For a long time, this was how I introduced myself; My parents are Holocaust survivors. It defined me. My friendships, the way I saw the world and the people in it.
I grew up in the 60’s. While my parents told harrowing tales of survival at the dinner table, college students were beaten and gassed protesting the Viet Nam War at the Democratic convention. The National Guard was firing on students at Kent State. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. There was a worldwide pandemic of youthful rioting. Uniformed soldiers and statistics filled the TV news in the evenings. A state of war felt perfectly normal to me.
The world outside of our neighborhood was a dangerous place. Goyim were creatures from a parallel universe, you never knew if they could be trusted. Friends were important, but you mustn’t tell them anything important; they couldn’t be trusted either. Television was bad, it filled your head with narishkeit, nonsense, though it should be noted here that my parents were religiously devoted to Hogan’s Heroes. The gorgeously attired hippies who hung out at in the park at the end of our block were gangsters. Tony and Maria and the rest of the cast of West Side Story were gangsters too.
Something inside me rebelled. It began with reading. I read at meals, devouring classic novels along with my mother’s chicken soup. I sneaked peeks at the copy of To Kill a Mockingbird hidden inside my desk instead of listening to the drone of teachers; I read instead of playing with friends. That last sentence is not entirely true; my real friends were Mark Twain, the Bronte sisters, Victor Hugo, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I didn’t know it then, but I was running away inside my head, getting as far away from the reality of my life as was humanly possible. My parents, both of whom lost their years of education to the maelstrom of World War II, were genuinely baffled. What could I get from a book that I could not get from my family and peers in West Rogers Park, Chicago?
All these years later, I am still amazed that they let me leave. Doubtlessly they thought it would increase my chances of finding a suitable husband, but whatever the reason, two years into my college career, I boarded a plane for New York and never looked back.
I found a cheap apartment in the Village, graduated from Parsons School of Design. For three years I worked for a famous political illustrator, then left for a job at Conde Nast, where I assisted Alex Liberman as he redesigned the pages of Self magazine. I was fired when they changed art directors, went back to school to study classical painting. After earning my MFA, I married a handsome and sexy guy whose family has been in America since the late 1800’s.
After the birth of our third child, we left the city, seeking the expansive emerald green of playgrounds and backyards. Now we live in an old house in a pretty little town twenty minutes from New York City, with our four kids, a blue-eyed sheepdog, and an ever-changing herd of holland lop rabbits. I paint portraits. On Sundays, I teach painting.
My parents come to visit. They disapprove of our living in New York, they disapprove of the names we give our children. They disapprove of my fashion sense, of my long and curly hair. They disapprove of the size and vintage of my house. They disapprove of the school we have chosen for the kids. They disapprove of my politics. They disapprove of my opinions. None of this matters. We are happy.
On a wintry Saturday night four years ago, I stay up too late on a Saturday night, bleary-eyed from watching after small children, but not yet ready to surrender the day. At two in the morning, after watching my first-ever episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a story arrives full-blown inside my head, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It will encompass some of my experiences from art school and the magazine world. It will encompass my mother’s stories.
The next day, I begin to write it down. The words fly out of my fingertips. It is as if Rafe, the protagonist of my story, is sitting beside me on the bed, whispering his sad story into my ear. I type as fast as I can. But I need more research into the Holocaust section of my novel; and so it happens that I type the word Wlodowa into Google and wait to see what comes up.