But not all Holocaust survivors are willing or able to speak of their experiences. I am intimately familiar with the choice to stay silent. My father was a nine-year-old Jewish boy when Nazi Germany invaded his native Poland. He was one of the lucky ones, eventually saved by deportation to Soviet territory where he nearly starved to death in a slave labor camp. Almost his entire extended family—well over one hundred people—were killed. For decades after the war my father suppressed his pain, never speaking of what he had endured and dodging questions when pressed by friends or strangers. This silence was his way of healing and building a new life in the pluralistic America he so loved. My father became a professor of Soviet studies, dedicating his life to fighting totalitarianism and anti-Semitism from a comfortable professional distance.
When I was only three weeks old in January 1973, my father flew from our home in Indiana to Switzerland to join a gathering of Jewish leaders working to free Soviet Jews from religious and political oppression. My father and Elie Wiesel, friendly acquaintances through their years of activism, ran into each other on the shores of Lake Geneva. Elie had recently become a father, welcoming a baby son. As my father recounted to me time and again, the two men embraced, not merely celebrating their shared fatherhood, but also deeply moved by the rebirth of the Jewish people and the renewal of their decimated families.
When I heard this story as a young girl, the message was clear. All children are miracles, but my sister and I and other children of survivors were not supposed to have ever existed. We had a special obligation (like it or not, and many do not) to make good use of our lives and to be proud Jews and grateful Americans. It is no accident that I chose to marry another child of a Holocaust survivor. It is no accident that I became a Holocaust historian and spend my days teaching and preserving this history. All of these choices came from a legacy of genocide and a struggle to understand the severed roots of my family tree—an understanding I pursue even more now that I am myself a parent of questioning children.
American society celebrates people who publicly share their personal pain and channel it into something positive. Sandy Hook parents lobby for gun control. Cancer survivors raise research funds through highly visible charity walks. As a teenager I repeatedly nudged my father, “Why won’t you talk about what you went through, Daddy?” In some morbid way I was proud to be just one degree of separation from tragic events, as if it might make me seem deeper than the average Midwestern teenager. My father’s reply was blunt. “When people I barely know ask me to tell them what happened to me during the Holocaust, it feels like they are saying ‘Nice to meet you. I heard you were gang raped, tell me about it.’” His explanation of his silence left me chastened, silenced myself.