Excerpted from I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors by Bernice Eisenstein. Copyright © 2006 by Bernice Eisenstein. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. Can you talk about when and how this book began to take shape in your mind?
About five years ago, I began to do portraits of my father, sometimes in pen and ink, a sketch, and then I’d do an oil painting. I found that while involved in capturing his likeness, his physical semblage, the process kept me close to my father, as I remembered him, and how I had missed him since he had died. It was comforting, and at the same time combined with a mix of emotions that not only hovered but took me further into trying to put my father together. Before this, I had not taken the time, or felt pulled by a need, to stay in a place that might allow me to consider that who my father was in the past was also central to the ways in which I had known him.
The nature of drawing is an organic process for me. I don’t begin with a completely defined image in mind, being more interested in what comes forth once I have a sense of direction. Being led by that seems to open into a deeper relationship to what it is I think I may want to evoke. So, while I drew my father, I thought about our relationship, how I knew him, and also about his past, of which I knew so little. And since the little I knew stemmed from the Holocaust, the importance of that was too great for me to not try to enter as deeply as I could. It’s not easy to explain how one thing led to another. But a shape was formed. When a drawing was done, I felt that it contained the experience of memory, where the motion of time dissolves – a private wandering in my mind, about who my father was, which then moved on from there to places that were confusing and difficult. I think my nature is one based in feeling that then circles around thought, then tries to put the two together in an attempt to discover something that is more complete. It’s not so different from trying to answer even this question. Once beginning to respond, a shape starts to form, and continues, taking you further.
2. What is it that made you decide whether to express certain ideas in words or visually? Or was it not a decision in that sense?
I’ve worked as an illustrator for a long time, responding to the words of others, trying to encapsulate or expand upon what I understood visually. And for many years, as well, I freelanced as an editor of fiction. Image and words were natural tools, even though I did not consider myself to be a writer. Drawing, using it as a language, is more innate to me. But I found that writing was needed as well since neither one alone seemed capable of complete expression. I don’t have just one position that I look out from. So no, I don’t think there was a decision initially – a conscious one – as to what to draw or what to write, just that I trusted both were necessary. I felt that both could take me deeper into reflection about my family, the Holocaust, how they had shaped me. And what I had made of them.
In the beginning – I know, those words sound somewhat biblical – I didn’t know that what I was doing was going to become a book. You start something, and strangely it reveals itself to you. I didn’t have a blueprint as to how to do it. I didn’t have at the outset an end result in place, only that it was something, once begun, that was necessary to pursue. The process is what pulled me along, relying more on a personal journey without the expectation of what, later, presented itself in the form of a book.
Early on, while my thoughts were focused on my parents, and their friends, survivors I had also grown up with, I had not been aware that there was so much more. Eventually I understood that I could not avoid myself, my own feelings about their lives, what they had gone through, and what that meant to me. I was overwhelmed by wanting to speak for myself, to speak to my parents, to their friends, to their past. The only thing that became clear at first was that I needed to explore all of it. I knew I could draw and knew I needed to find the words that belonged.
3. Did you concentrate on drawing and writing at different times?
At first, I moved between writing and drawing. A drawing led me to thoughts that I wanted to write down, and when I wrote, ideas for drawings came out of there. There were times when I could feel the synaptic workings of my brain, going from left to right, moving from my drafting table to my computer. Somewhat dizzying. And by then I knew I was set on a course that kept moving forward, and that what I had already completed was becoming a book. Then there came a point when out of a desire to have a response, forcing exposure as a form of assistance to continue, I decided to present the material I had thus far to publishers. But at that stage, I did not yet have a clear enough idea of the fuller shape of the book. So it was back to the proverbial drawing table, which for me meant two desks.
Later, when the book was taken on, and with the focused demands of the editing process in full swing, I concentrated on the writing while keeping a journal of drawings that I wanted to do, which would extend from where the writing left off. It was complicated, but made less confusing to work on one facet at a time, knowing that I could fully concentrate on the drawing once the writing was finished.
Strangely, I understand that if I had written what I drew and then drew what was written, the book would still be the same, an integrated whole.
4. At times the tone of the drawings and the text in the accompanying thought balloons has a humorous or darkly ironic tone, a playful quality, yet it doesn’t collide with the subject matter or the deeply moving quality of the prose. Can you talk about this relationship between the visual and the textual, and how they interact in the book? One thing is the parallel presence of you the narrator in the drawings – appearing as a child, sometimes a child with an adult persona – and your distinctive and haunting narrative voice in the text, blending your adult perspective with your child self, as memories are excavated.
I think the Holocaust is the largest banana peel the twentieth century ever slipped on. I’ve opened this response, using the most common shtick in comedy. The statement would be no different for me if it was made without using humour, black as it may be, because the same questions are raised. How could such a thing have happened? How could it have been foreseen or avoided? What do we learn from it? Once having seen the danger of slipping, what measures would we take to safeguard against finding it again in our path, even in the dark? Humour seems able to raise the same questions for me, but from a different angle, and it is part of a perspective from which I look out. Otherwise, I would remain completely immersed in unspeakable sadness. This aspect of my sensibility sometimes entered the text and the drawings.
I wanted the relationship of the visual and the textual to be fluid and dynamic. And once we began placing drawings into the text, an additional meaning, a meaning not necessarily held in one or the other, was created. Positioning the drawings where they belonged created a kind of magic. Some things that already existed, embedded, in a drawing or a line of text, were revealed to me for the first time. The elements contrast and add more information all at the same time, and integrate aspects of not only their relationship to one another, but of mine to them. All I know is that I wanted to erase the linear quality of time in order to see something more completely. And sometimes there is irony, painful at times, but pieces of a puzzle once put together join dark and light, humour and gravity. The text and the drawings were the pieces of that puzzle.
As for the adult/child mini-me, I think that many ages live inside of us, a five year old, or ten, or thirty, and who we are chronologically in the present. As children, we experience things without reflection. Feelings of sadness or joy, the whole range. That self doesn’t disappear, but is no longer visible to the outside as we grow older. I had several voices from which I needed to speak through while remembering. So if I put adult words into the speech balloon of a younger self, it was the way in which to create more layers in order to understand where ideas and thoughts and feelings came from, and how they build one on top of the other. Putting adult words into a younger self allowed me to show how ever present the past is.
The book, in some ways, is an extended conversation, visually and textually, with myself and to myself, to my parents, to my parents’ friends who were also survivors, to ghosts, to the past.
5. To what extent do you think you were influenced by the graphic novel?
When I was growing up, I read comic books, and even though I had my favourites – Superman, Archie, Little Dot and Richie Rich, Comics Illustrated and Mad Magazine – I was not a collector. It wasn’t until years later, when my husband and I made our first home, that my library of books married the world of graphic material. He was a collector. And then I started poring over the works of Will Eisner, George Herriman, Winsor McCay, Robert Crumb, and Art Spiegelman. As an artist, and working as a freelance illustrator, I found myself often looking to their art for visual references: how to draw a foreshortened arm, the variety of ways to handle shading, perspective, and design. My admiration, if not awe, for their work is great. So yes, I was inspired by their art, much in the same way as I had already been inspired by other artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Chagall. More specifically, with regard to my own book, the graphic novel helped me to understand how text and image combined in order to tell a story, even when it unfolds in panel form. In a sense, in my book, I suppose you could say I split the two elements apart, word and picture, and then brought them together on the page so that each could extend the intention of the other.
6. It is extraordinary how you’ve been able to distill your memories and express your deepest, at times hardest to find feelings with such honesty and poignancy, and without a sense of speaking for anyone else. It is a very brave and unsentimental book that isn’t afraid of exposing anger or the tenderest, most personal of emotions. Were you aware of that bravery when writing?
No, bravery isn’t a word I would apply to myself during the process of the book. I think that someone who goes to the dentist is brave. I’ve seen “Marathon Man” too many times to know it’s never safe. But, more seriously, I was always aware that I couldn’t draw or write anything unless I was honest with myself, and at times that was difficult and unsettling. What mattered greatly to me was that I found a way to express myself that belonged to how I felt. It was more like something I couldn’t turn or look away from.
7. The experience of writing about your family, about the Holocaust, confronting your parents’ past and your own, must have been intense. Was there in the end a sense of catharsis?
As hard as it was, it is also easy for me to say how much I discovered while working on the book, about myself and my relationship to my parents and to their past. Writing and drawing about what I remembered had its moments of soul searching while staying close to what mattered to me, what was central to my world. I needed to articulate things in the way that I had felt them and how I feel them now.
"Catharsis" is not a word I would apply. For me, it is a word that suggests closure of some sort, something that can then be put behind in order to move on. And writing about my family, about the Holocaust, about myself was complex and difficult – the word itself should appear in caps and in italics and made to jump up and down – but not anything that can be fixed in one place or completely resolved. What I needed to do was not look away, and try to see and feel as much as I could. No, there isn’t a sense of catharsis for me. But I am in a different place. Although this process may have changed me in ways I don’t fully understand, the Holocaust is not something to ever put behind.
8. In writing about the Holocaust, its strong presence in your life, though you yourself did not experience it directly, you are also revealing universal truths about the effects of tragic loss and suffering and how it reverberates throughout generations.
When we see a film, or read a book, or look at a painting, or listen to someone relating a story, we enter the narrative of someone else’s experiences and consciousness – their world – no matter how different it may be from our own. And in that way we discover communality. I wonder if that is any different from universal truths? If I’m affected in one way, then so are others. I don’t think what hurts me is so different from what hurts others, even if our backgrounds and ways of considering may not be the same. I do know that I have tried to consider what those things mean to me, and what I have felt them to mean to my parents and their generation.
9. How do you think others from your generation, as the children of survivors, will respond to your book?
Although it is impossible to measure to what degree anything has shaped who I am, I have always believed that the Holocaust is central to who I am. In my book, I have tried to be as honest as I can about my own feelings about being raised by survivors, about the Holocaust, and how it has informed me. And while I can’t say how others from my generation of survivors’ children will respond, I feel that where we have come from is shared common ground.
10. In revealing the stories of your parents’ harrowing experiences in the war, and those of your grandparents and aunt and uncle, you have been careful not to embellish in any way, in order to remain true to the facts as you know them.
Over the years, I’ve seen many films, documentaries, and read some books, where survivors speak about their experiences. And I found voices that were familiar, similar to my mother’s when she did speak about what she had gone through. They spoke about events in direct and spare language, even when talking about their tragic losses of loved ones or the horrific events they lived through and witnessed. It’s their story, their history. It felt wrong for me – disrespectful – to place alongside those facts anything from myself. To what purpose? My place for revealing what it had meant to me, what they had gone through, is written and drawn around their truth.
11. In the book, you create a moving picture of how you were surrounded by your parents’ past, yet at the same time felt isolated from it, at times from them, the tragedy in their lives becoming a barrier that made you feel an “outsider.” Is this something you were aware of while growing up?
Partly, I think I was hard-wired with a particular nature. As a child, I remember looking, watching, always taking things in. And I was also shy, more content to observe. That was the way in which I engaged with the world. That would have to be one aspect to feeling outside. Yiddish was spoken in my household and English was outside the door, as I discovered in our neighbourhood and later at school. But there are other things, layers to feeling outside that develop while growing up, and are added to a disposition. It builds. My parents worked very hard all their lives, and whenever they could be, they were in the company of their friends. It was a community of other survivors in which they and their friends had a special bond. Sometimes it seemed to me that my parents’ bond with their friends was greater than theirs with me. My feeling, as I had said in the book, was that I didn’t possess the particular magnetism to draw them to me. I may have needed more reassurances from my parents than they were aware of, but I don’t think I had been able to find a way to let them know.
12. Your writing, freighted with beauty and intelligence, contains such compassion and insight. One of the most moving moments is your articulating the impossibility of being able to fully grieve for what you cannot entirely know, leaving an unquenchable desire to make up for what your parents lost. This would seem to stand as part of the legacy of the generation after.
It’s not easy for me to find the words to respond. It took me a long time to be able to accept that there are things that I will never know about my parents’ losses, and those of their generation of survivors, people who were part of my years growing up. The fact that they are nearly all gone has a presence in my life, and as I myself am now older, it’s become more intensely felt, the importance of their passing more relevant. I’ve come to understand that the impossibility of making up for their past allows that sorrow to be solely for them. And that understanding holds a bittersweet sense of release. There’s no end to wanting things to have been different than they were.
13. Do you think you will write another book? Do you have other things in mind?
I do intend to write another book. But something different. I have other things in mind that right now need some time to ferment, to become what it is meant to be.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. The book begins with the story of a ring — the ring her mother discovers in the lining of a coat while in Auschwitz, and which becomes what she offers in her marriage to her husband, Bernice’s father, as a wedding ring, shortly after Liberation. The idea of a circle can be said to recur in the book in different ways. Discuss how this works thematically and in terms of the book’s overall structure.
2. Discuss what Eisenstein’s insights bring to bear about the well-known notion of remembrance and the need for it.
3. As a child of survivors, Eisenstein always felt in some way set apart from her parents, an outsider, because of their unimaginable experiences during the war and their unspoken pasts. Discuss the author’s relationship with her parents as it has been revealed in the book. What has she revealed about her relationship with her mother? And in what ways was that relationship different from the one she had with her father and why?
4. At times the tone of the drawings and the text in the accompanying thought balloons has a darkly humorous, playful, almost irreverent quality, yet it doesn’t seem inappropriate to the subject matter, or to the deeply moving quality of the prose. In what way do these two elements — humour and gravity — interact so effectively? Are they, in a sense, like puzzle pieces that may contrast, dark to light, but at the same time fit together?
5. Eisenstein has written about the strong presence of the Holocaust in her life — how it shaped who she is — but she also seems to be revealing truths about the effects of any tragic loss and suffering. What aspects, if any, are relevant universally for different situations and times?
6. Eisenstein has written the book in a personal way, without attempting to speak for anyone else, but what aspects of her experiences and responses might be common to other children of Holocaust survivors?
7. Why do you think the author chose to illustrate her text, and how do words and pictures work separately and together to enlarge the scope and emotional depth of the book?
8. One of the most moving elements in the book is Eisenstein’s articulation of the agony of never being able to truly understand the nature of her parents’ losses, or to grieve fully for them because of what she can’t know. What situations in the book bring her and the reader face to face with this idea?
9. In one among many harrowing stories told in the book, there is a chapter focusing on what happened to Eisenstein’s mother and her sister, then young girls, and their mother in Auschwitz that is narrated in simple, unadorned prose. Why do you think the author chose to handle the material in this way, and what is the effect — straightforward prose describing unspeakable event?
10. “Once I began to read,” Eisenstein writes, “I could follow the unending trail left by writers, in order to try to understand what I could not comprehend.” What do you think Eisenstein is saying in the book about the relationship of art to the way we can look at the world?
11. In the chapter “Without the Holocaust,” Eisenstein powerfully likens the Holocaust, once discovered, to an addictive drug in her life. Why do you think this is? And discuss some other examples in the book where certain longings and questions have persisted in the author’s consciousness until this day.
12. Eisenstein “never discovered the Holocaust’s vanishing point, has never been quite sure where to stand on its horizon.” In the end, has she gained a new perspective?
13. The book is infused with ideas of opposites connecting and the twinning of different emotions — remembrance and forgetting, celebrating and grieving, anger and love, the dual meanings of certain Yiddish words. What other examples can be found in the book? And discuss what Eisenstein is saying about each.
14. Eisenstein has repeatedly drawn herself as part-child, part-adult throughout. What do you think she is saying about the process of memory, for her in particular and in general?
15. Bernice Eisenstein’s memoir of growing up as the daughter of survivors doesn’t dwell on too many actual details of her own life, yet she brings the reader intimately into her own thoughts and feelings. The book must have been, for her, a process of discovery. In the end, has she, do you think, discovered in a new way what her legacy means?