Susan Silas
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Interview with Halina Kleiner
Springfield, New Jersey, 1998

Interview with Susan Silas,, 18 December 2009

"Don't judge a man until you have walked a mile in his boots." Of course, the quotation thinks only of the men. And if they had no boots, just a pair of cheap over worn shoes? There are countless stories of Holocaust survivors who are certain that their survival can be attributed to what they had on their feet at the moment when they were rounded up. I walked for 225 miles. I started out to trace their steps in a new pair of sneakers and within a few days my feet were aching and my Achilles tendons were swollen and painfully sore. Yet I have no idea what it would mean to walk in their shoes. I saw the same landscape they saw; perhaps the road was wider, the trees taller. After 53 years one would expect the trees to have grown.

While we are all embedded in history, we are not always conscious of that fact, because we feel a sense of human agency that drowns out what becomes background noise for us most of the time. What happened to these women, to the Jews of Europe, was a progressive shrinking of individual agency until it all but disappeared. Something akin to this is happening to many someones at this moment all over the world: the inability to govern one's own life, impeded by war, famine, poverty, crime, arranged marriage, terrorism, disease. When we do feel an inkling of diminished agency we feel powerless and indignant and yet most Americans have few experiences to compare with the severity of the experiences of these women. To be caught in the vortex of history always feels unfair. One person's life is swept away or irreparably altered while the next person's goes on almost as it had before. To the people sitting in the lit houses that Halina Kleiner remembers walking past, life went on almost as it had before and yet she was enslaved and half-dead of starvation.

How had it altered my parents, who also lived through the war in Eastern Europe; to live at the whim of others, to have had no control at all over their own lives, my mother in her early twenties and my father in his early thirties? How did that mark my parents and how did it mark my sisters and me? And how do those whose lives have been altered in an extreme manner learn to communicate with those who have no comprehension of their experiences and who, either by a stroke of luck or historical circumstance, remain completely unaffected. Halina told me that after the war, she and her friends invented group therapy among themselves. They discovered that others didn't want to hear about their experiences. Either other people couldn't understand them, or felt shamed by them, or didn't want to try to imagine what they had suffered. Holocaust survivors often speak of bearing witness but those who had not had these harsh experiences were not inclined to listen to them. And so the world divided itself into those desperate to talk and those desperate to not listen.

In October of 1985, while on line by the Cinema Studio theater on the Upper West Side waiting to get into the screening of Shoah, I found myself eavesdropping on the two women standing in front of me. They were speaking in Hungarian. I was missing words here and there but it became clear that they were reminiscing about Auschwitz. Claude Lanzmann, who claims to have feared that no one would come to see the film he had labored over for twelve years, was pacing back and forth along the sidewalk next to the long line that had formed outside the theater for the 2-part sitting, each of which lasted over 4 1/2 hours. The two women were a striking pair; one looked about 50, was nearly six feet tall and had shoulder length brown hair while the other appeared to be in her early 70's,was just over five feet tall and had a graying pony-tail. I wasn't discreet enough about trying to overhear and at some point the younger, taller woman turned around and asked me if I understood Hungarian.

She was deported with her mother to Auschwitz in 1944, when Hungary was being emptied of Jews. She was 12 and already very tall for her age. When they arrived on the platform at Auschwitz, the healthier looking women were selected for work. All children under the age of 14 automatically went to the gas. Because of her height she was able to slip in among the women chosen for work; a group which included her mother. She had divined somehow, that it would be dangerous to acknowledge her mother. They always stayed near to one another but didn’t speak much and she never addressed her mother as such. The war was winding down and she and her mother were among a small group soon shipped to another work camp in need of laborers. As we stood there talking, a woman walking past us heard us speaking in Hungarian and stopped. She was attractive, about 50; she asked to borrow money to get into the film. She had come with about $7, the cost of movies at that time and the admission to Shoah was quite a bit more. It turned out that she had been at Auschwitz too and suddenly the three of them were comparing notes about the barracks and what they remembered and when they had arrived. Claude Lanzmann was still pacing briskly back and forth, at the edge of the sidewalk beside the line that snaked down the block. The tall woman gave the newcomer the money to get in to see the film. She told me there were two types of Holocaust survivors; those who talk about it all the time and those who never speak of it. She was of the variety who spoke of it all the time.

Of those who chose never speak of it, they doubtless had different motivations. We speculate that they wished to leave the past behind and allow a very deep wound to close and scar over, and many wished to protect their children. But their reticence may also have been caused not by the feelings of shame that arose in others while listening to their testimonies, but by feelings of shame for being the subject of that testimony. Before victimization became a matter of pride and attained near cult status in America, it had a different tone and meaning.

I want to quote at length from a piece that appeared in the New York Review of Books in November, 2011 entitled A Jewish Writer in America by Saul Bellow. The second installment of this essay begins as follows:

"In reading Lionel Abel's memoir, The Intellectual Follies, I came upon an arresting passage in his chapter on the Jews. During the war he had heard accounts of the Nazi terror, Abel says, and reports of extermination camps in Eastern Europe.

But I had no real revelation of what had occurred until sometime in 1946, more than a year after the German surrender, when I took my mother to a motion picture and we saw in a newsreel some details of the entrance of the American army into the concentration camp at Buchenwald. We witnessed the discovery of the mounds of dead bodies, the emaciated, wasted, but still living prisoners who were now being liberated, and of the various means of extermination in the camp, the various gallows, and also the buildings where gas was employed to kill the Nazis' victims en masse.

It was an unforgettable sight on the screen, but as remarkable was what my mother said to me when we left the theatre: She said, "I don't think the Jews can ever get over the disgrace of this." She said nothing about the moral disgrace to the German nation…, only about…a more than moral disgrace, and one incurred by the Jews. How did they ever get over it? By succeeding in emigrating to Palestine and setting up the state of Israel.

I too had seen newsreels of the camps. In one of them, American bulldozers pushed naked corpses toward a mass grave ditch. Limbs fell away and heads dropped from disintegrating bodies. My reaction to this was similar to that of Mrs. Abel—a deeply troubling sense of disgrace or human demotion, as if by such afflictions the Jews had lost the respect of the rest of humankind, as if they might now be regarded as hopeless victims, incapable of honorable self-defense, and, arising from this, probably the common instinctive revulsion or loathing of the extremities of suffering—a sense of personal contamination and aversion. The world would see these dead with a pity that placed them at the margin of humanity."

It is impossible to know with certainty how that trauma played out for those who chose not to speak but for those who did it is clear that their experiences during the Shoah were the central event from which all other things radiated out. For many it was the most vivid part of their lives and everything else was harder to recall and was weighted differently. And this trauma was passed along to their children, if they had any. It entered the lives of their children in different ways but it always managed to be present. Freud describes the primal scene in which the child enters the parents' bedroom and discovers the parents fucking. But for Jewish children born after the Holocaust it seems that the primal scene takes place elsewhere—it harkens back to a faraway place where the parents were born; a place where to be born a Jew meant not having the right to exist. And so for the children of Holocaust survivors the primal scene is not one of the parents fucking, which presumably made existence possible in the first place, but rather the cataclysmic event that gave birth to the fear that one might not have the right to exist at all.

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©2012 by Susan Silas