The Other Man, Hitler
My marriage officially ended in 2016. I blame Hitler. He really fucked things up for so many of us. How’s that for the understatement of the century? Now, even my own children, born over 50 years after liberation, have to suffer. (That may be the most Jewish sentence ever written, by the way.)
In a recent 60 Minutes episode, there was a segment around the virtualization of real life Holocaust survivors that capture, through interviews completed in the past, their responses to a multitude of questions. As such, people today can interact with them as if they are alive, long after they have passed. Essentially, the power of artificial intelligence is being used so that these survivors can share their stories forever. It’s a pretty amazing thing to witness and great for future generations to hear “directly” from those survivors who were first hand witnesses to one of the greatest atrocities of all time. A bit creepy, maybe, but amazing, too.
As an aside and given the times we are living in, it makes me wonder how teaching history might be forever changed (and for the better) if we could do the same thing for other atrocities, such as slavery. For example, what if we heard from Africans forced over a 400 year period into a world of slavery today? Might this not give us a first hand account that would settle the question once and for all if sins of our forefathers impact the plight of our society today? It might give many of us who otherwise do not have one, a perspective and compassion regarding who we really are and who we have an opportunity to become when we put on a different set of eyes.
This brings us back to Hitler and 60 minutes. In this particular segment, one woman, Eva Mozes Kor, responded very differently to the question about forgiveness. Whereas others could absolutely not forgive the Nazis for what they did, leading to the obvious loss of family members, lives and trauma that would be carried around for lifetimes, Eva chose to forgive. In doing so, she may have spared her future descendants an actual further trauma.
Eva was not only a survivor of the Holocaust and the concentration camps but also of the immoral and horrific experiments of Josef Mengele. Having been a twin, she and her sister were of special interest to his malicious intentions. Her granting of amnesty to one of Mengele’s “colleagues”, and all Nazis, was a headline moment, as you can imagine. This was not understood, nor accepted, by many of Eva’s community who, themselves, were forever traumatized by the camps and the atrocities therein.
To be honest, I think I fall into the latter group, not that of the former. To confess, I recently was on the receiving end of a dirty look from a worker at ShopRite and I’m just now getting over it. The mental fortitude it must take in order to summon up this level of forgiveness seems unimaginable to me. Particularly since Hitler destroyed my family unit, too.
Let me explain.
My ex-wive’s father was born in 1942 and as has been told to me, was raised by nuns in the concentration camp that housed his mother and father until liberation. His mother survived liberation but his father died soon after. His mother remarried and he grappled with both the devastation of the Shoah (frequently referenced Hebrew term for “Holocaust”) and, from all I have been told, the lack of connection with his step-father, and perhaps to some extent, perhaps his own mother.
Like many survivors of the Holocaust, he navigated to one of two ends of the “post-Holocaust spectrum” – doubling down on his Judaism and becoming a well renowned Orthodox Rabbi while others concluded there could be no God that would ever allow for such an atrocity and abandoned religion altogether. His commitment to a higher being was equally matched by his disregard for his own family unit- or at least his first one. Score 1 for the “big guy in the sky” … and 1 for Hitler?
My ex-father-in-law married my ex-wive’s mother, (I know – enough with the “Exs), who was born to two parents who, themselves, fled Europe for first Palestine and then Canada, not being granted entry into the U.S. They did so, however, not without leaving behind other family members.
As is the case with so many families, it is difficult to discern the entire truth from the trickle of tidbit facts revealed over generations but suffice it to say that there was some notion that my ex-wive’s grandmother may have knowingly left behind a brother desperate to leave Eastern Europe and the rest can be left to conjecture, imagination and speculation.
That these two people, children of the Holocaust – directly or once-removed, found each other in the earliest years of their budding adulthood and in each other, even for a brief moment, is not without significance. One can reasonably imagine that they found a liberation of their own which had set forth a cascade of pain and suffering that is not separated from the Holocaust nor the fact that I now have two children who will always grapple with the plight of so many divorced children – what happened and why?
When my wife decided to divorce it fell into the “irreconcilable differences” category – a broad brushed category that provides little details. Nowhere in the state of Pennsylvania was “separation due to epigenetic inheritance of Holocaust related trauma” an option. Nowhere. Not that any divorce is one-sided. But, that’s for other blog posts previously written and yet to be written.
Scientists have proven and continue to study genetic changes that occur due to traumatic events. However, it is not just the change to the victim of that event but that these genetic changes stemming from the trauma suffered may be passed down to future generations. Specific to the Holocaust, scientists have shown that trauma experienced by Holocaust survivors was capable of being passed on to their children. We understand how your own life experience can affect your children emotionally but now there was also budding evidence of that on a genetic level – and not just for children but for subsequent generations, as well.
As nothing is without controversy these days, the verdict may be out on epigenetic inheritance for a while. Let us, for a moment, assume this theory actually is wrong. It doesn’t really matter. Hitler, the other man, still owes me thousands of dollars in alimony, child support and therapy bills because he contributed to the dissolution of my marriage. I’ll even settle. But can I forgive?
I make light of Hitler as “the other man” not to in any way dismiss the real trauma he has inflicted on millions directly, but it is to make a point. The way in which the Holocaust played a role in my marriage never left. My ex-father-in-law’s entire existence, to this day, is grounded in the Holocaust. It will be for the remainder of his life. As proof, in preparing for my wedding, in which I agreed to have him officiate at the request of my ex-wife, he said, in front of 125 witnesses: “let us not forget the 6 million”. I get it but can we have one occasion where we don’t need to conjure up the entire plot of Schindler’s list? I remember trying to deflect that moment later on when asked about it: “I’m not sure I can find a banquet hall large enough.” Inappropriate? Maybe. For both of us, if you ask me.
My mother-in-law eventually divorced her ever-more-religious husband and went on to become a powerful economist and well-known visitor to Canadian television stations in the 90s. She, in my opinion, never resolved the juxtaposition of having left a culture she grew to resent and, at the same time, often still judging others according to it. My experience with her was that she was not able to find love in herself or for my family.
These two individuals would come to be grandparents to my own kids. Had these to-be-grandparents been born to their own parents never influenced in their youth by the atrocities and life-changing decisions they had to make in the 1940S, would they have been more loving, less fearful and more trusting?
We will never know. I could never make sense of how my ex may have suffered as a child being neglected by her own parents. I could never resolve her need to be independent and yet still please a father from whom she was estranged. I tried to fill the void and clearly, I failed. Miserably. The only one who could do it was another man and he died on April 30, 1945.
Eva Mozes Kor figured it out though. In fact, today, her son, Alex, has said that “being a child of Holocaust survivors has been a source of strength and perseverance”. Why is that not the case for my children, who are the grand-children and great-grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and witnesses? Could it have to do with this idea of forgiveness?Eva Mozes Kor realized that in always being a victim and carrying around such anger, she would be trapped forever. It would be worn like a heavy coat, never to be taken off regardless of weather condition. She understood that the most empowering way to alleviate suffering was through forgiveness.
Liberation day from the Nazi regime was May 8, 1945 but for many, true liberation still remains elusive. The alleviation of suffering through forgiveness – that is true liberation. Today, I can only speak to one part of a two-part way of living that my own children must navigate between. For me, I desperately want them to claim their own lives and reset their own genetic and spiritual code. I don’t know if forgiving Hitler is in the cards, though. I think I will have to start with forgiving myself first. Liberation is only possible that way. I hope to find it some day but more importantly, I hope it finds my children first.
Until next time,