When I was very young — about seven, eight, nine — my mother told my sisters and I that our father would be on national television. She had just returned home from work, dropping her briefcase on the grey leather couch, smoothing out the part in her shorn curly hair. When I asked why this would be so, she replied, “It’s for work, what he’s doing is very important.” Something along those lines. My mind didn’t linger on the vagaries of this answer; the only sparks of interest for me were that this must have meant that my father would be famous now. I insisted on sitting on the living room floor, on a rug that seemed to be an amalgamation of stitched burlap squares, scratching my legs and waiting for the TV to blink open, for my father’s face to be revealed behind that glass eyelid.
We must have had dinner, it must have been a late broadcast, because my next memory is of all of us standing in the doorway, my father now included in this equation. None of us sat, too tense with the idea of a pitfall, of making a sudden motion to take a seat and miss his cameo. And he was there, in the living room, which itself seemed a sort of paradox – how could he be inside of the TV and standing next to my mother at the same time? But I didn’t ask questions, I was too afraid of error, of somehow not being part of what was to be a momentous occasion.
And then it happened, and there he was: large glasses with plastic, translucent frames, rosy cheeks, Roman nose, ears stuck out in earnest. It was hard to follow what he was saying, and accompanying images seemed unrelated: a car factory that the accompanying subtitles placed in Detroit, an assembly line of pill bottles, the word “Bayer” splayed out across the screen. There was an old woman with grizzled hair in a bun, speaking in German, an English translator superseding her voice. The woman, at first, looked like my grandmother, my father’s mother, her face and thick, gesticulating hands were similar to hers, and this made me happy until I remembered that my Oma had died a few years before. The images and complicated words swelled over me, made me want to sit down. When the clip was over and the commercial break took hold, I asked what had happened.
“Don’t you remember,” said my mother, “don’t you remember what Daddy does? That woman was in a concentration camp. And Daddy works with a motor company to find out what kinds of people put her there, and people who were in our family, too. What Daddy’s doing is very important.”
A number of my childhood memories are like this.
In sociology and psychology, the term is “collective consciousness,” meant to describe and ultimately diagnose the shared belief system within a specific culture. It has also become a placeholder of another significance: to observe the trend of how an over-arching, traumatic event is processed by a group of people, a collective. One of the most vivid examples of this has become the memorialization of World War II and the Holocaust as it pertains to diverse, affected parties. In my family’s case, collective consciousness is a permeating force, a cocktail of survivor’s guilt on the part of my now-deceased grandparents, the alienation and guilt from that alienation felt by my father and his siblings, and now me and my sisters, who are imbued with the legacies of this antinomy. Ilk begotten by ilk. A cyclical heritage, but one necessary to bear. There is no other way, with families like ours.
Right now, I am working on a novel based on my father’s childhood and the lives of his parents. Generally, I’m under the impression that my father is reluctant to have this novel be written. I try not to discuss it, and when it is mentioned once every few months (“Oh, you know, the novel I’m working on, that’s what I’m doing some research for”), my father raises his eyebrow and makes some sort of remark (“Oh, your novel”), which reads as a sort of dismissal. Not necessarily dismissive, but just a way to estrange himself from the topic. We don’t really talk about fiction.
The thing about my father’s childhood in London during the 1970s and my grandparent’s emigration to England during World War II is that it reads like an updated, ethnic Dickensian tale. Class struggle. Poverty. Covert anti-Semitism. A mother who, after her husband’s death, went somewhat mad, had her bipolar disorder kick in. A Jewish father who was paradoxically convicted of being a German spy during the war, was sent to an internment camp in Canada for three years. Parents who received only half of a high school education. A grandfather who escaped Europe, only to be killed in the East End bombings a few years later. Two people who decided to break up with God for good, their children estranged from bar mitzvahs and the inner-sanctums of synagogues. A handful of photographs, two heirlooms, crystal cups. Scholarships and silence. Most of these things my father found out right before my grandparents’ deaths. The houses in which they were born are probably gone, turned into cafés or parking lot cement.
There is always so much silence.
I have only one memory of my Oma. I must be two, I still play with a tea set, plastic saucers and a pot in a uniform soft pink. The blinds are open, but the room is angled with shadows. Oma, who had worked in a pastry shop for most of her adult life, is fashioning tarts and palm-sized cakes with play dough, making balls of green cherries and blue icing. I reach for one to eat, but she puts her hand over mine and says something in Austrian-German, a word which I now realize means “no.” Her hands are terrifying, all distended knobs. I look at her face and it looks so kind. I pretend that her hands are not hers.
This might have been the same visit that my Oma came for Thanksgiving, using tickets purchased by my father with his meager salary as a newly-hired professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Oma had an unspecified dislike for my mother, an American from Florida. Despite this, my mother always tried. This was when they knew that something was not quite right with Oma, something that gave way to fits of rage, periods of the silent treatment bequeathed to my father’s siblings for unlocate-able indiscretions, like when my Aunt Rose brought her a gift of expensive jams, and somehow Oma found it insulting. She was an untethered bomb.
So when my mother told Oma to relax during the preparation of Thanksgiving dinner, a holiday my Austrian grandmother must have found partially quaint and partially absurd, when my mother told her she didn’t need any help in the kitchen, my Oma’s anger became a boiling, palpable thing, an unhinging presence. My mother was only trying to be nice – Oma’s hands were riddled with arthritis from her years at the pastry shop and before that, during the war, after Kindertransport, when she was orphaned but too old for an orphanage, forced to work as a maid in the homes of the rich in St. John’s Wood, scrubbing marble floors and turning over mattresses bigger than she was.
Because of this transgression, my Oma didn’t speak to us for over a year.
On my father’s side of the family, silence is what marks us. Before, the silence was due to an inability to cope. My grandmother’s mental illness, perhaps, was a culmination of this silence, the loss of a language to express her grief. Or perhaps she knew this language, this codex, and it was only my Opa. Maybe she only talked about it with her husband, and when he died, so did the modes of expression shared between them. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
Now, silence is something we wish we could fight against. Almost 70 years after the Holocaust, we have conceded to truth-seeking, but silence from the generation before us means that the answers died with those who upheld it.
Last week, I sent an e-mail to my father, who is abroad in Europe for most of the summer, organizing and participating in conferences. The subject matter pertains mostly to the darker side of international relations and foreign policy. After all, he got his start in researching the dark connections between companies, such as Ford and Bayer, their involvement in the concentration camps of World War II. I think this was because of his parents and their experiences. I’ve never asked.
In this e-mail, I asked if he had any information regarding the neighborhood in Vienna where my grandparents grew up. This information and information like it was (and has continued to be) hard to come by; unlike my father, I do not speak or read German, which has hindered much of my research regarding Jewry and Vienna. I assumed they lived in the same neighborhood. They had been childhood sweethearts. A story of love and war. My father replied the next day; he had no idea. His parents didn’t talk about these things.
Two days ago, I received another e-mail from my father. Towards the end, it read:
While in Vienna I did do some research on your grandfather’s place of birth. The best I could do so far was to find the 1923 edition of the Vienna address. There are, surprisingly, quite a number of people named Reich, but my best guess is that Rudolf(your great-grandfather) and his son Erich lived at 3 Augartenstraße in the 2nd district.
And a picture:
I began to cry, and at first, it seemed absurd, idolatrous. The physicality of the script, however shrouded behind the veneer of a laptop screen, was startling in the curves of its filigreed Teutonic script. The more I wept in surreptitious little arcs, the more it ebbed toward me.
Mikhail Bulgakov wrote, Manuscripts don’t burn.
Federico Garcia Lorca wrote, If I told you the whole story it would never end.
There were never any sentences, and in more than 70 years, this was the first.