Holocaust is a nightmare word. It is an irredeemable disaster: an occasion of no evident silver linings. It was a word before Hitler’s Final Solution, but it has become that “solution”‘s proper name. A good thing
Elie Wiesel died and was buried on this July 4th weekend. For a WASP sheygetz like me the Holocaust was always held at arm’s length. My deeply anti-semitic father came to doubt the reality of the event. I did mention to him on the one occasion he expressed his doubts that General Eisenhower would have have to be a prime participant in the conspiracy, but my father shrugged, took another sip of his Vat 69 scotch and changed the subject.
His extreme prejudice, that jews were somehow inbred into being completely uniform in their disposition was not just irrational, but completely unsupported by his personal life. My brother’s godfather was a jew, deeply beloved by my parents. His de facto best friend, his coin and stamp dealer in New York who he spend endless hours with was jewish, and my father delighted in recounting his insights as, irony intended, Gospel.
But the automatic slurs and judgments spewed out about my mother’s jewish friends, any public figure and anything Jewish were just another metronome in my early childhood. It was a near Tourettes trigger response. Just as he worshipped black jazz musicians as being the greatest talents in his world, the jewish lawyers he worked with and against were always scary smart, literally.
The upside of my family’s classic Mad Men dysfunctionality was that I saw my parents as humans, versus Mom and Dad from the time I was about 5 years old. No hero worship, no role modeling amidst the screaming, crashing, and long days and nights of dead silence.
So I actually did not care about what anyone was, as I knew I wasn’t much myself. My unending incapacity to have meaning in my distracted parents’ lives had one stark and grinding truth: That I was simply out of their orbit – so I was free to think and feel pretty much anything I wanted to without any guilt.
I had many jewish classmates and college meant falling deeply in love (for a year) with a jewish woman – who my father took a shine to (she was quite lovely).
The coincidence of my father’s antisemitism and his immersion in post-5pm alcohol was, in truth, just coincidence. Long before 14 ounces of scotch were consumed (every night) within an hour of arriving home from Manhattan my dad was a student at Boy’s High in Brooklyn. It was both a source of pride and anger that he was the No. 2 student in his graduating class. Second to a Jew. But the only non-Jew in the top 5. He remembered rumbles between jews and christians – an odd gangstah reality I have never heard anywhere else.
So my tiny, personal and private Holocaust, one that devastated a WASP family in mid-Westchester mid-century had no huge scale consequences. It was not the result of an extreme worldwide insanity that wrought maximum effort to the industrialized elimination of a perceived deadly cultural virus that I heard Elie Wiesel quietly report on to a packed sweaty audience when I was at college in 1976.
No my tiny holocaust was just a smart man and his adoring wife, falling into a socially accommodated series of very bad choices. Those choices included having children who where subjected to the window of the mental mechanisms that created the engines of death that nearly wiped out a people.
My tiny holocaust was connected to Wiesel’s in a deeply personal way at that talk at Cornell. When he later wrote: “I have not lost faith in God…I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to him for that reason.” I could completely relate, in a tiny way.
I thank God regularly that I was spared Wiesel’s Holocaust, and the other less extreme ones of so many I know – but I also know that no one escapes tragedy. No one dies unvictimized in some way, even my parents.
No solace there, but the truth.