There are many kinds of separations. Relationships end. People leave each other to go on business trips or vacations. Grown children go away to school or leave home to raise their own families.
People die of natural causes, leaving their dear ones behind.
forced separation (of parent and child)represents the abnormality and malignancy of the cancerous tumor that was the Holocaust.
Then there is a different sort of separation -- a rending of children from parents, a bizarre example of what was done during the era of Nazi persecution when parents gave their children to strangers so that they might survive. For me, this forced separation represents the abnormality and malignancy of the cancerous tumor that was the Holocaust.
When I was given away, I felt severed from my family like a tree from its roots. I felt neglected and forsaken. As a child of 9, I did not understand that my parents would not be willfully separated from their children unless it was a matter of life and death. Instead, the feeling of having been abandoned entered my psyche and stayed there.
The memory of my prewar life was one of bounty, safety and happiness. A circle of loving family members enfolded me, giving me a secure sense of belonging. My parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins met together often and it was always fun and play.
All too soon, the war hit our lives with an apocalyptic force and removed the ground from under our feet.
Even in the Warsaw Ghetto, before deportations began, our family gatherings continued. On those occasions I still felt relatively happy. In spite of the fear and deprivation of ghetto life, being together with family allowed me to have some sense of continuity. Suddenly, one day the gatherings ceased. All my aunts, uncles and cousins disappeared without a trace. Later, we learned they had been deported to
Things got worse. Our ghetto soon became an antechamber to the death camps. Huge transports of men, women and children left our quarter daily for the so-called resettlements in the East.
I was separated from my parents in 1942 when I escaped the Warsaw Ghetto with a false set of documents in my pocket. I had to go out alone, my father said, holding my hand tightly. I thought that both he and my mother were coming with me, but soon I realized that they would stay behind. I was to let go of my father's hand and walk away without looking back. I wanted so much to turn around to catch that last glimpse of my beloved father's face. But I did as I was told. Jagna Boraks -- my real name -- left to become Irena
Kominska, a Catholic child of imaginary parents.
On the other side of the ghetto wall, a strange woman took me to a Polish village where my paternal grandmother lived with a Catholic man under whose wing we would both pass as Christians. The village people were told that I was a child of a friend who was wounded during the blitzkrieg. Baba also had false papers, so I was not allowed to call her Baba. As a result, I was afraid to call my grandma anything. Suddenly, in my mind, Baba became nameless and depersonalized, and I began to feel awkward around her. Besides, any normal warmth that might have passed between grandmother and granddaughter often had to be curbed. A pretense, a form of coolness, set in between us lest the village folk guess the truth about our real relationship. Even inside the house we remained distant from one another because the windows across the street had spying eyes behind the white lace curtains.
Except for my old Grandma, with whom I had to behave like a stranger, I felt isolated from the world and everyone I loved. My parents and my little sister had vanished from my life. An awful pain gnawed at my stomach days and nights as I worried about my parents' safety. I had nightmares about being left in a field all alone, looking for my mother, crying out "Mama, Mama" -- in a voice that did not want to come out of my throat but which felt like a scream.
All my days in the country were spent alone as Grandma busied herself with chores. I accepted my aloneness with great responsibility and carried out the requirements for that condition diligently. I was not allowed to go to school, to have friends or to wander away from the house. I was given daily chores of weeding the garden, digging for and peeling potatoes; in winter, in addition to my regular chores, I had to trudge off knee-deep in snow to a neighbor for milk. My feet without boots, my hands without gloves, I found these chores tedious and painful. I had no one to talk to and no one talked to me. I had no choice. I did as Grandma and the man told me. I lived in silence.
When my parents returned many months later, they told us that my sister, in a neighboring village, had been informed on and taken away by the Gestapo. We never saw her again and I never said goodbye. I recall feeling guilty that it was I who survived. I began to feel undeserving of life itself. I felt deserted by God since he did not hear my pleas to save my little sister.
At this time, I also felt particularly estranged from my mother. She seemed different and distant. There was not much direct contact, either physical or emotional, between us. The year and a half of separation had placed her into a far corner of my heart. My mother was an inaccessible goddess for whom I pined. I was never certain whether she felt this disaffection as well. My nightmares continued.
My parents came to see me at Grandma's several times and they tried hard to maintain a loving relationship. There was not much feeling left in my heart then. When I finally went to live with my parents towards the end of the war, I was to call them "Uncle" and "Aunt" because my false document contained a name different from theirs. Conditioned not to feel out loud, lest I cry or laugh and give away our secret, I became numb. I felt separate and confused. In my mind, they were not my parents but someone else's. My father had taught me the virtues of honesty and truth, but here life took on a form of deception and unreality. It seemed that we were hiding our identities not only from the enemy but also from ourselves. A systematic disintegration of principles I had been taught was taking place. Now illusion, not reality, of who I was and who I was not distorted my family values.
This condition perpetuated itself into my teen-age and adult life and into my relationships, most of which seemed unreal, save the one with my father. I could love, but my love felt like someone else's. I did everything automatically, trying hard to fit in with my peers, most of whom were young Jewish women brought up in the safe environment of their Canadian homes and well-established families. I viewed my own children with love but through an estranged lens, as if these children did not quite belong to me but more to my husband -- as if I did not deserve to have them as my own. I feared that if I got too close I would lose them. Moreover, I began to question my own identity, as a mother, a wife, a daughter and a Jew.
In the '60s, I called it existentialism. I simply lived from day to day, and thought little about my feelings and attitudes. At the same time, I was strongly urged to forget all about my past.
When I reached 40, a realization washed over me like a tidal wave. I woke up from a deep sleep to find myself living like a doll in a dollhouse. I began to feel that inside me there lived another self, very well hidden from the world. In retrospect, I recall feeling that there were two of me -- my adult self and my child self that had never integrated. It was as if the child that ceased to exist during the war was struggling to fulfill itself inside a grown woman's mind and body. The whole saga of teen-age experience was also missing from my life since, during the war, I had entered the stage of adulthood far too early.
I became increasingly aware that while my life here in Canada progressed in a seemingly normal manner, chaos loomed in my soul, a place of confusion and sorrow. There was a growing sense of detachment from my mother, my second sister and my husband. I felt unloved and neglected. Suddenly, I longed for all the things that, in my numbed state, I never thought about. I longed for love, intimacy and, most of all, freedom through which I could find my true self. I felt that in my own life these things didn't exist, that I was a stranger not only to my family but to myself as well. I sought professional help. One psychiatrist practiced yoga while I talked about the Warsaw Ghetto. Another brought out a broom and told me to pound a pillow. A psychologist, one of the best in town, refused to discuss the effects of war on childhood. It turned out that he, himself, was a hidden child and wanted no part of it. Even the marriage counselor my husband and I went to see addressed most of our marital failures towards me.
I soon realized that the profession of psychotherapy, at least in Canada, was ill equipped to deal with the problems of child survivors of the Holocaust.
Help was nowhere near. I found that there was and still is a general sense of denial about the psychological and emotional condition of child survivors. Even child survivors themselves seemed unable to approach their own dilemma of post-Holocaust survival, its psychological implications on themselves and their children.
Non-survivors writing about the Holocaust turned us into heroes and professional success stories, ignorant of the terrible memory and its continuing sadness in our souls. I found myself living in a world that acknowledged neither our suffering as children nor our existing traumatized post-Holocaust condition.
Eventually, I began to view my marriage as a prison and strongly felt that I had to save myself from my own misery or I would suffer some terrible demise. I felt that I had to do it alone because no one in the family seemed to understand my problem, even when I tried to talk to them about it. I felt that a separation might be the very thing that would save me. So I abandoned my children and my husband.
While in my self-imposed exile, memories slowly returned and I began to write about the war. But, by then, something in my life had been lost forever. I realized that I did not really survive the emotional and physical implications of war, of hiding and, mostly, of the separation from my family.
All this resulted in huge losses. I did eventually learn the meaning of love, family and togetherness, and I did heal, but at what price? While my own way of dealing with the consequences of war and separation from my parents was somewhat extreme, I have often wondered what direction this separation took in the lives of other child survivors. n
Lillian Boraks-Nemetz is the author of a trilogy for young readers (The Old
Brown Suitcase, The Sunflower Diary, and The Lenski File) and two volumes of
poetry. She has translated and co-translated into English two poetry collections
written by Polish émigré poets. She teaches creative writing in the Department
of Continuing Studies at the University of British Columbia.