At Play In The Archive
Surprise — two DNA tests reveal that I’m Jewish. A little bit. 10% according to 23andMe, and 11% according to AncestryDNA. My Jewish husband and Jewish best friend claim they are not the least bit surprised by this news, and I can’t help thinking how tickled my mother-in-law would have been. My childhood did not include religious practice, other than my Episcopalian baptism as an infant, which did not exactly stick, but I have always felt a strong connection to Judaism — though not for the reasons one might expect.
I started researching the Holocaust almost as soon as I could read, an unfortunate side effect of my mom accidentally taking me to see The Odessa File when I was about seven. We went to see lots of movies together, and I was pretty adept at snoozing through the ones I found boring. To help things along, I sometimes even wore my pajamas to the theater, although no nap was long enough to get me through Doctor Zhivago, which was endless. For a single parent on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal Zone, there weren’t a great many choices for entertainment, and baby sitters were expensive, so Mom and I ended up at the movies fairly often. Sometimes I liked them and stayed awake (I adored the mouthy little girls in The Goodbye Girl and Paper Moon) and sometimes I dozed through them, but this time there was an unfortunate twist.
The Odessa File begins with some horrifying footage shot in a concentration camp. A mother and child are dragged off a train and then wrenched apart at gunpoint. A devilish man kicks a stool out from under a little boy with a noose around his neck, and then laughs as he thrashes. Bald women are lined up at the edge of trench and shot one by one in the back of the head. Paralyzed with shock in my PJs in the dark of the Coco Solo movie theater, I had no way to process these images. I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t look away. There could be no sleeping through this movie.
I remember leaning over to be sick on the floor, and then running up the aisle for the door, my mom not far behind. When we got to the lobby, she apologized over and over for bringing me to see something so upsetting, all the while hugging me and wiping away my tears. She truly had no way of knowing — this was long before the internet allowed people to research everything before doing it, and from the looks of the poster in the lobby, we were there to see a run-of-the-mill spy movie. Poor mom. When I could finally catch my breath again, I clung to the mental life preserver that had gotten me through all scary movie moments prior to this one: “It’s only a movie, right Mom? It’s only a movie?”
My mom is all about telling the truth. What could the poor woman say?
Thus began the most age-inappropriate reading binge ever. I read everything I could get my hands on about the Holocaust. In the library I pored over fiction and non-fiction, books with terrifying pictures and books with no pictures at all, books with long words I couldn’t understand, puzzling maps, and a strange alphabet that I eventually figured out was Hebrew. To this day, I don’t know exactly what I was looking for — the phase did eventually pass — but I think it was some explanation for how something so horrifying could possibly happen. I was trying to make the same impossible leap from my Happy Everyday to Hell on Earth that so many others have tried to make: How could this happen? Why did this happen? Could it happen again? What can we do to stop it?
Along this macabre path, I learned an astonishing amount about Jewish customs and history. When I later grew up and married into a Jewish family, this knowledge all came in very handy. My mother-in-law, the inimitable Beatrice, would actually call to ask me, her shiksa daughter-in-law, questions on some point or another. My nerdy tendencies in this regard became something of a family joke, but conversion was neither desired nor required. My father-in-law, an orphan raised by Jewish Relief in Chicago and a career soldier, had little use for religion. The military is all about fitting in, and if he had faith to begin with, his time with the US Army in Europe during WWII shook it pretty hard. My husband was never a Bar Mitzvah and didn’t much care. But there I was, sitting in the kitchen writing down the family latke recipe as my mother-in-law demonstrated proper technique.
The Holocaust had touched this family too. My husband’s grandmother, Julia, emigrated to the United States as a teenager, and eventually lived with his family after she was widowed. Back in Hungary, her sister Irene Gross’s family were all deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau during the war. Irene’s husband and daughter perished there, but she and her son survived and eventually made it to the United States. The son was very ill for the rest of his life, but my husband describes Irene as one of the most serene people he has ever known. What he finds so astonishing and regrettable now is how few questions anyone asked about Irene’s experience in the camps — the chasm was just too huge to cross, too incomprehensible and terrifying, best not touched — so he knows very little about what happened to her family, other than that two of them made it, and two of them didn’t.
We have only one picture of the family, a million questions, and no one left to answer them.
I’ve been unable to discover, conclusively, where Judaism resides in my own family tree. I would dearly love to know, but in a strange way I’m also content to let mystery be. Somewhere along the line, someone left Judaism behind, probably as a means of self-preservation. As Buzzy Jackson writes in Shaking the Family Tree: “My mom learned not to ask many questions. On the phone one day during one of our casual genealogical conversations, she told me about calling her mother on her wedding day. When she and my father applied for a marriage license in 1969 in Missoula Montana, she realized she didn’t know where her father was born. ‘I called my mother and she was rendered speechless — terrified.’ These simple facts — name; date of birth; place of birth — the foundational data of genealogy itself, provoked horror in my grandmother. Questions like these seemed benign but could, in her experience, lead to destruction. For my Jewish ancestors, family reunions and trips to visit the old country were beyond consideration — they were perverse. … Everything of value in their lives was in the future, not in the past.”
It’s strange how spitting into a test tube has led me straight into this past. If my Jewish ancestors needed to hide, I’m relieved that they succeeded, but I can’t help but feel sorrow that their story was lost in the process. However, there are plenty of stories to go around, and we all have a responsibility to ensure that history never repeats itself.
I will count myself forever lucky that I got to spend a few days in the company of the amazing Jack Adler while I was producing a run of The Diary of Anne Frank last year. Jack, who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau as a teenager, is an author, riveting speaker, and a gentleman of the rarest courage. In refusing to be silent, and by telling his story over and over all over the world, he makes the world a more humane, educated place. You can get a copy of his book, Y: A Holocaust Narrative, here. Jack’s son (and our friend), cinematographer Eli Adler, is also finishing up a documentary — Surviving Skokie — about Jack’s extraordinary life. You can watch the preview here.
Our production of The Diary of Anne Frank also included the West Coast premier of a traveling exhibit Anne Frank: A History for Today, produced by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Dr. Robert Levin came all the way from the Anne Frank House foundation in New York to train a cadre of volunteer docents from our community, and I’m proud to say that every single 8th grader in our local school district attended special daytime productions of the show, followed by a docent-led tour through the exhibit.
Watching the show in the company of kids the same age as Anne Frank was a truly moving experience. This production was the first live theater experience for many of them, and they reacted more openly, and with more outrage, than our adult audiences did, down to and including refusing to clap during curtain call for the actors playing nazis. “Keeping it real” didn’t even begin to cover it, but it’s exactly what we need to do with these stories. We need to keep them real.