I am one of the daughters. My parents were both survivors of Auschwitz. My parents were first cousins-their fathers were brothers. My father found my mother near death, in a hospital near the camps, nursed her back to health, and married her. I was one of the first children born in Bergen-Belsen, Germany-once a concentration camp turned into a displaced persons camp after the war. My life was about trying to be everything to my parents. Like the others in this book, I thought the only meaning my life could possibly have was to fill my parents’ lives with beauty, love, hope, joy, nachas. I, like the others, tried desperately to erase the sadness we inherited. It couldn’t be erased. I, like the others, absorbed it. I, like the others, took on the sadness as my own.
Beauty, the loss of it, is what my mother grieved for her entire life. Beauty also was the one thing that could give her momentary pleasure. Beauty in a fresh flower, a crisp winter day, a fresh cotton sheet, a bowl of cherries . . . My mother, Lili Deutsch, was one of eleven children. She was raised in an elegant Hungarian home near Budapest. Her parents owned the local bakery. I was raised hearing stories about my grandmother, whom my mother magnificently, through her stories, kept very much alive for me. My grandmother, my beautiful, generous grandmother, who would feed the poor at the back door of the bakery, early in the morning, before the others got up. My beautiful grandmother who kept a beautiful home. A home that my mother tried to recreate for us in America, with her love of crystal, china, fine linens, needlepoint, and fresh flowers.
All things beautiful. I can’t, to this day, pass a rosebush without stopping to inhale its fragrance-to pay tribute to my mother’s love of roses.
My mother was the only one of her sisters who survived the war. She watched her sisters and her parents die in the gas chambers. I only learned, after my mother died in 1994, how she survived Auschwitz. I was always too afraid to ask, as I was too afraid of the answer. She survived, I learned, because of her rare blood type, which the Nazis experimented with, thus allowing her an extra measure of soup. This experiment and the soup were a daily occurrence for one year of her life. Her twenty-first year.
Like most survivors’ daughters, while I was growing up, and even well into my twenties, I didn’t know how I really felt about anything. I didn’t have my “own” feelings. I knew how my parents felt. I was not allowed the normal range of emotions. If I was sad or anxious, it made them sad and anxious. And, after all, what was there for me to be sad about anyway? I had not been in Auschwitz. I did not know what it was to be cold, hungry, or devastated. All my feelings not related to Auschwitz were naarish (foolish). How could any feeling measure up to those one lived with after surviving the camps? So, like so many others with my background, I buried my feelings. Till I could no longer. That is when my work took on a life of its own.
The question that haunts me to this day is, how is one capable of happiness after such devastation and tragedy as my parents endured? And yet, they did know happiness. They knew the pleasure of children, of work, and a full life. But it was difficult for me to understand how one could live and be happy. How could I be “happy,” knowing what my parents had endured? After what they lost and lived through?
My parents, however, insisted not only on my well-being but on my happiness. To be a good daughter was to be a happy one. Always being understanding, never complaining and always being there for them. There is nothing I wanted more than to be that good and happy daughter.
In the beginning of my life as a painter, I was, I suppose, what psychologist Dina Wardi, calls a “memorial candle.” She claims in her book, Memorial Candles: Children of the Holocaust, that in a survivor’s home, there is a child in the family who becomes the link among past, present, and future. That child grows up feeling responsible for inter-generational continuity, the one who bears the burden for translating the emotional world of the parents into some kind of coherence. 1
Only in my studio, while painting, was my authentic voice disclosed to me. Alone in my studio, I was free to feel whatever I needed to feel. I could play music and dance to it while I worked, or weep deeply at life’s injustices-not worrying that my tears would upset anyone. They were my tears and my joy. The desire was to put these feelings into my work. Ultimately, alone in my studio, painting became a form of prayer, a form of dance, of song, of life itself. A life that had a desire to hold onto the moment as well as to memory, to experience both past and present, and to emotions longing to be released.
Originally, the paintings were reactions to my personal history. In 1979, I completed a series of abstract, dark paintings in which I wrote my father’s concentration camp number A3146 (which is tattooed on his arm), all over my work. It was the first layer of the painting. These dark paintings, with layers and layers of writing and color, were ultimately painted black, with only bits of light and color coming through.
After some years of working with this dark history and palette, and producing a large body of dark work, passionate and intense colors pushed through the black as if to have their own say. These new paintings became the Black Gifts series, followed by a series called Lili in Blue. There was no black in the Lili series. Instead, the work exploded with the cobalt blues my mother, Lili, loved so much. I wrote her name, Lili, all over every painting I did that year. The years followed, with series of works that both responded to the world outside myself and continued to pay homage to my past. As the years have passed, the work has become more and more colorful and full of joy. In fact, after my mother, Lili, the survivor, died in 1994, the work was the most colorful yet. I took strips of fabric from my mother’s beautiful dresses and did a series of paintings called Lili Let’s Dance. These handmade paper pulp paintings were my way of celebrating my mother’s life. The work, in the weight of the handmade paper and the bold colors, depicted my mother’s strength and love of beauty. Each piece became a thank you for life itself, and for her belief in me, her “daughter the painter.”
Her Daughter—“The Writer” 2
I was born in Bergen-Belsen, Germany, on January 7, 1947. This is how my book begins. A “memoir” is about a time. An “autobiography” is about a life. What would you call it when you simply want to express what life felt like being the only daughter to two survivors of Auschwitz? To write about what it has meant finding a way to live a life of making art, which then, ends up saving your own?
How do you write about learning, as a child, what your parents endured? And-then-learning to live with that knowledge? How do you write about how unbearably lonely life was as a kid, having these damaged, but loving parents? How scared you were of every “knock on the door?” Of wanting to be perfect, just perfect, for these two people who witnessed and endured unimaginable loss? Whatever it is called, I now feel, in 2010, that I must write it.
Holocaust survivors’ children, I am convinced, and research has now proven, grow up either carrying a great anger or a great sadness. I carry the latter. And how is it, that I was raised without any anger? The emphasis, in fact, was rather on creating beauty. Remembering the beauty of their lives in Europe before the war, and respecting, admiring, acknowledging the lives they created after the war? These are the issues that interest me. I know that there will never be enough written about the horrors and tragedies of one of the greatest injustices of the twentieth century. And, yes, we must never forget. That, however, is not what I care to write about.
I would like to write not only my parents’ story, but, really, mainly mine. I have come to understand that I have lived a life worth telling. I have survived having survivors as parents. I know some who have not. I have taken this tragic history and the personal reality, of my life, and spent it creating art. Painting. Writing. Speaking. Believing in music. Dance. Literature. None of which I saw at home. I would like to write about how difficult it was to create a life, when one lived not for oneself. I would like to write about what it has meant to me to grow up and be a painter, a writer, to have a voice when one was never really heard.
I would like to write about the anxiety created by this history, yet, the optimism that allowed me to travel to Germany, in 2009, and speak with Nazi’s children and grandchildren. I was invited by the U.S. Embassy in Berlin to speak about my work in Germany during which time I had a one person exhibition at Lorch+Seidel Galerie in Berlin. I expressed strong feelings that I have no hatred. That I was not raised with hatred. That hatred creates hatred just as energy creates energy. That we must not blame the new generations for what they have not done. That we must help them get over their own shame and regret for the sins of their fathers, just as we have had to learn to live with our grief. I visited Dachau and talked to school children. I lectured in a burnt out bunker in Kiel and at the University of Kiel. I talked at the U.S. Embassy and the German Foreign Office in Berlin, and at the U.S. Consulate in Hamburg. There was a “surprise” in there for me: a visit to my birthplace in Bergen-Belsen. The only place, Bergen-Belsen, where I broke down and wept.
Beauty as Consolation
As a Holocaust survivors’ only daughter, I was raised with feelings that were, and are, beyond comprehension. I took my sadness and made paintings. I started each painting writing-using words till they no longer held meaning, and only the abstract marks, that make up my work, became the expressions of a life full of longing. Almost, as if by making these marks, I had found a way to carry my heavy heart, but help my mother carry hers, as well. Paintings with my mother’s name “Lili” scratched through them-using my mother’s favorite cobalt blue colors as inspiration. Thirty years of my scratching out a life. Of paintings with the numbers “A3146,” the number on my father’s arm, given to him at Auschwitz in 1944. It took almost thirty years till there was any recognition of my own self in the work. It was always “their story.” Or using painting as a way of finding a self.
This story, of mine, is about trying to find beauty in living. Trying to find meaning in what I felt, at a very young age, a certain existential absurdity in trying to form a life. A longing to be heard. A life that felt like a “black gift”-that ended up being a series of paintings called Black Gifts in 1985.
I was missing nothing. I had no idea how I actually “felt” about anything. There was no room for my own emotion. I spent my entire life looking at their faces. Learning to read their faces perfectly. My first real language: their faces. Recognizing, instantly, their moods. Their sadness; anxieties; their longings; their need to work hard to cope. I had to “understand” everything. And I did. I truly understood. I tried so hard to be perfect. To not make any demands. To make them happy. All I longed for is their happiness. This, of course, being a small impossibility.
Like many others, with my background, I buried my feelings. Till I could no longer. That is when my work took on a life of its own. When my search for a life became mine.
This is what “my book” will be about.
The first part of this text was adapted from the preface of Mindy Weisel, ed., Daughters of Absence: Transforming a Legacy of Loss (Herndon, VA: Capital Books, 2002), xiv–xxi. Reprinted with permission of the author.
1 Dina Wardi, Memorial Candles: Children of the Holocaust (London: Routledge, 1992), passim.
2 The following paragraphs are adapted from an e-mail exchange with the editor, Mindy Weisel to Martina Kohl, 12 October 2010. Mindy Weisel is currently writing her autobiography. These are her first thoughts for her book project.