Saturday, March 20, 2010

So the whole Holocaust thing.

Maybe once a day my dad will point out something to do with the Holocaust. There are small reminders around the city: little plaques on the sidewalk outside buildings Jews used to live in, a memorial wall in a shopping mall built over a demolished Jewish cemetery, a hulking Nazi bunker right next to the fairground. I always get awkwardly quiet at these moments; I don't know what to say.

It's a lot more personal for him; his parents were Holocaust survivors (as were my mother's), and a lot of their siblings and family and friends were killed. My knowledge is third-hand, and sketchy; my father's parents didn't like to talk about their experiences and they died a while ago. I suppose my father knows but it's not information he volunteers. I was 20 before I even knew that Yiddish was his first language.

I'm the first generation of my family to grow up white. My cultural heritage is a factoid, somewhere up there with my blood type on things that people only learn after knowing me a while and never really care about. I've never had anyone insult or attack me for being Jewish or non-jokingly use a slur against me. Although I'm fairly well educated about it, I don't follow the Jewish religion much. I make no special effort to befriend or date other Jews. My Hebrew and Yiddish end at the swear words. I straighten my hair and dye it red.

So I'm uncomfortable talking about the Holocaust because I'm neither an insider who can feel anger or grief, nor an outsider who can offer sympathy and sorrow. This isn't exactly "look what happened to my people," but it certainly isn't "I'm so sorry what happened to your people." Maybe what I'm feeling is that after what my family went through, I should be a Jew. I feel uncomfortably guilty that people so recently would hold on to their faith in the face of death, and I'm giving it up just because it's kind of old-fashioned and inconvenient.

I suppose family guilt is the Jewishest emotion of them all.


  1. It's also a question of whether your local Jewish identity cultivates a sense of continuity with the Shoah, an Israeli with your family history, doing your job, could possibly be offered a "multi-generational descendants of survivors" support group if interacting with survivors of your grandparents' generation in the course of your job proved emotionally difficult.

    I don't think your disconnect is anything other than a reflection of the way different communities deal with history.

  2. Eurosabra - For once, I think you've got a point. (I don't think my job is very relevant, though, I encountered probably one Holocaust survivor a year.) The communities I live in--the geek community, the EMS community, the sex-positive community--are all about moving forward and making your own judgments with very little sense of history.

    There's a lot of things in Judaism I disagree with. The dietary and other behavioral laws, the circa-1300 gender roles, the prayers and services that often carry very little personal meaning for me. I'm not an observant or involved Jew because I want to avoid these things and I live in a culture that says it's okay to make that kind of decision.

    Which on balance I think is a good thing. I think it's good that I eat delicious treif and if I have a son I won't cut up his penis and I worship in ways that make me actually feel something.

    But the joy of being my own original Holly can make me forget where I came from. And when I'm hit headfirst with a reminder of that, it's... awkward.

  3. I have the same deal, more or less. My maternal grandmother is an Auschwitz survivor (and a very difficult old lady) and my mom has had to deal with the repercussions all her life. On the other side, there's my Indian dad with Hindu heritage. And being an atheist I have this tendency to just ignore my religious roots because paying attention to them makes me feel, well, GUILTY that I don't know more and don't really WANT to know more.

    I also get that sort of weird alienated feeling whenever someone mentions the Holocaust, or Judaism, or any religion at all, really... or the fact that people mention I'm Indian/ European (while living in America) or American (when I'm visiting family in Europe).

    Also this comment might be a little creepy since you posted in March last year... I may or may not be going through your blog backwards because it's the most inspiring thing I've found in a long while.