A Birthday Party |
by Donna Hirschfield
I recently spent an evening at the home of some close friends, on the occasion of their eldest son's thirteenth birthday. It had been his own idea to invite all of us - mostly adults, friends and family - to help him celebrate this milestone. As we watched him open gifts and shyly thank each guest, it was clear that he felt a deep sense of pride in belonging to this family, eager to take his place in the community. A child of sensitive nature, who is growing into a thoughtful, aware young man.
Like any teenager, he had celebrated earlier at a pizza parlor with friends of his own age group. Like any typical kid, he eagerly received gifts, especially enjoying the camera, CD's and, ofcourse cash! His father gave a short speech, his mother's eyes were shining, and we all drank a toast. Eventually, he disappeared upstairs to play video games with his brother and cousins. Just your typical American teenager.
But although he is American, he is not entirely typical. He is African. His lineage is Tutsi. And he is a survivor of the genocide which killed his grandparents, aunts, uncles, countless cousins and friends, all of whom should have been present with us that night.
California is a long distance from Rwanda. Yet events of a a certain nature, when they occur, travel rapidly and flow deeply within the human psyche, transcending normal limitations of space and time. The signposts along this route are fear, anger, grief, guilt, horror, confusion, depression. All travelers on this road know the signs by heart, for they encounter them again and again, as I have.
California is a long way from Nazi Germany, too. It wasn't until adulthood that I recognized myself as a third-generation survivor. Yes I understood it, subliminally, from an early age. By the time I was ten or eleven, I'd read everything in my father's collection of WWII literature - mostly accounts of camp survivors, or medical experiments done by the doctors. I suppose my dad, a veteran of that war and a physician himself, was trying to make sense of the senseless. I listened to hushed conversations about relatives from Warsaw who were never heard from again; about the pogroms my grandfather survived as a boy... Just bits and pieces, but enough to impress me that dreadful things had happened. Enough to set off a deep sense of guilt at having been "spared". Enough to convince me that the world was inhabited by plenty of people who would like to see the Jews wiped out, so that the world could be cleansed of vermin. How odd, for a girl who grew up in a such a safe, suburban life, to feel so apart. How uneasy, to always have the sense of living in two worlds - the "regular" one, and this other hidden, impolite world that was never mentioned and which no one wanted to hear about. No one wanted to hear or think about the Holocaust.
In all these years, I still can't talk openly with my family about these events which shaped our lives. I respect their need for distance. After all, much has happened, and why dwell on the past? Perhaps it isn't their duty to reveal anything to me. But these crimes, which took part of our family away, have been difficult to come to terms with. Being a survivor, to me, means carrying within oneself a memory and awareness of those who were lost, of how they may have died, and why. It can mean living with silence.
My Rwandan friends are recent and immediate survivors of a Holocaust, and they do not want to live in silence. I can offer my willingness to hear, and to let others know. I feel the same today as I did when I was a child, that it is my responsibility to NOT turn away from knowing. It's the absolute least I can do.
The other night, as we celebrated a young man's coming of age, we raised a glass to his future. It could have been a blessing poured upon his grave. Only an accident, or luck, allowed us to have his party, this happy occasion. I think that everyone in the room that night, including the young man, was aware of this.
I know that this boy, now entering manhood, will spend the rest of his life trying to sort things out, to fit the pieces together. I know that he has already begun his work, and that his children and grandchildren will continue it. They will struggle to make sense of the senseless, and that struggle will permeate their lives at the deepest level.
I would rather drink to the future, and to the sweetness of life. But what makes life sweet? I think it is memory...
The last toast
I drink to the house, already destroyed,
And my whole life, too awful to tell,
To the lonliness we together enjoyed,
I drink to you as well,
To the eyes with deadly cold imbued,
_Anna Aknhmalova (1934)
To the lips that betrayed me with a lie,
To the world for being cruel and rude,
To God who didn't save us, or try.