I was aware, from a very early age, that my parents were survivors of the holocaust. My mother survived labor camps and Auschwitz, while my father miraculously lived through 14 concentration camps. Most of the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust were teens, and when the war ended, they were placed in deportation camps where they made lifelong friends. My parents met each other at one of these camps, in Austria, as well as an extended group of around 50 young Jews who remained amazingly close for the next 60 years. As none of these survivors had any family — with the exception of my father’s parents, who survived the war in Siberia — we children called one another “cousin,” and felt so. Our parents by extension became each other’s “uncles” and “aunts.” Since the only grandparents in the group belonged to my brother and me, my grandparents were everyone’s. In July and August the whole swarming group of us would take over a bungalow colony in the Catskill Mountains of New York; those summers are my most precious memories.
The spirit of these particular teenage survivors was intense and indomitable. They felt, perhaps unconsciously, that they faced a choice: either to live their days disfigured by their trauma, or to defeat Hitler by “choosing life.” We children, as a group, were inducted into our parents’ collective philosophy: “We’re here. We’re okay. We pay Hitler back by having you” — a familiar, but, oh my God, complicated teaching. And we heard the stories they chose to tell, which were largely of life Before. My mother talked often about hailing from a well-to-do family of textile manufacturers; Kohanim — priests, descended from the biblical Aaron. I was told that my great-grandfathers, who were brothers, had long beards. Parents made genealogical charts for their children. “Here is everyone in the family who went to the beach with us,” my mother would explain.
Their philosophy aside, however, the horrors oozed. In my experience, first-born females, like myself, were particularly vulnerable to picking up every feeling, every look, every sigh. My mother caught me one night, at age 8, reading Mein Kampf under the covers; what kind of third-grader does that? At 10, my eagle eye spotted a swastika on the cover of my little brother’s notebook. I quickly discerned the culprit, beat him up — he was much taller than me — and dragged him over to his dad. “If I ever see a swastika anywhere in the neighborhood,” I told the boy’s father, “I will kill your son.” I had no fear.
A turning point for me came in high school when, after a fight with my mother, I blurted out, “I hate you.” My mother’s response silenced me — well, for years. Through decades of therapy.
“At least you have a mother,” she shot back. “I don’t even have a photograph of mine.”
I cried hysterically after that, for hours. I couldn’t imagine anything more horrible. To this day, I take tons of photos of my family; I mail them to everyone. I must have 10,000 pictures. After hurricane Katrina, I was aware of how many people said that their greatest regret was losing photographs. I remember what my mother said when she was interviewed for Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust project — that the Nazis had given her family 15 minutes to leave their house and that her father, allowed to take one thing, chose an alarm clock. I tried to imagine my grandfather worried that he wouldn’t wake up in the morning. I would have taken photographs.
After the “I hate you” incident, I resolved never again to cause my mother any pain. Proud of her always, I became even more so; I became her bragging mother. Having only finished sixth grade, she was self-taught in the world. She was an avid reader; she was attractive, creative, courageous, witty. She was funny as hell. I put myself second, and struggled to define a separate me.
I watched my parents’ marriage with awe. They flirted with each other, held hands, were each other’s best friend. Their relationship became my model; any relationship short of it was not good enough. And I saw my parents’ extensive lifelong friendships. Surely I would grow up to be surrounded in this way. I was proud of myself for my maturity, for understanding the value of commitment.
After the Vietnam War, my parents’ relationship to their own experience of genocide shifted radically. Returning veterans had started telling their stories, and it moved my parents and their friends to begin telling theirs. My parents began speaking at high schools and community colleges, and I remember being blown away by how articulate they were. I would sometimes attend these talks and be shocked by the reaction of my peers; it pried open for me a whole new way to see my parents. I heard new, painful stories. I often wept and felt overwhelmed.
My parents’ coda during these talks never varied: “You must never forget the people who suffered and died, whose only crime was to be born Jewish. Respect everyone no matter what their religion, color or belief. Yours is the generation that has to listen. If there are acts of injustice, it’s your job to make the world respond immediately.” My parents were socially and politically progressive. My mother’s best friend was a gay survivor. As a child, I remember my mother supporting a girl who was getting an illegal abortion. After school, my house was the place where everyone hung out — even kids who weren’t close to me — because my mother was the grownup everyone talked to. She was magnetic, tolerant, humane, an intuitive guidance counselor.
In 1975—I was 24—my parents visited me in my apartment in Philadelphia. While my father was parking the car, my mother came upstairs and caught me crying. “What’s wrong?” she said compassionately. “I just broke up with my lover, a woman,” I said. My mother spat on the floor. “If Hitler didn’t kill me,” she said, “you will.”
She stormed out of the apartment, and we had no contact for almost a year, though she did “send” my father to meet me at the Cherry Hill Diner every week, and I knew that she grilled him when he got home: How did Evie look? What was she wearing? What did she have for dinner? Did she have makeup on? — I’m talking details. A young cousin’s brain tumor finally ended our impasse, as my parents started coming to Philly every weekend to give him platelets, and they stayed with me. It had been made amply clear to me that if I wanted to be close to my mother, if I wanted to find a place for myself in our larger survivor “family,” I would have to pretend to have no romantic life. Otherwise, I would be making my mother suffer, something I found unbearable.
For the next 20 years — even though I had an enduring romantic relationship during that period — I went to family events alone. I sat through countless bar mitzvahs and weddings, pretending to be a workaholic feminist with no time for dating or romance. I would enter a state of depersonalization, entirely cut off from myself. I watched my “cousins” marry and have children, after each celebration crying my way back to Manhattan. In the car, I’d struggle to reclaim myself, to remember who I was. Everyone knew I was a lesbian — but they were in Holocaust families, too, and they acceded to the terms of the arrangement.
My mother and I did well, more or less, as long as the topic of my lesbianism remained unbroached. My father died, and I entered a deep depression. He had been my buffer, my ally. I often laughed bitterly about the fact that my mother and I could speak about the Holocaust — that unspeakable Hell — but never about my girlfriends. Still, I had sympathy for my mother. She came to this country and everything had to be perfect — children had to be perfect — in order to keep Hitler away. There were a lot of secrets in our extended clan; it was simply a price we had to pay.
Still, my lesbianism, my relationship with Jill, did not fall into the category of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” because it simmered so close to the surface.
If we had a fight about anything, my mother would yell, “You lesbian bastard, how could you do this to me?” Once, while yelling this, she hit me. The next moment she purred, “Now come upstairs, I made your favorite salad.”
“You think I want to eat with you?” I said, disgusted.
“Come upstairs,” she said. The fight was done. It was out of her system. I was devastated, but I ate with her. I was a mess for days.
Sometimes she would say, “Hitler killed my family. They were kohanim and proud. They are rolling in their graves because of you. You have disgraced them.”
“Why do you love all gay people except for me?” I would shout back, weeping.
“Because you’re my daughter.”
I am 57 years old, and sometimes I see clearly that I have not yet begun living my own life. I live with the unshakable sense that I have not done my part; I am a disappointment; I have failed her. My not having children is something that enrages my mother. I understand her rage, doubtless too well. My being a lesbian is simply too shattering for her.
Sometimes I tell myself, “My mother truly loves me, but you can only love as much as you can love.”
I am able to love a lot more.
Evie Litwok was born and raised in New York City. She studied piano at Carnegie Mellon, earned a graduate degree in psychology, and devoted years to the women’s movement and Wall Street. Her devotion to her five Maltese dogs led her to write The Tippy Story, a book and film. She is at work on a memoir.