Category Archives: Holocaust

The Crumble of My Life


The above is a summary of my life, all 50 years of it,  on a 22 x 27 piece of poster board.  It’s not one of those “inspiration boards,” used in team-building or ice breaker exercises.  In many ways, it’s the opposite–the sort of “anti-inspiration” board not seen and replicated on sites like Pinterest.

I work as part of a team that leads a 14-week employment program for homeless adults, most with serious addiction issues and criminal pasts.  The goal is that by the time the students graduate, they will be employed and ready to start rebuilding their lives with pride and a great sense of accomplishment.

Each class starts with 14 students, 7 men and 7 women, as young as 21 and as old as 65. The first couple of weeks are spent on self-reflection and group interaction, and culminates in the creation and presentation of something called a “Life Map.”

I had heard a lot about this project during my first week of work and had the opportunity to see some completed ones on the walls of the classrooms where the students had moved on to the next phase of the curriculum.  The images and words, clipped from magazines or written out in pen or marker, were very similar– syringes, bottles of alcohol, prison bars, and words like “loser,” “sex,” “hope,” and “God.”  As soon as I learned that all staff have to create their own, and then present them to a class, I was compiling my own, isolating themes and images that I would share.

Without question, my life is interesting and I wanted the students to know that.  I wanted them to know that I too have experienced trauma and tragedy but that I have managed to succeed and maintain a wonderful and incredibly happy, full and fun life.

Without going image by image and word by word here, my map has four pivotal dates, highlighted in yellow;  my date of birth, the day my mother was found dead, my daughter’s birthday and the day I married for the second time.   I presented a pretty happy childhood, the luxury of growing up so close to Manhattan where my father gave me access to wonderful cultural experiences.  I moved on through boarding school, college and landing in Boston, sprinkling the hard truths about my mother’s serious mental illness (and eventual suicide) and my parent’s divorce into the narrative and moved onto the present day.  The students were pretty stunned and surprised and incredibly gracious in their comments.  But, this isn’t really about me.  It’s about them, and their lives.

One by one, the students presented their maps, required to speak for at least 1/2 hour and not to go longer than one.  Many things struck me as each one bared their souls, flayed open to their deepest nerve. Most of them had lovely childhoods, much like mine, going on family vacations, eating together as a family each night, learning the value of an education and hard work.  A couple of them grew up vacationing in rented summer cottages in the mountains or on a lake, camping and fishing with their fathers, and laughing with their mothers.  And then, again, in most of these cases, a sudden switch in their narrative, in at least 4 out 5, the death of a parent while the students were still teenagers  lead to a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse.

I’m blessed not to have an addictive bone in my body.  I certainly would be hard-pressed not to fall to pieces if I had my coffee taken away, but drugs have always scared me.  I’ve smoked plenty of pot in my life, tried coke once, and as much as people say I would love it, would never dream of taking hallucinogens.  I tend to STOP drinking the second I feel a little tipsy and was able to quit smoking cold turkey.  So, when my mother died when I was only 21, I turned to other things like music, writing and friends without ever feeling the urge to numb the pain that I never seemed to experience.

The drug of choice in almost all of the students is heroin.  In some cases they started with other opiates like pain killers, but when they became too expensive switched over to the widely available and cheaper heroin.  Most swore they would never shoot-up.  Most ended up doing so, multiple times a day.  When the youngest in the class, a 21-yr old walked us through his timeline, he described this transition by pointing to a picture of a syringe and said, “This is where the crumble of my life began.”

In what will seem like an utterly selfish reaction to these presentations is my wondering and fear of what my 13-year old daughter would do if I died.   She has the addiction gene in her bloodline and it terrifies me to think of how missing me, how tragedy of any sort could trigger the similar reaction as these people have had.   She has shown me absolutely no reason whatsoever to have this fear, but she’s at the age where I tried pot for the first time and where a lot of my friends had started sneaking sips of booze from their parents liquor cabinets.  I naively believe that this isn’t happening in her middle school or that she is nowhere exposed to those temptations.  All I can do is pray that she’ll turn out okay, that she’ll make the right choices, and that her life will never crumble.

Skirting the Holocaust

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 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.

Secrets and Lies

When my mother committed suicide somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, 1985/86, someone made the decision not to tell her mother, who was about 90 at the time. This was a woman who watched 4 of her six children get taken away to concentration camps, witnessed as her husband was shot on a street in Belgium and had worked miracles to keep my mother and my uncle, the two youngest children, alive. As mentioned in previous posts, she somehow found her way to the Jewish Underground and found a couple to hide them in their Bruxelles-area basement for about 2 years.

The way I understand it is that she was told that my mother was living in Arizona in a restful and peaceful place where she couldn’t be contacted (I refer you to my post about my dreams.) I can’t imagine that she believed this and when I found out about it, I was stunned. I know it was to protect her but I didn’t agree with the decision.
My grandmother was a very loving woman, barely 4’11 who spoke only Polish and Yiddish and a smattering of English. She lived in a teeny little apartment in Brooklyn and was most proud of a painting she had of a fountain that when plugged in, lit-up and simulated falling water. When she knew I was coming to visit she’d fill her bowl of sour balls and go out to buy pound cake. She would wait outside for us and would beam with delight when she saw us, and walk us to the car, waving her sweet little wave when we left. She spent most of her time sitting on a bench outside with her friends with her cash stuck into her bra. She lived to be close to 100 subsisting apparently on boiled potatoes and Manishewitz.
My mother and her mother had a very strange relationship. On the Jewish holidays when my grandmother would come over and help cook Passover dinner, there was a lot of yelling in Yiddish. My grandmother would say “SHA” to quiet things down. I have absolutely no idea why my mother seemed to dislike her so much. What it did for me, was to model a mother/daughter relationship where my grandmother was so desperate for my mother’s love, and my mother just seemed annoyed all the time. One of my biggest regrets in my life was not taking the time to know her, while emulating my mother’s indifference and annoyance.
When she slept over, my grandmother would take her hair out of her tightly wound bun and I would be sort of freaked out by her silver hair that reached 3/4 down her body. She would brush it while wearing her white nightgown and often brush my hair while I just got annoyed that she would accidentally brush my face. She would take her clacking teeth out and put them in a glass and leave them in the bathroom. She never went out without lipstick.
Many years ago I found a document, written in French which came from an Israeli governmental agency addressed to my grandmother. It’s not so hard to make out the language that starts out (my loose translation):
Dear Mrs. Kempinksi, I regret to inform you that (three of my four aunts and uncles are listed by name with their birth and death dates and the concentration camp numbers they were assigned) and died here:
Malines (Mechelen) concentration camp was situated in a former barracks by the river in the city of the same name in Belgium. It was appropriated by the Germans in 1942 to serve as an assembly camp for all the Jews of Belgium and other ‘undesirable’ groups. The camp was divided into several groups including those to be deported; nationals of neutral countries or Germany’s allies; borderline cases (ie mixed race); political prisoners and, in the final stages of the camp’s existence, Gypsies.

There was a set of boy/girl twins. The girls first name was Minda which is now my daughter’s middle name. One of the sons is listed as whereabouts unknown.