How I Became Holocaust Girl: A Story for Yom HaShoah

I got the nickname, Holocaust Girl, back in college. Little did they—the poetry department mean girls—know, instead of feeling insulted and ridiculed, as they had hoped, I loved the designation. Holocaust Girl sounds badass, like a Jewish superhero. I envision Holocaust Girl as a mortal, modern, flawed, and more relatable version of Serach bat Asher, the eternal guardian of Jewish memory and stories. While we are both called to preserve the memories and stories of the Jewish people, Serach is the daughter of Asher and I am the daughter and granddaughter of women who survived the Holocaust.

My mother and grandmother are the ones who were truly the superheroines, of course. The ones who, Phoenix-like, rose from the ashes and went on to live lives centered around family and love against all odds, but I’ve earned a few firebird feathers myself.  After all, the legacy of genocide is not an easy legacy to carry. It can be incredibly heavy, like a Jewish Sisyphus I often feel as though I am pushing a heavy boulder of secrets and trauma uphill.  Distinct from most people, including many other Jews, we children of survivors, often referred to as 2nd Gen, think about the Holocaust all year round, not only on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

For some time now my former college nickname, Holocaust Girl, has been at the forefront of my thoughts. First off, it’s catchy (in an unnerving way, I admit), but if you know me, then you know it’s a very befitting moniker. For instance, I am the person whom friends and acquaintances think of when they see or hear something about the Holocaust on TV, radio, or in a museum. It’s not unheard of for me to receive daily messages like these: “Hello there! Just saw something about Auschwitz and thought of you,” or “We visited Anne Frank Haus and thought of you,” or the most recent, “Heard a program on NPR how technology is helping to rekindle interest in the Holocaust and thought of you.”  I can see how this would be disturbing to anyone who isn’t a Holocaust Girl i.e. immersed in the world of Holocaust literature and study. In my case, I want to be more immersed. I want to move deeper and deeper into being Holocaust Girl—bringing her more and more to life, fleshing her out. I’ve hit the half-century mark. I know we live in an era of hoping to live forever, but I know time is not on my side. I must begin to fulfill my promise of telling the stories of my family’s experiences in the Holocaust to a wider audience now. It’s perplexing how the thing we want the most, is often the most challenging thing to make happen. Add trauma of the genocidal proportions, and you’ve really got a struggle on your hands. However, I am done with all that. I should’ve revived my alter ego, Holocaust Girl, long ago, but better late than never.

As Holocaust Girl, I CAN’T  leap over tall buildings in a single bound, but I can diligently study the Holocaust, which I do on nearly a daily basis (yes you read that correctly), especially the experiences of women. I speak annually at my local high school about my family’s experience in the Holocaust and how it affects me. I am in the process of creating a Holocaust-related memorial scholarship in my mother’s name to help inspire high school students to think more deeply on the subject of genocide. I have studied the Shoah at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. I am writing a family Holocaust saga—an epic saga in my case, because included in the cache of my mother’s secrets were the very basics. I didn’t even know I was Jewish or that my mother survived the Holocaust until her death. My investigations into her life began from ground zero.

The irony is profound, my mother left me a deathbed note, asking me to study English, become a writer, and write, not one book about her, but a trilogy (I still have the note). Yet she died with all her secrets untold. My discovery created a trajectory for me. For thirty-plus years, I have traveled far and wide, read countless Holocaust memoirs, searched name lists in archives from Los Angeles to Budapest to Jerusalem, since the days of microfiche, and interviewed everyone who knew anything about my mother’s past, so that I could write the trilogies to honor my mother.

Being the daughter of a survivor of genocide has a dual reality effect that can be difficult for others to understand. Such as, when I was very young, perhaps as young as four, my mother told me a few details about the Holocaust. I think she thought I wasn’t listening or that I’d forget. I was and I didn’t. Once she took me shoe shopping and told me of how she walked for months in the freezing cold back in the old country—a place she called otthon, home, until the day she died. As we looked at the shoes on display to buy for me, she picked up a pair of perfect white Mary Janes made of soft leather and said, “I chose the pretty shoes and I’ve regretted it my whole life because my toes froze and all my toenails fell off. You don’t know how painful that is. It almost cost me my life.” She closed her eyes for a few moments and took a breath. Then she picked up a pair of sturdy shoes with laces. “I should’ve picked warmer shoes that were better for walking a death march,” she said in a casual tone, and we took the sturdy shoes to the cash register. To this day, when I put my shoes on in the morning, it is with the intention of surviving a death march.

I have night terrors. I yell help at the top of my lungs most nights. My significant other of seven years was alarmed at first, now he’s used to it and half asleep he rubs my shoulder until I calm down. The dream is different versions of the same scene. I am being dragged away by men in uniforms, dragged somewhere into the dark and raped, into the dark expanse of a military truck, into a shower, into a gas chamber screaming and biting and clawing. The different scenarios go round and round and round until I wake up screaming.

My mother used to have night terrors, too. I would hear her screams at night, and run through the dark, stubbing my toes and bruising my shins to get to her room. Once I found her already sitting up in a cold sweat. “Who are you?” she asked in confusion. I turned on her nightstand lamp. Her eyes were wild. “The dead are angry with me!” She shouted and clutched my arm.

First, it was family members, and then the poetry department mean girls who wanted to intimidate and ridicule me into silence. Then came work and children and caring for an elderly parent, and years of distraction, procrastination, and deprioritizing myself. Until recently. I stopped caring so much about the dishes, crumbs on the counters, the piles of laundry, or even my favorite distraction, cooking. One day a year ago, I went to my office and began to write again.

 I’ve never been a religious person, but I began to pray and I began to think of Serach bat Asher as my personal mentor. I asked for her guidance. I developed my own special prayer based on my feelings of being othered and outcasted most of my life. I call it the welcoming prayer. Dear G-d, dear ancestors help welcome me and my writing into the world, so that I may fulfill my purpose and fulfill my mother’s deathbed request. Where I have closed doors with my thoughts, help me open doors, so that I may be welcome. Amen. I began to speak to my mother, Edith Devorah, and my grandmothers. Due to all my research, I can call them by name three generations back: Tsurah Silverberg, Gitl Samson, Channah Salamon, Miriam Hartstein. And I remembered Holocaust Girl.

She, Holocaust Girl, the writer, stops the cycle of trauma by transcending it with the creative spark — it takes a fire to smoke out all the pain, shame, and secrets, which my family tried to sweep under the rug, as they say. I won’t be silenced anymore, not by others, like the mean girls or even myself.  I imagine Holocaust Girl lying inert for decades now, I am sad to admit. A form made of clay. I write the word EMÉT, truth, upon her forehead. Where I am weak, she is strong, where I am full of doubts, she is confident. She’s got my back. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Someone to have my back. Someone to stand up for me. Someone to save me. Ironically, it turns out, the person I’ve been waiting for all these years is me.

In the same way, the eternal heroine, Serach bat Asher embodies, “I Was There,” Holocaust Girl, for me, embodies, “I Remember.” Many of the empires that hated the Jewish people no longer exist: The ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans, etc., are no more. As for us Jews, well, it’s been said a few times that we’re a stiff-necked people. A people with two powerful and determined refrains—promises, really: Never Again and We Remember.