The unspoken agreement between my grandparents is that my grandfather is the technician, angling spotlights, handing my grandmother props and microphones, as she performs. Now, in my first-grade class, they serve homemade latkes to my gentile, public school peers. Bubbie has fox-red hair which, I don’t realize, she dyes. At four-foot-nine, she looks like one of the wind-up toys my father collects: clanking a drum or marching her arms, reducing her surroundings to stillness. Hanging back, Zayde stands only a few inches taller. His glasses are windows he sits behind. His mouth turns down at the corners. He hands Bubbie paper plates onto which she scoops latkes. She shuttles them on to my mother, my teacher, and my peers.
My mother tells me that, back in Poland, Zayde was taken out of school early because his teachers thought he was stupid. He needed glasses and couldn’t see. He otherwise might have been a visual person. When my mother was a kid, he showed her a book of Picasso prints he’d found somewhere; he leafed through the book as if it were an ancient, precious thing.
Zayde escaped to the Soviet Union as the Nazis invaded. A rumor had spread through Łódź that only Jewish men were being taken, the women left to live.
Now, he sticks a bowl on my head and snips along the brim as I watch Mr. Dressup. He’s a barber and so his method is legitimate and trustworthy.
Another day, I bump into him at the top of the stairs. He fixes his eyes on mine and smiles. I have never seen him smile like this before. Not privately and not at me.
These days, I think of my grandfather when I read Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain. Scarry tells us that pain, the product of violence, is isolating and unknowable. In her oblique response, anthropologist Veena Das proposes that, while it may be true that I cannot feel your pain, nor you mine, the human ability to imagine can narrow this gap in experience: I may, to a degree, be able to imagine Zayde’s pain.
As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I oscillate between these two predicaments: on the one hand, I recognize the unknowability of my grandparents’ pain and, on the other, I access it through my imagination.
* * *
I sit on a couch in the suite Bubbie moved to shortly after Zayde’s suicide. In the adjacent room, she lies in bed—pancreatic cancer—as a nurse tends to her. In front of me sits the flatscreen my parents bought her last week. They will soon move it to their cottage. A sense of finality hangs in the air. That, and the smell of chopped liver that Bubbie cooked in anticipation of our arrival, six hours from Toronto. That my grandmother cooked chopped liver days before her death is further confirmation that whatever fuels her stands apart from pain and exhaustion.
Each descendant takes on this shared experience—violence —as if it were a gift that had to be passed on and never possessed. Descendants transmit the Holocaust: its memory and its byproducts.
In the bedroom, my grandmother is speaking to my mother. She says it was her fault. She is referring to her sister, whom, in Auschwitz, she pushed from the adult’s line into the children’s, believing the latter would be spared and that her sister would live. I know nothing about this sister aside from this story and that she gave me my red hair.
Often, my family’s emphasis on memory is at odds with practice: on the one hand, my grandparents and parents teach me to never forget. On the other hand, the stories they tell are vague, disjointed, or confusing.
Friedrich Nietzsche recognized a value in forgetting; while a surfeit of memory restrains and weakens us, forgetting lets us live. But silence too can be an active, productive force in transmitting violent histories. Survivors tend to be emotionally and somatically repressed because of the atrocities they have experienced and witnessed. Their children adapt to these behaviors, developing their own issues around expressing or even feeling intimacy. As adults, these children speak about their issues with other descendants. These conversations reify the problems. Based on these reifications, descendants build community.
Each descendant takes on this shared experience—violence —as if it were a gift that had to be passed on and never possessed. Descendants transmit the Holocaust: its memory and its byproducts. Inheriting violence can mean either being (incompletely) or having this violence and its residues. This gift yearns to return to its source—the Holocaust—for a chance to understand, save, or take the place of, ancestors. Anthropologist Carol Kidron researches these dynamics in her work on Holocaust transmission. One of her subjects, an Israeli teenager, describes how she felt while investigating her family history in Eastern Europe: “Mom told me that I helped her beat Hitler [by having children], and then I felt I did my part.” Implicit is the sense that this teenager coexists with Hitler, and that this coexistence gives her life meaning.
The gift takes on something of its owner before being passed on. Holocaust violence incorporates traits of each generation. What children of survivors add to the gift is a moral imperative of conveying knowledge; feelings of being dwarfed by the past; guilt at being alive; and kinship with other descendants. For us grandchildren, what we add to the gift is a sense of agency: we plumb our grandparents’ suffering. We must be more active to fulfill the mandates of the gift because, instead of survivors’ stories of Auschwitz, we begin with loss.
* * *
I am sobbing at the foot of the stairs. I want something, or I want something not to be. Big suffocating sobs as my mother tries to comfort me. Bubbie’s yell cuts through the kitchen. Despite her tiny stature, she towers over both my mother and me. She orders me to stop crying. Her face distorts, red and puttied. Her face says: how dare you be so disgusting?
“Zayde felt overshadowed by her,” my mother tells me once.
I know their story: how in Auschwitz, my grandmother had a dream about her high school sweetheart. At the end of the war at a Displaced Persons camp, she found out a distant uncle remained living. She rode an endless train to see him. When she arrived, he was “cold as a fish.” She cried all night and, in the morning, boarded the train back to the camp. The passengers were “packed like sardines” and she needed to vomit. At the next stop, she crawled out of the window and into the bathroom. When she emerged, the train had disappeared, her few belongings in tow. She waited. Eventually another train pulled up. Out stepped my Zayde, the high school sweetheart she’d dreamt about.
I don’t know where he was coming from or where he was going.
What children of survivors add to the gift is a moral imperative of conveying knowledge; feelings of being dwarfed by the past; guilt at being alive; and kinship with other descendants.
* * *
If, as a descendant, I take on the gift of violence, it is, in part, because absorbing and transmitting Holocaust memory means prolonging the process of mourning. Deluded or not, I convince myself that this perpetuation honors the dead and helps prevent further genocides. By extension, I may also transmit trauma. In the words of a child of Holocaust survivors in Israel interviewed by Kidron: “I want my kids to… learn to take on the responsibility I had, but then if I press them . . . I will transmit the problem to them . . . just as it was transmitted to me.” As violence trickles down, it atones for survivors’ suffering.
Most of the time, this sort of surrogacy happens unconsciously. I move through my childhood home and alight upon the photograph of Bubbie standing at her father’s grave before the war. A documentary displays piles of dead bodies, and I hate myself for simply staring. My family past gestates as I grow aware of being named after the murdered and as I trace my truncated lineage during family gatherings.
Descendants experience the Holocaust as the beginnings of history because the pre-war Jewish past remains irretrievable or too painful to imagine. As our violent origin, the Holocaust becomes the ultimate referent for pain. It’s not only that I feel myself as a surrogate for my grandparents, but also that I conceive of my grandparents’ experiences as surrogates for my own.
If guilt, among other sentiments, urges my mother, my sister, and I, to become surrogates, then it also pressures us to restrain this surrogacy. We harden our boundaries because we fear trivializing past horrors through reproduction. As descendants, we fear becoming these reproductions. The danger surrogacy threatens relates to what Scarry says about pain: it is unshareable and isolating. We cannot take Das’s imperative to harness imagination very far. As much as catalysts—from heirlooms to silences—compel me to become a surrogate for my grandparents—and also to experience their pains as surrogates for my own—my surrogacy remains, to borrow the words of Lauren Berlant, a “cruel optimism,” elusive and incomplete.
* * *
My mother and I sit together at Hogtown Vegan on Bloor Street, Toronto. She has come in from Montreal for a conference, an ulterior motive: seeing me. Now, after passing by dozens of establishments—which she judges too greasy or heavy—my mother and I relax into this restaurant, where parents raising kids on chia bites sip non-alcoholic beer. We share faux-bacon salad with seitan stew, kale, and unbuttered biscuit. She wants to talk about my sister who has started dating “a they.”
“It’s not natural,” she says. “I want her to marry a man and have babies.”
My sister has always wanted children, and her non-binary date was assigned both male and Jewish at birth. Essential for my mother is partnership, Jewish kids, and dissimilar bodies, but also the concepts and labels so attached. Two days ago, in Pittsburg, PA, a forty-six-year-old man opened fire in the Tree of Life Synagogue, murdering eleven Jews and wounding six others. Now, at Hogtown Vegan, my mother adds, “I grew up in the aftermath of war.” She is defending what I have come to think of as her pro-natalism: an imperative, pronounced in Israel, to produce recognizable and uncomplicated Jewish families.
As for me, my surrogacy might better be called existential than maternal. I want, not a child to hand this on to, but rather the this itself: my grandparents’ suffering.
As I take on the gift, I sacrifice a sense of self for unboundedness. I consume heirlooms, traits, behaviors, and the Holocaust as an affective referent, and borders between eras break down. When overlaid onto religious rituals such as Passover Seders, this expansiveness gains religious momentum, a sense amplified by what art historian Dora Apel calls the sacred aura of Holocaust photographs. While my mother may also experience such pleasures, members of her generation are restrained by their more invasive surrogacy, cordoned off by repression.
If the gift circulates economically and biologically, a last pleasure I reap is that of self-commodification. As I assert my identity as a descendant, I essentialize my suffering. Yet, drawing on my grandparents’ experiences for purposes of self-commodification can only be taken so far: not only do I remain painfully aware of the ultimate inaccessibility of my grandparents’ experiences, but also, I feel the need to resist anti-Semitic stereotypes of a Jewish conspiracy. This conspiracy, the story goes, explains why the Holocaust has garnered as much attention as it has: Jews hold a monopoly not only over the market, but also memory, as we turn the Holocaust into “a sort of superconductor that brings us directly from the singular to the universal.” From this perspective, the Holocaust becomes less of a palpable event, and more of an abstract signifier of suffering, on the one hand, and of Jewish privilege, on the other. Zionists contribute to this framing when they weaponize the Holocaust: the gift must be sanctified, preserved, and replicated on barricaded land.
* * *
After Zayde died, I dreamt that I stepped away from my parents, my sister, and my grandmother gathered in my grandparents’ small tiled kitchen. I padded down the hallway and there stood Zayde, not dead. He told me he wanted me to tell Bubbie he was sorry. I was confused. His death wasn’t his fault. He’d had a heart attack. Zayde dismissed my reasoning: I was to tell her he was sorry. On waking, I never did. My role was to take on Bubbie’s pain, not change or affect it. She—my origin—remained inviolable and steady.