Essays - Autumn 2011

A Mother’s Secret

The images in a treasured photo album preserve an idealized past, while leaving out the painful story of a family torn apart by the Holocaust

By Werner Gundersheimer | August 25, 2011


We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.
—Robert Frost

More than half a century ago, my mother gave me, as a college graduation present, an album of photographs illustrating my life from infancy through high school. The first page depicts my grandparents—my father’s parents, shown together early in their marriage, probably around 1902. In this photo, the young Sophie gazes to her left at her gorgeous new husband, Samuel, resplendent with handlebar mustache and elegant white bow tie, as he looks off to his left into the middle distance. Below them on the page are small, separate images of Mother’s parents, Anna and Siegfried Siegel, in middle age, looking directly at the camera, engaging the viewer with their solemn expressions. Their pictures were taken around 1940. The next pages depict a standard middle-class European childhood, except that the scene keeps changing—from Frankfurt to London to a village in the English countryside to Cambridge to Weekapaugh, Rhode Island, then on to Wolfeboro, Ossipee, and Henniker, New Hampshire, and eventually various places in greater Philadelphia.

Surrounding the carefully mounted photographs that chronicle that odyssey are brief texts in my mother’s hand. The tone is light and humorous, as if she were describing her own progress toward adulthood in a placid German village. “First sunbath,” “Isn’t life beautiful?” “You are learning to walk,” “What fun with mother’s gloves,” “We have a picknick,” “Your first girlfriend,” and so on. It’s as if what actually happened had never happened. Reading through this lovingly constructed, almost idyllic narrative of a beautiful childhood, one would be hard-pressed to deduce that our little nuclear family had gotten out of Germany by the skin of our teeth in August 1939, lost just about everything but our lives, lived as transients in England through that first bitter winter of war, arrived in New York in May 1940 with exactly $30; or that in the course of our first American summer, my parents somehow persuaded themselves to place me in foster care with a Congregational minister in New Hampshire for a year while they went to Pittsburgh, my father as a guest lecturer, my mother as a domestic servant.

I was deeply touched by this gift, so lovingly and thoughtfully constructed. This was the childhood my mother wanted me to think I’d had; and it is indeed a version of my actual childhood. But Mom’s own memories were so devastating, and so close to the surface, that I couldn’t bring myself to point out to her the irony of creating such a sanitized version of the past for a son who was about to head off to graduate school to become a professional historian, a child who—perhaps because of the denials and evasions of his early attempts to understand things—had an incurable itch to get to the bottom of those things. We all know that memory is selective, and that the mind blots out what it can’t bear to retain. But that wasn’t Mom’s problem. For her, the past was always present, and the only way to keep it at bay was to steer clear of it.

That wasn’t so obvious to me when I got the album. I saw it as a product of her choice—the way she chose to have me understand my childhood. Only later did I come to recognize that, for her, there had been no choice. She had to bury her past, and mine, along with its grim realities, its dreadful secrets. For example, the album’s basic plot line is genealogical—it starts with the “begats.” Yet after the first page, the grandparents practically disappear. On page three, there’s a passport-size photo of Samuel, and one of Siegfried holding one-year-old me and my teddy bear. A few pages later there’s a 16-line poem for my third birthday written and sent to me in England by my mother’s parents in Germany. Composed in rhymed couplets, it conveys an almost fatalistic sense of resignation that they might be forgotten, despite the photographs they enclosed with the poem. Indeed, that was their last appearance in the album. They simply vanish, like Grandfather Samuel, who had died in September 1939 of a botched operation at a Jewish hospital in Frankfurt. Grandmother Sophie reappears briefly a bit later, in the fall of 1946, at the age of 71, having spent the intervening years in Jerusalem, now an old lady in black with a somber black hat. That’s it for her—she’s never mentioned again, nor is there any allusion to the fact that she lived with us for three years and then spent the rest of her life with my aunt and uncle in London. Why had she come, and why did she silently vanish?

Some survivors can talk freely about their experiences; others prefer silence. Whether you fall into the first or second group has nothing to do with wanting to get on with your life after the trauma is past. Everyone wants to get on with life, even though the trauma is never past. Mother read Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, but she couldn’t imagine doing what they did—talking and writing about the experience of having survived, or evoking and re-presenting the attendant losses. Those were her private, even secret, griefs. Had she known them, she might have loved those great lines in Richard II in which the king realizes that there’s nothing more that anyone can take away from him:

You may my glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs; still am I king of those.

Mother got a postcard sometime in 1943. It reported that her mother, whose letters from Frankfurt had stopped coming toward the end of 1941, had died on December 16, 1942, in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. It wasn’t until long after the war had ended that Mother found out what had happened to her father. He survived Theresienstadt only to be shipped in a transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 1944. Further details were unavailable.

These are not the kinds of events one would want to incorporate, or even think of including, in a beloved child’s photo album. But one might suppose that a moment could arrive—perhaps 30, or 40, or 50 years later—when it would feel right to speak to one’s children of these tragic matters. Mother lived to be almost 94, but for her, that moment never came. Hers remained a secret, unshared pain. Over the years, when I asked her about the fate of her parents, she just said that they had died in Theresienstadt. But eventually I went there and found in the archives exactly what had befallen each of them, and when. By then I was in my 50s, and she was about 80. My impression was that Mother wasn’t fully apprised of the facts I had turned up and would want to know them. So after my return from the Czech Republic, I told her that I’d found the full documentation for both of my long-deceased grandparents.

“Yes,” she said. “I know all that.”

“Even the train and boxcar numbers of Siegfried’s deportation?” I asked.

She thought she had seen that information. It was clear that this wasn’t a subject she wished to pursue.

August 7, 2010, would have been mother’s 100th birthday. She was born under Kaiser Wilhelm, well before the First World War. When she was a little girl, her father fought in that war and came home to his wholesale wine business as a decorated veteran. She grew up in Weimar Germany, remembered the great inflation, endured the moment when Jewish girls were segregated out of high school, witnessed the rise of Nazism, suffered the destruction of home and family, married and had a child in the face of all that, and then managed to get out at the urging of her parents, who knew full well there would be no place for themselves outside Germany. That was a burden she would carry in silence all the days of her life, a burden she chose not to share with her children. After her death, I found in the filing cabinet in her apartment a collection of letters from my grandparents to my parents. The series begins on September 15, 1940, and ends with a postcard dated November 24, 1941. There is also a letter from my parents to my grandparents, dated December 19, 1941, which never reached its destination. It was sent back with the notation “Service suspended—return to sender.” America had entered the war. There was to be no further contact. Although she preserved them scrupulously, my mother never mentioned these letters. They document the growing hardship, terror, and longing of a single, aging couple in just one German city, a moving folder in the secret archive of this very private woman’s past.

Surprisingly, there was an unexpected limit to Mom’s secrecy. Among the online resources concerning victims of the Shoah is the website of Yad Vashem, the memorial and research center in Jerusalem. On a historian’s hunch, I consulted it not long ago, to see whether its Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names contained any information I hadn’t already found on Anna and Siegfried Siegel. They were both there. But to my astonishment, all the basic information on their deportation and their deaths had been supplied not once, but on two occasions seven years apart during the 1980s, by my mother. She had even turned over the photographs my grandparents had enclosed with their poem for my third birthday. The very fact that she had done this was yet another secret she took to her grave.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus