Saving Our Storiesby Sonia Taitz February 27, 2017
I have always defined my life by that of my parents, who were Holocaust survivors. Both of them grew up in Lithuania, where the Jewish people had lived for hundreds of years. When World War II broke out, my father was a master watchmaker, and my mother was training to become a concert pianist in a musical conservatory. Both were confined to the Kovno ghetto, (but did not meet there); then, they were sent to concentration camps (Dachau and Stutthof, respectively). Miraculously, they survived – as only 5 percent of their Lithuanian Jewish compatriots did.
They did so partly through sheer determination, and partly through remembering and recounting tales of their lost world. After the war, both lingered in German Displaced Person camps, waiting for repatriation. Finally, they sailed to America, ultimately meeting each other in New York at a Holocaust Survivors’ Ball. After a few waltzes and a spirited polka, they fell in love, and soon after that, they started their new-world lives together.
I was born “here” in America, but a large part of me still lives back “there,” far away and in the past. I’ve lived, and still live, in the past of Europe – which I heard about through my parents’ words and stories, so vivid that I felt I’d been there. But like them, I’ve also lived in another vanished world – the world of Washington Heights, New York, where I grew up surrounded by refugees.
To be the child of immigrants is to live in misty places. As a child, I spoke Yiddish at home, and learned English from the crackling, black and white television set. Slowly, the two languages overlapped. In the summer evenings, refugees would sit outside in the courtyard, some speaking Yiddish, some English, and some a charming hybrid that is no longer heard these days. The stories of their past experiences in the old country enchanted me – this one’s Tante (Aunt) Ida, whose children were all perfect in her eyes, that one’s grocery, which sold the freshest “farmer’s cheese” you could ever taste. Their voices bubbled up to my bedroom window, an immigrant’s symphony, lulling me to sleep. My world was rooted in other worlds, and much of its old music – like my mother’s piano playing (itself an old-world artifact) – is now silent.
In order to better understand “our vanished world,” my parents sent me to yeshiva (almost everyone in their past had been at least nominally observant). Beginning at the age of four, I learned about thousands of years of Jewish history. As much as I lived in my parents’ Old Europe, I also lived in Persia with Queen Esther, saving my people from the evil Haman (the beauty contest part of the story especially appealed to the young girl in me). I lived with Daniel in the lion’s den, and in Egypt with the slaves. Our Haggadah says that every generation must feel as if they personally came out of Egypt. (My father, at this point in the Seder, would say – “I don’t have to imagine this. I was a slave, in Europe.”) That was not a problem for me, either. I, too, came out of Sinai, Shushan, and Dachau. It is America itself that sometimes still seems alien and new to me.
Like the world of my parents, my own world has vanished. The old neighborhood I lived in no longer echoes with Yiddish humor and pathos. New waves of immigrants have replaced the old; salsa music now rings from the cars that pass by, and plantains are sold in the bodegas. Even where I live now, (a fairly Jewish enclave on the Upper West Side of Manhattan), Bar Mitzvahs no longer feature “stuffed derma,” as they did in my day, and my local synagogue rarely serves a good cholent (a beef and bean stew that was a staple of my youthful Sabbaths). Yiddish is not heard at all, except in the echoes of memory. My children remember their grandmother calling them “shepselehs” (little lambs); they remember their grandfather standing by the window, swaying and praying – but little else remains of my parents’ world, the world of my own childhood.
Like the generation before me, I sometimes feel liked a “displaced person,” awaiting passage to new and more secure harbors in that I’m sometimes lost in a mixture of memories, and the sense of aloneness is unsettling. Who else would long for “glass of tea” instead of a pumpkin frappuccino at Starbucks? Or for kichels instead of croissants?
I’ve found safety and comfort in my writing, which always ends up featuring immigrants and their children as central characters. I wrote about these themes in my first two novels, in my memoir, and most recently, in my new novel “Great With Child.” Whatever the story within, the setting is the same – in the heart of an immigrant who wants to build secure and lasting bridges to a new world. I suppose that is my true neighborhood, the neighborhood of books, and that is my language, the language of literature. And maybe that story is the most Jewish story of all, one that tells of something almost lost – but eternally and lovingly sustained.
Sonia Taitz is the award-winning author of the memoir “The Watchmaker’s Daughter.” Her latest novel is “Great with Child.”