Anna Rosner Blay
As a child I took for granted that all my parents’ friends spoke with a Polish accent, and many had a blue number tattooed on their arm. I didn’t question it, nor did I appreciate how special all these people were. I knew nothing of their pasts or their sorrows. To me, they were friendly, caring and fun-loving people; we all went together on picnics and holidays, and I recall many times when we’d gather in someone’s home, they would roll up the carpet, my father would take out his accordion and they would party. If there were shadows in their lives, I wasn’t consciously aware of them.
It wasn’t till I was in my mid-thirties that I began to understand something about my parents’ experiences in the war; until then, it didn’t even occur to me to ask questions, and my parents, in typical survivor fashion, wanted to protect their children from the horrors of the past. My first awareness came with a jolt, with the publishing of Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark, which later became the well-known Spielberg film, ‘Schindler’s List’. Suddenly there was a mass of information – dates, places, events, descriptions – which linked history in a very personal way with my mother and father, who were rescued by Schindler.
My naïve ignorance turned into a quest for understanding, not only about what had happened to my parents and close family whom I knew, but also to my murdered ancestors and relatives. Until then, there had been an emptiness, a separation, a silence. I was born after the war, so I thought the past had nothing to do with me.
Ruth Wajnryb, in her wonderful book The Silence – how tragedy shapes talk wrote about the paradox of being children of survivors, who were drawn into a compulsion to remember the past, and yet had to get on with life; “they were both reminders of family gone and symbols of continuing life.” I had to recognise this paradox before I could begin to figure out where my family ended and I began.
Who am I? Somebody’s daughter, somebody’s mother, somebody’s wife. I struggle to define who I am and how I can exist in the world as a separate human being. I search to understand why it has taken me so long.
Since that first awakening, my writing has been a way for me to continually grapple with what the past means and how it has affected me. My first modest book was a biography of my uncle, a wonderful and wise man who was like a grandfather to me. My role was as listener and recorder; I didn’t put myself in the book at all, apart from a brief introduction. In my second book, Sister, Sister, I retraced the story of my family and connected with my roots. I also started to tentatively explore the effects of being born into a Holocaust survivor family and the connection between my own experiences and theirs, but I did it in a small way, with short vignettes of a child’s memories interspersed with the dramatic and moving stories of my mother and my aunt’s histories. As I wrote in the Epilogue of Sister, Sister:
Now I am reconstructing the past, uncovering hidden memories to try to make sense of my emotions. I begin to understand my feelings of confusion, of obligation, of unresolved grief. Writing this book has been a step along the path.
Once I had finished Sister, Sister I wondered what I’d write next. I thought I’d finished with the Holocaust. I began to write fiction, short stories, romance – but it seemed that my imagination kept turning the characters into children of survivors, and bringing me back to themes of the effects of the past on the present, of loss and sadness.
I began to be interested in the post-war period, what it meant to survive deprivation and trauma, and start a new life again as a migrant in Australia. I started making notes in April 1999, jotting down various germs of ideas. This would be something tangible, something I could research and interview people about. It was something outside myself which I could work with comfortably, I thought. I turned to women I had known from childhood, friends of the family, and asked if they wouldn’t mind talking to me.
My first conversation with one of the women, Erna, took place in July 2000. Each of these women has lived a unique history, yet they have certain things in common: each of them went through horrific experiences during the Holocaust, and lost large numbers of their friends and family. But the focus of my book was not the war years; rather, I was interested in how they coped afterwards. Each of them had to flee from Europe to the furthest country they could think of. Each had to struggle with learning a new language, finding a place to live, getting a job, starting a family. What was clear was that after the trauma of the Holocaust, after loss and suffering, life didn’t automatically become joyful and liberating. Coming to Australia meant the chance to start again, of course, and Australia was the land of opportunities, jobs, plentiful food, sunshine – but it wasn’t paradise – hence, the title of the book.
Each woman spoke to me openly, sharing sometimes painful memories. I felt privileged to listen to their honesty, to hear about their struggles and deep concerns. Perhaps that’s what I had missed hearing in my own family. As I transcribed more interviews I began to see broad themes emerging which were common to each, so I decided the story wouldn’t be told chronologically, but a combination of relevant sections, linked by some comments from me.
And where did I, as the author, fit into all this exploration? At first while I was interviewing, collecting and analysing material, I wrote nothing about myself. I did not connect my interest in the subject with what was happening in my personal life. As a child of survivors, for a long time I believed that nothing that I could experience could equate to the suffering that my parents and those like them had endured. Therefore this belief tended to invalidated any trouble or fear or pain I might have felt. Such things weren’t talked about. The unspoken message was ‘be happy, you have everything to be happy for’. But now I could no longer avoid the truth. My marriage was disintegrating, and I was having to confront the reality of how unhappy I was. I had to make one of the most difficult decisions of my life. I moved out of home, first to my parents’ place while they were on holidays, and then to my cousin’s. I’ll read a passage to you:
In the evening I’m still fragile and shaky. I thought I was coping well up till now, but echoes and memories of childhood keep drifting in, and I can’t seem to moor myself to anything solid. The night outside is dark. I have more lights on in the large house than necessary. I walk around the kitchen in circles while preparing a meal, looking for things like scissors or salt. Everything feels strange. I’m glad to be on my own, but I feel guilty searching in their cupboards, prying into someone else’s possessions. I can’t find my way around comfortably, and wonder whether I’ll ever have a familiar environment around me again.
Once I’ve cleaned up the kitchen and let the cat in, the silence is large and heavy. I think about the women I have been talking to and the burden of grief each of them has to contend with. I wander through the house and find myself in front of a large bookcase filled with academic works on psychology and family therapy. I run my eye along the titles and pick one out at random, Trauma and Recovery. Maybe I’ll find some information there that will help me better understand the women’s experiences and how they were able to begin their lives again. I pull the book down and settle myself in an armchair.
I begin to read and feel the impulse to start taking notes. There are chapters about combat veterans, prisoners-of-war, survivors. I begin to gain new insights into the women’s experiences and struggles. It is getting late but I keep reading. I read about victims of political terror and victims of domestic violence and abuse. As I come to passages about domineering behaviour, fear and emotional dependence, I find myself starting to recognise my own experiences. My feelings of empathy with the women are shifting, coiling inwards. Something deep within me resonates. There is a tight feeling in my chest. I close my eyes. The wind is howling outside and leaves spatter against the window in gusts. Unwanted thoughts intrude and I push them away. How can I compare my own troubles to those of people who really suffered? I turn back to the book, but soon it drops onto my lap.
The process of writing was painful, confronting, difficult – yet I felt an urgency to keep going, needing to find words to make sense of chaotic thoughts. I once read some lines by poet Emily Dickinson which often came back to me: ‘After great pain a formal feeling comes’. I felt I understood that formal feeling, the stillness, the numbness which follows catastrophe. In the past, if I experienced something troubling I fought to suppress it. I locked away a lot of my feelings, good and ‘bad’. I did not want to sound like a victim, nor to demonise my ex or hurt my parents.
It gradually became clearer to me that what I was searching for in talking to the women, was a way to deal with my own suffering. Herman’s book opened my eyes to the connection between survivors or all sorts of trauma. I began to document my daily struggles as well as rereading old diaries, and these thoughts gradually became an integral part of my writing. I could see that a relationship between their experiences and mine was possible, particularly as I was writing about the internal, emotional and practical struggles.
But just as I had misgivings about including my own story in Sister, Sister, I found myself grappling with the idea of giving myself permission to make the links between my own life and the survivor women’s stories. I began a process of ‘revealing myself to myself’, a phrase George once used in a talk he gave. I had to claim my own experiences as valid and real. I started charting my own journey, parallel to that of the interviewees. I wanted to write about my own struggle, rather than my marriage.
I recently saw a program on TV about Sinead O’Connor. When asked about a particular song she had written, she confessed that when she sang the first line of it she burst into tears. She revealed the song to herself as she sang it. In a similar way, I revealed my truth to myself as I wrote the words; the hidden became overt; the nameless was given shape and form; the unspeakable became, in some measure, comprehensible.
At one stage I considered using the techniques of fiction, amalgamating characters, creating a first-person persona. But I knew it wouldn’t work; it was important for the women’s stories to be seen as genuine, especially at this time of growing anti-Semitism and revisionism. It was also important for me to have a voice, even though I’m basically a private person; to tell my own story and not keep living in denial.
A survivor friend recently told me ‘there is no thermometer of suffering’. I like that phrase. When you are in the midst of your own anguish, whatever its cause, it is totally real. I had to acknowledge the truth of my own level of personal grief before I too could move forward and begin a new life. Grief experiences are not unique; they’re part of the human condition. But each one of us has to learn how to deal with it in our own way. For me, it no longer worked to suppress or deny it.
Writing is a lonely pursuit, and for me it was often done at 3 or 4 am. But the book could not have been completed without my ‘team’ of very special people who have also become my friends.
A big thank you to my editor Alex Skovron – always patient, encouraging, nurturing, helping me to express my ideas in the best way possible.
I’d like to express gratitude to Louis de Vries who spoke so eloquently earlier on, who had faith in me from the start and who led me through all the steps to make it happen.
To George Halasz, your words in launching this book were truly inspiring; thank you.
Thank you to Paul Valent, for your encouragement and validation.
To my colleagues from Kilvington Girls’ Grammar, and especially Judith Potter, the principal, for your support.
I’m delighted that Denise and Kit, whom I hadn’t met before today, came from Sydney for the weekend just to be at my launch.
And thank you to all my friends and family, particularly my parents, who believed in me, supported me when things were tough, and share today in my joy.
This is a day of celebration, of completion of a long and sometimes difficult task of putting this book together. There is a great sense of joy and relief at holding a physical copy of the book in my hands, knowing that I can bring this part of my work to a close. And I feel great delight in being able to share my book with others, in ‘putting it out there’ as they say.
BOOK LAUNCH - Sunday 9th May 2004
Speech by the Author
As some of you remember, my last book launch six years ago also happened, by coincidence, on Mother’s Day. Despite the commercialism of such a day, I find the timing appropriate to acknowledge the four women who shared their lives and hearts with me so generously, and who also are mothers. Today I am thrilled that they are able to be here with us, and I would like to acknowledge these four amazing women: Basia Szenkel, Erna Rosenthal, Jasia Romer and Kitia Altman.
Before I talk about their role in the book I need to go back a bit in time