Editor’s Note: This piece was prompted by a fiction writer’s group prompt, “If I could tell you one thing about myself…”
If I could tell you one thing about my life it would be this: I am a survivor. Now I don’t mean this in the way of pop melodies. Beyonce stylized, “I’m not gonna give up.” or Gloria Gaynorish “I will survive”. I mean it the way that Holocaust survivors mean it when they say “I am a survivor”. When someone with a number tattooed on their arm or “Rabbi” before his name says this, you automatically know what they mean. I wish it were so simple for people to understand me, a white woman, when I say this. It would explain so much without me having to go into details. The truth is, I survived horrifyingly cruel intentions put upon me by my fellow Men and Women at an early age and came out of it. The reason that I identify myself so much with these other survivors, those of the Holocaust is because it seems that there were three groups that came out of this atrocity. One group who didn’t make it and died. One might be tempted to not even include them, but their ghosts, spirits, are a very important part of the whole story. They must be included. Another group lost their faith in their G-d. They decided that no just G-d could allow such a bad thing to happen. They began to make the realization that man must therefore be responsible for themselves and one another. This is not an entirely bad sentiment. These people went on to make a difference in their lives and the lives of others. The third group had a strengthening of faith. They grew in their belief that G-d had something planned. That their trial meant something. They also went on to do great things; it was just with a different sense of purpose. I will come back to what group I belong to later….what type of survivor I am.
It is always interesting when I look back to see how many things I shared with these Holocaust victims. Systematically I was indoctrinated into the ideal that I was nothing more than a tool. A plaything. My abuser also watched hours and hours of WWII footage. Seemingly loving to watch people marching into showers and subsequently carried out to mass graves. We, my siblings and I, were made to watch these videos that were gruesome, sad and horrifying. They gave us bad dreams. We were constantly reminded of how much better we had it that these poor souls. (Please pass the cookie plate) it was so surreal. Who spends Thanksgiving and Christmas this way? We did. Looking back I think it was to distract us from what would come next. The late night visits, referred to as privileged special time. “Do not cry, this is a reward, it is meant to feel good, you have it so much better, don’t you remember the lesson you learned from the movie we watched today?” In those cases where we forgot the lesson we were reminded with hours of labor, moving rocks from one place to another. Standing in the middle of a room for hours. I think our debasers looked for suggestions from the movies they watched because it seemed that we had seen our punishments somewhere before. I do not remember when it was that we started looking forward to the rewards that had seemed like punishments before. But we did, all of us. There were three; And just like the other survivors one of us ultimately did not make it; one lost their faith and one grew.
I did not realize that I had been the one to grow until many years later. I never talked about my horror. I hated the way that other people would blame their inability to do things on abuses of the past. How they would seemingly whine about it, need groups and hugs and all kinds of help. I steadfastly kept myself above that. I felt that nobody benefited really from all this talking and sharing and whatnot. What it seemed like to me was another type of abusive feeding. A symbiotic necessity to know either your life was better or your life was worse. I never would contribute to that. I was who I was, I did not forget, I did not repeat, I would not tolerate, but neither would I become a sideshow. When as an adult, I learned more about Holocaust and other survivors, I could relate with their reluctance to talk about atrocities. They did not want this to define them. Neither did I.
However, sometime later, unexpectedly someone asked me a question I could not dodge. I answered honestly and expected it to be left at that. Yes, I had been a victim. How is it, this person asked that you are able to be so moral, to think about all sides of an interpersonal equation when you had absolutely no nurturing? I did not know. But I began to realize that somewhere along the line I had learned something extraordinary that most people never do. I had learned to hold darkness within me and light at the same time. So here am I with a very important skill that needs to be shared somehow. Learning to live within the light while knowing that darkness also exists. Having a need to let the Dark out once in a while in a safe way so it does not build. How to teach this? Who to teach it to? These are important qualities that can save. Save someone like me; who is defined by being a Survivor.