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The Holocaust Returns
It's the middle of the night, and I should be asleep, but I've gotten out of bed for a drink of water. I'm ten years old and living in our squat but, to us, luxurious ranch house in Skokie, Illinois. As I take a few steps out of my bedroom, which is just a few steps from every other room, I see exactly what I expect: my mother sitting on the floor in the darkened living room, her petite silhouette outlined by soft yellow light trickling in from the streetlamp outside. As always, she has lifted the window shade a couple inches above the sill, so she can peer out and watch the occasional car drive silently by.
She's always there when I get out of bed at night, when I feel ill and call out for help, whenever she's needed, really. She doesn't seem to sleep — certainly not in bed, as far as I can tell. Instead she keeps a nightly vigil in our living room and has done so for as long as I can remember. In fact, I figure all moms must spend each night in front of the living room window, guarding everyone else.
But this is not the only nocturnal ritual in our house. Often my father gets out of bed and proceeds directly to the breakfront in our dining room, opens the bottom cabinet door, lifts up a bottle of whiskey, twists out the cork, and draws a few swallows. Then he methodically recorks the fifth, puts it away, closes the cabinet door, and heads back to bed, saying not a word to my mother as he passes her. Or at least none that I can hear. Sometimes he does this two or three times a night. He'll have to get out of bed for good soon anyway, because long before sunrise, he'll need to drive to the bakery where he works in Chicago, and the alcohol helps him sleep. Or helps him try.
On weekends, though, he gets to sleep later in the morning, and often when he wakes up, he tells us about his dreams.
"I was killing Nazis good," he says, with an air of triumph. "I was shooting them down."
I know that my dad and mom have survived what they briefly told me was the Holocaust, that most of their relatives were executed for being Jews, that my parents had to start over here, in America, and that they feel lucky for that, as if they'd hit the jackpot. But that's about all I know. And, frankly, it's all I want to know. If machine-gunning Nazis in his dreams makes my dad happy, that's fine with me. Sounds like an Audie Murphy movie.
As I look back on it, though, those early years in Skokie — and a few in Chicago before that — were haunted by the Holocaust in ways I did not recognize or understand at the time. We were never supposed to take showers, for instance, though my parents didn't tell me why. Our Skokie house had a perfectly fine — if compact — working bathroom, but showers were categorically banned. My friends took showers, people on TV and in movies took showers, apparently everyone in America took showers, except us. Only baths. It wasn't until I was much older that I came to learn what showers signified for my mother and father.
When my father would talk to his survivor relatives on the telephone, the conversations often would devolve into screaming matches, someone inevitably smashing down the handset on the other party. Yet when we would go out on weekends, we would socialize exclusively with these same relatives who a few days earlier had been berating each other on the other end of the soon-to-be-slammed-down phone. If these relatives couldn't stand each other that much, I often wondered in my naïveté, why were they getting together all the time? These survivors, who had experienced the worst that humanity had to offer, clearly trusted no one, not even each other. And yet they apparently found some kind of solace in each other's company, even amid their raging battles.
When I misbehaved, my parents and aunts and uncles sent Holocaust references my way without shedding much light on the subject. "You wouldn't last ten minutes in the Holocaust," an aunt would say. "You should kiss the ground every day that you have a mother and a father — do you know what I would give to have my parents?" my dad would snarl. "He doesn't know how good he has it," my mother would echo. "When I was your age, I was sleeping in the snow. But he has a big mouth to his parents."
I didn't realize it then, but these people understandably were bursting with anger about what had happened to them and their families, their fury directed at anyone and everyone who happened to wander into their line of fire. Their passions poured forth at whomever was closest, and that, of course, was each other, and me. They had lost faith in virtually everyone, even blood relatives who had suffered through the same trials as them. I guess all of them had learned — under dire circumstances — what people are capable of, and they could not forget it.
Still, coming to Skokie in 1964 was the greatest event in my family's life to that point, and not necessarily because so many survivors had moved there. No one really knew that fact at that time, anyway. Not until the late 1970s would the survivors in Skokie rise up as a group to be heard when famously confronted by neo-Nazis who threatened to march there, causing a worldwide media sensation.
No, Skokie was magical to us because of how far we had come to reach this place of impeccably trimmed lawns and bright, spotless streets.
In 1947, two years after the war, my mother arrived in Chicago as a sixteen-year-old educated only to age eight and now left practically to fend for herself without knowing a syllable of English. My father came to Chicago in 1949 at age twenty-seven, having spent the first year after the war in Germany recuperating from typhus and the effects of years of deprivations and abuse. The two met on a blind date in Chicago and in 1953 got married, a pair of Holocaust survivors whose shared histories surely bonded them as nothing else could.
In the mid-1950s, they opened a bakery with my father's brother in Chicago's Germantown, Holocaust survivors choosing to run a business in the heart of the culture that had destroyed most of their families and decimated their people. That may seem odd, but, looking back on it, I suppose it made a strange kind of sense, from their point of view. My father and his brother, after all, had grown up in a family of bakers in Poland, and my father had trained as a baker in Germany after the war. Both spoke Deutsch fluently and knew how to bake German breads, pastries, and other delicacies just like the natives. How else were they to make a living in a strange country? And where else in Chicago could they better ply their trade than in Germantown?
What seemed a bit weird to me was that everyone — my parents, aunts, and uncles — told me that I was not supposed to reveal to anyone that we were Jewish. They swore me to secrecy. Neither teachers nor classmates nor, above all, customers were to be told the truth. Clearly my parents feared that if anyone in Germantown knew that we were Jews — let alone that my parents had survived the Final Solution conceived in Germany and exported widely — who knew what would happen? Even in the 1950s, even in America, my parents feared revealing their true identities.
All of which was fine with me. I learned to speak German from my German babysitter, and I never got near a synagogue or a yarmulke or a prayer book or anything else remotely Jewish. Every day after school, my babysitter took me to church, where I learned to pray as a Catholic, making the gesture of the cross with my right arm traveling from shoulder to shoulder and head to torso and lighting the candles at the altar.
Unfortunately our bakery went bust with the recession of the late 1950s, and my dad quickly got a job working at someone else's bakery. That meant we moved to East Rogers Park, a gritty neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, and then, like thousands of other survivor families, on to the Promised Land, also known as Skokie.
The small suburb just north of Chicago was trying to grow into a bedroom community and explicitly sought out Jews who long had been unwelcome in suburbs ringing Chicago and beyond. One survivor told another and another, and by the '70s, Skokie would be home to an estimated seven to eight thousand of them — more than 10 percent of the population of a town already more than half Jewish — all living in a village barely ten miles square.
Once we arrived, my parents finally announced themselves as Jews. I watched my dad proudly nail a mezuzah to the doorway. We joined a nearby temple and lit the menorah every Hanukkah. I went to Hebrew school. I studied for my bar mitzvah. We were not in danger.
Each night, when my father went to sleep, he would say to me, "Do you know how I feel when I put my head on this pillow? Like a millionaire!" Each night, he must have thought of how he had tried to sleep in Buchenwald, never knowing if he would live through the next day.
Despite the oasis my parents and other survivors found in Skokie — which they transformed into a modern-day shtetl crowded with synagogues, Hebrew schools, and delis — they mostly kept their dark histories to themselves. Sure, during summer you'd sometimes see men and women in short sleeves with blue numbers etched on the inside of their forearms, but somehow you knew not to ask about it.
My dad and his surviving brothers and sister had no such numbers, so it was a long time before I learned that this was a particular mark of Auschwitz. When children asked their parents about the tattoos, many survivors told me decades later, the survivors often said they'd simply written down their phone numbers so they wouldn't forget.
So even though Skokie eventually would become one of the world's most famous — or infamous — sanctuaries for survivors, they kept such a low profile that hardly anyone outside their circle knew they were there.
"Nobody ever rolled up their sleeve and showed me a tattooed number," Mort Paradise, a World War II veteran who moved to Skokie in 1949, once told me. "They probably had no motivation to broadcast the fact that they were survivors."
That is, until neo-Nazi Frank Collin began threatening to march with his brown-shirted, swastika-wearing colleagues on the streets of Skokie. Of all places. WE ARE COMING read the flyers they started distributing widely in September 1976, the picture showing "a caricature of a swastika reaching out to throttle a stereotyped Eastern European ghetto Jew," wrote Philippa Strum in her book When the Nazis Came to Skokie. Collin and friends vowed to provide "the final solution to the Jewish question," and the survivors did not take this promise lightly. The rapidly rising tensions made Collin a media phenomenon; newspapers and TV stations from around the globe covered the spectacle of it all.
"We were getting calls, here at my house, in the middle of the night, from people living in countries far and wide, who asked what they could do," Skokie's then village attorney Harvey Schwartz once told me. "Could they send us money? Could they send us bullets? Anything to stop this."
My dad was burning up, his face turning white whenever Collin and friends appeared on TV or in the papers, which was practically nonstop in 1977 and '78. I was confounded that my family would take this clown seriously, but I later came to understand why. Hitler, too, had been considered a buffoon until he was duly elected chancellor of Germany in 1933 and began setting the stage for the annihilation of a people.
Though Skokie officials at first suggested that everyone simply pull down their window shades and ignore the planned march, the survivors refused. Thunderously. Early on they gathered at Village Hall, more than one hundred strong, determined to be heard, while Collin took his First Amendment case for his right to march to the courts.
"Many of them stood in shock, catatonic, unable to move," village attorney Schwartz told me, weeping at the memory. "What I realized at that moment was that what we were facing had nothing to do with the First Amendment. When someone wants to come marching into your town, with the announced intention to kill you, there was hardly anything left to discuss."
Neither my dad nor many of the survivors were going to let the Nazis return, even if it meant meeting Collin in the streets.
"I'll get a bat and break his head if he marches," my dad often said.
I believed him.
"We told the police, 'In case they will come in, they're going to be dead,'" survivor Ben Kryska once said to me. "We all had guns."
Each time Collin threatened to march, survivors waited for him on the upper stories of buildings facing Oakton Street, the main boulevard in downtown Skokie, trigger fingers ready, aiming dead ahead.
Luckily no shooting ever happened. Collin's case, tirelessly championed by the American Civil Liberties Union, made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
Elie Wiesel would not be silent about this turn of events.
"In its preoccupation with the rights of the Nazis," Wiesel wrote in Newsday in 1978, "the ACLU neglected those of their intended victims. Are they not worthy of the same concern? Are they not entitled to equal protection — or at least to compassion? After all, they are threatened, not the Nazis. They are in danger, not the Nazis. They are wounded, not the Nazis. They have nightmares, not the Nazis. Is there no law to defend them as well, and, if not, why hasn't the ACLU sought to do something in the matter?"
With the ACLU's help, the Nazis indeed prevailed under the law; the Supreme Court affirmed their First Amendment right to march. But Collin never exercised it, taking his message of group hatred to Humboldt Park and downtown Chicago instead. Why? He never said, but my guess is that he knew the survivors would be waiting for him, and that there was a very good chance the Skokie police would look the other way.
Years later, after all the neo-Nazi noise, Collin was sentenced to prison for child molestation and gave himself a new name and identity. But he surely had succeeded in retraumatizing thousands of survivors, like my parents, who had come to Skokie believing they had escaped the horrors of the past once and for all.
Collin reminded them that they never really would.
But the survivors were galvanized, many of them resolving never to let such a travesty occur again. They organized a speakers' bureau that opened in a storefront museum three blocks from our Skokie house in 1984. They lobbied to make Illinois the first state in the country to require Holocaust education in public elementary and high schools in 1990. And their decidedly unglamorous headquarters, located in a former dental-supplies building next door to a tavern, morphed into the $65 million Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center elsewhere in the suburb.
"Has the world learned the lesson?" Wiesel said at the opening ceremony, on April 19, 2009, the sixty-sixth anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and, coincidentally, my birthday.
"Sadly, the answer is no."
I hadn't started to learn such lessons, however, until that frozen night my mother ran out of her house. At first, I thought she was suffering from Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia. The psychiatrists who evaluated her in Skokie were equally clueless. Though my mother's hospital admittance records plainly identified her as a Holocaust survivor who "states that she is seeing animals and dogs chasing her," she was diagnosed with "delusional disorder" and dispatched to an assisted-living center. No one connected her "delusions" with her autobiography. Incredible.
So my journey to find out what happened began. An aunt of my mother's who lived in New Jersey, Irene Tannen, provided fragments of information on my mother's past and suggested I visit my mother's cousin, Leon Slominski, in Warsaw, to learn more.
My mother had family in Warsaw? That was news to me. Slominski helped fill in the story, our conversations in Poland inevitably leading me to the town where he and my mother and their aunt were born and very nearly executed. War crimes reports and eye witnesses I found in Dubno, as well as additional research at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, told me what no one ever had.
On September 17, 1939, shortly after Hitler and Stalin had decided to divide Poland between them by signing a nonaggression pact, Soviet tanks rolled into "my little Dubno," as my mother called her birthplace. The Soviets nationalized property and took over homes, including the one my mother, her aunt, and the extended family lived in. The soldiers pushed them all into a single room in back, a few steps from the outhouse in the yard.
This is what my mother learned can happen to you when you're eight years old.
Two years later, when Hitler broke the deal with Stalin and invaded Eastern Poland, bombs began dropping on Dubno at 4:00 AM on June 22, 1941. My mother was ten, and the family home must have trembled. The Nazis arrived via tank three days later, which is when the executions in and around Dubno began, select Jews machine-gunned at a sacred place: the Jewish cemetery.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Art of Inventing Hope"
Copyright © 2019 Howard Reich.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1 The Holocaust Returns,
2 A Troubled Inheritance,
3 A Burden and Privilege,
4 We Are All Witnesses,
5 The Untouchable Past,
6 Why Do They Hate Us?,
7 Where Did We Go Wrong?,
8 The Scene of the Crimes,
9 How Did Our Parents Stay Sane?,
10 Listening to Silence,
11 Moments of Grace,
12 How Do We Speak of This?,
13 The Art of Inventing Hope,
14 On Faith,
15 Can We Forgive?,
16 How Shall We Regard Israel?,
17 Further Thoughts on Night and Its Implications,
18 The Magical Power of Memory,