I follow a brilliant blog written by a man named Robert Bruce who is reading (shockingly quickly, I might add) what Time magazine chose as the top 100 English-Speaking Novels Since 1923 (The blog can be found at 101books.net) There was a rather heated discussion about Lolita and its subject matter and he asked his readers where they draw the line in what they will read. Do we as readers have limits? Was it okay for people to like a book about a pedophile despite how brilliant the writing is? (Lolita happens to be one of my favorite books for the brilliant writing and the sinister voice of Humbert Humbert. Hearing Jeremy Irons read it on an audio book clinched it for me.)
For me my answer was immediate. When I was in high school and college I chose to read and see anything having to do with the Holocaust. Being the daughter of a survivor it seemed the logical thing to do. I took a Holocaust course in college and adored my professor who really was moved by my direct connection to it. I can’t even write about the things I see and hear in my head about the truly unspeakable things that happened to children. It’s too much to bear, even more so since I’ve had a child.
The very last book I picked-up on the subject was at least ten years ago, The Painted Bird by the late Jerzy Kosinski. It wasn’t even a Holocaust passage that made me have to stop, but I slammed the book shut and that was that. Like my mother, also a Holocaust survivor, he went on to commit suicide by suffocating himself by putting a plastic bag over his head. My mother died differently, but they clearly were scarred so deeply that that was the only end that made sense.
Yesterday my 10 ½year old daughter came across a book that my friend had given me, a book full of photographs and excerpts of Anne Frank’s diary. I’m still not sure how much sinks in when I try to explain what happened to the smiling Anne and her family. She wanted to read the book together and look at the pictures that were like any other family photos—happy times in lovely places, all smiles and occasional goofiness. I managed to get through about six pages before I turned away not wanting her to see the tears that were about to make their way out of my eyes. You see, I have this thing about people not being aware, as the reader is, that they are going to die a horrible death.I just couldn’t do it.
I reminded her that my mother was also what is called “a hidden child.” She got a bit confused and thought that my mother was hidden with Anne Frank. I said that no, they were in different countries and that my mother was hidden in a basement, Anne Frank in an attic (not that it made any difference). I didn’t tell her about the random raids the Nazis would make and how every time there was a scare my grandmother, mother and uncle would have to pile on top of each other in a narrow false front. My uncle told me many years ago that he still has nightmares about the fleur-de-lis pattern of the rug that he was forced to stare at, on his stomach with my mother and grandmother laying on top of him.
Whenever my daughter and I look at old pictures and we find one of my mother (of which there are many) she’ll kiss me and say “I’m sorry.” To this day she still hasn’t asked me how my mother died and I am dreading that conversation, that explanation that will inevitably make her even more anxious than she tends to be already. At her age I knew about my mother’s brothers and sisters being taken away to the camps, never to be seen again. I knew that that was the root cause of my mother’s intense depression and the one suicide attempt I had already lived through.
I want my daughter to know her history and I don’t want to just throw a book at her on the subject without any context. Right now it’s easy to say that Hitler was a bad man and that he made his followers believe that the Jews didn’t deserve the things that everyone else did, like slaves and then later, black people in the South. Places like the Holocaust Museum would crystallize things for her but I don’t know if I have what it takes to ever go back there. She’ll eventually read books like the brilliant Night by Elie Wiesel and certainly will read The Diary of Anne Frank as part of standard school reading lists and I want to be there for her to discuss them as needed. I know I will have to steel myself but I’m sure that there will be things that she too will have trouble processing, the sheer cruelty of a group of people who killed off 6 million individuals who should have gone on to have many years of smiling and goofy photographs.