One of the reasons I recently started a search for a co-publisher/editor for this small press was to open up personal time and space to finally create a three-generation memoir of survivors, telling the story of my father, Jacob Breitstein, my grandfather, Fischel Breitstein, and myself. As I get older, my energy wanes but my determination grows.
And now. And now… it feels ever more urgent.
First, I want to give full attention to my father’s choppy but heart searing memoir of surviving numerous Nazi labor camps, throughout Poland and Germany, and finally Auschwitz, and of literally watching his younger brother Wolf go up in smoke the night of his arrival. On rare occasions, he shared additional details: he was a teenager who had held back tears through years of ‘labor camps’ and during the unspeakable treatment of being a young man in captivity, including being raped by a Nazi, something I’ve never shared publicly before.
He cried however the first night he had been reduced to a number and that he understood that Wolf, one of two brothers with whom he had been picked up with for the ‘work detail’ — together they survived one hellhole after another — was now burning in an oven, after being gassed alive with hundreds, following a ‘selection’ in which they came face to face with ‘Dr.’ Mengele. He shook silently with his tears streaming in his tight space sandwiched in with other frightened, devastated prisoners on a board for a bed as loud wailing could be a death sentence too the night he understood the magnitude of what was happening and the devil’s backyard that he was now in. Tears streamed even in his state of acute thirst and starvation. Maybe it was the release he needed to get on with the business of surviving.
The other family members in a family of seven who survived was my grandfather who had separated from his family, and while he was gone, male heads of households were slaughtered, his wife and children herded and trapped in a ghetto, their brutal fate, deportation to a death camp, still to come. My grandfather hid for years, and in his 80s, banged out his story with two fingers on a Yiddish typewriter. As a young child, I watched him hunched over the antique typewriter hitting the keys, and marveled at it. “Daddy, I’d say, what is Zsha Zsha writing?” I have his story to translate and tell too. It weighs on me.
The third part of the book will likely be the hardest — growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, learning about it, trying to make sense of it. I want to share intimately what that all meant growing up with the most modest means in the melting pot of Washington Heights in the company of so many other children of survivors, attending an orthodox Yeshiva where the film ‘Night and Fog’ was presented to second graders. But also, the dysfunction of it all, the terrible fights between my parents, and the different battles I fought with them over basic independence taken for granted in other families under my parents’ ever watchful, worried gaze. It’s the deep dive memoir I have kept putting off, and it’s a source of shame that I have too. I have offered only snippets of it on social media, and now here, and I am sure I have not given my family’s story the justice it deserves. It is a huge burden to feel that if I should die prematurely, their story may never be told.
And now. And now…
There will have to be a chapter I never anticipated, of being a child of Holocaust survivors living with the fresh wounds of October 7, 2023. Because they will feel fresh for many years to come, and it would be impossible for any child of survivors today writing about the Holocaust to separate their family’s tragic history without segueing into the new genocide, the acts of which were every bit as horrific, that took place on Israeli soil, and without addressing the continuing plague of antisemitism and call for our destruction infecting so many.
The survivors and their descendants hadn’t finished telling all the stories of the Holocaust. We will now be adding the stories of a second Holocaust to the Jewish people’s story of persecution, torture, rape, and murder. The new stories will come for generations. This is not what Never Again was supposed to mean, because Never Again happened, it happened — in our haven, in our home.
Also, I haven’t cried yet, not in earnest, not in a heaping pile of pure sorrow – despite the pain I feel in every bone. I am after all my father’s daughter.