SISTER, SISTER

Book Launch Speech by Pauline Rockman
President of Descendants of the Shoah,
Executive Member of the Holocaust Centre and
Australian Coordinator of the Shoah Visual History Foundation

This is the first time I have been asked to do a book launch. I am indeed honoured that Anna has asked me. I am here because of many connections that I may have to Anna, the author… starting off with being born in the same, year, attending the same school, as Regional Co-ordinator of the "Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation"… "Shindler's List", we interviewed her mother and her father… we are women and members of Descendants of the Shoah. In many ways this book appeals to many of my passions. I consider myself to be in esteemed company… Tom Keneally launched "Sister, Sister" in Sydney in April. And to all accounts I have heard there has been a very positive response to this book.

The Holocaust impressed its stamp upon various layers of my inner world, as it did for every Jew whose roots are in Europe and as it did to most of the world. My life has been shaped by an event that I did not personally experience. I feel a sense of duty to bear witness for the survivors and I have a heightened sense to suffering… things that I believe many of my contemporaries experience.

As I read this book I am made aware of the author's feelings, and I feel an empathy toward her. As I begin to read I am enticed slowly into the rich and full world of pre-war Jewish Poland… Krakow, to the seemingly ideal world of two sisters growing up in a fairly traditional middle class Jewish family, of extended family, dressmakers, family outings, synagogue three times a year… of indulgence and then to the chinks that emerge… financial, loss of their mother and on to disintegration of the family and the events of the Shoah and of these two sisters, their incredible loyalty and survival skills, their indomitable spirit and the story of their survival. As if threaded through the rich tapestry which is unfolding before us, the voice of the daughter/niece powerfully assails the reader. As Janka and Hela relate various experiences, the reader is drawn in… as if we are voyeurs… party to an intimate discussion… and then those comments in italics… an attempt to make sense of these experiences as well as finding your place, your identity. I am drawn to them and want to hear more.

This book operates on several levels… it is the telling of the story, it is the memories, via the rich descriptions that evoke the time and a place long gone, it is the pain in the telling of unbelievable horror, it is the deprivation, the suffering and loss and it is the silence of the trauma and the transmission of it all… to the next generation. One of the central themes of the book is the intergenerational transmission of the traumas caused by exile and extermination, themes which have been present throughout the generations. I believe that although what we are dealing with in this book are Jewish issues, they are also universal, they can be extrapolated to other people; to the Cambodians and to Rwanda, and others, closer to home… the descendants of the Stolen Children. (Anna has mentioned to me that non Jewish people have approached her expressing such views). Perhaps books on this theme, the transmission between the generations, may serve to elucidate issues relevant to other groups through the generations in other countries. I see the Jewish community having a role to play in terms of interest and advocacy relating to the Stolen Generation. "Sister, Sister" will serve as an insight for the non Jewish world into the world of the Holocaust.

Children of survivors do not presume to speak instead of the witnesses, rather, they give voice to the Holocaust's continuing impact on Jewish identity. In her book "Memorial Candles, Children of the Holocaust", psycho-therapist/author Dina Wardi says "in most of the survivors' families one of the children is designated as a memorial candle. It is their task or should I say mission to serve as the link which on the one hand preserves the past and on the other hand joins it to the present and the future. The cutting off of the natural processes of intergenerational continuity has imposed on the 2nd Generation both the privilege and the obligation of being that connecting link that heals the trauma of the cutting off and fulfils the enormous expectations of their parents and to some extent those of the Jewish people."

I am not going to pathologise the 2nd Generation or attempt to define their attributes but rather mention some issues which play a role in their development. These include separation from frequently overprotective parents; the feeling that their own problems and lives have less meaning than their parents; the need to be super achievers; a feeling of loss in terms of a diminished family circle; seeking to find a personal way to express their thoughts about the Holocaust… to ensure continuity with their family's past. It is if there is this incredible desire on behalf of 2nd Generation witnesses to make sense out of the Holocaust.

I see Anna as that memorial candle linking the past to the now and on to the future generations. Many of the fears and uncertainties and comments pertaining to her growing up seem to refer to those other issues I mentioned. I also see a parallel with the work I have been involved in for the past two years recording the testimonies of over 1,300 survivors in Melbourne for future generations. In my work with the "Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation", from the 120 men and women who volunteered as interviewers, a great percentage were children of survivors… members of 2nd Generation. I believe that every member of the 2nd Generation has his/her way of how to deal with the Holocaust.

Connections… my safe world… Anna Rosner Blay… the author… we were together in class at Mt. Scopus College for a few years. I look at my Grade 2 school photo and there sitting directly behind Anna is me. The year is 1954… two young girls trying to get on with life within a traumatized community… two young girls… worlds apart coming from very different places to be there in this photo…and as I glance at the other faces… eagerly smiling for the camera… I now realize how many of them were children of survivors… many of the parents have been interviewed for the Shoah Foundation… Anna made an impression on me… a quiet, pretty young girl. We were on the school bus together… On some level we were aware of our parents suffering, unable to verbalize or understand it, but knowing that there was some large and huge unknown, a cloud hovering above us… this invisible thing called "Shoah". I was probably one of the more fortunate ones… I had both sets of grandparents and an extended family… people that Anna talked about wistfully, her grandparents appear in the book as images she creates from what she has heard and a few photos. "I heard no stories from the past. The past was a sealed and silent box that stood in the corner, just behind me, a box that no one around me would open."

We were both born in to the post-Holocaust world. The year is 1947… Anna in Paris, I in Melbourne, seemingly far away from the horrors of Europe. Anna and her family were to come to Melbourne in December 1949. We were considered "Baby Boomers"… the term used to define people of our generation… a post war generation, moving on, progressing, leaving the shadow of war behind us… However it was talked about everywhere, in my case mostly in hushed tones. "It" being this huge dark cloud hovering above but not quite visible… this was the legacy of the Shoah… Growing up in Melbourne, as a Jew, attending Mt Scopus College, it was impossible to be caught up in the pervasive atmosphere of that period. We overheard talk about gas chambers, concentration camps and death… and horrible stories that were far beyond any frame of reference I may have had. Whenever I questioned my father about his experience he would say: "We were the fortunate ones, nothing happened to us… we did not suffer that much." I would persist in my questioning, but to no avail. I was constantly being reminded that there were always people and families much worse off than ours. I guess in the scheme of things I was pretty lucky, with an extended family and two sets of grandparents, unlike many of my contemporaries. It wasn't until many years later that my father would even consider that he was indeed a survivor and would talk about events in his childhood… growing up in Nazi Germany living in a state of siege for more than 5 years, forced out of schools, loss of homes, unable to be in public places, always checking your back to see if you were being followed, being beaten up by a group of Hitler Youth and escaping by himself at the age of 16 to Australia.

Then, survivors were known as refugees and their stories were not really spoken about in the public arena… they were whispered about behind closed doors (if it all). For us growing up and the world in general… to listen to stories of unbelievable suffering was too uncomfortable… their magnitude and proximity too enormous for comprehension. Our parents also wanted to protect us from the enormity of these horrors. The devastation wrought upon European Jewry was felt everywhere in our circles, which were very Jewish and family oriented. The stories of the survivors were filtering through all around us.

I picked up the book and began to read a few sentences and burst into tears… the emotion leaping at me from that first page… and I quote: "We the 2nd Generation of Holocaust survivors can never look directly at the horror but only at the messages reflected in the pain of our parents' eyes. All we can do is attempt to record, as clearly as possible, what life was like for them as the children and adults we never knew." (p. 9)

In the first chapter we meet the two sisters: Janka, ten years older and seemingly more outgoing and confident, talks about her constant alterness: "behind the facade and illusion of comfort lies the randomness of evil, with the possibility of annihilation at any time" (p. 13). Further into the book Anna comments on her fears and anxieties: "Yet the symbols are everywhere around me, evil and menacing. I observe my surroundings very carefully wherever I go." (p.63) These are unsubstantiated feelings that I can relate to, as a child being full of fear that at any time they (Nazis) would come and take me away.

Hearing two sisters recall their childhood, I am made very aware of the variation in perception and memory. Ah Memory!!… How we select certain events that may become significant… some more for than others. It is just before the war, due to financial reasons the family has been forced to leave Krakow and move to a village on its outskirts. Janka, as a young woman at work, out in the real world sees it as a time when anti-Semitism was more apparent… the shadow of the Holocaust starting to unfurl and her responsibilities increasing. Hela, at age 11, sees the collapse of her childhood world with the sudden death of her mother, and from then on Janka assumes the mother role for her.

Their recollections of the time they spent in Tonie, a village on the outskirts of Krakow, where they had been expelled to. Hela sees this time as "always bathed in sunlight, like precious crystals as beautiful as they were fragile" (p.71). For Hela, this time is one of discovery of herself and others, specifically, boys… For Janka the times were more difficult and frightening, she recalled being more responsive and alert to outside events… the impending doom not far off.

Throughout the telling, in situations of such huge trauma and pain, I am constantly inspired by the bravery and humanity of Hela and Janka, in the face of such indescribable horror. And, despite all, their love of life and their determination to go forward: to a new country, a new language, a new beginning. Australia opened its doors to more than 40 thousand refugees, many settling in Melbourne… more than 10,000 swelling our community… so although it was not talked about then, it was not an uncommon sight to see people with numbers tattooed on their arms and to be aware on some level about this huge thing called Holocaust. I thought it was the norm to see and be among survivors… but I learnt later it was not… Melbourne has one of the largest per capita survivor populations outside of Israel. There were no counselling services in existence… no post-trauma therapy centres… just the realization that they, the survivors, had to get on with the business of recreating life, learning a new language, creating a new family and adapting to a life in a new country… not to look back, only forward… so as not to be paralysed with grief. To quote Eli Wiesel (survivor and author): "When the survivors re-entered the world they found themselves in another form of exile, in another type of prison."

For those thousands of refugees/survivors, a legacy of silence developed which continued for many years. The last decade has brought with it a sense of urgency that these survivors are ageing and dying and their stories with them. Many have never spoken about their experiences to their own children, yet these children grew up knowing… knowing that something traumatic happened to their parents. It was like knowing but not knowing, that putting of the past behind them, yet living with it everyday that has impacted on the lives of the generations touched by the Holocaust. This theme comes through very strongly in "Sister, Sister."

Eli Wiesel has said: "The second generation is the most meaningful aspect of our work. Their role in a way is even more difficult than ours. They are responsible for a world that they did not create. Those who did not go through the experience must transmit it." I believe that this is our legacy, as members of the 2nd Generation, as witnesses attesting to an event that we never lived through but one that has shaped our lives in many ways.

As a small child growing up in our shtetl by the Yarra I felt powerless in the face of the Shoah. Through my involvement in the Shoah Foundation I have been empowered. It really is very important for me to be involved in this project. It is an opportunity for me to be able to make a positive contribution… to give a voice to that which for many years has been unspeakable… and to serve as a memorial for those who did not survive… so they are not forgotten. My work with the Shoah Foundation over the past 2 years has been a personal fulfilment of a commitment to Holocaust remembrance. For me, it is a privilege to be involved in this project. I see it as a passage for the survivor. When they entrust us with their story, it is in some ways completing their journey… a journey that transforms them from being survivors to becoming witnesses. Because this is really the crux of what we are doing… enabling the survivors to bear witness, to honour the memory of those whose stories will never be told and to educate future generations so that history will not repeat itself. I also believe this is the power of this book and others by members of the 2nd Generation. The Holocaust has elicited many, many documented words, as well as films, plays and various art forms. They include those from the historical perspective, to the first hand accounts of the survivors, to those of the 2nd Generation and soon to the 3rd Generation, and to imaginative writing with the Holocaust as its theme… note two novels that have appeared in the past year "The Reader" and "Fugitive Pieces". They are very different but both deal with the implications of Holocaust survival.

Like the transmission of earlier transformative events in Jewish history such as the story of the Exodus and the destruction of the Temple, the telling of the Holocaust story must be passed on l'dor va dor, from generation to generation. Then the memorial candles find their place in the chains of the generations and, as links in this chain, their task in transmitting the family heritage to the coming generations. I hereby declare "Sister, Sister" launched and wish you Anna, wonderful things and I look forward to hearing and reading more from you.

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