On April 21, 2015, Oskar Gröning, age 93, a German former SS-Unterscharführer who was stationed at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, was put on trial for accessory to murder in 300,000 cases for his role in the tragic deaths of those interned at the camp during the Second World War. Gröning’s trial may be the last great Nazi war crimes trial in history. On April 29, 2015, I testified at this trial on behalf of my half-sister Eva, who was gassed upon her arrival at Auschwitz. She was six years old. This testimony is her story, and mine.
The following is the testimony I prepared to give at Gröning’s trial. However, time and translation constraints required me to prepare an abridged version to present in court. To read the abridged version, as it was read during the trial, please click here.
I’m a Canadian child of Holocaust survivors, and I’ll be speaking to you about the effect on my life of the death of my half-sister, Eva Edit Weinberger, age six, in Auschwitz in June of 1944.
The emotional and psychological difficulties faced by the second generation, the children of the survivors, has been documented in many of the countries that took in Europe’s post-war Jews. But in Germany, the phenomenon of inherited trauma as it applies to the Holocaust is less known, simply because few German Jews survived, and even fewer stayed. Before the Second World War, there were approximately 550,000 Jews in Germany. By the end of the war, perhaps 15,000 remained. Of these, most joined the post-war Diaspora of displaced European Jews who found new homes around the world. A child of one such displaced family, I have been asked to talk to you about how the loss of my parents’ loved ones, in particular the six-year-old Eva Edit I never knew, left me with a burden of inherited survivor guilt that has been a defining feature of my life. It informed my choice of life partner and the trajectory of my professional endeavors. Still, to address this court in the form of a victim impact statement, feels uncomfortably disproportionate. If I am at all a victim, it is largely in a titular sense. The effects of the Holocaust on my life can’t be put on a par with how it changed my parents and all those who suffered its ravages. The loss to me of Eva Edit Weinberger is as nothing set against the devastation her death wrought on our father.
This father, hers and mine, was Gusztav Weinberger Kalman. His family came from the village of Vaja in Szabolcs County in northeastern Hungary. Vaja was named for the Counts of Vay who held their seat in the village and leased approximately three hundred and fifty acres of land, first to my father’s grandfather Yakab Swarcz, and then to my grandfather Kalman Weinberger. It was a large agricultural operation based primarily on the production of tobacco and the distilling of grain alcohol for export. My father and his two younger brothers, Ferenc and Pal, were raised to take over this family business. The extensive group of their relatives belonged to a small Jewish middle class. The vast majority of Hungarian rural Jews were poor and uneducated, and an extremely wealthy class of Jews lived in the cities. But in the countryside of Szabolcs County, the Swarczes and Weinbergers were looked to as natural leaders of their community by their wealth, piety, and, in my father’s generation, education. When my father was called up for forced labour service for the first time in December 1940, he was almost thirty-five years-old, in charge of the finances and many of the administrative duties of the business, and living in the nearby town of Nyiregyhaza where he had moved his young family. He had married Mancika Mandula in 1937. Their daughter Eva Edit was born in April 1938.
My father escaped the sweep of Eichmann’s net when the Jews of northeastern Hungary were among the first to be deported to Auschwitz after the Germans occupied Hungary at the end of May, 1944. He was away in forced labour, as was his brother Ferenc. Pal, the youngest brother, home on leave and recovering from a hernia operation, was deported with the rest of the family. Ferenc, having survived the death march out of ghastly conditions in the copper mines in Bor, Serbia, died in the Flossenburg concentration camp on November 9, 1944, one day before my father was to arrive home to the family estate near Vaja.
My father’s war had ended early and dramatically. During his final labour service, the men in his company had, as usual, looked to him for leadership during days of chaos. The company was attached to what little was left of the Hungarian army which in turn was attached to the retreating German forces, blowing up bridges over rivers as they crossed westward in flight from the approaching Russians. Just thirty kilometers from home, my father had a dread of crossing the Tisza River. To his mind, once the river was crossed, they would be marched to the nearest train hub town and from there deported into Germany. But the flow of retreating humanity was so heavy, his company was forced over a bridge earlier than he had expected. The advent of the Russians caused the usual structures to crumble, and Germans, Hungarians, Jews, broke rank. My father sought out the Hungarian sergeant in charge of his division. He told him they had to cross back over the bridge, or they’d all end up in Germany. Perhaps the sergeant thought that allegiance to the Reich was no longer strategic. What should he say if they were stopped, he asked? Why, answered my father, that the filthy Jews were clogging up the works. Let them go the long way around on the other side. Two hundred Jewish labour servicemen followed my father back over the explosives-lined bridge. No one stopped them or blew them up. My father had liberated himself. Within days, on November 10, 1944, he arrived at the family estate where he found locals had taken up residence. The explanation they gave him was that it made sense to move in since, quote, “it had pleased the Weinberger family to take off.”
My mother Anna Swarcz and my father Gusztav sealed their love in June 1946. They had met during the previous year after my mother returned to her home town of Beregszasz and found no family there. She had survived Auschwitz, slave labour in munitions factories in Germany, and the long forced march which led them through Buchenwald, which they again miraculously survived, and eventually towards Dresden. All this time, the starving slaves had been herded and driven pointlessly before the retreating SS. Eventually liberated by the Americans, she and her only surviving sister made a harrowing journey, sometimes by train, sometimes by truck, but most often on foot, all the way back to Hungary. Since no other family member had returned to Beregszasz, and the Russians were about to close the new borders around the once Czech, once Hungarian town, my mother left. She took with her nothing but the portrait of her favourite sister Magda, killed by Allied bombs at the munitions plant where the Jewish slaves had been turned out of the barracks so their guards could shelter within. Having nowhere else to go, she set out for Nyiregyhaza, home to her husband Marton. She too had been married before the war, but only a brief few weeks. Marton had been called to labour service and sent to the Russian front. He was not to reappear until after my sister Elaine was born, when our parents Anna and Gusztav already considered themselves husband and wife. It was in Nyiregyhaza that she met my father who, after returning from labour service, established the local chapter of an organization aiding in the resettlement of Jewish survivors and the location of their missing loved ones. Anna went searching for Marton; instead she found our father.
In 1979, a book was published by the American author Helen Epstein. It opened the discussion about the affects on the offspring of Holocaust survivors of their parents’ Holocaust history. Helen Epstein had a trove of subjects to study and interview, as about 92,000 post-Second World War Jewish immigrants had settled in the United States and about 25,000 in Canada. Their children could be estimated at a quarter million. A silence that had shrouded the subject of the Holocaust in many of these families for more than thirty years fuelled the discussion ignited by the topic. So these were the emotions borne in silence by survivors of the Holocaust—guilt, shame, dread, mistrust—a silence that had filled their children with unease. Epstein documented a common experience among survivor families—silence. For reasons of trauma that bred fear, shame, and guilt, the parents who had experienced the horror of the death camps, labour service, cumulative losses of loved ones and homelands, followed for many by the uncertainty of life in displaced persons camps, silence erected a protective wall. But a wall also imprisons, cutting a person off from emotional connections, locking them in with self-recriminations and fears. Some of this might be sensed by children in a household, engendering a kind of inherited anxiety about who their parents were and what once befell them. The success of the book Children of the Holocaust reflected a thirst in the second generation for information and openness about the past and the trauma that had afflicted their parents and their parents’ families.
At the time of its publication, my sister Elaine Kalman Naves and I read Children of the Holocaust with great interest. Our experience as children of Holocaust survivors fell into the opposite category, perhaps not as numerous as the group locked in silence, but still notable. Instead of silence, these survivors were steeped in the past, speaking of it frequently, and as in the case of our parents sometimes incessantly. In our household, the past and the family members who had populated it felt ever present.
The annihilation of my parents’ families, in particular the deaths of the children, belonged to a world that could not have been further removed from the one across the ocean to which I was to belong. Yet it shaped me from even the point of conception. Today, we’re learning about environmental factors that may affect our genes, possibly within a single generation. The murders to which I allude were such an outrage to our sense of ourselves as creatures of compassion and social interdependency, I imagine their impact fast-tracking to the very genes that came to me from both father and mother. The imprint was in my name, forming my first vague notions of identity. I had been called after two dead children—Eva for my father’s daughter of a previous marriage, and Judit after my mother’s niece. I am no more aware of the first time I learned this fact than the first time I responded to those sounds. I have always known I am Eva Judit, and also why.
Both these children—Eva Edit Weinberger, aged six, and Judit Borenstein, aged twelve—met their ends in Auschwitz, not on the same day, but over the period of fifty-seven days during which 438,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to the camp. The two girls were among the 320,000 gassed, as were Eva’s mother Mancika Mandula Weinberger; and my paternal grandparents, Kalman Weinberger and Ilona Weinberger; their son Pal and his wife Meri, and their daughter Marika, aged six; as well as twenty-two other family members in that single transport. All told, my father lost close to eighty-four members of his one hundred and twenty relatives.My mother lost her parents, Samuel and Ilona Swarcz, her sisters Rozsa Swarcz Borenstein and Magda Swarcz, her niece Judit Borenstein, and her nephew Tibor Weisz, among numerous aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws. My sister Elaine and I, both born after the war, did not inherit heirlooms, but rather a legacy of two murdered families, ever present in the narratives of our parents and the photographs and letters written in the hands of the dead. My father retrieved these letters and photos from the mud in the street in front of his home in the town of Nyiregyhaza. The house had been taken over, his personal belongings thrown out into the street. He had escaped from forced labour service in November of 1944 and returned home to see whom he might find. Mud-splattered letters and photographs were all that was left of mother, father, brothers, wife, child. He picked up as many as he could stuff into his pockets, and these artifacts became the family my sister Elaine and I grew up to love in absentia.
The child, Eva Edit Weinberger, is the one person among our legacy of dead about whom I’ve been asked to testify today. My life took its shape from her death, but it needs to be emphasized that she was just one of the crowd of family members who hung in the wings of my family life in Canada, a gallery of characters against whom my every experience was referenced and compared, who watched us with interest, tenderness, and sometimes dismay. They were alive to us beyond the realm of the imagination, in a way that was almost palpable. For example: When my eldest son was born in 1983, he so resembled my then seventy-seven year-old father, that my first thought on taking him into my arms was: How happy my grandmother would be to see him! Of course, my grandmother, born in 1881, would most likely have been dead by 1983 whether or not she had been murdered by the Nazis. Still, by reflex, I offered my son up to her doting gaze before I phoned my own mother and father.
If I digress further into my parents’ story it is because one life’s history depends on those before it. How to know—or at least imagine—as you and I are asked to do today, Eva Edit Weinberger dead by gas at age six, without at least a glimpse of the family she was born into? And how to explain the affect of her passing on my life lived on a continent six thousand kilometers from her home, without telling you about our shared father, her Apuka, who led two hundred men to safety; and my Daddy, a man divided by the great cataclysm that cut his life and his very being in two, leaving him with one foot in the realm of shades and the other on the never quite certain surface of the new world?
My parents settled in Budapest after the war. My father changed his surname, which was too Jewish and German to fit in with the Soviet-aligned interests of post-war Hungary, and went by his late father’s given name Kalman which was typically Magyar. He held a position with the Ministry of Agriculture, supervising state-run farms in the countryside outside Budapest. In 1956, at the time of the Hungarian Uprising my father was fifty years-old, with a wife thirteen years his junior, and two young children, my sister Elaine, age eight, and me, Eva Judit, age two.
He was already the patriarch of the remnants of his ruined family, supporting two mentally unstable elderly aunts, and representing for his other living relatives the role the Weinbergers had held in Szabolcs County. By presenting a persuasive argument in favour of emigration, the 1956 Revolution would cast him more deeply into the world the Holocaust had destroyed. My mother declared that she’d had enough of violence. She wanted to raise her children free of oppression and fear. Her three surviving siblings had already emigrated—a brother to Israel, another to London, England, and her surviving sister to Montreal, Canada. In 1957, having procured exit papers from her siblings in England and Canada, she literally took one child by one hand, the second child by the other, and walked us down the path of our apartment house. Looking over her shoulder to the building against which my father leaned like a limb broken off a massive oak, she announced, “With or without you we’re going.” He had lost a wife and a child twelve years earlier. At fifty-one years of age, my father started life anew without language, occupation, friends, or familiar points of reference. We spent eighteen months in London, then moved to Montreal where he lived and eventually died in 1990, leaving a wife, two daughters, and four grandchildren. My mother Anna, still with us at ninety-five years, continues to follow with interest the development of four great grandkids. All of us, my sister Elaine and I, our four children, and her four grandchildren, were born out of the ashes of the sacrificed Eva Edit.
She looked different from us. Her cousin Marika was considered the prettier of the two with her wide round face similar to her father Pal’s and our grandmother’s, in keeping with the soft curves of the Hungarian ideal. I look more like the little cousin, couldn’t see myself as appealing until we returned to visit Hungary in 1969 where I was made much of. At home in Montreal we aspired to look hungry, big-eyed, and boyish like the British fashion model of the times, Twiggy. However I may have starved myself my face stayed full, my cheekbones non-existent. Evike as she was known by the family, would have more likely grown into the Western proportions of beauty. Her face was a small oval. In one photo she strikes me as a total stranger, looking like no one but herself, delicate in build, and with large eyes alight with quickness. Her hair is in two braids looped loosely and tied up in white ribbons on either side of a central part. A downy growth of new hair spills from beneath the upswept braids onto her generous forehead. In one photo with her mother, they both smile flirtatiously at the photographer. Our father perhaps? In another favourite of mine, I see in her image someone dear and totally unrelated, a psychotherapist who helped me through one of the darkest periods of my life. I realize I’ve had a lifetime habit of seeing Evike in women I admire. She would have been the same age as a teacher-mentor I met in college, a woman of Central European and half-Jewish extraction. Like my mentor, Evike had taught herself to read and write by the age of four. Her letters to my father during his labour service are charmingly printed, the words running together without spaces in between but almost all correctly spelled. She would have been so much brighter and more gifted than I, I concluded. Would she have grown up into a brilliant teacher like my instructor? In graduate school I studied with a prominent author. She too was born the same year as Evike. I saw in these women a potential that might have been hers had my half-sister been afforded her right to grow into adulthood. Although I soon overtook Evike in age, I didn’t see her as continually younger than I, but rather sixteen years my senior, ever projected into the future to which she was entitled. The third picture on my desk is not one I would have selected. Herr Walther kindly had it enlarged for me and my sister Elaine. In it Evike looks deeply anxious. Her brows are puckered, and she clings to the teddy bear she holds in every photograph. Perhaps the sun is too harsh on her eyes, but it is hard not to imagine that she is gazing at the future. In all these photos I look for a point of resemblance that connects us. But except for the high forehead and finely etched mouth, I see none. How much then did Evike and I share? In what way if any may I have embodied a part of her?
As a child I formed a strange myth to explain the baffling circumstances of my existence. There must have been something wrong about the old, beautiful way of life that my father extolled in his stories of the past. According to Gusztav, his parents could not have been more devoted to each other, their children, and their numerous relations. His mother Ilona was a paragon of religious faith and observance; his father Kalman unstintingly honest in affairs of business, wise, fair-minded, and forward-thinking; his brothers intelligent and accomplished, Pal especially in having earned a doctorate in law. The Swarczes on his mother’s side had been renowned over four generations for their philanthropy and hospitality, each exemplary in his or her own right, but most so his grandfather Yakab, an advocate for innovation, who was an early adopter of electricity, the automobile, and the mechanized tractor. The clan had been sophisticated and good. Good. Yet, if so, asked the child-skeptic born to him for life in a different world, why were they all wiped out? A child raised to believe in a beneficent God, but above all, because of her father’s carefully wrought narratives, in a causality that gave shape and meaning to life. Surely, surely something must not have been right with that world for it to have been so brutally eclipsed.
I came up with an answer that makes sense only to a child. For some reason, my sister Elaine and I had to be born. If we were meant to be, then it followed that Evike and her world were not. It was that simple. I could imagine no circumstance which would have allowed all three of us life. My father, a committed family man, would never have divorced Mancika to marry Anna, a younger woman. Nor would he have wished to, even had his path crossed with Anna’s in an alternate universe. Gusztav and Mancika were happily married, much more suited to each other in temperament by his accounts, than what we witnessed of his relationship with our mother. No. In order for Gusztav and Anna to find each other, Mancika and Evike, and in fact their whole society steeped in tradition and precedence had to go. That Evike might have miraculously survived in Auschwitz without her mother, to be reclaimed by our father after the war, and brought up under one roof with me and Elaine (far-fetched a notion as this might be), had never occurred to me until it was recently brought to my attention. Even at my current age I resist the logic.
Early on, through my father’s stories and my mother’s startling revelations of horror, I absorbed the knowledge that innocent children could be murdered and whole families and communities eradicated by forces beyond their control. I might be playing with a doll that said, “Mama.” When I removed the doll’s clothes, the mechanical voice box lodged in her back was exposed. My mother would exclaim, “Don’t show me that thing. It reminds me of my cousin Blanka when we were running under the bombs like ants, and I ran by her, her back blown open from shrapnel.” Such explosions were not uncommon for my mother. If she was in the mood to reminisce, I say this sarcastically I’m afraid, she might go from that shocking image to a concentrated precis of how other members of Blanka’s family had met their ends. We didn’t know when my mother’s memories might detonate, or what might trigger them. It felt like setting off a landmine just when one had assumed the field was clear. The world plainly could be a scary place. As a young emigrant of three and a half, I too was swept up in the migration of peoples. What could I carry with me as an emblem of the safety and faith I needed so as to flourish and grow? I suspect it was around this time that my personal creation myth emerged. I decided that the old, beautiful world had been a false start. As in a race when one runner darts ahead of the signal and all runners must return to the line to begin again, so too with that world and mine. Evike, the innocent precursor of fate, had leapt ahead of the whistle. She was the child who was not meant to be because those who were, Elaine and I, had not yet arrived at the starting line. From this hypothesis, the solution to the terrors that might befall us followed. Everything bad that could happen to a family had already struck my father and mother. The horrors had come before and thus wouldn’t come again. Elaine and I by extension were inoculated against disaster. The suffering that as humans we continue to inflict on one another defy our understanding as adults let alone that of a child. I offer that in my defense, as well as the ego-centric world view native to childhood. But why did these personal myths retain their hold? To answer that, I must tell you a little more about my father.
Before the war, Gusztav Weinberger had been a leader within his rural Jewish community. He held a degree in agronomy from the Royal Hungarian Agricultural Academy. He then apprenticed for two years on the estate owned by his mother’s cousins, the Rochlitzes. The Rochlitzes were distinctive on two counts. They had been landowners from a time when it was a rarity for Jews to be permitted to own land; and they were free-thinking, neither religious nor traditionally observant. They came from a line of intellectuals and early feminists. Living with the Rochlitzes, the twenty year-old Gusztav’s world view broadened, laying a foundation for his later life in Canada. With the Rochlitzes, Gusztav ate tref, non-Kosher foods including pork. He grew to admire women who cut their hair short as an expression of emancipation. And as part of his training, he learned to keep the complex accounts of a business enterprise even larger than that of his family in Vaja. The close relationship Gusztav developed with the Rochlitzes resumed in Canada after he reconnected with the only surviving member of that family. Zsuzsa Rochlitz Szoke is now a ninety year-old grandmother. She was the only one to remain from the transport from the Kisvarda Ghetto that delivered my father’s thirty-four relatives and loved ones to Auschwitz; and the only one besides my father who could provide first-hand testimony about Evike and her mother Mancika. I wish Zsuzsa Rochlitz Szoke were here today to report to you about her remarkable family, her beloved parents Zoltan and Jancsika, and her younger brother Peter. They all perished, her father immediately by gas at Auschwitz; her mother, having passed herself off as Zsuzsa’s sister and strong enough to work, died in Auschwitz too, but later, after Zsuzsa was separated from her and sent to work in a munitions plant. Peter died on a death march along with my uncle Pal, also some months on. Zsuzsa, Jancsika, Peter, and Pal were the only ones of the thirty-four family members in that single transport to survive Mengele’s initial selection; Zsuzsa the only one to come through the war.
I cannot fully emphasize the ties that bound my father and Zsuzsa by dint of being the last ones left standing. Over the years, a handful of the large clan resurfaced—in Sydney, Boston, and New York. He treated them like royalty, but no one more so than Zsuzsa who represented not so much the little girl he had given sweets to on the Rochlitz estate, but her mother and especially her father whom he had loved and admired. In Canada, stripped of familiar bearings, primarily his identity within his diminished community, my father clung to these relations much in the way he clung to the dead.
My sister Elaine was born in 1947. Before she was six, my father had filled her head and heart with frequent narratives about his dead loved ones. She could identify his photographs, reciting like a catechism the names of the dead. I cannot imagine how he was able to start a second family so soon upon losing everyone. I think that the guilt of survival my father carried in him, threatening always to drag him under, could be measured by the flow of narration and remembrance that poured out of him almost uninterruptedly over the years. The stories issued forth with a fluency of structure that suggested that he was always composing them somewhere in his psyche. I would not go so far as to say he made a conscious effort at composition. I imagine the stories somehow internally writing themselves. He did not watch television. He read the local newspapers and Hungarian novels, and the occasional novel in English if it was about a subject related to Jews, the war, or the Hungarian experience. He didn’t think of himself as a teller of stories. He simply shared his recollections, memories that played on the screen of his mind like a living movie he then played back to us in words.
The father of my childhood did not work as an agriculturalist. After two years in Canada, my mother took an intensive college course to re-certify herself as a school teacher so that she might work for the public school system. My father could not bring himself to do the same in his field. He might work for a government ministry, my mother urged, as he had in Budapest. Just a few courses would do it. He was too old, my father said, by which he meant his real life was behind him. The father I remember always claimed to be old, and it’s true by comparison with the young, short-sleeved, cigarette-smelling fathers of my Canadian friends, he did look old. My father dressed for a different time and a different place. He wore cardigans or suit jackets and did not go out in public in shirtsleeves. He always wore a fedora to work, and carried a briefcase for his lunch and newspaper. In our summer garden he wore knee socks and Bermuda shorts with lace up shoes never sandals. He was often mistaken for my grandfather. He was not the same father little Evike had flirted with in her photograph. He mistrusted his new environment, always alert to danger. He worried about snow storms and daughters walking home from the bus stop after dark. He didn’t really believe it was safe to be a Jew anywhere. In Budapest, he’d changed his Jewish surname. In England we’d hidden our candlesticks and Menorah from our British neighbours so as not to jeopardize my uncle’s job as a school teacher. In Canada, we followed suit. Our closest relatives here were Christian converts frightened of exposure. We lived in a new suburb in the east end of Montreal to be near them, far from the neighbourhoods where Jews had settled. I was the only Jew in my elementary school, and the only Jew in high school. We ate tref as he had learned to enjoy at the Rochlitzes as a young man. My mother wore her thick hair short for his pleasure. He worked as a bookkeeper for a Jewish firm in the clothing industry downtown. He often remarked that one could never know how useful incidental skills might turn out to be. He had learned to keep the books for the Rochlitzes, never imagining that he would end up making his living that way for a quarter of a century. When we rode the buses together on Saturday mornings, he to put in his half day at work, and I to go to a Jewish school in the west end where my parents hoped I’d a acquire a taste for Jewish company, I felt an urge to protect him from the judgment of the French and English Canadians riding with us who might look down on him for speaking a foreign language. They had no idea who he was, or how his unimaginable losses and suffering raised him far above the stature he had held even in his best of all possible worlds. It seemed poignantly ironic that he missed the homeland where he could be his natural self, that place that had cast his family as other in the extreme, an other that was hardly human, so other they didn’t deserve to live; yet here in a freer society where he could own property, educate his children, qualify to work in any field he chose, he felt so utterly unknown he sank deeper into the past.
Now, finally, I will speak about second generation survivor guilt. Evike’s death shaped my life so fundamentally, I wasn’t to understand or even recognize it until I was well into middle age and had experienced tragedy first-hand. Her death was part of me as were the genes I’d inherited, and I was as unaware of its influence as we are of what resides in most of our genomes. What I was conscious of was that I had had a sister whom I’d supplanted, and who might have turned out to be more professionally successful than I; on the other hand a sister who had to be replaced because fate somehow had pre-ordained me. I felt I must amount to great things in order to justify the forfeiture of her life, even as I understood myself to be cramped by limitations.
All my life I planned to be a writer. In second grade I was president of the class’s little literature club. At the age of ten I announced I was going to grow up to be an English teacher who wrote books. My modest gift was recognized by various teachers through the years, notably my mentor in college. In that class, I met my future husband, a young man with a prodigious work ethic and a flare for writing. We were very young when we moved in together, had two children, lived together for twenty-five years.
As far back as I can remember realizing that I think most clearly with a pen in my hand, I intended to write the story of my father’s family. This at last would solve the riddle of my existence, why I was meant to be. Through my words, his dead loved ones would once again come to life. In fact, I’ve been able to write only the story of myself.
In May 2000, two months ahead of his forty-fourth birthday, my husband took his life. He had battled depression as long as I had known him, but in the last five years, the illness became unmanageable. At this time I sought the services of a psychotherapist for guidance about how to manage with a very sick partner and two children. Following my husband’s suicide, I tried to understand my marriage. These explorations led me to my half-sister Evike, drawing connections to her role in my make-up that I had never before considered. I came to understand that this key life choice had been predicated on guilt. A child had died so that I might supplant her. How better to expiate such a debt than by saving someone who might otherwise not survive without me? My husband was hardly more than a seventeen year-old boy when we met. Not long after, he left his home and his family, refusing further contact with them. He was young, raw, alone in the world, hyper-sensitive, vulnerable. He stood by his convictions and his friends, worked harder than anyone else I knew, and wrote like a dream. This was one worthy soul, I saw at a glance, who deserved only the best life could offer, but instead he had been dealt a bad hand, as he used to say, in the form of an illness that made him doubt himself at every turn. I recognized him right away, one of the exceptional people, like the members of my father’s family, who had been dealt a hand that was terminal. Of course I couldn’t know that my husband’s hand would prove terminal as well. What I understood was that it was my fate to save him. This was a role I never questioned, however it hemmed me in, consumed my mental and physical energies. I was indebted, after all. I owed my life literally to the deaths of all the fine souls who had been unjustifiably murdered. The least I could do was save this one who also deserved his chance at life.
When I was twenty-six, my sister Elaine, trained as a historian, came to me with a proposition. She planned to tape record our father telling the story of his life. She would do the historical research, if I agreed to take my father’s narratives and turn them into a book. In other words, she was giving me the opportunity to write the book I had always intended. For a couple of years we collaborated on translating my father’s recordings into English, spending many hours on the telephone, me in western Canada at the time, and she in Montreal, discussing the characters in my father’s dramatis personae, and the shape the book might take. My late husband said something then that stopped me in my tracks, totally out of keeping with his kind nature. He said, “Why do you think anyone would be interested in the story of your family? After all, it’s not as if they accomplished anything special or that anyone’s ever heard of them.” He was saying what I had always felt riding the buses with my father under the suspicious eyes of our Canadian neighbours. We were little people of no great count. The world had tried to get rid of us. Who would care about my father’s stories from another continent and era that held little relevance to Canadians? I persuaded Elaine to write the book herself which, wisely, she did. It was easier than attempting my grand design and failing, as I was bound to, to raise the dead. Evike had died for my right to live; in turn my other rights were of small consequence. Most of my dramas, in fact, my difficulties integrating and assimilating into a new culture via a second language for instance, were measured against the super-human challenges my parents had faced. When things went wrong for me, I tended to minimize them. My parents’ struggles loomed so large, their world, my father’s pre-war world in particular, felt more real. In some ways, I had difficulty fully inhabiting my life, recognizing the richness of my sensations, perceptions, and experiences. Instead these came to me as dim reflections of my father’s Platonic ideal. Yet, I grew up into a strong individual who has never felt anything but gratitude for the stroke of tragic chance that gave me breath. I would never have written the book Elaine imagined. Eventually I wrote a collection of stories that drew on the narratives Elaine and I had translated. But this book turned out to be about me, Eva Judit, the child of Holocaust survivors.
Mine is not the voice of a victim. We were a family of loud voices, the deep, narrating voice of my father, my mother’s shrill voice trying to draw our attention away from him, and my sister’s and mine, clamoring to be known. Whenever I took up my pen, my insistent voice leapt to the fore, tattooing me onto each page. It came from a place of self-preservation, affirming the here and now. The last thing I would ever have imagined would be to use this voice to address a German court about the phantom child whose shadow preceded me through the years. I cannot fully express how liberating it feels to have her acknowledged so publicly, and to be heard on behalf of my father and mother, little people who bore the enormous weight of history without solace of recognition.
My psychotherapist left me an invaluable gift that helped me go forward after my husband took his life. I could no more have saved him than my father or any of the survivors of the Holocaust could have saved their dear ones. It’s easy to say they should all have left at the first signs of Nazi saber-rattling. Hindsight showed me too, some steps I might have taken that might have forestalled the outcome of my husband’s illness. But such thoughts are akin to blaming the victims. In the moment, we’re too close to our situations to see them clearly or in their entirety. We use our best judgment given the information available within the parameters of the present. My therapist was a believer in a principle of learning how to look at traumatic experience in a new way, one that allows us to co-exist with the trauma, if not more comfortably, then at least without it impeding daily life. After my husband died, I suffered panic attacks that kept me from sleeping. In particular, I had difficulty with images of his death. My therapist and I debated the principle of looking at trauma from a different perspective. I insisted this was a type of lie like the re-writing of history for propaganda purposes. What happened happened, and could not be changed. How, for instance I demanded, could I ever contemplate the image of my half-sister Evike and her mother in the gas chamber without succumbing to despair?
My father’s cousin Zsuzsa Rochlitz was almost twenty years-old when she was stuffed into the cattle car bound for Auschwitz. Like everyone else in it, family, friends, and strangers, she was overwhelmed by the appalling stench and accompanying terror that for most of them would be their next-to-last experience on earth. Although she was comforted by her mother Jancsika, Zsuzsa’s attention fixed upon another mother-daughter relationship. She tells us that throughout that hideous journey she never once saw Mancika Mandula Weinberger falter in her reassurance of her six year-old daughter Evike. Over and over she consoled her calmly. Perhaps where they were going they would meet up with Evike’s Apuka. Her father would be waiting for them. They would all three be together again. Zsuzsa, I think, might have been so impressed with Gusztav’s wife’s reassuring composure and resolve, that she took comfort in it herself. She too tried to believe that her dear cousin Gusztav, who always had time for her when she was a little girl and he an apprentice on her father’s estate, would somehow make things right. Zsuzsa, in her Canadian life, worked in infant care at a government agency for new immigrants. She always told us, “I never met a woman who better epitomized sensitive, intelligent, and respectful mothering than your father’s wife Mancika as she calmed her darling child during that dreadful journey.”
I look again at Herr Walther’s enlargement of the photograph of Evike. She is trying to smile, even as her eyes and brows pull together anxiously. Her lovely high forehead is deeply furrowed. It’s hard for me to look into her face. Each fine new hair in the fringe spilling out of her gathered braids attests to a teeming abundance of the life within her. The silky promise of each strand is as painful to contemplate as the image of this little girl stripped naked, enfolded by the naked flesh that gave birth to her, as together they slide to the floor of the devil’s own bathhouse.
I glowered angrily at my therapist. It was a travesty and betrayal to consider re-formulating this excruciating image into something palatable to live with.
“But,” she said reaching for my two hands. She had taken the hands of my sixteen year-old son in this same way when she had offered him her condolences upon the death of his father. “You are like that woman, don’t you know? In the long year of your husband’s descent into madness, you never once wavered in your support of your boys.”
Since her words, I’ve learned to co-exist with this iconic image, as with the other memories transferred from my father and my mother. I couldn’t save my husband. Nor have I found any resemblance in me to my precocious, delicate, half-sister Eva Edit Weinberger, irrevocably lost. But one intrinsic part of one of the sacrificed innocents, a woman not even related to me by blood, I was able to salvage. This scrap of her life that emerged in me when the need arose—to be one’s best self in impossible circumstances—I hope will pass on to my children.