The Unbearable Lightness of Freedom
I have decided to live my life. Really live it. At the ripe old age of 44.
Where was I before? I think I was sleeping.
“The universe will show you the way you need to go,” said a friend to me many years ago.
And it is true. The universe shows the way, and it blocks the way, and the whole time you think that it’s you.
But maybe I wouldn’t hear it.
For how many times did I bang my head against the wall?
I thought there was something wrong with me, when I failed at things I was supposed to master.
To understand, understand that I grew up with the Holocaust as though it were a sister.
Try to visualize this: A respected, well-educated woman, hauled into the town square and raped before the whole town, not once but in an orgy, not by a few lone wolves but by a mass of recruited participants, who included the priests; not in a single nightmare of a night but over the course of many.
That happened, and I only found out this year because somebody wrote a scholarly article about it and my cousin sent it to me on Facebook. As it turns out my Zayde was on the burial committee for the Jews who were bludgeoned with shovels and massacred in a field not far away and not long afterward.
The legacy of years of destruction like that was physical, obviously, for the survivors. It was emotional as well – I can tell you that for my father’s parents (may they rest in peace), there was no such thing as discussing that time until they neared their very end. It was spiritual, because we could never look at things quite the same way again. Some of us couldn’t even look at G-d.
It was generational. My father inherited something, not just because he was born a couple of years after the war had ended but because he lived with the aftermath all his life. He learned from my Zayde never to speak in a direct manner, never to say anything unless it needed to be said, and yes, that the authorities were dangerous and that one must be prepared to live a whole lifetime of lives in secret. Even to lie.
Because that is what Zayde did in the war, he hid the freezing skeletal Jews under the horseshit in the hay, and that is how he kept them alive when the officers passed. “Nobody’s here.”
We had been beaten and exposed and violated again and again inside the Holocaust, and after it we all decided to move on.
But we didn’t lose the shame.
Jews – that is, the majority of us, not the few who insisted on the Old World ways - learned to be more American than American, much Whiter than White, and much more Christian-friendly than any Christian.
We would do anything to escape being identified as one of them. We would not be identified as the past, as victims, as people so weak and helpless they could very easily be dragged from their living rooms and prayer halls and the coffee shop down the street. Stripped and raped and almost lifeless, while everybody took a turn.
It is a lifetime of pain and it is in my skin, and I dealt with it however I did. But fundamentally, at the bottom of things it is fair to say that I denied myself an existence.
Everything, everything we did as Jews and as people who survived from the survivors was to fight and fight and fight our way forward and upward in this world. We would not be defined by the past. We would be creative of the future, a better future. “Never again!”
But in the process of that fighting something was sacrificed, was lost.
The ability to have a normal childhood, normal development, an arc of identity not tied to all the others who were kicked into the pit, spat upon and generally forgotten.
I am Rip Van Winkle, the old woman in the shoe, stepping out into the sunlight the first time.
It looks good. It feels so warm on my shoulders.
I love you so much, Zayde. I know you are watching me now.
Thank you for giving me your silent blessing from above.
Just like any ordinary person I might pass on the street, I am endowed with the right to be an ordinary person.
The weight – it is removed.
I now pronounce myself free to live.
All opinions my own.