I just got back from a trip to Wisconsin to visit my aunt. It’s left me sad – I’m mourning the me that never was. I know that what happened to my family allowed me to be born but I’m sad and angry about the me that I think I should have been. I took this trip as an opportunity to ask about who my family was and where we came from. It depressed me.
My family, in Berlin, were Upper Middle Class, they had servants, they had a country house, they had a Police-trained pedigree German Shepherd called Bendix, they were members of the rowing club and my grandfather was a World War I veteran, who wore a solitaire diamond on his little finger. We had money. And it was all taken away. Gone. Boom. They left the country with what they could carry. And, by all accounts, my grandfather never recovered. He died in a retirement home in Memphis, Tennessee. A far cry from the rowing champion at the posh rowing club from Berlin, Germany with three children, a booming career and plenty of friends.
My father never discussed what he lost. He never expressed feelings. Not feelings that I remember. They were just stories – seeing Hitler in the flesh, being a youth in Berlin in the 1930s, etc., they become legendary tales, which I remember with excitement but it was never personal.
I never knew what to ask I guess, a simple question: "How did you feel?" I'm sure I did, though, it seems a simple enough question but my father was a brilliant man with the ability to deflect questions with another tale and, when dealing with a child, there were a million ways to steer me off the topic. But... How did he feel? I can't ask now. Because he's very very dead. And, furthermore, I don't even believe if I'd get the truth. I think it was buried deep in him, deep in his work, a part of him that he never accessed because he couldn't or wouldn't. He had moved on, he got married, he had three children of his own, he'd managed to claw back an existence within a society and world that had once rejected him and his family.
All this, ALL THIS, was his life and his experiences but now I’m feeling the loss. 62 years after he left Germany, I'm feeling the pain. It's strange. Almost comic. That this wash of grief, anger and fear is washing over me more now. I've always had it, I've just never discussed it. Here's the thing. I’m angry. I want us to still have our home, our lives, our existence. My uncle, my father’s twin, went back to Berlin right after the war. He was there for concentration camp liberations and worked as a translator. I don’t know how he felt. I don’t know how he did it. I wonder if he cried for his losses, if he went to visit the family home in Charlottenburg or if he felt as broken as I feel today? Or, did he do what my father did? You never discuss, it's just life, you move on.
I found out more about my great aunt Judith – the survivor – she got out early and worked for the British Governor in Palestine. She travelled Europe. My grandmother went to visit her in Palestine in 1936, before returning to Berlin. My grandfather was refusing to leave Germany. His Germany – he was a patriot – he’d fought alongside the Kaiser in World War I. Nothing happening on Germany was happening to him… By the time they realised it was nearly too late. Aunt Judith had met a man from Cuba at a party in London. Kurt Poliakoff, head of Shell Oil in Cuba, who arranged passage for the Friedlanders to Cuba. We lost everything. The family lost everything. And now, I’m getting those feelings of loss, of resentment, of wonderment, realisation of what I don’t have, what I never had, what they lost and why didn’t my father ever talk about this with me.
Was it that painful? He spent his life discussing ‘reconciliation theology’ but how reconciled was he? These are feelings I don’t know if I want to really explore, because, in doing so, am I somehow dismissing all that my father worked for and preached about.
As "Albert's daughter", as the daughter of a survivor, I feel like an anomaly. I always have done. That someone my age, of my generation, should experience first generation holocaust survivor guilt. I’m out of my time zone. I’m out of my era. These are feelings dealt with and explored and catalogued. Children of the 60s – this is their struggle, not mine. However, I’m left to explore this world, and feel loss and abandonment. Again.