Monday, October 02, 2006

Listening

There was a time in my best friend’s life when she liked to claim that her favourite Bible verse was Luke 23:29: "Blessed is the barren woman." It was meant as an ironic reference to the dearth of dateable Christian men and the (ultimately unrealized) possibility that marriage and children would not be a part of her future. Taken in its context, however, the verse is not really a celebration of single blessedness but rather an acknowledgement that there are times of such turmoil and suffering that parenthood becomes a burden rather than a joy.

I first learned of one such time by reading Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. I knew so little of history at that age that I had to ask my mother who Hitler was and why Sally was so afraid of him. Some time later I saw a made-for-TV movie in which a man raised his sleeve to reveal a number tattooed on his arm. "What is that?" I asked, confused by the drama of the moment, the stricken expressions and loaded silence that arose from his mysterious gesture.

As I got older I read Anne Frank’s diary, Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus. I saw Schindler’s List and became increasingly aware of how carefully all these stories stop short of the full horror, pulling back just before the secret police break down the door, or taking us, at worst, right up to the moment when water comes pouring out of the Auschwitz showers. For such restraint I felt grateful, and also ashamed of the cowardice such gratitude implies.

Those mixed feelings were part of what led me to sign up ten years ago for a directed reading course in Holocaust literature. It was a small class, only four students, taught by a faculty member who took on the project out of interest rather than obligation. As the only member of the class with no Jewish background, I was unsure of how my presence would be perceived. One classmate had a grandmother who had been beaten to death by Nazi brownshirts in 1938; the professor had lost his entire extended family to the concentration camps. In such company I felt intrusive, voyeuristic. But instead of snubbing me or resenting my presence, the other students were moved by my interest in such a dark, disturbing subject, impressed that I wanted to hear the stories that emerged from that darkness, even though they did not connect directly to my own family’s history.

That summer we read memoirs by Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, along with various attempts at fiction, examining the authors’ attempts to bend the novel form to the task of representing the unthinkable. But we also went beyond those classics and included the perspective of rescuers, bystanders, and even perpetrators – I remember one article that described how carefully SS officers compartmentalized their identities, becoming exceptionally gentle husbands and fathers in an attempt to create a "good" domestic self to counteract their murderous professional identities. My feelings of voyeurism were assuaged by the diversity of the readings, and also by the often-expressed longing of the survivors – a longing to be heard and believed.

But I was never unaware of how greatly my response to these materials differed from those of my fellow-classmates. For me, the question all these narratives posed most insistently was, "What would I do?" If I had lived at that time and place, would I have had the courage to join the underground, to hide a Jewish family in my attic, to risk imprisonment in order to traffic on the black market for food coupons and fake passports? It relieved me to discover that most of the rescuers were couples; one researcher theorized that this was because it was so rare for one person to possess both the compassion and the daring that were required for the task. While the other students struggled with their complicated emotional responses to the films and stories we encountered, my imagination always placed me on the sidelines, bearing the weight of a terrible moral responsibility, yet doing so from a position of comparative safety.

And then one day – long after the course was over – all that changed.

It was a Sunday morning and Bub was sitting in his infant seat in the pew beside me. I had only just emerged from the pit of hopelessness that is casually dubbed "the baby blues" and I was still at the stage where I carried a tube of Lansinoh in my diaper bag, my first and only line of defence against the cracked, bleeding nipples that I was just barely keeping at bay. As Bub slept through the sermon I looked at the roundness of his cheeks – the product of more hours of nursing than I had ever considered possible – and I admired the sweet crease where his plump arm met his starry hand. "I did that," I told myself. Despite my near-constant feelings of incompetence and failure, I had somehow delivered and nourished this robust, thriving infant.

And then, for no reason that I could trace, I recalled a passage from Elie Wiesel’s Night, remembered what happened to babies when they arrived at Auschwitz, and suddenly the detachment that had carried me through a lifetime of reading about the Holocaust was gone, just like that.

The same thing happened the first time I read Cynthia Ozick’s short story, "The Shawl." The story begins by describing the march from the ghetto to the camp, as the protagonist holds her infant daughter to her sore breasts and wonders whether she should break from the line to thrust the pretty, blond baby into the startled arms of the peasants who stand by the side of the road, watching the grim procession. Starved and exhausted, she loses her milk supply: "Without complaining, Magda relinquished Rosa’s teats, first the left, then the right; both were cracked, not a sniff of milk." Representations of breastfeeding are surprisingly rare, both in fiction and in film; perhaps for that reason, Ozick’s story went straight past my defences, lodging in the same part of my psyche that caused me to sob desperately after watching twenty-year-old footage of an Ethiopian woman attempting to breastfeed her hungry baby on the anniversary-edition DVD of the Live Aid concert.

Breastfeeding is ultimately so small a part of what we mean to our children, as mothers. But it is a part that has a kind of visceral meaning for me, one that exists quite apart from critical analysis. I do not wish to imply that breastfeeding somehow creates a bond among mothers that transcends race and religion (and excludes those who nourish their babies from a bottle). The early suffragettes believed in such a mystical bond, and their politics were often motivated by their faith that giving women – giving mothers – the vote would mean the end of war and starvation. The proof of that pudding was in the eating, and as it turned out, women’s suffrage did not put an end to war. But there are times when I can see why people once thought that it might.

39 comments:

Suz said...

I teach the "Shawl" and semester after semester I witness the detatched, interested indifference which my students usually have to it. Actually, I don't think that I fully grasped the story until I had children either. And realized that I would do anything to protect them, anything to nourish them.

Momish said...

I cannot express how much this post has touched me. I watched the movie "Out of the Ashes" while I was pregnant. Never before did the harsh and cruel realities of what other women went through hit home wiht me as it did right then. I have read many books, seen many movies about the holocaust and have been deeply moved each of them. But, nothing before compared or prepared me for what I felt watching that movie and the horror those women suffered at the same time feeling my own child safely inside me. My husband was distraught over how upset I was, he could not console me for days. Yet, I am glad I watched it and forced myself to watch it all the way through. It will always remind me of how grateful I am. For everything I have and never had to even question. Now, whenever I think of that horrible time, the horror of it feels so real to me, like you said. I know exactly what you mean.

cinnamon gurl said...

Ooh. I remember "The Shawl" now that you mention it. I found it disturbing then but now, my memory of it is more intense. Since I've become a mum seeing anything that even suggests the suffering of mothers (because it could leave a child motherless) or children totally hits me in a new way.

cinnamon gurl said...

I have been thinking more about this. It's raw; motherhood is raw. Like whatever toughened my breasts left rawness somewhere else. Like my heart came outside of my body when my baby did.

kittenpie said...

I've found the holocaust fascinating, too. It's so unthinkable, of such magnitude that it's impossible to wrap your brain around it fully.

I found it really interesting that on a trip to DC with classmates in library school, several of us went to visit the holocaust museum together, but we separated at the entrance, each knowing that we needed our own space to process it, could not just walk through observing as tourists. I found it so affecting that this museum was so important to people around the world that they sent important artifacts from their own museums - cobblestones from the Warsaw ghetto, the gate from a Jewish cemetary in Krakow.

And yes, stories of mothers losing babies now cut to my very heart too, as I more fully understand how very powerful the bond is there, how much your child feels like yourself.

Girl con Queso said...

Friend, your posts are so good they make my brain hurt. In a good way.

Lisa said...

Wow. Your post gave me goosebumps. That class would have been such a powerful one to take. Have got to check out "The Shawl".

Jennifer said...

I read "Night" by Elie Wiesel after I had children and I couldn't stop the tears. I felt physical pain as I read. When a woman becomes a mother, there is simply no longer a way to detach from such horror.

This was such a strong, emotional, post -- thank you for writing it.

p.s. Have you been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.? It is incredibly powerful.

allrileyedup said...

Beautiful post. It reminds me of a story my grandmother told me about World War II. She lived in the Philippines under Japanese occupation and while fleeing an island she ran out of milk for her baby (my mom). Obviously, my mom lived through that tale, but that story has always stayed with me. When I was younger, it had more of a "Wow, my lola has this great story, you should hear it" kind of excitement. Now, it's much more of a quiet "Wow" while my stomach does somersaults at the prospect of going through such a thing. I've never even heard of "Shawl," but I can't wait to read it now.

lildb said...

Wow. Is that ever moving.

My husband has family that lost whole chunks of its members due to the Holocaust.

I look at my son and I can't help grieving for his lost relatives.

Before I was pregnant with him, I was much more removed from my sense of that horror. But not anymore.

And the breastfeeding reference is incredible. And it really does go beyond any critical abilities we possess.

Once again, G, you've nailed it.

Ruth Dynamite said...

Beautiful, moving post. I ache just thinking about the Holocaust, and I can't help but draw immediate parallels to present-day suffering and gruesome injustices that are taking place as I type these words.

penelopeto said...

The thing about becoming a mother is that it humanizes us in ways we never realized possible.

I am a Jew; some of my family members survived the Holocaust (obviously, since I am here), some did not. My 'education' was given in stories from my grandfather, aunts, uncles; friends' grandparents, aunts and uncles. I have been to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and I have read all the books... and yet.
and yet, until I had a child - until there was someone that I had given life to, given nourishment to, given a love that I know I don't have to describe here, until I discovered that the need to protect my child is as visceral as the love, I couldn't understand as greatly the horror that 6 million people went through. And I believe that it is worse for the survivors.

I appreciate your perspective and your sensitivity.

penelopeto said...

Oh wow, just realized the date of the post. In case you did not know, you wrote this post on Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement and the holiest of the Jewish year.

Anonymous said...

As usual, your writing hits home. "When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit" made a big impression on me when I was 12, as did reading Anne Frank's diary and visiting her secret apartment in Amsterdam when I was 13. (I'll never, ever forget seeing the pictures she had pasted on the walls of her bedroom - it made her existance tangible.)

However, I think I must be a visual person because it is images, rather than words, that have always haunted me.

Years ago, in NYC I saw an exhibition of Jewish children who had been deported from France during WWII. The photos presented were family photographs taken during happier times. Each photo was accompanied by the child's story. These children had been separated from their parents and must have been utterly terrified throughout their ordeal. I'll never forget those innocent little faces.

Then there is Sophie's Choice (again the film because I haven't read the book) - which is almost too unbearable to think about.

Another image I carry is from a film (I can't even remember the title? Perhaps The Last Emperor?) where a mother drowns her beloved baby son rather than have him murdered by soliders. It is a terrible scene - both desperately sad and tragic.

These images haunted me before I became a mother - but they do so even more now.

ali said...

i'ts always the children that get me.

my grandparents both survived the holocaust. my grandmother at Auschwitz and my grandfather at Dachau. Personally, i feel almost fortunate to be so closely related, to have such a direct connection, to be able to hear stories first hand.

but it wasn't until i was pregnant with Emily, and i saw the shoes. the children's shoes. that it hit me in such a powerful way. i couldn't even breathe it hurt so much to realize that someone. anyone. could do those kinds of things to children.

good post, as usual!

karrie said...

I've never read The Shawl,but I plan to now.

It would really bother me to see mass indifference Suz mentioned to the work you have listed. Even if they're not yet parents,these students are still human.

I was moved by Sophie's Choicelong before my son was born,but agree that having children provides an entirely new context for experiencing literature and history.

Beautifully written post!

mad_hatter said...

My husband's family lived through that same historical period. They were ethnic Germans living in Russia and were starved out by Stalin before being separated from each each other and displaced by the war. At least one was shot point blank by the Russians.

It is so hard for me to always think, "we're only a generation away from this." Given the # of instances of war and genocide in the modern world, it is also hard for me to think, "we are only a continent away from all this."

Your analogy with breastfeeding, with nourishment, is beautiful.

Kyla said...

This was an excellent post. Very moving. Motherhood makes things raw. Things that we might not have thought twice about earlier in our lives can fill us with wracking sobs. I didn't know the suffragettes believed that, but it is a beautiful thought.

nomotherearth said...

I understand your reticence about taking the class - not wanting to be seen as a voyeur - and admire that fact that you had the courage to take it in spite of that.

Your reference to The Shawl stopped me cold. As you have read in one of my posts, I have a love-hate relationship with breastfeeding. I would be lying if I didn't say it factors into the decision to have Boy#2 because I am reluctant to go through that all again. I should consider myself lucky to do it at all, though, and I will have to check out that story. It may just be the catalyst that I need.

bubandpie said...

Suz, Karrie - I taught "The Shawl" a couple of years ago, during my second pregnancy. And "interested indifference" is a good way to describe my students' response - they took the story seriously, but were also clearly a bit mystified by my total loss of critical detachment (I don't think I did an especially good job of teaching that story).

Afterwards, though, a couple of students (who were mothers themselves) approached me privately to talk about how the story affected them. And in my tutorial (which was made up almost entirely of girls), I talked about how painful it would be to keep suckling the baby as the milk was drying up, and you could see the gut-reaction when I used the words "cracked, bleeding nipples" - it reminded me of that commercial showing men in bars around the world watching a soccer game and recoiling in unison as a player takes a ball to the groin.

nomotherearth said...
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Veronica Mitchell said...

I have been thinking about that same Bible verse lately. Ther is something about childlessness that frees you for acts of bravery. It would be so much harder to risk my children's lives, too.

I keep coming back to the story in 2 Maccabees 7, where a mother watches her sons die a gruesome death from persecution. Throughout the ordeal she encourages them to be faithful to God and endure totrture and death rather than disobey Mosaic law. I am astounded by this, by a mother whose confidence in God is so sure that she would rather lose her children than see them renounce their religion and live.

I hope I never have to face anything like that. I wish no one ever did, but, sadly, religious persecution is still painfully real in the world. I wonder how many North Koreans or foreign workers in Saudi Arabia have had to face that choice.

mamatulip said...

This is a touching, moving, thought-provoking post...I'm finding it hard to put my thoughts into words about it, but you've touched me.

Christina said...

I totally agree that events like the Holocaust take on entirely new meaning when you have a child.

Interestingly, my husband's family were survivors of the Holocaust. His aunt was only a child when it started, and his grandparents gave her up to hide her in a nunnery for her safety. They didn't find her again for 7 years, and by that point they had another child, my father-in-law. His aunt held a lot of bitterness at her parents because of that, even though they did it to save her life.

My husband's grandmother lost all of her family, though. Her father was a rabbi and she was the only married daughter, so the others were all living together with their parents and were rounded up and killed in the concentration camps.

Aaron has still never watched Schindler's List, and he isn't sure he'll ever be able to watch it.

Robbin said...

I can no longer even force myself to read news accounts, fiction, or even watch a TV show where a child is victimized. I become physically ill. After a long struggle with infertility, my child is my gift from God, the flesh of my flesh I prayed for with such passion. The thought of him being pulled away from me, suffering, afraid and in pain, is completely unbearable.

The victimization of children is the ultimate way to dehumanize the enemy. You can concoct or imagine all manner of crimes to justify to yourself an attack against adults. But the extermination of innocent children is the final degradation, the final separation of "them" vs. "us", the final loss of humanity.

Mrs. Chicky said...

Wow. That kind of blindsided me. This was such a perfect way to describe the pain and importance of breastfeeding.

Petra said...

It's interesting that people frequently characterize the Holocaust as being religious persecution. Hitler rounded up Gypsies, Homosexuals, political rabble rousers as well as Jews. He didn't really care what religion they were practising. In the case of Jews and Gypsies it would be more accurate to characterize it as genocide. My wife and son are of jewish decent but my wife was raised an Atheist and our son will be too. If they had been in Germany at the time, they would have been rounded up nonetheless because they were ethnically Jewish. When we were watching the election coverage in 2004, the way that republicans were characterizing our family (same-sex couple raising a child) felt very similar to some of the propaganda I remember seeing in History class and at the Holocaust museum. It was frightening and I lay awake at night with horrific scenarios playing in my head. Would they round us up and send us to Guantanamo? Would they take my son from me? Would they at least let him live? When we finally crossed the border on our move to Canada, I felt a huge wave of relief. We are safe, at least for awhile.
BTW, if you haven't been to the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC, you should go. It is very enlightening but also overwhelming.

crazymumma said...

This is haunting. sorry, nothing more to say. I think you said it all...

metro mama said...

This post put me over the edge to finally write something about this (though I can't do it nearly as well!)

Haley-O said...

What a thoughtful, timely post. I am Jewish. My Yiddish teacher was a holocaust survivor. My sister in-laws grandmother was a holocaust survivor. I went to yad vashem in Israel. I grew up reading Holocaust literature. As a child, the literature gave me nightmares. I had recurring dreams that I was in hiding like Anne Frank, and the Nazis were banging on the walls.

As a mother, I have a new, very palpable and vivid, empathy and compassion for children and for parents -- this is, indeed, a new sensation for me...and it's very difficult and overwhelming.... I am in such pain over recent events....Pain for the children, for the parents.

Thank you for this post. It is wonderful and clarifying to hear your perspective.

Kvetch said...

The world can only continue and become better because of people who think and feel as you do. Because we were ALL effected by the Holocaust. How do we know whom was lost? The person who's daughter would have discovered a cure for cancer? The person who would have written a glorious novel? A person who's grandchild might have been your very best friend? Have you seen "Paperclips"? I highly recommend it, it's a moving, inspiring documentary about a rural school that learns a big Holocaust lesson that pales in comparison to the lessons it teaches.

Bobita said...

I love this post for more reasons than I am able to count, let alone articulate.

I have had very significant, life-changing moments inextricably linked to my fairly recent transition into motherhood. Like watching Sophie's Choice from my new perspective. Or receiving a letter from my Women for Women sister who lives in Rwanda and described her desperate desire to feed, clothe, educate and find adequate medical care for her children.

Since October, 2000...I have joined the human race in a different way. I became a mother. The cause of much compassion, empathy, pain and sadness. My children are the reason that I weep for the pain and suffering of others, because I am more human as a mother than I might ever have been otherwise. Which is both a gift and a profound burden.

wordgirl said...

What a wonderful post. My grandfather left Germany as a teenager and came to America. Despite that, my reading of Anne Frank (as a young girl) and subsequent Holocaust literature caused me years of guilty feelings. You are not alone. It's an overwhelming thing to ponder.

sunshine scribe said...

This post is brilliant in so many ways.

After becoming a mother, I have been able to look at almost nothing with a sense of detachment - I feel things in a way that I can't decribe.

Pieces said...

You continue to amaze me with where your posts go and what I learn from them.

Having children changes so much about how we perceive the world. And how we interact with God. My understanding of Him, His love, and His gift of free will has completely changed through the parenting of my children.

Her Bad Mother said...

Have you read Paul Auster's Oracle Night? It involves a man (not yet a father) struggling to grasp the horror/inhumanity that is demonstrated in two stories that he reads: one about a concentration camp victim who dies immediately after getting milk to her (already dead) baby, and another about a prostitute who abandons her baby. His reaction is, of course, not identical to ours, as mothers (and I share every sentiment that you express in this post), but it's instructive in its force - the mortality of infants (vulnerability) and the inhumanity that humans are capable of (monstrosity) overwhelm him, a man without children. I was struck by how universal this character's pain was - but how unspoken it usually remains in our culture.

Girl con Queso said...

Yes about the DC Holocaust Museum. It was the shoes display that got me. All those shoes representing all those souls. Powerful.

Oh, The Joys said...

To respond in full would take a whole post...my awakening to the Holocaust as a child...or even more broadly the earliest traces of understanding human cruelty...

Thanks for this post is what I can manage right now.

edj said...

The day I went into labour with my first child, I saved the morning paper. When I came home from the hospital, I opened it to see the news on this auspicious day. It was the day of the fall of Srebenica (sp?), when scores of Muslim boys and men had been lined up and shot. I reacted to it as I had never reacted to a news story (whether current or not) before. Like you, I'd learned history, I'd kept up with current situations, I'd imagined the horror. But at that point, I realized I had just brought a son into a world that treated males like this. I cuddled my newborn child and realized my own inadequacy, powerlessness, to ultimately protect. Becoming a mother has made the horrors of the world so much more vivid, so much more personal.