My life after Auschwitz
In Israel, too, at that time, the subject of the Holocaust was avoided. It did not fit the image of the “new Jew.”
Yes. In the period when I lived in Israel, before 1967, at the height of the Zionist myth, no one talked about the Holocaust. I did not even know that more than half of my classmates were from the so-called second generation – children of survivors. I did not start to truly confront the subject until the late 1970s, when I was already a journalist and wrote a series of articles about the Holocaust. But I knew very little about my family’s history. And, like many second-generation children – this is a very well-known phenomenon – I did not really want to know.
How do you understand that now, in retrospect?
I too wanted to get on with my life and be left alone. I did not want that burden. I had to cope with my father’s death, which was a terrible blow. And my mother, too, really had to keep on living after all she had been through, but alone now, with two small children, in the shadow of her husband’s suicide.
So you decided to embark on a journey – a physical journey – in the wake of your father’s story. What do you remember most vividly?
I’d been to Lodz and Auschwitz in the 1970s, but when I decided to write the book, it was obvious that I had to go back. Literally to follow in his footsteps. Emotionally, it was such a powerful experience: to travel on the train, as he did. That same accursed train of blood. To stop in the station at Uchtspringe, a small village in which thousands of patients were sterilized and murdered during the war in a hospital for the mentally ill. To know that the huge train that my father was on also stopped at that small, abandoned station, which was filled with bodies and half-dead people, in order to unload the bodies. It suddenly becomes so alive. The station is still there, with the sign.
It was a gray winter day. I felt as though it were happening again. In fact, the whole journey stunned me, in the sense of how close everything that happened was to the Germans. They insisted all along that they hadn’t known about Auschwitz, because it was so distant – but the residents of Ludwiglust, which is five kilometers from Wobbelin, were ordered by the American forces to bury bodies from the Wobbelin concentration camp. The visit to that camp was especially jolting. It existed from February 1945 until May, and its declared goal was to kill all the 5,000 prisoners in it. When my father got there, about 100 prisoners a day were dying from cold and hunger, and everyone lived amid filth and disease. People were thrown alive into mass graves. The bodies were piled up everywhere. There is evidence of cannibalism in Wobbelin. It was, truly, hell. And my father was there. That experience, in which I was so close to him, was jarring for me. At last I truly managed to get close to him.
You must have cried a great deal while writing.
Yes. I still do.
As an outside observer, what do you make of the Israeli “Shoah complex”?
I think the period of repression and silence was insane, because so many survivors lived in Israel. Years later, when the Holocaust trickled into the Israeli national narrative, it began to be used as justification not only for the state’s existence but also to justify policy: “We are doing this because it is our obligation to ensure that there will not be another Holocaust.” Suddenly the Holocaust becomes the core of Jewish identity, and I am deeply revolted by that. Because I do not think that the Holocaust should be the core of identity of any one nation – it should be the identity of all human civilization.
What about the political use of the Holocaust by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who often resorts to rhetoric such as “There will not be a second Holocaust – we will not allow a second Holocaust.”
He wants to scare people. I utterly loathe the use of the Holocaust to achieve political goals. It’s awful. I think that if you constantly present the Jews as victims and claim that they will eternally feel threatened, because of the Holocaust – people will start to become angry. In the end, it backfires.
What did you think about the large delegation of Israeli politicians that visited Auschwitz last month?
I think it was absolutely disgusting. It shows total misunderstanding of the concept of remembering the Holocaust. It represents short-term political interests, the desire to prove that the Holocaust can recur at any moment, that because of the Holocaust, Israel is beyond criticism. If Israel bombs Iran, the world will have to understand – because there was a Holocaust; if Israel hangs on to the occupied territories, the world will have to be silent – because there was a Holocaust. How much longer will this go on?
In fact, if the Holocaust permits us to do whatever we want, then nothing is forbidden.
It truly is dangerous. Look, I too think that it is foolish to think that the people who survived Auschwitz will not do the same to others. People who survived Auschwitz are not necessarily good people. They are destroyed, broken people, and what they lack most is trust in human beings. My mother, for example, doesn’t trust anyone. To survive the Holocaust means not only surviving that horrific death machine. It also means surviving the greatest humiliation one can suffer. They were ciphers. They were stripped of their human image, deliberately.
How do you survive that? How do you return to life after being deprived of your sense of self-worth? That is so difficult to rehabilitate. Few succeed. They live in constant fear, in a never-ending nightmare of fear and mistrust. And when that is used for political purposes, it is simply disgusting. Outrageous. I really think that Israel, at the official level, of course, is not handling properly the preservation and cultivation of the memory of the Holocaust. Knowledge is not a problem. All the information is available on the Internet. What’s missing is empathy: not for the dead but for those who are alive today. Instead of empathy, more fear is generated.
How do you think your family story, with your father’s suicide, affected your approach to life?
In one meaningful way: by imbuing me with a strong consciousness of society’s fragility. I am constantly aware that human society is always in danger of disappearing or falling apart or becoming cruel, and that a serious effort must be made to maintain a tolerant, open society. Many Swedes were born with a sense of security – this year Sweden celebrates 200 years without wars. But I feel different. I do not feel secure, I feel that everything is fragile, temporary, poised on the brink.
Your father tried to rebuild his life in a new residential quarter where no other Holocaust survivors lived. But when he wanted to leave his job, his mental incapacitation was not recognized. The doctor who examined him declared that he was suffering from “reparations neurosis,” meaning a desire to collect compensation.
I was appalled when I found out about that. It was one of the most difficult things I encountered. In the initial stages, the Allies forced the Germans to pay reparations. The Germans didn’t think it was right, and the conditions for getting them – which changed later – were very tough. You had to prove bodily damage. My father looked very healthy. No one could have known that his mind and soul were crushed. People didn’t talk about that. He himself did not want others to know.
He had severe nightmares and he suffered from depression, but this was not considered mental damage. He was found to be not really sick; he was considered to have recovered from Auschwitz. I think that what he really wanted was recognition, not money. He wanted people to grasp what he’d been through, to listen to his story. But the doctors said he was fine, he was exaggerating, all he wants is money. That is so cruel.
What did you try to give your children that you did not get?
Nothing. I gave them love, just as I received.
How did they respond when they found out about the family story?
It was of course very emotionally charged for them. They said that now they could understand many things about me.
The combination of impatience, a successful career and insecurity.
Is that you in a nutshell?
Yes. It may be very Jewish, but I have never had self-confidence. Maybe it has to do with this skepticism, the awareness of fragility that we talked about earlier. I envy people who were born into security.
Do you love life?
I don’t want to die. But I have had such periods – not now, fortunately. Still, I think that at age 65, I have to be ready for the downward slope.
I think the book has been very therapeutic for you, in the sense that one can feel your tremendous empathy for your father.
I have always had that.
Weren’t you angry at his choice to end his life?
No, I loved him very much. I understood that he was sick, and even when I understood how he died, I was not angry. I did not feel abandoned or neglected. My way to cope was simply to place my father and my childhood in a protective bubble and get on with my life, and he remained there, in that bubble, in my memory, as a very loving person. When I opened the bubble, I was very much afraid that I would find a different person there, but that didn’t happen. Now, after I have followed his footsteps and written the book, he is truly a whole person for me, not only a memory trapped in a bubble. In a way, I have brought him back to life, which is what I wanted to do. To go back in time and see him through the eyes of the child I was.
In your view, how should one write about the Holocaust?
My conclusion in the wake of the book is that when you write about the Holocaust, even about things that are supposedly well known, like Auschwitz, you have to shock the reader. You cannot leave him in a place where he says, “Yes, that happened and it really was terrible.” He has to experience a shock, to catch his breath. He has to understand that it happened in a society which was not very different from the society that exists now, in a country that is not far from his place of residence, and was perpetrated by people who are more or less like us. And that it is not something you can ever turn away from. Our role, as a society, is to preserve this insight, as a tool, as a warning light. We are all of us, always, on the road from Auschwitz. And always will be.
Interview - Ayelett Shani