The Legacy of Being Safe-Enough
I am five years old and hiding with all of my loved ones in the basement of our childhood home. We heard that the Nazis were on their way; I don’t know who tipped us off, or how we knew. In the basement with me is my entire extended family: parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Also with us is my friend Chava, family friends, and my father’s congregants. In the back of the basement, there are lots of dark spaces to hide people, random closets and big pieces of furniture to crouch behind. Somehow, in this mass of around fifty people, everyone finds a hiding place, and it all becomes quiet. Radio silence for a good sixty seconds. The Nazis soon burst into the house and ransack the upstairs rooms, looking for us. Suddenly, we hear someone playing with the doorknob to the basement door, and then we hear a gust of wind and the stomp of boots. Nazis stealthily make their way down the staircase.
I wake up and shake off the dream, this Shoah nightmare, my old friend. The nightmare used to be a constant of my childhood. Now it creeps up again only in times of stress. I remind myself that, despite how real this dream feels, the year is 2018 and not 1940. And that I am safe. Who am I kidding? I’m not safe, but I’m safe enough. Safe enough is okay, too.
Several years ago, I grappled with what it means to be “safe enough.” One day after leaving work, I was hit by an SUV while I was crossing in a crosswalk. Thankfully I had no broken bones, just a bad case of whiplash and some pain in my neck and shoulders. I began to feel afraid to cross busy streets. A very empathic professional mentor offered to be my EMDR therapist, using “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing” to resolve the traumatic memories and associated symptoms of my accident. I began treatment with her, grateful for her expertise in EMDR therapy because of its effectiveness as a trauma therapy and because of its efficiency as a therapeutic model. In session, I identified the “negative cognition,” or bad thought, that was making me feel anxious: “I am unsafe.” Although the car-related trauma was resolved within a few sessions, other safety-related issues jumped out of my subconscious. The doctor asked, “I see that other things are coming up for you. What are the other areas in which safety is an issue?” We identified intergenerational Holocaust trauma, which was triggered by the upsurge of antisemitism in America and around the world.
Like any communal traumatic memory, the memory of the Holocaust is imprinted on our national subconscious and on my personal consciousness. “Zachor!” my Oma, my grandmother, would tell us at any opportune time. I have many memories of Thanksgivings celebrated together, where she would share with us her feelings of gratitude to the United States for saving her and her family, and the obligation to remember what happened. “Zachor!” she would say, shifting her focus to her six grandchildren at the end of the table, pleading with her eyes. Another memory that is seared into my mind: reading aloud my grandmother’s story, an interview my mother had transcribed, for our community shul’s Yom Hashoah commemoration. Oma listening intently as I shared her own narrative, verbatim, perpetuating her memories and breathing new life into her experiences.
Her memories have been etched into my brain in an immutable way. They are but shadows of her life experiences, but the lessons learned from them are real. I consider what it means to be safe, and safe as a Jew in this modern time, and I cannot escape her cry of “Zachor!” I am compelled to remember that antisemitism lives on. Forced to acknowledge that our Jewishness keeps us strong as a community. That our faith in God and good is what maintains our feelings of safety. That perhaps in order to stay safe, we need to remember those lessons and live our lives according to their truths.
This was my first Yom Hashoah commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day as an Israeli citizen. As I walk back into my Jerusalem apartment, I look around at my dining room. At once I am flooded with joy, for my grandparents’ belongings have found a new home with me in Jerusalem. I think about “Lift Day,” when the shipping container arrived, filled up with family history. I shed happy tears when I see Oma and Opa’s dining room table, where we sat during countless holidays and familial celebrations. We engaged in many meaningful conversations about their experiences and their hopes for my future. It was the place where they transmitted their legacy to us.
Like my grandparents and many others, I am rebuilding in my own way, but I am also fulfilling their dream of living in Israel. Perhaps this redemptive feeling too can be added to the familial and intergenerational memory. The legacy of all these narratives, old and new, the painful and the joyous, will live on, as I go forth into the future.