Can frightening memories remain bottled up forever?
Carol Letofsky, the daughter of two German-born, Jewish parents, discovered the answer to that. Her father came to the United States in 1937 and her mother in 1941. Her parents never -- NEVER -- discussed their Holocaust experiences with her. Presumably they, especially her mother, believed that their stories could remain hidden.
Her mother Irma, Carol learned eventually, grew up in a small German village. (By today's standards, Carol explains, she would be considered a peasant.) Carol is certain that this background accounted for the fact that her mother never looked down on anyone else. Her education consisted of a few years at a Catholic school learning needlework, cooking, and other domestic-type skills When the Nazis came to power, they took over her family home and Irma was forced to become a slave laborer in a vineyard. This lasted for five years, and Irma attributed her lifelong back pain to the fact that she often had to carry heavy cannisters of insecticide up and down hills.
In the photo above, Carol stands with her 90-year-old mother Irma.
When they married, Carol's parents settled in Grand Fork, North Dakota, a place that was almost 100% Christian, and that is where Carol was born and raised. In high school, there were only two other Jewish students. Growing up, Carol was aware, as a Jew, that she was different from her schoolmates.
Even though the Holocaust was never openly discussed in her home, Carol had a sense of her parents being survivors when she was in high school but did not become interested in finding out anything until her college years.
Fortunately, however, family was a big part of Carol's life, and this served to counteract her outsider status among schoolmates. Her father's siblings lived in the same town and she developed close relationships with their families. Thus, she did not feel different by being a child of survivors, as the rest of her family was in the same situation and was such a major part of her life.
If being a 2G did not specifically impact her childhood, her parents' high expectations did. Her education and behavior were expected to be above par, and she was expected to date only Jewish boys. Considering the dearth of Jewish boys in Grand Fork, North Dakota, that struck Carol as somewhat ridiculous.
Why did her mother never speak to her about her Holocaust experiences?
Carol believes her mother was always trying to protect her. However, the pain Irma experienced could apparently not remain totally buried, as Carol realized when her mother began opening up to other people instead of to her.
An incident in 1997 made that clear. That year, there was a huge flood in Grand Fork and the area was evacuated. Her mother was put in an army truck with many other people and taken to an air base. (Carol wonders if that experience in itself brought back bad memories.) At any rate, a colonel at this base who was Jewish found Irma in the crowd and kindly took her to his home to stay for several days. The colonel had an 11-year-old son and Irma talked to this boy, suddenly opening up and telling him of her experiences in Europe. When Carol was able to get there, the boy's parents relayed this to her. (Apparently, the boy was quite interested in Irma's story.)
On another occasion, when Carol was living in Chicago, she brought a friend along to visit her mother. Irma began to tell this friend of Carol's about her life during the war. Irma directed her story exclusively to the friend; Carol felt that, to her mother, she was not even in the room.
Many people would feel resentful if one's mother could speak freely of her past to random strangers but could not share it with her own child. Carol, however, understood completely. Her mother was so harmed, Carol realizes, that she was determined to protect her daughter from the knowledge of what had happened.
The pain Irma was trying to suppress burst out in another way as well, When she became elderly and somewhat senile, she began calling Carol's husband Norm to report on scary flashbacks. Once she insisted that someone was just shot right in front of her. On another call, she told him that the Nazis were taking her brother away. Those long-ago events had transformed into current happenings in Irma's mind, and she would become genuinely frightened. These flashbacks were traumatic, for both Irma and Carol. They also provided Carol with some information about what her mother had experienced in Europe.
Again, Carol did not resent her mother turning to Norm with these thoughts instead of to her. She understood that her mother's desire to protect her was the reason she spoke to someone else. In addition, she believes Irma's European upbringing would have instilled in her the view of a man as someone to turn to when trouble arises.
Irma's desire to protect Carol extended to Carol's children as well. Her mother never shared the story of her escape from Germany with Carol's children or grandchildren. Perhaps the desire to speak of her story collided with her desire to protect her own and thus the story erupted out of her with her son-in-law and with people she did not know. Clearly, painful memories cannot be suppressed forever and will find a way to surface.
Perhaps her mother's goal of keeping her past hidden allowed her to embrace her American life. She became active in the community of Grand Fork and was warmly welcomed by her neighbors in these community activities.
As she got older, Carol began doing research about the war years and then began to fully understand what her family had experienced. She developed a sense of their difficulties in getting to the United States and she became aware of how many family members had been brutally murdered by the Nazis.
As an adult living in Chicago, she began volunteering at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. She has also been trained as a second-generation speaker and has told her mother's story at the museum and other venues. Volunteering at the museum has made her very aware of "how quickly political climate and the economy can turn a population against those of the Jewish faith."
She also took a trip to Germany after her mother died, which became a pivotal experience for her. Her family's presence in Germany dates back to the 1600s, and she visited Jewish cemeteries, where the neglected graves were covered with vines and moss. She visited a few small villages where she had a family connection and spoke with a retired German schoolteacher who has made it his business to help Jews find graves and towns related to their heritage. Carol appreciated this man's dedication to do something to help Jewish visitors. This trip opened her eyes to the magnitude of her family's history, something she could not understand while growing up amid the absence of such information.
Raising two daughters, Carol was determined not to hide the facts from her children, as her mother had done. She made sure they were aware of their grandparents' stories of escaping from Germany. In fact, one of her daughters is now a lead docent at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
Carol's view of the future is pessimistic. With everything she now knows, she fears that the Holocaust will at some point be forgotten. "The number of other issues of racism throughout the world," she says, "concern me, as does the political climate which allows far right-wing views to get much media time and followers." Antisemitism, she notes, can impact her and her family -- a frightening possibility.
What about that huge family tree in Germany dating from the 1600s? Most people would feel pride in such a long history. Yet Carol sees that the murder of so many of her relatives have stunted that tree's growth and soured any pride and connection she might feel to Germany. Fortunately, a few seeds from that tree managed to travel across the ocean and plant themselves in a new country, where it now flourishes and blossoms. Buoyed by her mother's love and protectiveness as well as her work at the Holocaust Museum, Carol is most certainly working against those forces we all fear.