My father of blessed memory paved airport roads for the Nazis, so that their Luftwaffe planes could land and take off with ease in Hungary. My mother, she should live and be well, cleaned bathrooms at Nazi headquarters in Budapest.
He was 25 and an orphan. She was 15 and an orphan.
I tell you this because the yahrzeit of my four grandparents is coming soon, at the end of June. We don’t really know when they were slaughtered. Who could pinpoint the exact date of when the gases of Auschwitz actually asphyxiated them? So the Fast Day of the 17 of Tammuz was a pretty good guess for most. And so it is, three score and nine years later.
At age 48, experts will tell you that I am one of the youngest children of Holocaust survivors. My sisters, both born in Hungary and 12-15 years older than me, are more the “norm.” But when discussing the Holocaust with “Children Of,” there really is never a norm.
“The Norm” is only what goes on inside the mind of the Holocaust survivor, and how they relate to their children. Each home, each formative upbringing, is different and unique.
My mom was an only child, born to a wealthy Budapest couple who had a nanny and butler serve the three of them hand over foot. She was a champion ice skater who rode horses through the Hungarian forests, and slept away at the most exclusive summer camps. My Dad was from Debrecen, the baby child after two brothers and a sister. The three brothers survived. Breindel did not.
When one’s grandparents predecease your birth by 21 years, you are born into a very small, and loving, and fearful home. When you are the firstborn American in your family, everyone’s gaze is upon you—the American dream, if you will.
Lesson number one in my house—and numbers 2-10 as well, was “Don’t upset Mommy and Daddy.” Don’t ever upset them, for they have suffered enough and are very fragile. Make them proud of you, give them nachas. They sacrificed so much, and it was up to us to make them feel better, somehow. Psychologists reading this must be having a field day right about now trying to understand and interpret my psyche. Knock yourselves out.
The other lessoned learned over the years is that parents can have separation anxiety too. When my Mom was 15, the family left her at home with her nanny as they attended an uncle’s funeral. The Nazis rounded them all up at the funeral, and no one ever returned home to my Mom. And so, when I fly anywhere in the world or drive anywhere out of state, the first person I call when I arrive is my Mom. In fact, if my plane is due to land at noon I tell her 1 p.m., so that if we are delayed up to an hour she won’t feel the anxiety of not knowing where I am. If we are early, then it’s a great relief. See how easy this is?
One more story: My mom has been living in the same apartment in Brighton Beach, where we all grew up, for the last 50 years—the same two bedrooms and one bathroom, with living room and tiny kitchen. When I was born, my parents gave up their bedroom to my two older sisters to share, and granted me my own bedroom. And they? They slept on a pull-out coach in the living room for seven years until one sister got married. Pull the couch out every night, fold it back every morning. All for the children. Nothing for themselves, everything for us.
So as the yahrzeit of Aranka and Andor Braun and Erno and Gittel Katz approaches, as they were bound for Auschwitz this time of year 69 years ago, I have but one request. Dear Communal Jewish Leadership, don’t ever stop in your pursuit of make the Holocaust RELEVANT to our youth. Be relentless. Be creative. Our educators and rabbis have an awesome task of keeping the fleeting years gone by alive and breathing, touching and impacting, shaping and molding. As the survivors pass on, we, the first generation are witnesses in our own unique way. We, too, are your partners in this endeavor.
As a child of Holocaust survivors it is at times a burden. As a child of Holocaust survivors, it is always a privilege.
Robert Katz has been a Bergen County resident for 25 years and has been a Jewish communal professional since graduating Yeshiva Unversity in 1985. He can be reached for comments at: rkatz_jewishlinkbc.com
By Robert Katz