Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Survivor’s Guilt

Pacific Lutheran University hosts a yearly a Holocaust Conference which I attended this year.  Learning about the role women played in the Holocaust intrigued me.  It began with a musical tribute.  Poems and stories set to music.  I was enchanted by the violinist.  He played his instrument with joy and enthusiasm.  It was infectious. 

Set to music, there was a story of an abandoned suitcase lamenting over the whereabouts of its old and blind master.  I was reminded of the death certificate that I had located for my great grandfather, an elderly gentleman executed shortly after his arrival at a camp;  an elderly gentlemen who was a community rabbi, a neighborhood organizer.

There was a story of a young Jewish lawyer who hid behind a new identity to avoid the gas chambers.  It was powerful.  The gifted singer drew you in to the story.  With stage props, you could feel the young woman sitting at her desk, a non-Jewish political prisoner, in a coveted desk job, inventorying the meager possessions of the women lined up on the other side of her wall.  The noise, the smell invading her space as the women walked the path to their certain death.  Returning to Auschwitz long after the war, much older, she imagines the camp as it was, although the reality was that the camp was no longer the camp of her nightmares.  It was now presentable.  It was for tourists.  Survivor’s guilt haunts her.  And the violinist played on with a passion for the music that told the story.

The violin; I approached the violinist during the reception after the performance and thanked him.  I shared with him that my great grandfather died at a camp.  I explained that my grandfather, Opa, had a violin in the closet of his den.  I never knew the story of his violin, never knew if it was his or if he had ever played it.  Like the suitcase, did the violin lose its master?  Perhaps it was survivor’s guilt? 

My grandparents; my Opa and Oma, their son and my mother had fled from Eger (Cheb) and sought refuge in Prague.  They left Prague through the efforts of the underground.  They made a perilous journey to Holland.  My mother, a little girl at the time, recalled one soldier checking their travel papers and dropping them on the floor.  As he was clumsily picking them up he pointed them to the door at the train station and whispered, “GO!”  They traveled to the United States on one of the last refugee boats allowed to dock in New York. 

Do Americans realize that like the Syrian refugees now, many Jewish refugees could not find sanctuary in the United States?

It was only toward the end of my grandparent’s lives that I realized that they were not German Lutheran immigrants that came here because of the political climate.  Opa began to drop meager breadcrumbs about the “old country.”  I overheard that my great grandfather didn’t want to immigrate.  I cannot remember if the story I overheard came from Opa or if my mother told the story.  I hear Opa's voice in my head when I think of it.   When they fled Prague, Opa’s father had said that he was an old man and he couldn’t imagine being thought of as a threat. My great grandfather remained in Prague with a friend of his.  "What threat could two old Jewish men be?" he said as he sent them away. 

Opa's brother was a talented lawyer.  However, his heart lie in art history and puppets.  He had an adult puppet theater that was well known.  There was an exhibition of his puppets recently.  Spielberg has a collection of movies.  On youtube, if you search for Spielberg Out of Evil, the movie features his puppets.  Half-way, around 46, 52:35 is a glimpse of Paul Lowy, my great uncle.  He looks a lot like my Opa. 


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