When I launched into "The U.S. and The Holocaust," Ken Burn's documentary exploring the United States' response to Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler, I knew I'd be seeing images that have disturbed my consciousness most of my life: flocks of German war planes against a white sky, the shattered glass of Jewish businesses, crowds celebrating the processions of Nazi troops. According to the Nuremberg Laws, I'd be classified as a mongrel, a mischling of the first degree.
Like many American children with even one Jewish parent, I dwelled on what would have happened if I had lived in the Nazi era, or if Nazis returned and took over the United States. I hold a vivid childhood memory of being awakened one night by the sound of men chanting war-like slogans, the stomp of them reverberating down our dark rural route. They were probably drunk teenagers stumbling from the nearby woods, but I was sure soldiers were coming to get us. As far as I knew then, we were the only remotely Jewish family in our small town. We were probably on a list somewhere. The Nazis would find me first, because my bedroom was on the ground floor while the rest of the family slept upstairs. I was separate. That's what this sliver of identity made me feel like.
My interest in my Jewish heritage was keen but shy. It didn't feel quite legitimate, because it was my father who was Jewish, and traditionally the identity is passed through the mother. Though my dad never hid his background, it did not have much impact on our life. I experienced Jewish traditions only in relatives' homes, in the big city of Pittsburgh, where we brought our country mouse ways to secular Seders. My hesitation to claim Jewishness also stemmed simply from not knowing enough. A voracious reader, I could usually glean a sense of things quickly from books, but something about Judaism escaped my grasp. Was religion the crucial bit? Culture? Blood? The long history of shared oppression? Where did allegiance to Israel fit? My father's careful, both-sides answers to my questions were more mystifying than clarifying. He told me that his parents, both immigrants, hadn't liked to talk about the past, so he knew little, and that his own childhood had not been happy, so he didn't like to dwell on that either.
It wasn't until I was an adult that I learned my great-grandparents had died in a concentration camp. My dad told me in a phone call: He wanted to talk about the database of dormant accounts held by Jews in Swiss banks, not aware that he had never mentioned the fate of his grandparents before. He described his mother reading aloud their last letter, in which they said they were being sent to a camp and would probably not be heard from again. They never were.
The news hit me hard. I reverberated with a sense of shock and betrayal that this information had been kept from me, their memory forgotten. After I hung up the phone, I crumpled to the floor and sobbed. A yawning grief followed me for weeks. Months. To be honest, I still sense it, a shadowy presence hovering just over my shoulder, or sometimes tucking itself beneath my clavicle, causing a tenderness in my lungs when I inhale.
I reverberated with a sense of shock and betrayal that this information had been kept from me, their memory forgotten.
My reaction to the death of these long-gone strangers seemed — can still seem— extreme, unwarranted, yet I can't subdue it. Perhaps the pain speaks to mystical ancestral connection of the sort in which I ostensibly don't believe, and yet seem to crave. What remains clear is that when I learned my great-grandparents were killed in a genocide it was as if Nazis did burst into my darkened childhood bedroom. Instead of capturing me, the soldiers grabbed the two little-old people who had been hiding deep in my closet and dragged them out right before my eyes in a drama of screams and shouts, and no one — not me, not my father, none of our neighbors — said anything, stopped them. The fate of my great-grandparents haunted me, and I felt alone with my rootless mourning, separate again.
But I did not remain that way. A few years ago, a woman doing genealogical research contacted me. We turned out to be distant cousins through my great-grandfather's line, and our meeting caused a chain of events that led to one of my first cousins unearthing an autobiography written by my great-uncle Ludwig Engler, who is my grandmother's brother, the son of the killed great-grandparents.
Seldom have I had a more meaningful reading experience. Through Ludwig's graceful prose I finally met my great-grandparents and got to know my grandmother, who had been a distant figure to me. I also gained a view into some of the historical events that have obsessed me. Ludwig immigrated from Vienna to the United States in 1926, among the limited number of Austrians allowed entry. In his manuscript, he describes his experience during the pre-war period captured by "The U.S. and the Holocaust," when he was working as a telegraph operator:
As [the European Jews' telegrams] were almost all sent in English or German, I could read them, and the hours and days spent on the radio circuit between New York and Berlin became an almost unbearable emotional ordeal. Anybody except the most callous individual would have been moved by these unbelievably tragic telegrams in which once dignified people begged strangers for help; I had close relatives in that maelstrom and was frequently reduced to tears and sleepless nights. . .
One evening whilst at work on those pitiful telegrams, a colleague sent me a note to the effect that "Ha, ha you Jews are certainly getting it in the neck these days." I stormed over to him, beside myself with rage, and others had to keep us apart. . . The propaganda barrage from Germany, coupled with frustrations nurtured by depression, gave rise to serious political anti-Semitism within the United States, and the same sense of insecurity which I had experienced in Europe took hold of me in New York.
This was what it had been like to be in the United States when the threat of Nazi invasion was nigh. Here was someone worrying about it, reacting to it, giving voice to the fear. Though I had never met my great-uncle, I felt related to him on a deep core level.
Ludwig was able to channel his distress into action when, as an army veteran, he was called up to serve in World War II. In retirement, he became a leader in his local Jewish community. Raised like me in a mostly secular household and often apart from other Jews, he brought people together to find fellowship, celebrate their heritage, and practice self-help. Through him, I feel invited to share a Jewish identity.
One thing Ludwig's autobiography did not clarify was the fate of my great-grandparents. His memory is slightly different than my father's, and he doesn't recall them announcing their departure to a camp. He just says that they probably disappeared into one. The fog surrounding their precise fate reminds me that a blood tie to specific aspects of an atrocity need not exist.
What would we do if Nazis rose again today? If they came for our parents? Our grandparents? For someone else's? I still wake in the night with Holocaust fears clutching my throat. I say a secular prayer that I would have the strength to stand up and speak out, and that I would not be alone.