Sunday, April 15, 2012

“... Not Victims But Heroes”

SONIA TAITZ talks to ERIC FORBES about her life growing up in a Jewish household in America and what it means to be the daughter of Holocaust survivors

I WAS BORN WANTING TO REWRITE THE STORY. I’m named after my mother’s two teenaged brothers and my father’s mother who were murdered in the Holocaust, the Nazis’ effort to rid the world of Jews. I was born knowing that the world was a dangerous place, and wanting to defuse or even change it, reversing racial and religious hatreds into their opposites.

While the Nazis preferred blondes with blue eyes (and saw all Jews as “dark”), the culture I grew up in America did too, particularly its females. Movie heroines and models were blonde. My mother and her mother were light-haired. Neither of them fully trusted my coal-tar mop. It came from my father’s side of the family, the poorer side (he was from the Lithuanian countryside, and she from its second biggest city), and was therefore déclassé. It was, furthermore, dangerous to look as—as “exotic”—as I did. There was a word for me (did the Nazis invent this?)—I was a Schwarzkopf, a black head. From the beginning, my mother and grandmother hinted that my inky hair was excessive. The little girls they admired had infantile blonde hair—softly curled, ironically, the Christian ideal of a cherub. “Oh, how beautiful,” they’d say, looking at a child with flaxen ringlets.

It didn’t help that hair-colour ads kept blaring on the television: “IS IT TRUE BLONDES HAVE MORE FUN?” or “IF I’VE ONLY ONE LIFE, LET ME LIVE IT AS A BLONDE!” These insistent pieces of advice made me anxious—what was I to do about my problem? On television, blonde girls played with their dolls in a perfect world. Whenever I mentioned transformative American purchases to my parents—this wondrous toy, that bottle of dye—they ignored me. Both had to work all day, with little to show for it. Our carpet was threadbare, the sofa lumpy and worn. They had other more important things to think about. I, however, was fixated by the question: “IS IT TRUE BLONDES HAVE MORE FUN?” If it was true (and our new country was all about “fun”), where did that leave me? The child who faced me in the mirror, I had been told, would have quickly been spotted as a Jew and killed by the Nazis. “A blonde you could sometimes hide,” went the kitchen-table wisdom in my home. They’d be peeling potatoes together, mother and grandmother, adapted to the race-logic of maniacs.

“But you could not save such a black hair.”

“Nothing could be done.”

“And the big, dark eyes.”

Potatoes boiling in bubbling water; peels tossed into the garbage can with a guillotine’s thunk of the lid.

My parents were religiously observant, modest and simple believers in good words and deeds. Our apartment was tiny, but they were proud of the fact that they had enough money to send my brother and me to religious schools, and later, to fine universities. In this regard, they were different from many of their immigrant friends. Before my brother and I were born, most Jewish European refugees had lived in tenements on the Lower East Side of New York. But gradually, my parents’ circle had begun to change, rejecting the old-fashioned ways. As they became more and more successful at their makeshift trades, these “modern” friends moved to the suburbs, where they no longer talked about the painful losses of the Holocaust. Nor did they need the supposed hindrance of Jewish tradition. They lived in the New World present, smoking Parliaments with recessed filters. They dyed their hair “ash” or “champagne” blonde. They bought Cadillacs and played bridge. They celebrated no religious holidays.

Once in a while, we travelled out to visit them. Someone would have to pick us up and drive us. We would sit like “sardines,” as my mother light-heartedly described it, as we left the city and headed out. There, we would crunch across a circular driveway and see the house where my mother’s oldest friend lived with her successful husband, a manufacturer of hot dog casings. This house was one of the first beautiful things I had ever seen in real life. And Jews lived there—even genocide survivors. My heart burst with longing for the tableau that opened before us as we spilled out of the hot back seat.

Sprinklers whispered on the lawn and from among them a girl emerged. Marlene was a beautiful tall girl, about my age, with long, wavy hair and a dimpled sweetness. She had a guard dog called Thunder, who was kept in the garage (they had a garage!). As the parents drank cocktails, lounging on cushioned chaises in the backyard, we children were taken down to a wood-panelled basement decorated with pink and white balloons. This was definitely where heaven was on the map, but we had to leave after only a few hours. On our crushed drive back, I would grow sulky. Marlene’s father worked with wieners, and yet he’d figured out how to live here in America! What was wrong with my parents?

The answer was: Nothing. My parents were the only ones of their gang to continue to worship God as they had before. Their faith had kept them strong at the worst of times, and they stayed observant. My father worked hard fixing watches, wearing his wash-and-wear short-sleeved shirts, and eating lunch out of a brown paper bag. My mother continued to wear housedresses and aprons. As her friends moved on to credit cards at Saks Fifth Avenue, she kept shopping at John’s Bargain Store, pulling wads of bills out of her capacious beige brassières.

“What you have is better than a big house, or a car that they drive on the Sabbath to shop,” my father would say, sensing my sadness and envy. “You have something far more precious: knowledge, and tradition, and the love for learning that God gave you.”

“Can’t I just have the dog?” I’d respond.

I never did get one, but I know now that my parents gave me much more. My childhood made me feel special—maybe singled out, maybe different, but not complacent. My father had not only survived the Dachau concentration camp, but had saved other prisoners. My mother had risked her life to save her mother, and then kept her strong when she’d wanted to give up. To me, they were not victims but heroes. I decided to live my life heroically, adventurously, steered by their values, but open to the bigger world.

This led me to leave the warmth of home and travel back to Europe. I sailed to Oxford, England, where I faced fear, homesickness and prejudice. Leaving my home (and its own prejudices), I eventually found communion with other peoples, viewpoints and religions. I describe this story in my novel, In the King’s Arms, and going beyond it in my forthcoming memoir, The Watchmaker’s Daughter. Incredibly, my journey—which my parents resisted and feared—ultimately helped heal their wounded faith in mankind.

Looking back on my life, I now know that being a writer is the biggest adventure and source of communion there is. For here I am, telling my story to strangers in Malaysia (and elsewhere)—and hoping that my words create understanding, hope and transformative kinship.

SONIA TAITZ is the author of Mothering Heights: Reclaiming Motherhood from the Experts, In the King’s Arms, and the memoir, The Watchmaker’s Daughter, which will be published in October 2012. She is also a playwright and an essayist. Check out her website at and follow her on Twitter @soniataitz.

Reproduced from the April-June 2012 issue of Quill magazine


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