These Troubling Times, Again

Posted by J & G Duncan on

So, there we were this morning, the entire family huddled around our personal cell phones checking social media, The Guardian, Seth Meyers, The NYT, Rebecca Solnit, each of us hoping to find the headline that Trump is gone, only to find that the only place he’s gone is lower than one could ever expect a world leader to sink. Except, this level of base inhumanity is actually just a rerun from times not so long past. It was cellular déjà vu for me. When I looked up, I didn’t see a modern Canadian family with modern devices - I saw my grandparents huddled around the radio with their parents and siblings and my young father, listening to Hitler’s speech, the morning of April 6th, 1941, which ended with him wishing the residents of Belgrade a very good day. And then, a few minutes later, the bombs fell.

Back then, Jews, and the rest of respectable Europe listened diligently to the news on the radio, read the papers daily, shook their heads in exasperation, shock, disbelief. Watching, as we are doing now. Watching as the leader’s hateful rhetoric seeps into the brains and blood of a population who thrive on this and take it to the streets, empowered from above to cleanse their world of the loathed and feared ‘others’. So, I’m sitting there with my family, cell phone in hand, being blasted with news that we could very well be on a straight path to repeating this ghastly piece of our history, wondering what the hell can I do. Like most of us, I am devoid of any clear plans as to how to vanquish this growing fascist trend before it’s too late. The only thing I can think to do is to find a way to make the consequences of hatred personal, real, give it names and photos of those who died at the hands of fascism. Every now and again this works. Kind of like the pile of shoes at Auschwitz – when you bring the realness of humanity into it, sometimes this helps dissipate blind hatred.

A few years ago I wrote this article for a local magazine. It is an article about real people. Family. People who are and were loved. It is a story about my grandparents, my father, my children. Please feel free to share it with anyone you know who might harbour even the slightest racist tendencies. Perhaps, it might help convince them that whether we are Jewish, black, Muslim, Irish, Indigenous, queer, or anything else, we are all beloved to someone and should not be discriminated against.

Portraits of a family and a family home. My father as a young boy who had parents who loved him.

An Heirloom of Tears

I’ve known this story all my life. My father was one lucky – tragic – but lucky guy. Through the kindness and immense courage of others, my father survived the Holocaust. His mother and father were not so lucky, and they died, young and beautiful, in the concentration camps. Though my grandparents did not survive this brutal period of history, by miracle, some of their possessions did, and have slowly made their way to me via their only son, my father. In a small green trunk, I hold the physical memories of these two glamourous, intellectual, handsome people who, inadvertently, gave me life.


This portrait of my grandmother survived the Holocaust, though she did not. Her name was Josefine, but she was known as Finka.

My earliest memories are of waking before the rest of the family, and standing in the living room, staring in awe at the framed portrait of my grandmother who, at the time she sat for the painter, was actually much younger than I am now. Our house stood under the Air Force flight path, and even at that tender age, I would quake with terror when the jets roared past, certain the enemy was about to bomb us to smithereens. By age 2, I was already overly aware of war, well versed on the family tragedy, emotionally scarred.

That portrait has always hung on the wall. As I grew older, I became aware of other personal belongings that were somehow rescued from my grandparents’ home around the time they were carted away to the camps. When I reached adulthood, my father had his mother’s filigree diamond earrings turned into pendants so that my sister and I could each carry her memory around our necks. On the day of my wedding, my father really shone when he pulled out my grandfather’s tallis (Jewish prayer shawl) to use as our chuppah (wedding canopy). As he presented the tallis, my normally composed, professorial father momentarily lost his words, replaced with tears. Needless to say, there was not a dry eye among us as he explained to our guests that the tallis had survived what his father had not. I still well up every time I think about it.

That was twenty-one years ago, and in the meantime I have brought into the world two children of my own. My father, orphaned at age eight, learned parenting by guesswork. Nobody told him to share his story with us or to keep it secret. He shared it with us right from the start. Right or wrong, I have followed in his footsteps and shared the horror with my own children all their little lives. How could I have not? Despite having been born and raised in relatively peaceful times, the Holocaust is embedded in my every cell. To hide it from my children would be like waiting till they’re ‘old enough’ to let them know my eyes are brown. I have spent my entire life thinking about the Holocaust, worrying about it, wondering how it could have happened and what exactly was it like for my family. I am troubled, as a mother, when I imagine my grandmother’s final thoughts about her young son as she fell asleep forever in the gas van. The Nazi atrocities provide me with a meter stick for measuring how bad things really are when life throws me a curve ball. I think to myself, “This I can live with!” as I compare my disappointments with how things turned out for my grandparents and yet, I am constantly fretful knowing that things do not always work out for the best. These incessant thoughts of the Holocaust have naturally influenced my parenting habits. Three generations on, the Nazis still have a powerful grip on my family.

Obsessed with the Holocaust, I found this photo of the type of van used to kill my grandmother and her fellow Jews. Did Finka perish in this very van? 

In my defense, I would like to think that I have not shared the gruesome details of my family tragedy with my children merely to terrify or sadden them. I can’t deny there is a strong element of victimhood, but I prefer not to dwell on this aspect. My father’s story is a story of good fortune in bad times. It is a story of kindness and courage, perseverance and pride. I feel proud and somewhat amazed to be alive despite Serbia being declared “Juden frei” in 1942.   The Nazis ultimately failed in their mission to rid that country of Jews. My father and a small number of other Jews outwitted their persecutors and we are living proof.

A few years ago we celebrated my daughter’s bat mitzvah. During the celebration she wore my grandfather’s tallis as a reminder of her Jewish heritage and to honour her great grandparents. As I draped the prayer shawl over her delicate shoulders, I knew I was, in fact, passing the painful burden of the family tragedy onto the next generation. At age twelve, my daughter was officially recognized as an adult in the Jewish tradition, but she and her sibling will have to wait a few decades before I hand over my grandparents’ possessions. Until then, their inheritance will be the family stories. They are horrifying stories, but I trust my children will process them as best they can, according to their level of emotional maturity.   When the time comes to distribute the contents of my little green trunk, my grandfather’s tallis, this heirloom of tears, will go to my first born who will, perhaps, pass it on someday, along with the stories, to her own children.

In spite of all attempts to obliterate the Jews, we survived. A joyful meal with my father's clan in Zagreb, Croatia.

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