[CW: intergenerational violence, eating disorders, depression]
I was five when I was first shown the window behind which my grandfather sat, perched above the street. We listened to his aunt say that she saw his mother taken by the men with spiders on their sleeves. They put her in a truck full of yellow stars. He sat there and looked down, as the trucks drove past, and the stars sat up above.
He was five when he lost his mother in Budapest.
I was five when I first woke up in the middle of the night with sweat down my forehead as I dreamt of stars and sawdust and rats.
What questions have I never been able to ask? My mom once told me that when she hears German, it sounds like stormtrooper boots. I’ve never been able to hear anything else.
My step-grandmother is German. One time I almost told this to my grandfather. I almost asked him if he too heard the stomping boots, saw the trucks full of stars, felt the void of his mother. How can I hear them, and does he as well? How long can it take to forgive when forgetting is never an option?
I was twelve when I picked up the phone at home and the school nurse asked for my parents. After hanging up, they rushed to the car and drove away. That evening, I did math homework, ate takeout food, and rambled to my neighbor about how I liked history class because you could just memorize the dates and figure out the connections and how that just made so much more sense than doing math problems over and over and where did my brother go?
I was asleep when they came home and woke me up to tell me that my brother was in the hospital for swallowing an entire bottle of pills in the bathroom downstairs. As I think back, I can’t imagine a time when I had picked up the phone that day and not known that he was sick. I can’t imagine a time before we knew he was depressed. I can’t believe that I missed it all along, that I didn’t think to look at Tylenol like it was a weapon.
I don’t remember what I dreamed about that night. It could have been pills or stars or who knows? He stayed in the hospital for two weeks. I asked him how he was, he said he was fine. I went to school and said he was fine—told everyone I was good.
After school one day, I went to the hospital and saw the fifteen-foot fence and guarded doors, and I saw my brother inside making a doormat from plastic bits. He was safer from himself there; I know this because when he came back home two weeks later, the knives were kept in a corner under lock and key.
My mom was fourteen when her dad, my grandfather, left; something about how he was too young. She moved across the country and sometimes her dad wrote her letters. They visited each other a few times a year. Last year, my grandfather came to visit with star-framed ideas of collected moments that envisioned a relationship with my mother, my brother and me. He brought dreams of special breakfasts and treasured memories of being a present father and grandfather. I remember visits filled with lectures on family history and arguments and not knowing how to tell him that I was a kid and I wanted to play and I didn’t want to sit and listen. I guess that’s special, too.
Last year, I asked to hear those stories.
When I was fourteen, my brother was in the hospital again. He had lost weight and everyone told him he was “looking good.” Every night after dinner, he would go to the bathroom. One night I heard him puke. I asked if he was okay, he said he was fine.
This time he was in the hospital for longer. I never visited. He slept there, behind the guarded doors and fifteen-foot fence. He was safer there. We had a hard time eating. I thought about my grandpa eating sawdust and rats in a safehouse during the war. When my brother came back, we hid the ice cream and cookies under lock and key.
I was fifteen when I picked up the phone and was told that my brother was kicked out of college. This time I wasn’t put to bed. This time. I listened as my parents learned that he was in the hospital, again. This time, though, it was a different hospital hundreds of miles away. This time, he had just said something that scared people. This time he had not swallowed pills or tried to puke. This time I tried to tell my friends, tried to tell them that something happened. I don’t think I could even open my mouth to speak. He was home by Thanksgiving, which was something to be thankful for.
I was eleven the first time I dreamed of my brother’s funeral. I don’t remember the time of year that it was in my dream. I do remember standing in front of a crowd as tears lodged in my throat and I spoke of love. I don’t remember how he died.
These dreams only come when I’m awake. At night, they are followed by dreams of truckloads of stars, my mom’s letters to her father, and the window from which my grandfather watched trucks go by. Another dream, the eulogy I have never had to give.
It has been five years since my brother was last in a hospital. When I call him I wonder if, like me, he still thinks of pill bottles, fifteen-foot fences, and cabinets with a lock and key. Last year, I asked him how he was, he said he was good. This time, I was the one who was just okay. Sometimes I can smell the plastic bits of his doormat that welcomes me into my parents' house.
My paternal grandfather died three years ago. At his funeral, I sat next to my brother and was glad that I didn’t have to speak. I was glad that he was there instead of at the front of the room. I remembered all the things that I would have said about him, and I whispered I love you.
This summer I saw my brother, large as life, look into the eyes of his partner and tell her how much he loves her. I saw him leaving work, passing through the guarded door of a building that was surrounded by fifteen-foot fences and was a safe place for the people inside. I wonder if there will be a time when a text or call from him or my parents doesn’t set me on edge until I check it and know that he’s okay.
When I was eighteen, my grandfather told me that I was the first chance our family had to be normal. He said it as a fact. The same way he told me that he is not a victim of the Shoah. He is a survivor. He told me how he is a victim of losing his mother, of his distant father, of the German’s medical experiments that permanently damaged his hip, of his post-traumatic stress that led to his absence as a father, grandfather, husband. He spoke rationally as he calculated the damage that had been brought on through this violence. My mother and her sister are survivors of the Shoah. My brother and I are as well. Last year, I dreamt again of the windowsill, the truck of people, the camp in which my great-grandma was murdered.
I was five the first time I heard of this violence. When I was twenty, I marched with my parents, with my community. We chanted, “Never again is now.” We spoke of our sacred duty to bear witness. I saw my father cry. My mother and I put stickers with yellow stars on our shirts and felt exposed and afraid.
I’m sorry if you were looking for a resolution. None of this makes sense. This whole story makes no sense. What stories can we tell when words, dates, and reason fail to make sense? How can I explain that these things are deeply connected to each other, to my family, to me? When you ask me how I’m doing, what do I say? How many times do I need to ask the same question before I understand? How many years of bearing witness before we can finally see?
SG just called his brother.
Addendum: First of all, thank you for reading this and holding this version of my family’s story. I want to clarify a few choices that I’ve made in this piece.
“Shoah” is used to refer to the genocide that happened in World War II that led to the deaths of more than 11 million people, six million of whom were Jews. The choice to use this word comes from the understanding that “Holocaust,” the word more oftenly used to describe these events, literally means “a sacrifice completely consumed by fire; a burnt offering.” I, and many fellow Jews, are uncomfortable with referring to the murder of our parents, grandparents, family, and millions of others as an offering or sacrifice. Others may make a different choice; this is my choice.
I also refer to myself and my family as survivors of the Shoah. I am drawing on the Jewish tradition of each generation acting as if they personally experienced the trials of their ancestors. This choice also keeps with how my family talks and thinks about our relationship to the Shoah, and, more personally, how I understand myself as a “third-generation survivor.” I do not want to conflate these experiences and this practice with people that were murdered. In thinking about how this connects to Jewish tradition, I am reminded of how we are told in the Haggadah, the story of Passover, that “each generation must act as if they themselves were freed from Egypt.” The internalization of history, especially intergenerational trauma, is a crucial avenue through which we, as a people frequently under persecution, remember and pass on our history.