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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Fear and Communication Don't Go Together

I saw a woman in the elevator yesterday. She was a Holocaust survivor
who once gave a short talk in synagogue about her experience in the
war. The talk made more than a few people cry, including me. She was
so brave. I can’t imagine how anyone could go through what she went
through and come out the other side. It hurt to hear the story but I
was grateful that she had shared it.

The woman in the elevator was with a friend who had also decided to
speak out. In fact she was on the way to the Holocaust Museum to sign
copies of her own book about the war. And I know of another person in
the community who published an account of his own at the age of 90.

There is a reason that people are publishing their stories in the
latter part of their lives. There is a reason they didn’t write about
it right away.

In my own family, when I was growing up, we never talked about the
war, though everyone was touched by it. Some were in the concentration
camps, some in labor camps. Others had to run, were detained,
separated from the family and all their belongings taken away. What
they knew of as home was destroyed. Those who weren’t physically
there, the children of the survivors and their relatives, were hurt by
the trauma felt by those that were.

Like a sponge I have soaked up this idea that I too should keep quiet.
But I was jarred when the journalist Helen Thomas unleashed an
anti-Semitic diatribe recently, and a lot of people, if not supporting
her, indicated that she was entitled to “free speech.” I realized that
I am entitled to the same free speech that she is, and that I have
never used it to speak out about the Jewish experience, of the
Holocaust or anything else. Her hatred had a voice, but the reality of
my people, suppressed, had none through me.

My “Zayde” (grandfather, on my father’s side) was in a labor camp
during the Holocaust. He didn’t talk about it and he didn’t let my
“Bubbie” (grandmother), my father or my aunt do so either. Zayde
married Bubbie after she had been liberated from Auschwitz. Not only
did they never talk about it, but according to my father, Zayde
survived the war by learning to lie, all the time, about anything and
everything. The capacity to lie meant the capacity to evade death,
because you never knew what a question really meant or how it would be
used against you.

Secrecy. No truth. No ability to talk.

My Zayde, whose job it was to tend the horses in the camp, didn’t let
the duplicity imperative keep him down. My father told me that he
instead chose to hide fellow inmates, shivering from the cold, under
the straw where the horses slept. Undoubtedly the guards would have
been murderous had they found out about that “exercise of agency,” as
the sociologists call it. In plain and simple terms, Zayde risked his
own life to lie even more than he had to, in an environment where even
obedience was suspect.

I would have liked to hear his story directly from him, while he was
alive. My dad says he and my grandmother told their stories to a
Holocaust documentarian once, but I am reluctant to press anyone to
see the video—I get the feeling that they talked out of a sense of
duty, and I am not supposed to see it.

Still, I am sad that my Holocaust stories come from the stories of
others, from the documentaries of others’ lives, and from depictions
in popular culture. My own Bubbie and Zayde, who were there, I still
don’t know even after they are gone.

I know they thought they were protecting me. That it was better for me
to focus on the future, on building a better life than the one they
had escaped. But no matter how hard they tried, I could see that my
grandmother’s eyes were vacant and sad. She spoke to me like you would
speak politely to a stranger. I didn’t understand that it had nothing
to do with me but with what had been taken from her. I wish that
someone would have explained. That she would have had the ability to
explain. That someone had not stolen from her the fundamental right to
speak.

My mother’s parents are gone, too. I know more about them than I do
about my father’s parents. They weren’t in the war. But they didn’t
talk to me about the difficult things in their lives. And I am missing
something I can never get back because of it.

When I look back I realize that I grew up in a culture of silence. Why
it is, we could debate. It’s probably a lot of things—stemming from
Jewish culture, post-traumatic syndrome, even generational differences
in what is considered socially appropriate. But whatever the reason, I
soaked in a set of values that told me that being silent was the
default, and that even feelings themselves could be dangerous. And my
parents shared these values even though the kinds of Jewish families
they came from could not have been more culturally different—one
Eastern European Hasidic, the other thoroughly Americanized.

Thinking about this I realize that when you learn not to talk, or to
speak falsely, or to avoid honest but difficult feelings, you
basically become disconnected from yourself. And when that happens,
you can’t connect with other people—you lose your ability to
communicate.

No matter how many cool communication techniques you know, no matter
how many social media tools you master, to communicate effectively you
have to go back to basics and allow yourself to feel without filters.
You have to perceive things like a child, like a blank slate, even
though as an adult you know that you might feel the sting of a
negative reaction if you are perceived as violating the status quo.

You might think that you can skip the difficult part of introspection
and cut straight to the part where you memorize the script and dress
the part. But the truth is, if you choose this path you will be worse
off than the kid who’s getting their hand slapped for questioning the
teacher – you’ll be the one who can’t follow the lecture in the first
place.

Posted via email from Think Brand First