had no interest in burial, and a year after her death I brought her ashes to her beloved Maine. After much searching, I found what seemed like a secluded spot and, kneeling, offered a fistful of her to the water. But the wind was strong and blew much of the ash back into my face, which was sticky with tears. No matter how far I leaned forward, only a fraction of her made it safely to the sea, the rest scattering to the wind. As my sobs rose to an appalling volume, a family of tourists appeared. I saw them hurry past, trying not to look.
At lunch I wave to Mom Song across the Grand Ballroom, and she comes to take the seat I’ve saved, hanging her recovered tote on the back. After another protracted shushing of the crowd, one of the organizers asks by a show of hands whether next year’s conference should still be held in Paris. Since the location was originally chosen, France’s security situation has worsened. Many arms go up.
Mom Song demurs; her digestion can no longer handle such a trip. As for me, even though I can’t imagine attending another event like this anytime soon, I find myself raising a hand. “France very much wants to have us,” the organizer promises, and it moves me to think that the country my mother loved, but which did not love her back, now wishes to be a gracious host, as if to make it up to her. The “yes” votes seem to have won. Maybe I should go. After all, what would I be doing that’s more important?
This afternoon Mom Song wants to try another intergenerational dialogue, and because it’s our last chance to attend a session together, I join her. Crammed with some sixty others in a tight circle, we are shutting off our cellphones when someone calls out, “FBI clears Clinton — again!” The headline generates more than a few sighs of relief. One first-generation survivor from Germany tells those of us destined to outlive her that “it’s not enough to remember the Holocaust.” She’s worried about the anti-Semitism unleashed by the presidential campaign. “People need to stand up to it!”
As we begin the session, our facilitator urges us, as usual, not to retell our family story but rather to address one another’s concerns. He’ll have even less luck than previous moderators getting people to comply, and, as the conversation digresses, I find these family stories growing oppressive, even the moving ones. Especially the moving ones. A survivor from Budapest pays a lengthy homage to his brother’s resistance, which took the form of stabbing Hungarian Nazis and disguising their corpses with Jewish stars to avoid retribution. The speaker even begins to pass around his cellphone — our facilitator powerless to stop him — so that everyone can admire a portrait of him and his eight siblings all wearing their stars. However poignant, this is exactly the sort of grab for attention that used to drive my mother crazy. Suffering, I hear her fume in my ear, does not ennoble. The room grows increasingly stuffy until it feels like it’s shrinking. Despite my recent willingness to fly all the way to Paris, right now I want nothing more than to run from this hotel.
In a bid for closure the German woman who began with that plaintive call to action offers a more hopeful sentiment: she’s glad to find the next generation so resilient and unburdened. People seem content to leave things there, but then I notice Mom Song wrestling with the decision of whether to speak. At the last second she rises.
Her own observations of the next generation, she says, have been far less rosy. Silently I offer up a stingy prayer that whatever story she’s about to tell won’t stray too far into the weeds. But she stays very much on point: When her testimony was filmed by the Shoah Foundation, Mom Song says, her children were asked to include written statements. But the younger daughter, then a thirty-two-year-old medical resident, could bring herself to write just three anguished lines. As for the eldest child, my future wife, Mom Song recounts how a therapist urged this daughter to take a pillow from the couch and address it as though she were speaking to her mother’s childhood self. “What would you say to her?” the therapist asked, causing the daughter to scoff, but then, seconds later, to weep uncontrollably. Like her sister, she carried terrible guilt at being unable to protect their mother from the suffering she’d had to endure.
“It’s not rational, of course,” Mom Song tells the room, “but rationality has nothing to do with it.”
For years she felt her own guilt over having transmitted this trauma to her children. Then she heard other children of survivors express the same burden, at which point her guilt crystallized into anger toward those who’d caused her family so much pain, and she stopped blaming herself — which may be one of the gifts of a conference like this.
On the tenth day of my mother’s coma, I received a call from the nursing facility that her fever was spiking and the end was surely near. I called two of her closest friends and met them there. They’d brought food — in case we might be a while — and set it up at the foot of her bed, because my mother loved picnics. Several hours passed. Everyone took turns holding her hand, made warm by the fever, and dabbing her lips with ice chips. But evening began to fall. My mother’s friends had family waiting at home, and I was supposed to take care of some trivial errand for the memorial service. I wondered to my fellow vigil keepers if this had been another false alarm and eventually suggested: “Maybe we should return in the morning?”
In so doing, I missed my mother’s final breath.
Did she awaken, I’ve often wondered, just long enough to reach for my hand? To wonder where I was and why I’d abandoned her?
As I toss and turn on my last night in the Woodland Hills Marriott, I begin to grasp that someday, as I am facing whatever death awaits me, I’m destined to cry out for her forgiveness, and that the “problem of my life,” as that survivor put it, has been to pretend otherwise.
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 7
On the final morning we watch a short film about a group of Romanian survivors who return to Transylvania. Mom Song has willed herself to come downstairs early, so as not to miss the closing ceremonies, and once more we meet in the Grand Ballroom. One of the organizers announces that next year’s conference in Paris has been canceled. Though I could have sworn a majority of hands had voted yes, there was also a written survey in which people’s fears about security prevailed. This surprise outcome — surprising to me, at any rate — seems an ominous portent.
We join hands to form one last circle and sing a few more of the old songs. But soon I feel my mother-in-law tighten her grip. “I was afraid they were going to pick this one,” she says, referring to the “Partisan Song,” whose lyrics begin: “Never say this is the final road for you.” Mom Song whispers hoarsely in my ear, “It’s what they sang as they were marching into the gas chambers.” Despite a lifetime of being haunted by that shadow, she finds it in herself to remember all the words and belt them out.
Tomorrow, of course, will bring the election, followed by reports of swastikas in Philadelphia, mothers warning their daughters not to wear the hijab, blacks being called the N-word, Mexicans being taunted with the prospect of a border wall, Asians being told to go back to Asia. We will awaken on that Wednesday to a crueler world than many of us had anticipated, a world that, aside from casting my symbolic California ballot, I’d done nothing to prevent. Some of my students will come to class in tears, one of them having been called a “faggot” just moments earlier in the street. A young Latina, who has undocumented relatives on one side of her family, will be stunned that her white grandparents voted for Trump. “How can I ever face them?” she’ll ask. The question will not be rhetorical. My students, desperate for counsel, will stare wet-eyed at me and wait for wisdom. I’ll urge the young Latina not to shun her grandparents, since we get only four, but to be open with them about her heartbreak. I’ll offer this advice because it’s what my mother would have said, and because it would please her, if she were watching, to know I’d learned from her how to be of some small help.