by Thomas J. Scheff (February 2012)
The end of WWII was in 1945, when I was 16. It brought rejoicing in my family, but also a shocking sadness. Through my father’s inquiries, we learned that all of his family in Vilna, Lithuania, had been killed in the Holocaust. His father, mother, and sister died on the first day of the war, when the Germans took over the Baltic States. My father’s brother Hym had immigrated to France earlier, where he became a French citizen. However, as we learned when the war was over, he was deported to a concentration camp when the Germans overran France and at some point during the war died in a camp.
My father had been anticipating this moment since 1932, when Hitler came to power. He pleaded for many years with his relatives to come to America, as he had. But they were not to be convinced, because they thought there was no danger: Hitler was a madman who would surely fall. The only kin that survived was Hym’s wife, Bella, and her son, my father’s nephew. This nephew, Michael, was boarded with a non-Jewish family for cash (they didn't know he was Jewish). He is still alive today in France. He and I chat on Skype from time to time in his bad English and my bad French.
I remember my father’s announcement. The four of us were sitting at the dinner table, eating, talking and laughing. When we heard his news, my brother and I were shocked, my mother cried. Although we had been talking about our European relatives for years, all of the talk stopped the moment my father announced their death. That must have been his way of managing grief, and his way became my way for many a year. After a few bad days, I must have swallowed my grief like my father.
Uncle Hym is on the left, Aunt Rachel in the middle, and Grandfather Lazare on the right.
Rachel is posing as a gypsy fortuneteller.
Although I never met my grandfather and grandmother, I felt close to them growing up, closer to them then to my Uncle Hym and Aunt Rachel. Although we got letters and photographs of the family, the grandparents, in addition, must have sent my brother Len (5 years younger) and me little gifts from time to time.
They sent my brother and I our own personal prayer shawls and yarmulkes (prayer hats). The only other gift that I clearly remember is one set of silver dinnerware: knife, fork, and spoon. Though long gone, I remember that each piece was engraved with Hebrew letters, perhaps a phrase from a prayer. One reason I remember is that my brother and I used to argue at mealtime about who would get to use the spoon. I don’t know what happened to the fork and knife, but we each wanted to use the Bubbe un Zahde leuffel (Yiddish for Grandparent spoon) at meals.
Luckily, when I was 40, in group psychotherapy I learned how to cry again. In the last 40 years, I have shed many a tear over the memory of that spoon.
Thomas J. Scheff is Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Sociology, at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His latest book is What's Love Got to Do with It?: The Emotional World of Popular Songs (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers) 2011
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