When I was seven years old, my life changed forever in a classroom of a small Orthodox Yeshiva where a sizeable portion of the student population was a diverse group of children of survivors, immigrants to Washington Heights from all corners of Europe, Russia and elsewhere.
Today, this might be considered premature, but on that day my second grade class was shown Night and Fog, a stark and devastating documentary about the Nazi killing machine. I remember the silence in the room when the film came to a halt. I also remembered my father’s “tattoo” and went home that day and demanded: “were you in a concentration camp?” “Yes,” was his answer and he told me his horrific story oh so briefly and casually–that his two brothers and two sisters were killed and his mom too and about how Zsha Zsha, his dad, my surviving and darling grandfather (who died when I was 17) survived hiding in a Polish flour factory, having separated earlier from the rest of his family. I was transfixed.
Over the years, more and more snippets of his story would unfold culminating in a three hour taping by Spielberg’s folks who in their Shoah project gathered more details in my parent’s living room than I ever really had the stomach for. My mom’s story, not one of being in the camps, but brutal too, was shared too in time.
Never forgetting isn’t a battle cry when you’re a child of survivors. It is an integral part of who I am and has shaped my world view. I’m hyper aware of the basest, most bestial behaviors mankind is capable of but I also choose to place my hope and dreams and bet on the flip and more widespread side of human nature: the courage and perseverance and unimaginable risks and kindnesses that human beings are capable of too. We are complicated creatures.