Learning How to Remember

On the fiftieth anniversary of World War II, little clusters of Allied flags were strung up all around my neighborhood

On the fiftieth anniversary of World War II, little clusters of Allied flags were strung up all around my neighborhood in New York. They were tiny, the sort of flags you see people waving at presidents and prime ministers in old newsreels. I didn’t take much notice.

In my family, 1945 marks not a military victory, but the conclusion of the 12-year terror known as the Holocaust. My father’s parents and older sister are Holocaust survivors; they suffered through ghettoes, concentration camps, and the deaths of almost their entire families before finally being liberated and sailing to America.

I am therefore a third-generation survivor, an identity very different from that of my father, a second-generation survivor. For him the Holocaust was a perpetual presence, an unspoken mass that hung over his childhood. For me, it was some vague event that happened a long time ago, as superficial as those flags on my street’s lampposts.

Ten years later, here we are at the war’s sixtieth anniversary. There’s little to indicate it on campus: no little flags, no assemblies, no memorials. The world is moving further and further away from 1945.

But I seem to be moving closer.

Last fall, I wasn’t thinking much about the Holocaust. I was thinking about how to get through the semester. I had been accepted into a creative writing class, and was both ecstatic and terrified. I had no idea what I was going to write about.

For the first two weeks, we were required to write every day for half an hour. About anything. My entries usually began with how stupid free-writing was, or how my contact lenses felt funny, or that it looked cold outside. But on day five, an almost complete story came out. It was about a female college student in New York—huge leap, I know. The Holocaust didn’t play center stage, but the girl was named after her grandmother, who was killed in a concentration camp. The Holocaust had become part of her identity.

It was the first time I had written about the Holocaust in eight years—my Bat Mitzvah speech had presented my grandparents’ stories. But here I was, not only amassing information, but also forming something new. I was excited to have finally found a topic I could treat in a new and meaningful way. Here was something I knew, something I could explore, and something I could write about from my own experience.

Since my free-writing realization, the Holocaust has continued to resurface in my life. We read a memoir of a survivor in one of my classes, and she came to discuss it. Eli Wiesel spoke at Memorial Church. I wrote another story, this one about a father trying to explain the Holocaust to his five-year-old daughter. I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. And I made the decision to spend my summer researching and teaching about the Holocaust in a museum in Australia—that is, if my funding comes through.

I am still trying to come to terms with being a third-generation survivor. I’ve grown up listening to my second-generation father arguing with my first-generation grandparents about whether I can climb to the top of the jungle gym, or pet a dog, or know about The War at all. With survival comes an extreme over-protectiveness of one’s children, and by extension, one’s grandchildren. My grandparents don’t want me taking risks, but my father doesn’t want me to grow up fearful of the world.

I’ve learned that being a third-generation survivor by definition means self-doubt. I wonder what it would have been like for me, what I would have done if I were there. I feel obligated to bear witness, to amass all the information I can so I can impart it when there are no survivors left.

But I want my own say in the matter. I’ve seen what my father has gone through. He was given a legacy he did not necessarily want, forced to live his life in memory of those who could not.

I’ve grown up in a different world. My struggle is to understand my role as a third-generation survivor, but to reclaim it as a facet of my own experience. My grandparents would never work in a Holocaust museum. They would find it too painful and would probably feel betrayed by how little visitors knew. My parents wouldn’t either. It’s just not how they choose to transmit the story.

But I love museums. They speak to a part of my identity wholly separate from the Holocaust. Working there is not just about fulfilling my responsibility to my past, but to myself.

The first thing I think about when it comes to the Holocaust is my hair. It’s brown and curly, and throughout my life has fallen somewhere between my ears and waist. I’d hazard to call it Jewish hair. I’ve had mixed feelings about it—for two years during high school I chemically straightened it—but it’s very much part of who I am. For no real reason, I’m proud of it.

I always wear my hair down when I attend Holocaust events. Partially, I suppose, in defiance of all the heads of my relatives that were forcibly shorn. But more so because it helps me reinforce my connection to 1945. The Holocaust is something I’ve inherited. And for reasons that I still don’t fully understand, I’m proud that it’s a part of me.

Jayme J. Herschkopf ’06 is a religion and English and American literature and language concentrator in Adams House. She still sometimes straightens her hair, but not very often.