Last week I had lunch with 98-year-old Kurt R. at his home. I brought my mother along as she has fond memories of visits with him over the years and Kurt’s daughter joined us as well. Who is Kurt R. you might ask?
Mr. R worked in the same firm as my grandfather. They first worked together in the early 30’s in Cologne Germany. Mr. R. was able to get out of Germany early and was hired by the same firm in NY in the late 30’s. In 1936 my grandfather moved to Amsterdam, and then after the war, he worked for the same firm in Amsterdam, Rio de Janeiro, New York and finally Amsterdam again. These two men worked together for over 30 years.
We had a lovely lunch, and I was able to ask Mr. R. many questions about my grandfather. I was hoping to get some information about my grandfather’s dealings with scrap metal during the war, but unfortunately, Mr. R. did not know anything about it.
It seemed strange to me that these two men worked closely together for over 30 years and yet, they never spoke about the war years. These men had all sorts of adventures together that included world travel, wine, and women. There was a fist-fight with an uncooperative businessman. There were family gatherings and office parties and a deep friendship. They helped each other advance within the company. They looked out for each other financially. They invited each other to their homes. And, according to my mother, my grandfather had his eye on Mr. R’s son as a suitable husband for me! Yet they didn’t share stories about the war years.
Why is it that those years were just not discussed? PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) wasn’t understood in the late 40’s. I am sure many survivors had/have it. Reminders of the years in the camps or in hiding would be avoided. So many second-generation survivors are in pain because their parents never told them what they went through during the war. Some kept quiet to save their children from the horrors. For others, I am sure, it was just too upsetting to recall and tell. Other 2G’s are tormented by having been told too much at too young an age. They were named after a murdered relative or reminded over and over of the horrors that their parents went through.
I feel blessed that my mother has been able to share her story with me and to do so in a way that has not scarred me. When I was young her stories were funny or matter-of-fact. No hyperbole. No guilt trips. No comparing me to lost souls or pressuring me to make up for the pain of the past. Just information that was appropriate to my age when I asked. The stories are important, but so is the way they are told. How do we keep the stories alive without causing more pain? It is a difficult task.