Growing up in the seventies, my nightmares were always highly detailed stories of death camps, ghettos, gas chambers, and death marches. The monsters I feared, unlike the furry three-headed kinds that hide under beds or in closets, were real. I knew this for certain.
As soon as I was able to read, one of the first things I got my hands on was The Survivor by Jack Eisner. The hardcover book was red and was kept up high on the top of the bookshelf in the family room, which likely meant I was not meant to read it. Of course, this was its appeal. I smuggled it into my room and read it by the light of my nightlight and then I knew.
There were a few things that particularly struck me about the book. First of all, there was this dark and terrible truth, so horrible, that existed in the world that no one had ever told me about. More haunting, though, than Eisner’s narrative was his dedication. As I remember it, he dedicated the book to his parents and sibling and thirty young cousins. Their names and ages were listed in order. The list covered an entire page. There were babies and children my age. When I finished reading the book, I carefully snuck it back downstairs and put it back neatly in its place. I often visited it in the middle of the night to run my finger down the list of names. I kept everything I learned to myself. The Survivor I would repeat to myself again and again. “The” Survivor – not “A” Survivor. That word made all the difference. I now knew about him. The Holocaust was real; it was survival for me that was the myth, the impossibility. There was only well, Jack Eisner. He was “The” Survivor.
Survivors never spoke in my school or my Hebrew school. We did watch black and white grainy films with monotone narrations. We heard the number 6 million again and again. I felt like I alone understood that this wasn’t just 6 million, thirty of them were Jack Eisner’s young cousins, and they had names and ages.
Once I expanded my reading list, when I looked at childhood photos of my mother all I could see was Anne Frank’s face. In my defense, there was a striking physical similarity. Except that I, of course, couldn’t see the woman that Anne Frank would have grown to become.
In my adulthood, my Facebook feed is filled with friends’ grandparent’s photo and stories of Holocaust survival as well as the names of those they lost. In retrospect, I think that quite a few of the heavily accented, stern women that taught us Hebrew and Jewish studies were in fact survivors themselves, but they never even hinted at that.
I was wrong. Jack Eisner wasn’t the only one. I feel a deep sense of regret that this was all kept from me and my naivety made it impossible for me to see. Somehow in a plan, conscious or not, to protect me and others with a similar upbringing, we didn’t grow up stronger as likely intended but instead disconnected from our histories.
I am thankful that my today community has brought survivors into my children’s lives. I wonder what change could have come about if I too and others like me had had the same opportunity. My children know that survival against all the odds was sometimes possible, but most importantly they understand that they now have a responsibility to share those stories.