I grew up the child of a survivor of the Holocaust.
Nevertheless, I had never heard of “The Holocaust Cantata” until I had been recently been asked by my friend Lou, who is the president of the Sullivan County Community Chorus, to read two passages from the work. It was going to be sung as part of a tribute to “Jewish Culture” at the group’s annual Spring Concert.
The Holocaust Cantata is a collection of songs and readings written by World War II concentration camp inmates and discovered by liberators of the death camps. It premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1998 and has been widely performed since as part of Holocaust remembrance events across the U.S.
Because of my particular upbringing and struggles as the son of a holocaust survivor, I’m not fond of many of the modern day observances, movies, or even history books on the subject.
Nevertheless, when I was asked by Lou to participate in the event, I agreed without thinking about it.
But I immediately had second thoughts about doing it.
I have lived the Holocaust my whole life. Early on, my consciousness was considerably wrought by my relationship with my survivor mother, her often intense and destructive interactions with her family and the different ways she and they coped with their past. When my mother died in 1999 (because she chose not to treat a spot on her lungs found by her doctor and to commit suicide like many other survivors) I felt some of that burden fade.
And agreeing to read for this performance reawakened many feelings that I had not missed.
Being my mother’s child, I have a very different perspective about the Holocaust. For example, I absolutely hated the hygienic version of the Holocaust found in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. And despite all the amazing work done by his Shoah project, as a Holocaust survivor’s child, I find the whole Holocaust business stemming from it has become too Hollywood, too sanitized, and less inimitable with each performance, each tribute, each act of remembrance.
To be blunt, I really detest this Americanization of the Holocaust initiated by Spielberg. It’s become too much of a business predicated on a superficial guilt and a growing tolerance and acceptance of such morbid human behavior as just another chapter in World History. Today, it’s taught in elementary schools on the level of black slavery and the treatment of the American Indians in American History, part of a political correctness curriculum.
For me, the ultimate and most accurate interpretation of the Holocaust can be found only at Yad Vashem in Israel, and maybe in the old BBC World at War Documentary entitled The Final Solution.
So unlike most, I view the Holocaust as losing its horrific uniqueness, both to time and acceptance of disjointed memories that fit today’s times more than historical accuracy.
While Holocaust tributes and efforts to educate newer generations are always well intentioned and meant to educate and are meant to keep the “lessons” of the Holocaust alive, based on my upbringing, I just don’t feel they hold any real true significance anymore in our 2013 world.
We Americans are very spoiled. And here in the U.S., Holocaust remembrances and education take place under the guise and perspective of a pampered American Jewish community (that my mother never fit into). There’s no way that the emotional renditions of the destructiveness of anti-Semitism, cloaked in the worst of human behavior can truly be comprehended in any manner by those not touched at all by it.
So after several generations, the Holocaust has become merely a part of “Jewish culture.”
Having every Jew say the simple Kaddish on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, once a year, and nothing more, is just good enough for me.
My motto: Never forget, in a very simple way.
I’m sure the children of survivors of other genocides and ethnic cleansings like Cambodia, the Balkans, Rwanda, and other nations around the globe that have endured similar religious and tribal annihilations have the same feelings. They too will tell you that unless you were raised in the aftermath of the ruins a parent’s holocaust existence, you just can’t understand the significance of its history, its horrific memory and its burden.
Growing up, like most children of holocaust survivors, I endured the anxiety of dealing with a very domineering, extremely bright woman who demanded that her children live up to their ultimate potential, mostly because she was robbed of that opportunity when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 when she was nine.
My mother was very intense and severe in her thinking and judgments and still stands as the smartest person I have ever known. But I never lived up to her high expectations and always disappointed her.
My mother the survivor had endured a tragic life where her childhood was robbed by the Nazis and then Russians, and then who further experienced the death of my brother at the age of four. As a child, I watched her endure bouts of mental illness and alcoholism that were mixed with what I perceived as an unquestionable devotion to me, her family, and her heritage.
Unlike many of my other Jewish friends, there were stark pronouncements of Holocaust standards in my household to live by: All gentiles hated Jews, and there was absolutely no buying of German goods (even though they are quite common in Israel). There was no disavowing of one’s Jewishness allowed, and the worst anti-Semites were self denying Jews and converts. It was forbidden to date Shiksas or even daring to think about marrying one. I was forbidden to enjoy the music of Wagner. Foremost, Israel had to survive, for if the Jews were pushed into the Mediterranean Sea, we were the next to perish. We were always very close to the next Holocaust.
So, with all my Holocaust baggage, when I found myself sitting in a Catholic Church for the rehearsal of my readings, I got really weirded out. I kept asking myself, would my mother have approved? Or would she have torn me up for participating in the event?
The tribute took place before a packed audience in the church in the hamlet of Woodbourne, ironically ground zero for Hasidic culture that has preempted the old Borscht Belt hotel society during the summer in the Catskills. I soon found myself in front of a pulpit where a huge cross hung, standing before about 200 people, reading the first of two passages, entitled “Singing Saved My Life.” Behind me, other readers, some elderly survivors, others children of survivors, sat, tears already welled up in their eyes. I read with some trepidation, feeling a sense of responsibility to deliver a significant reading.
“Among the thousands of men who lived at the camp there were all sorts of talents to be found. It wasn’t long before other performers joined us in our evening events to gain a few moments of escape for themselves while provide a means for their comrades in misery to also escape.”
After I finished, I sat down and the others took turns reading their passages, which were mixed in with beautiful singing and playing of the cello, clarinet and piano. As the performance continued, the mood in the church grew more somber and intense. The effect was very powerful, and I began to question my cynicism toward the reading.
Then, suddenly, an elderly, handicapped singer seated in the front somehow pushed her walker off the stage, and there was a terrific bang as it hit the church floor below.
The somber Holocaust trance was suddenly destroyed and I was awakened by the absurdity of the moment. It was right out of a Monty Python episode. If glares could kill, the conductors look toward the woman would have done her in-it was Mastercard priceless.
I did all I could do not to laugh, or even smirk. I felt my mother’s presence. It was as if she had pushed that walker off the stage to wake up those set Holocaust sensibilities, setting me straight once again and dictating the terms of my feelings and understanding.
The service continued, and I read my second passage. Then, near the end of the service, an elderly Kindertransport survivor got up and slowly walked to the microphone. He slowly, and very emotionally read “A letter from my Mother,” her final communication to him and his siblings who had escaped to Great Britain. It was not part of the Cantata.
The simple letter said it all, and just hearing it that moment made it worthwhile for me to be there, to endure the burden that accompanies me as a troubled guardian to the last testament of the real meaning and significance of the memories of the Holocaust:
“Pray for us and remember us, tell your children how we were tormented to death… You my beloved children I bless, the dear God protect and guard you. I embrace and kiss you fervently… farewell, stay pretty and healthy till we meet again in the hereafter. Your always sad, never forgetting you, and so unhappy Mama.”
Steven Kurlander, Esq. is an attorney and communications strategist from Monticello, N.Y. He blogs at Kurly’s Kommentary and for the The Florida Squeeze. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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