When I was in high school and college, I chose to read and see anything having to do with the Holocaust. Being the daughter of a survivor, it seemed the logical thing to do.
The very last book I picked up on the subject was at least 10 years ago, “The Painted Bird” by the late Jerzy Kosinski. It wasn’t even a Holocaust passage that made me stop reading, but at some point I slammed the book shut and that was that. My saturation, my immersion in the subject overall, had reached its threshold. Also a Holocaust survivor, Kosinski went on to commit suicide by suffocating himself with a plastic bag. My mother took her own life differently, but they clearly were scarred so deeply that that was the only end that made sense.
At 10, I knew about my mother’s four brothers and sisters being taken away to the camps, never to be seen again. I knew that that was the root cause of my mother’s intense depression, and the one suicide attempt I had already lived through.
When she was 55, and I was 21–a bright and shiny college senior–my mother was found dead in the apartment we shared. After a countless number of suicide attempts, she was finally successful. By this time she had already crossed over from depression to borderline schizophrenia, ranting and raving about the Gestapo and causing scenes in public.
The suicide was no surprise to my siblings and me, not to my father, by then her ex-husband. It was a relief in almost every way. Her sadness and suffering was over and those left in her wake were finally able to move on with our lives, no longer bracing ourselves every time the phone rang.
Now I am a mother, myself, and I’m tasked with the “breaking in” of my daughter for her role as a third generation Holocaust survivor.
When she was 10.5 years old, my daughter came across a book that my friend had given me, a book full of photographs and excerpts of Anne Frank’s diary. She wanted to read the book together with me and look at the pictures that were like any other family photos—happy times in lovely places, all smiles and occasional goofiness.
I managed to get through about six pages before I turned away, not wanting her to see the tears that were about to make their way out of my eyes.
I told her that my mother was also what is called “a hidden child.” She got a bit confused and thought that my mother was hidden with Anne Frank. I said that no, they were in different countries and that my mother was hidden in a basement, Anne Frank in an attic (not that it made any difference). I didn’t tell her about the random raids the Nazis would make, and how every time there was a scare my grandmother, mother, and uncle would have to pile on top of each other in a narrow false front. My uncle told me many years ago that he still has nightmares about the fleur-de-lis pattern of the rug that he was forced to stare at while on his stomach with my mother and grandmother laying on top of him.
My daughter is now 13. She has just started to hear and see me in my new role as a public speaker on the subject of my mother and the importance of keeping her legacy, and the legacy of six million others, alive.
I want my daughter to know her history, and I don’t want to just throw a book at her on the subject without any context. My daughter is extraordinarily sensitive. At this stage in her life she is not a great seeker of things beyond what is required of her as she enters high school. I don’t know if later on she’ll throw herself into all things Holocaust like I did, or if the oral history that I am passing on will be enough.
All I know is, she is beginning to feel very proud of her history, her identity in this role, and I have no doubt that she will become the keeper of the flame that can never, ever be put out.
Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, or is planning to commit suicide, please call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also visit their website at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. You are not alone.