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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Redefining the Holocaust: Israeli author Michal Govrin offers insight for survivors’ families

Published: October 28, 2011
Section: Features

Michal Govrin, an acclaimed Israeli writer, visited Brandeis this past week to discuss her book, “Hold on to the Sun.” Her newly translated book presents a collection of short stories and essays in which Govrin explores her identity as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Her words redefine what it means to live in a post-Holocaust world. As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Govrin’s well-articulated thoughts certainly helped me come to terms with my own family’s story.

Throughout Govrin’s speech, she spoke about “cracks in [her] existence,” which she was able to look through. She explained that as a young Ph.D. student in Paris, she was finally able to face the legacy of her mother’s past. She had to come to terms with the fact she once had an older brother, who was murdered during the Holocaust at the young age of eight. Through literature, Govrin is able to express these moments of deep revelation.

As part of Govrin’s visit to Brandeis, she was invited to speak to several small classes, including my Israeli Literature and Culture class. In preparation for her visit, each student was given a copy of “Hold on to the Sun.” One essay in particular, titled “The Journey to Poland,” helped me shed some light on my own family’s story as I began making connections between Govrin’s past and my own.

“And what about Mother’s shrouded story? Details continued to join together in fragments. For years, here and there, she mentioned events … I listened when she spoke, and she spoke little. Never did I ‘interview’ her; never did I ask. I respected her way of speaking, as well as her way of being silent … I learned from her the lesson of telling in silence,” Govrin writes.

I took these words as a lesson about my own grandfather’s silence. For as long as I could remember, he never spoke about his past. One evening, as he was sitting with my sister and I, he shocked both of us as he opened up for the first time about his experiences. Like Govrin’s mother, he shared his story as a series of separate events. Through his fragmented story, I began connecting the dots of his past.

After the Nazis invaded Poland, his family was forced to close their family-owned store. Starving and penniless, he and his siblings decided to leave their hometown of Krakow. They left their parents behind, not expecting never to see them again. Perhaps naively, and perhaps out of curiosity to hear more, I asked my grandfather why he hadn’t forced his parents to come with him. After a moment of silence, he whispered, “Yes. That is the question.”

For the first time, I felt as if I could truly see him. He was no longer my elderly grandfather but a man forever tormented by a decision he had made as a teenager. I could only imagine how he must have fruitlessly replayed scenarios in his mind in which he had forced his parents to join his escape.

Through Govrin’s essays, I’m now able to understand this memory. I’ve come to realize that I’ve learned more from his silence than from his words. His silence after I had asked that naive question and his silence after he had responded together told me more about his suffering than his stories ever would.

Each Holocaust survivor has a different story to tell, and their children and grandchildren each inherit different memories. Nevertheless, I still began focusing on the similarities between Govrin’s story and my own as I continued reading Govrin’s essays. As I read about the murder of Govrin’s older brother—a brother she never met—I again stopped to connect the dots of my past. This time, I focused in on my mother. I had recently learned that my grandparents had a son who had died in a displaced persons camp following the Holocaust. This was a baby that neither my mother nor her siblings had ever met. Although I knew about this child’s death, I don’t think I truly understood its meaning until reading Govrin’s essays. It’s difficult to understand that one’s parents had another life before you came along. It’s even more difficult to comprehend the thought of them having another child before you. For Govrin and my mother, this is something they would have to come to terms with.

Govrin sums up her search for understanding in her poem “Won’t You See;” “… On my cheeks still lie the curls of my brother. In whose death I live. His breath is the wind of my hair …”