My childhood was privileged and fortunate. My mother was a court stenographer in criminal court, and my father was a professor of sociology at Syracuse University, who had written his doctoral thesis on British colonialism in Kenya. My parents divorced when I was young. But they each happily remarried, and in any case, when I was growing up in Syracuse in the 1970s and ’80s, it was the kids of non-divorced parents who were weird. I was on the cross-country team, the math team. And my mother and my father survived the Holocaust.
As a child, this fact was not as salient to me as it is today.
I grew up hearing stories from my father of Central Park and the Ethical Culture Society. New York City in the 1940s and ’50s seemed like a magical place. But between these stories were interspersed ones whose contrast couldn’t have been stronger.
My father told me of watching Nazi marches from his grandparents’ balcony, begging his grandparents to allow him to join. He told me what the signs on the streets said when he started learning to read. He told me of the fear of being in hiding, and of the lessons my grandmother gave him in how to dress quickly. More recently, reading family letters, I learned about the beatings he suffered on the streets of Berlin, his 5-year-old hands outstretched to fend off the truncheon blows raining down on his head.
My mother’s family is from eastern Poland. Her father served in the Polish cavalry and fled with his wife and first child when the German Army swept in. She was born in Siberia, where she spent the first five years of her life in a labor camp, surviving on potato peels.
When the war ended, she, her mother and sister were packed into the trans-Siberian railroad headed west. Her father had been taken to a separate camp before she was born. At each stop, they stepped off the train and onto the platform, praying that he had survived. One day, they stepped out of the train and there he was, bags packed. Every morning for weeks he had headed to the station, waiting to join his family, the daughter he had never met.
Read more at The New York Times.