It is difficult for me, as I reflect on my journey, to tease apart the ramifications that my parents’ divorce had on me versus the wartime experiences of my mother. The trauma of living though Nazi Germany, adjusting alone to life in America, and eventually marrying a Methodist raised Harvard scholar, was all wrapped up into the many strands that became my mother. I know the trajectory, I know the motives at play. As any human life can testify, they are complicated. A Shoah survivor’s personhood is not purely an outcome of the ravages of Nazi brutality, but also of their own upbringing, their family, their social environs, and their innate personality. Do our temperaments become crystallized when we experience trauma, thereby making it harder to overcome issues that, under normal circumstances, are manageable? It seems true in my mother’s case.
Here is an example. My mother was a forced laborer on a munitions assembly line in Berlin. This was her first assignment, later she worked on the railway system. She rose every morning before sunrise, without central heating, into a cold and hostile world. She had a meager breakfast and then made her way to the factory, in shoes that were too small, to stand for 11 (or more) hours each day. One day, she was especially exhausted and preoccupied by what was happening around her; friends taken, tighter rations, propaganda, parades. Suddenly, the factory foreman approached her, yelling at her, with what looked like a large stick raised above his head. She fainted then and there. When she regained consciousness, the foreman was hovering over her anxiously. He told her that he saw she was about to make a horrible mistake and was trying to warn her. She, understandably, thought he was going to beat her when he had approached. We most likely have him to thank that our mother retains all her fingers.
Present day. There is a toaster oven. It is new. It has three knobs. My mother is immediately overwhelmed. I am sure her limited eyesight is an added frustration, but the toaster oven is not really so different from the one she had for 15 years. Nonetheless, it has become Enemy #1. I show her how it works. My older daughter shows her how it works. My younger daughter shows her how it works. My sister shows her. Mom’s volunteer shows her. I put stickers on it to indicate the controls and temperature. But the fear persists. It is as though her mind is willing itself not to understand. And then, of course, comes the inevitable, ever-present statement we’ve heard all our lives,
“Ach, Ruth, you know, me and machines have such a difficult relationship.”
I recount this with conflicted compassion, as I do so many things about my mother. Compassion, because how can I understand the emotional strain she has endured; how can I expect a sensitive soul that was wounded so early in life not to have its phobias and anxieties? Conflicted, because the task at hand seems so utterly simple, yet my mother is reduced to a childlike helplessness – it makes me panic. Simultaneously, unfair impatience and anger build in me, which I try to suppress with immense, unwieldy guilt. All this, in a split second, because of a toaster oven.
And there it is again, the dark glove; its grip on my psyche, on my mother’s psyche. It holds us in one hand; we face each other. As I struggle to free myself from the glove, it feels as though I am struggling to get away from my mother. That is when I nearly give up. The thought of abandoning her to the glove’s grip is enough to paralyze me, for she herself will never leave.
And history will never leave us.