Friday, September 12, 2008

they lost me almost as irrevocably as death...

When Roma Baran was born in 1947, her parents Jacob and Roza Baran/Cytryn made a conscious, well thought through decision to try and shield their only child from the unspeakable horror and degradation that they faced during the Shoah. They secured the help, or at least silence of the entire remaining extended family, and for over 60 years, lived a lie they never thought would be exposed.

Had a cousin not died intestate, Roma probably would have gone to the grave not knowing of her ancestors faith - and the lie would have become fact, forever. But fate intervened, and now a daughter wants to know, needs to know one simple truth - why?

What happened, physically and mentally, to cause this? What went on in her parents hearts and souls to force such a decision?

Roma will probably never fully know. Yet Pandora's box is open, so there is no choice but to look inside.

We pick up the thread with Lukasz's email to Roma

Hello Roma -

You ask me what pulled me to work with Survivors, with secrets, mysteries, lies. Because this is what we deal with during our sessions very often, here in Poland. I think it was silence, secrets, mystery. My mother learned that she is Jewish in 1946 at the age of 14. My grandfather and mother survived in Siberia. She was introduced to the truth in Przemysl, by a stranger ("and here lies your grandma" - at the Jewish cemetery). The history of Jewish secrets is older than the Shoah. I was told about our origins when I was 12, as usual here. Children, most of those I know, are told at 12 - 14. This is is age they are considered to be able to keep the secret and hide by themselves.

I became more interested in my roots when I went to Przemysl for the first time in 90's. Then I met my cousin, Maria Orwid, Przemysl ghetto survivor and psychiatrist living in Krakow. Since then we run a program for Survivors and 2nd generation. We have marathon session for Survivors - about 50 people. Next session is scheduled for mid October. We meet in Srodborow, in former post war orphanage. Not far from former orphanage named after Dawid Guzik in Otwock. Srodborow in fact is a part of Otwock. Consider yourself invited. You could meet people that learned about their origins at the age of 30, 50 ... 90 % from mixed marriages. There are a few very dramatic instances, when a daughter saved by nuns learned about her Jewish father (living across the street) a year after he died. He couldn't find her after the war because the nuns hid her really effectively ...

My fantasy is that what definitely decided about "un-subscribing" in the case of your parents was the Palestinian experience. If this guess is true, this could be very important "case" in the ... history ... I never heard of such a story when both parents were Jewish.

My daughter departs to study in Jerusalem for a year tomorrow morning. I won't be able to reply to the messages for a while ...

Cheers, Lukasz
Roma responds...
Dear Lukasz,
Thank you for your insights, they are fascinating. I’m just getting a backward glimpse into the world you see every day. But, of course, it was always there, un-named.

I spent years in therapy, discussing some early life that was a fiction. I am an only child, so I had no one to check in with who shared the experience. Now I’m just starting to interpolate the torrent of new data into my sense of my family, my life.

The horror of war experiences had functioned adequately to explain my parents’ anger, depression, anxiety, fear of sudden loss (much of which I absorbed as if it were genetic). But the revelation of the world of “secrets, mysteries and lies” my parents continued to live in every day explains so much more.

Walking into the house — as a child and even as an adult -- was like stepping into a dimly lit slippery tunnel with no safe footholds. The house was silent, and tense, with a lingering odor of impending doom. I could never get a straight answer about anything. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, left the first moment I could, and have never been very close to them.

The sad irony is that in trying to “save” me, they lost me almost as irrevocably as death.

I am very interested to hear your “un-subscribing” thoughts. I had just been thinking (every few minutes something pops into my head that starts like “wait a minute!!”) about my mother’s parents, with whom I spent many, many hours as a child. I guess I had believed my father’s anti-religious rants, and my mother’s passive few attempts to assimilate into a Christian community, as coherent with who they were.

But, wait a minute!! what about my grandparents, simple (supposedly Christian) Polish working people? What is the likelihood that they, too, both of them, were atheists, and never showed a moment of interest in, knowledge about, or even nostalgia for Christian culture, holidays, trappings?

I hope you are enjoying your daughter’s company. I am sorry that our trips to Israel will not coincide, but I am hoping to go to Poland next May, including both Warsaw and Przemysl. We have time to plan.

Best regards,
Roma
Jocelyn joins the thread...
I can well imagine that your family's experiences during the Holocaust and in Palestine could have been traumatic and deeply scarring, so much so that all the adults entered into a pact (whether spoken or unspoken) to live an alternate reality. They could even justify it, because can't anyone become a Christian? Perhaps as a protective mechanism, they even came to believe it. I have known people whose parents were survivors - some of the parents lived in supportive communities in the US or Israel and retained their strong Jewish identities; others had parents who absolutely refused to speak about the past and the horrors of the Holocaust and the people they had lost. Your parents must surely have carried with them crippling fear, overwhelming sadness and possibly suffocating guilt.
Roma replies:
Dear Jocelyn,
Thanks for the thoughts. My parents certainly did live in an alternate reality, but it was not a Christian one. I don't know why they didn't take that extra step, additional cover.

When I first went to public school in Montreal, my parents registered me as an Anglican (a fact that has raised many an eyebrow over the years). The class would say the lord's prayer, pledge to the flag, and sing a Christian hymn, like Onward Christian Soldiers. I had no idea what was going on, but joined in. When I finally came home and asked, my father had a sit down with me, as though I'd asked where babies came from. Some people are weak and stupid, he told me, and they need to believe in a fairy tale about a better life when you die. Play along, he advised. I already got that part. What does happen when you die, I asked. Dad had the answer: you rot. Later he would mock religion and thought it was the greatest evil of history.

My mother suddenly made a half-hearted attempt to get me to go to a local church with her when I was a teenager, although she never went herself. It was all about appearances in a new community. After she brought the pastor home one weekend and my father was rude, she gave up. Christmas meant a tree and presents, the end.

And now? Well, I certainly don't feel like a Christian. I now realize how utterly tenuous that part of my identity was, no belief, no cultural context, no family rituals. How could there be -- they were Jews, all of them.

I am definitely interested in Jewish history and culture, and have been reading avidly -- thanks for the site, it's just the right level for me. A friend has invited me to the Congregation Beth Simchat Torah Yom Kippur services at the Javits Center, and I'm very excited about our trip to Israel. Right now it all feels exploratory, historically and emotionally.

Warmest regards,
Roma
I am struck by the lessons Roma's story offers to assimilated Jews, like me, about the deeper meanings and personal significance of religious and cultural belonging. Are there Jewish "genes?" Do your beliefs determine who you are or does who you are determine your beliefs?

Lukasz gets the last word for this post:
Roma,

This is exactly as you say - family secrets tend to "generalize", paralyzing all communication within the family. Any manifestation of openness, frankness, endangers The Secret. That's why we have troubles with 2nd generation. And the 3rd generation starts to show up. All this mess is not about the Shoah, it's about secrets. Although it all started with the Shoah. It's not Jewish specialty. Goyim, pardon le mot, have their problems - illegitimate children, grandfather a traitor, Nazi grandfather, Jewish grandma ...

Anyway, you can consider yourself lucky. At last you've learned. After countless hours on the couch it happened to be so simple. Mazl Tov !

As they say, lepiej pozno niz wcale. "Isn't it a fantastic adventure to be born again?" T'shuvah or not t'shuvah, it's pure gaiety and dance ...

I allow myself to copy this to my wifie. She is a member of Secrets Circle.

Love,
Lukasz

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