I was re-reading an article on Holocaust survivors and their children and there were these pieces of it that really hit home for me today in terms of how the girls “raised” me, how I view myself now, and how I interact with C. There were certain commonalities that really struck me.
It hadn’t, before yesterday, really occurred to me that we were recreating family groups in the brothel and that this is what human beings naturally do. They create families. When all ties to biological kin are disrupted and you are placed in an artificially restricted environment, you create family groups that mimic biological groups even when the people in that environment don’t entirely resemble natural ones: I mean, even if everyone is female and under 25. You still create a sense of parents having children and of siblings. How the girls treated me is likely to be equally impactful as how my biological parents treated me, only it has until now been invisible.
One piece from the article that seemed very familiar was the importance of my survival. I was always young compared to others in the “family group,” compared to Nadia and Ksymcia and the Five, and I had this one foot out the door in the form of having contact with the outside world, and I think I represented a degree of hope and the potential for victory over evil.
I think I have to say, as I write this, that before I was nine, my dad murdered at least five girls. Those are the ones I witnessed in some way. Yuri was brutal, and killed one other, nearly killed most of us on a regular basis. From what I read once (and cannot find again), in the town where we were based, there was a whole series of murders of prostitutes in the 80s and late 70s—the time when I was there—and one other serial killer was caught decades later. So I don’t think it would be a stretch to imagine that the girls felt hunted or that death seemed inevitable and omnipresent. It’s not the same as a concentration camp, by any means, but there may be some parallel within that sense of being hunted and persecuted and singled out for death.
It seems that a part of how they saw me and interacted with me came from that sense that I must survive. I was their hope to at least be remembered and to have some part of themselves escape. If they did not see me that way, I have seen myself this way.
In the long-run, I think it has resulted in this tremendous pressure to “succeed.” I used to think this pressure came from the culture at large and from the 2x2s focus on perfectionism, but I think now it is also about having been this kind of “chosen one” who survived.
I am still working out how I want to respond to that pressure: memorializing them in a way that restores their humanity and their dignity seems to have been a part of this, and I think that has been one of my more positive responses.
As a less positive response, I think it has at some points made me feel that I could not be affected by the trauma. I had to “transcend” it. They, after all, died. All I had to do was finish school, get a job, and move on with life. At other points, it has made me feel I really needed to “do something” with my life—whatever “do something” might mean. Normal things, when it comes down to it, probably: publish books, be a particularly outstanding and influential teacher…I don’t know. Normal things, but with this enormous pressure behind it, because if I cannot do those things, I will have lost my whole reason for being preserved by them. I will have a debt then which I can never repay.
In a more immediate way, I can see the effects it has on my interactions with C, and at times with other students. I hadn’t quite realized this, although I had started to recognize it as being something to scrutinize in myself. One of them is an insistence on complete obedience. I am not controlling about every aspect of what C or any other child does. They mostly have choices. It is when they don’t have choices that I can my rage is out of proportion to the offense, and I know it has to do with how the girls raised me. It’s just I had not entirely worked out why it was like that. I know they expected complete obedience from me because they wanted to keep me safe. The only way they could feel I was safe was to feel they had complete control over me. They wanted me safe because they loved me and we lived in a dangerous world, but I don’t know if I always experienced it as love. I may have sometimes experienced it as a pressure to live and to survive: I may have accurately seen their wish for me to survive as something symbolic of their own survival. It may have been two-edged. I may have felt, although they loved me, that that love was in some way counterfeit. What they really loved was their hope for survival through me.
Something else that struck home for me was the statement in the article about children of survivors recognizing that they represented other lost loved ones, and I think that was true for me also. I was, for some girls, a lost sibling or a lost child. I might have sometimes been a daughter who could never be born. When they looked at me, they did not entirely see me, but saw their relatives that they had been separated from and would never see again. There is that echo of counterfeit love again: maybe I was never loved for who I was. Maybe I was loved for Nata’s lost little brother or Farzana’s dead children or the child of her own that Nadia could never have.
As a child, it also creates a sense of being loved conditionally. Even if it was not a counterfeit love, it may have felt like a love I could easily lose. Their love truly saved me and humanized me and made my survival possible. I cannot say this without also saying that. However, at the same time, I think it created in me a sense that the love I still carry with me is not without strings. I can retain their love only if I can live out a dozen different sets of hopes and dreams for me, everything they might have wished they could have done themselves one day perhaps, or at the very least the hope of overcoming the evil we lived in.
It makes an ordinary life seem untenable. I cannot be merely an average teacher, getting together with friends from time to time, enjoying sunsets and hobbies. I was the “chosen one” and must behave accordingly.
I don’t know what to make of this now, but I think it’s worth noting. Survival comes with an almost crushing sense of responsibility, and it’s not a responsibility that is easily carried out or even articulated. What does it mean to be the one who survived? What is it I must do? What do I need to let go of as an unreasonable expectation on myself and what is a meaningful purpose in my life?