For many Holocaust survivors, the memories of what they had gone through, the loved ones who had been murdered, the trauma of being uprooted by the brutality of Nazi Germany and plopped down in the United States, was just too painful for them to talk about, even with their own children or other family members. Not discussing their experiences kept those horrific memories at bay, and they believed, spared their own children and grandchildren having to re-experience the horrors of the Shoah. More recently, second and third generation family members of survivors have encouraged their survivor parents and other relatives to open up about their experiences, to fill in the blank spaces in family albums, to help resolve their own unending questions about the greatest calamity to befall the Jewish people. St. Louisan Miriam Raskin and her parents managed to escape from Hamburg in Nazi Germany in 1939, joining other family members in a cramped apartment in Chicago. Her grandparents were not so fortunate; they were to be killed in one of the relentless “transports” across the blood-stained landscape of World War II Europe.
Miriam Spiegel Raskiin, who was born in Germany “during the worst of times, and was lucky enough to escape with her life, has been a grateful and devoted citizen of the United States for more than 60 years,” is how she is described on the back cover of her just published and compelling book, Remembering and Forgetting: A Memoir and Other Pieces of My Life. (Booksurge.org, $16, paper). Raskin is a gifted prose writer and poet, and these skills are evident in what must be called an unusually candid and brutally honest memoir, not only about her experiences as a young German Jewish immigrant child in the wonderful but strange and sometimes scary United States, but also about her inner experiences of a frequent inability to experience ordinary pleasures alone or with friends, bouts of sleeplessness and depression and a struggle to imbue her life with a deeper meaning.
Remembering and Forgetting provides important details about the journey which Miriam Spiegel Raskin and her parents made from Germany to America, her childhood struggles to adjust by losing her pronounced German accent, and of her efforts to project an outer smiling cheerfulness even while she often lived in a continous, self-conscious fear of being perceived as “different” despite those efforts.
Raskin certainly comes by her complex feelings honestly. In a chapter headed “In Lieu of Kaddish,” regarding how she learned the details of the fate of 6,000 of the 8,000 Jews of Hamburg who perished at the hands of the Nazis, she recounts how she received in 1983, information on her grandparents.
“…years after the end of the war and the reshaping of the world into new configurations, the first official word regarding the fate of my maternal grandparents reached us by means of the book that bears the Dedication, ‘For eternal remembrance, there are inscribed in this book the names of 6,000 Hamburg Jews, who as innocent sacrifices to National Socialist persecution, suffered death by force. May the names of these dead warn the living of all times never again to disregard the precepts of humanity and reverence for human life.'”
That dedication was adopted by the Hamburg Senate in 1965. Like other German cities, Hamburg has pro-actively reached out to Jewish survivors to invite them back to their home cities as a means of what they realize is a totally inadequate effort to repent for the horrific crimes which occurred there. Raskin observes, “It is fortunate for seekers after family lore that Germans are compulsively methodical. They keep good records as if by instinct, a fact relied on by the law-makers of Hamburg when they decided — decades after the fall of the Hitler regime, when most Germans wanted nothing more than to forget the past, or at the very least to minimize past horrors that were besmirching their innocent reputations — to publish and disseminate the lists kept by their predecessors to record the names of all the Jews sent to their deaths under their terms of office.”
Indeed, it is jarring to see the excerpts from the book’s Table of Contents which Raskin points out employs “the same propensity for order by which millions were neatly exterminated and eliminated.” The book bears the title, “Report on the Deportation Measures of the Secret State Police in Hamburg, by Dr. Max Plaut, Chairman of the Jewish Community in Hamburg, 1938-l943.” The book goes on to list “The deportation transports,” one after another, e.g., “Transport to Lodz on October 25, 1941,” followed by the number 1,034, the total number of victims, most of whom would perish in the Lodz Ghetto or after they were transported to Auschwitz or another Nazi death camp.
Raskin points out, “My grandparents, I learned from this volume, were in the second transport from Hamburg, very early in the implementation of the Final Solution; the Table of Contents shows that the Germans had to ship 14 pages full of people across East Germany and all of Poland to an execution site n Minsk becaue the more conveniently located death camps were not ready for the killing as soon as the killers were. I am confident that my grandparents would have expressed sympathy for Max Plaut’s role in the drama. Great respectors of authority, they would have been quick to jump to his defense…” She adds, “One had to have faith in someone, they would have said, since God appeared unresponsive to their prayers.”
Holocaust escapees and survivors processed their traumatic experiences differently with regard to the Jewish religion, people and belief in God. For some, adopting an even deeper faith in God helped them survive; for others, watching their loved ones perish at the hands of the Nazi brutes ended their belief in a merciful, or any Deity once and for all. But for many in both groups, an attachment to the Jewish people if not the Jewish religion continues. Miriam Spiegel Raskin very candidly discusses her own struggles with attending religious services despite her doubts about God. Yet she remains deeply committed to the Jewish people, and is an active member and leader in several Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Congress, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the St. Louis Center for Holocaust Studies.
Raskin learns from Plaut’s detailed records that “the first hint of the imminent evacuations came on the 15th of October 1941, when word came by way of the Jewish community in Cologne that 20,000 Jews would be evacuated from Germany to Litzmannsstadt (Lodz) during the month of October.” She notes that her grandfather had packed his bags after Kristallnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938, “and kept it by the door, so that he could go with a semblance of dignity when the time came to be hauled away; whether or not he packed the Iron Cross earned for his military service to the Kaiser and the Fatherland was not recorded.”
While Raskin is grateful that Plaut had recorded with such detail the list of the transports that included the one which took her grandparents to their death, she recoils at his tone, which she describes as “composed, cool and detached,” and wonders if he would have had such a perspective if his own relatives had been selected as “participants in this or that transport.”
In the course of this remarkable book, published close to the 70th anniversary of that same horrific Kristallnacht, Miriam Spiegel Raskin fulfills many mitzvot: she honors her father and mother by telling their story; she brings honor to her own name by detailing her struggles to come to terms with the bitter irony of surivival under such circumstances, and she fulfills the mitzvah to “teach diligently, faitfhully to our children” the totality of the Jewish narrative, from the Exodus into Freedom, through the Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust, the rebirth of the State of Israel and a vibrant American Jewish community. Towards the end of her memoir, Raskin recounts the discovery of a letter from one of her childhood friends, whose family was among the “good Germans” who let her play with her Jewish friend even after the Nazis began to force people to shun and betray the Jews.
Remembering and Forgetting, which includes several moving poems along with powerfully written prose, should be required reading for anyone interested in learning about the enormity of the effects of the Holocaust through the eyes of a brave little girl who grew up to become a brave and strong woman with the courage to share her story so candidly and forthrightly. Raskin has published a significant and meaningful book that deserves a wide audience.