Am I 'Second Generation'? A Pessimistic, or maybe Optimistic Column…
We sit down to an exquisitely set table together with friends, fine food, and fascinating conversation. We are all in our sixties. My friend the host, who laid aside a successful career, is a practical socialite, full of life, smiling. The conversation comes around to Berlin. My friend tells of how she stood at the entrance to the Jewish Museum in Berlin when she suddenly burst into uncontrollable bitter tears. She did not enter the museum. The phenomenon repeated itself when she visited the Berlin Holocaust Memorial. "And then", she says, "to my amazement, for the first time in my life, I understood that I am a 'second generation' and turned for assistance to "Amcha" (The Israel Support Center for Holocaust Survivors). Two other friends sitting with us around the table also joined her in going to "Amcha". They too discovered that they are 'second generation'.
I am confused. Old people who were "there" go to "Amcha", not well preserved ageless grandmothers.
My grandfather Yitzchak Isidore Rubenstein for example – he didn't go to "Amcha". He was satisfied with kissing his grandchildren on their eyes and mumbling "Ziskele and "Dvashshele" and "my treasure". My grandfather was an old man of 54 when he made aliya to Israel with my father and his three sisters in 1946. A grand wise old man who could read Hebrew fluently in a heavily accented Hungarian lilt that he acquired at the "cheider" of his youth and the synagogue of his adult years. My grandfather didn't understand a word of what he read and I didn't understand a word of what he read to me (the story of Kushi and Nushi from the children's book "Gan Gani" Kindergarten Songs) but I loved the music of his voice. By the way, my grandfather wore a kippa, and put on tefillin every morning despite the fact that he no longer believed in a God who didn't lift a finger to intervene when they took his wife and three small children to the crematorium. "It's a habit", he said, "God".
I make a mental note for myself of the conversation at my friend's house and place it aside. I know it's working away there, deep inside.
On this year's Yom Ha-Shoah, in the wake of a column I published – "The Architecture of the Memory of the Holocaust", I began to think, http://www.nomikan.com/?p=1312
It often happens to me like that – first I write, and only later do I think.
And what I think is – Am I a member of the 'second generation'?
My parents, my aunts, my uncles, their friends, my extended family, were all Holocaust survivors from Hungary. A happy and good-hearted group with a keen sense of humor, good food, sweet cakes, parties and dancing. I grew up in a happy home, the Holocaust was not talked about, but not hidden either. No stories were told, but on Seder night my father would tell of our modern-day "Exodus from Hungary", labor camps, the liberation and immigration to Israel.
My mother did not allow more than that.
Approximately twenty years ago, when I was in my forties, I produced and directed a documentary about my family as Holocaust survivors – "A Jew from Hungary"
In the U.S.A., the distributors later changed the film's name to "Triumph of Survival".
The film open with a beautiful scene of my white-haired 75 year old father riding a horse. That's what it's all about – staying on the horse! My friends were amazed when they watched the film. They knew my parents, and me – cheerful and merry as I was – they never imagined that my family was connected to the Holocaust. I had also never thought that I was 'second generation'. And yet, following "that conversation", I reconsider and wonder if some of my fundamental perceptions are 'second generation' signs or simply realistic sobriety.
At that terrible and tragic moment, when I stood before the body of my beloved who took his own life, I said to myself – tragedies like this happen in life, you know, people's worlds are turned upside down in a moment, in a split second. It wasn't supposed to happen during my life but here you are, it did happen. My family survived the Holocaust and lived a full and happy life, so my children and I can survive this tragedy and find our place in life.
And that's what happened.
I have been completely amazed during recent years at the world's surprise and astonishment at the terrible and horrendous acts of massacre taking place in different places around the world, including our miserable neighbor Syria. What is all the fuss about? After all, it has always been obvious that such things were possible. They have always happened and they always will. It's human nature.
Since the world has been joined together by networks of roads, trains, air and sea routes, and invisible internet networks, I am even more fearful for its fate. Rather than fear isolation, it's precisely these connections scare me. Maybe because of the "Butterfly Effect" – an expression from the Theory of Chaos that demonstrates a situation of "sensitive dependency on initial conditions", according to which small changes in the initial conditions of a nonlinear system may cause large changes in the system's long-term behavior…" One meteorologist said that "if the theory is correct, one flap of butterfly's wings may change the future of the weather forever." (Wikipedia).
I think of the tremendous wingspan of some of the giant butterflies standing at the head of today's nuclear powers… Together with the increasing sophistication of one person's ability to cause tremendous damage, and the rise of the culture of hate around the world… and I discover within me a clear knowledge that a global catastrophe is inevitable, that someone can suddenly remain naked, without anything.
And when I discover the "Holocaust" wall within me, I understand the harsh echo striking/jarring me every day in the face of the procession of unbelievable human stupidity, evil and cruelty. I feel my own helplessness in the face of this immense and terrible "evil", and immeasurably admire those engaged in the sacred struggle against the evil, each in his or her own way.
My mother was endowed with a sarcastic sense of humor accompanied by deep pessimism. My father would accuse her: "you are pessimistic", to which she would reply: "I'm not pessimistic, I'm realistic". And now I, who was always considered to be similar to my father, wonder if, after my mother's death, her internal mood has now pervaded mine. And suddenly I think, that the fact that i am aware of this prism through which I observe the world, somewhat weakens its power. When I sink into existential sadness regarding humanity, a small sliver of hope still flickers within me that "it's not really like that", it's merely the 'second generation' part of me seeing it "like that" and that actually, wonderful things occur in the world every day, good deeds, wonderful inventions, art, love… and that these "wonderful things" just don't make the main headlines (so is that optimistic or pessimistic?)
One night I have a dream. And in my dream the gravestones in the old Jewish Cemetery of Bitola, Macedonia, rise up and march towards me. In silence, they draw closer and threaten to bury me under them. I am nearly buried alive when Maty G, terrified by my strangled screams, wakes me from my frenzied sleep, hugs me and says: "Everything is all right, it's only a dream."
Only a dream.
And despite everything, in preparation of whatever may come to pass – I command my children – if a catastrophe occurs – flee! Flee with your women and children! Do not search for me, do not try and save me. Save yourselves and your families and don't look back!