Lana has been upset that there are things she doesn’t know about the girls. Partly, she doesn’t know because I was little and not always paying attention, but mostly it’s because they don’t tell me.
So much of the Holocaust is about surviving to tell the stories of others, but I can’t tell the stories of the girls because I don’t know them: It is like a Holocaust for us, and I escaped, but I can’t tell the stories. No one made sure I knew them.
In that way, it’s entirely different. They don’t tell me because that’s not how they approached their grief. Grief crept out maybe when they were drunk, but it was otherwise avoided. Nata told me about her family when I was five or six and couldn’t understand nine-tenths of what she said. Then she never said much about them again. Because that is how they grieved. Their grief was silent. Girls disappeared—girls who were someone’s friend, someone else’s enemy, someone’s lover—and no one knew exactly what had happened to them or where they were. They would not be seen again. And we did not discuss it.
Because they had griefs that could not be resolved or fixed in any way. There was no point in telling stories of the past because the past could not be returned to. The girls coped with their grief by never hoping for anything different or better. They coped by forcing themselves into attitudes of acceptance. They did not fight for any kind of future or change for themselves. It wasn’t going to happen, and they did try. They lived with today. They lived with what was now. They made the best out of it they could, but they did not look backward and they did not look forward.
And so I don’t know their stories. I don’t know their secret wishes and fears or about their past lives. I don’t know how they ended up in the positions they found themselves in because these were not discussed. I’m sure they did think about them, but they tried not to. The agreement was that we not do that. We don’t remember the past and we don’t dream about a future because we cannot return to the past and we will never have a better future, and talking about them only opens up more pain. That is the reason I don’t know about them.
It is very different than people who still feel hope for the future. People with hope for the future draw upon the past to give them strength. They return to the past to remember their identities, to remember the reasons a future is worth hoping for in the first place. But the girls did not have any hope. They had only the present.
My process, I think, involves allowing myself to take a different approach to grief. I have escaped, and so there is hope for me. I can have a past as well as a future, and I do not need to continue to only consider the present.
For a long time, I have protested this idea that one needs to live more in the present, and I think that is why. It is echoed by the larger society, which must wish it could do that, but that’s not the real source of the pressure on me. The pressure is from the girls and the way we learned, collectively, to cope with the absence of anything that might give us hope for the future and the way they learned to cope with the abrupt loss of their pasts. They lived in the present exclusively, and that is the approach to grief I internalized from being with them.
But I am, luckily or unluckily, unlike them, and I escaped. I have a past and a future. It is different.