I once told my therapist that I feel guilty about going to therapy because it’s a luxury my grandfather didn’t have in the camps. So why do I need therapy to face my minor issues? She answered wisely that he may have survived the camps but he certainly could have done with therapy as well.
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My grandfather Aron Tennenbaum passed away a month ago at 96 and I’m still struggling with how I should commemorate him. I want to be able to learn from my grandfather’s life but I cannot do so without acknowledging that I let him down more than any of his many descendants and ultimately disagree with some of his values. After all, he had made sure in various subtle ways to make it clear to me that by being the only one of his hundred-plus descendants to have divorced and to live a secular life, I was forsaking the two principles he lived by – family and religion.
The easy thing of course is to focus on the six years between when he was 16 and 22. The one good thing about his being a Holocaust survivor is that as far as anyone outside his immediate family is concerned, this puts him beyond reproach. But he didn’t want the Holocaust to be his life’s main focus. For over half a century, he hadn’t spoken of those years.
When asked why he didn’t tell his five children about those years; about how his mother had told him, her oldest son, to abandon them and try to survive; about how he had been hunted down, captured, worked as a slave laborer, his answer was, “Children shouldn’t have to know how their father was beaten up and humiliated.” Spoken like a true member of a generation that didn’t go for therapy.
Instead, he could live seemingly without any hang-ups. Remaining in Europe, rebuilding his life in Italy, the birthplace of fascism no less. Even doing business with Germans and driving a German car. The only thing that mattered was getting married, having a large family and maintaining a religious community. You didn’t wait around for handouts, but took whatever work was available and quickly built your own thriving business.
He did eventually open up. First in a lengthy video interview to the Spielberg Foundation. Then in an interview to an ultra-Orthodox magazine, and one evening he spoke to his grandchildren. But it was as if he was carrying out a duty to bear witness. He wouldn’t indulge in his memories.
After I went to Austria to write a piece on the last camp he was in, Gusen 2, where in an underground hangar he had built Messerschmitt jet fighters, I showed him the photographs of the small town in Upper Austria where the barracks were. He traced out the route where they had been taken each day to work. It was all matter-of-fact.
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I’ve interviewed many Holocaust survivors over the years and one thing I’ve learned is that they all preferred to be asked about their lives after the war, rather than what had happened in the ghettos and camps.
They had to talk about the destruction, so that the world would never forget, but as far as they were concerned the rebuilding of ordinary lives in the years after, when no one wanted to hear about what they had been through, was much more heroic. So many of them wanted to be remembered for what they had built and gained, not for what was taken away from them.
Deriving significance from a grandparent’s life is not straightforward when your choices in life are very different, even contradictory to theirs, let alone your politics. When he still lived in Milan, my grandfather routinely voted for Berlusconi and in the last decade of his life in Israel, couldn’t understand anyone voting for a party opposed to Netanyahu.
My identities as a Jew, an Israeli and a European are all deeply influenced by his life, and yet very different to his. The bottom line is that we have to respectfully learn from our fathers and not allow their valuable lessons to dictate our conclusions.
But their life stories offer us much to ponder, those grandparents who came out of the camps, took control of their fate and refused to be victims. Whether as equal and successful citizens in the Diaspora or builders of a free state in Israel, their generation chose to reject 2,000 years of Jewish victimhood.
And we can choose to do the same ourselves today by recognizing the suffering of other minority groups and taking a clear-eyed look at racist tendencies that exist both in Israel and in Jewish communities abroad.
We are still working out our grandparents’ traumas and we can’t go to therapy for them. Only ourselves. We must never forget their suffering and sacrifice, but to truly honor them and make sure their lives matter, we need to build on their decision to not allow the years in which they were victims to define the rest of their, and our, lives.