I grew up in the rock-and-roll ’50s in an immigrant community in the Bronx where all of our friends’ parents had blue tattoos on their arms, some large, some small, some buried under bushy arm hair and silver wristwatches, but always a row of numbers. Our parents had gold teeth, heavy accents, and names we never heard on television. The memories of my childhood summer days — the contrast between the bucolic and the indescribably horrible — served as my Holocaust 101.
Once school was out, we took two long bus rides to paradise: Orchard Beach. En route, the sight of Fordham University in all its gothic otherworldliness always fascinated us, almost as much as the gleaming Buicks in the dealership windows on the opposite side of Fordham Road. Most of us had never been inside an automobile and certainly couldn’t conceive of owning one.
Orchard Beach! We spilled off the buses and entered the Promised Land, children running ahead of parents who were weighed down by beach chairs, blankets, coolers, and as we would soon hear, unrelenting memories. We trudged forever through a grassy expanse where radios set to “Motown Sounds” made the trek more bearable. And then we reached Section F — just past the comfort station — the Survivors’ Sands.
As the mothers shook open the blankets, winds whisking unruly corners seaward, they were already deep in conversation. We children splashed in the water, often gazing across to City Island or, as we thought, Europe. We darted between blankets, dripping ice cream, nursing bee stings. Then we sat down to lunch.
“Of course Sala was married before the war. She had two beautiful children, a boy and a baby girl. She watched as those murderers swung her baby by the legs into a wall, smashing her head.”
We ate egg salad sandwiches and drank Kool-Aid.
Then it was my mother’s turn. “You know, they said the earth shook for three days after they buried alive my mother, brother and sisters, and all the rest of the village.”
We had watermelon and peaches for dessert.
At the end of the day, sun-baked and fatigued, we packed up and lugged our bags back to the bus-loading zone; we snaked slowly through the silver spiral mazes until it was our turn to board, and headed home.
We moved to a different neighborhood in the Bronx when I was ten, and the trips to Orchard Beach became less frequent. Throughout my teen years, the knowledge that I had come by so effortlessly evolved into a passion to know more, to know everything. The librarians at my local public library put aside for me every Holocaust book that arrived. And the frequent nightmares were just a normal part of my nightlife.
I was always baffled — and a bit envious — any time I heard someone say, “My mother never told me about her experiences during the war,” or “I didn’t even know my father was in the camps until I was a teenager,” because I can’t imagine not having known every detail, even if this terrible knowledge conjured up dreams of black-booted thugs in Nazi garb pursuing me through the cars of the downtown D Train.
After college, I joined one of the first groups for children of Holocaust survivors in Cincinnati, in the mid-’70s. I listened intently to the stories that were so much like my own and was especially struck by an account from a young married woman in the group; she spoke of hugging and kissing her children as they left for school, believing always that this was the very last time she would see them alive. Years later, her words would haunt me as I watched with a combination of love, joy and fear as my own children walked out the door.
And even now, when I meet someone who happens to mention that their parents never told them, I think of summertime, and the beach.
Barbara Gewirtz is a librarian at MDRC, a social policy research firm, in New York City.