I’ve always been somewhat obsessed with reading and hearing stories that offer a sense of perspective and hope. Over the past six decades, I’ve earned my chance to share my own thoughts and stories passed down from my ancestors. I was blessed to have grandparents who were survivors of two world wars, and who were able to share their stories and life perspectives with me, in journals and during dinner conversations. Now that I’m a grandparent myself of five beautiful grandchildren, I feel that it’s my turn to carry the torch of perspective and hope.
Parents and grandparents play many roles in their children’s lives, but one of the most important is instilling them with a sense of hope and perspective. One way to do so is through storytelling. Nurturing a sense of hope and perspective is about honoring the present, appreciating the past, and planning for the future. It’s also a way to be grateful for our blessings, both personally and spiritually.
As a Holocaust survivor, my father was a master at instilling hope and perspective. Even though he died more than thirty years ago, I continue to hold his values close to my heart. He was very grateful to be alive and to be able to put food on his family’s table. He was grateful for his freedom and hopeful about humanity.
For five of my father’s most formative years — from age fifteen to twenty — he was a prisoner at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. While there, he ate scraps of left-behind food, and at night he slept on wooden barracks with hundreds of others, all shivering under thin blankets. His father, who’d died of pneumonia just before the war broke out, had owned a well-respected lumberyard in the neighboring town, and the Nazis knew him, so they gave my father a job working in the kitchen peeling potatoes. Unlike most of the other prisoners in the concentration camps, my father was fortunate to always have food available to him. But no matter what horrible things he witnessed and endured, he never lost hope. Like Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, my father believed that if you have meaning in your life, you can survive anything.
Years before he died at the age of seventy-one from congestive heart failure (after coughing up blood after thirty years of smoking), my father shared the story about the scar on his forehead, which he was left with after a Nazi soldier hit him with the butt of his rifle when he spotted my father taking too much peel off the potatoes and tossing it to his barrack mates. My father’s generosity got him into trouble, but for him it was worth the risk to help those in need. He was also the type of man who walked down the streets of New York City tossing coins from his pocket into homeless people’s buckets. His life experience taught him the importance of cherishing life, and he would have given the shirt off his back for those in need.
Being a prisoner during World War II left my father with lifelong physical and psychological scars. For example, he couldn’t stand the sight of red meat because during the war he claimed that he’d seen too many dead bodies. “The sight of blood just turns my stomach,” he used to say.
He shared how he witnessed his younger brother, Joshua, and his mother being taken from their ghetto apartment by the Nazis, herded onto a train, and then being transported to the gas chambers, which led to their ultimate deaths. He and his brother Bob were the only ones in the family to survive. Enduring this life experience offered my father a unique perspective on the rest of his life.
In 1989, when my husband and I named our youngest child Joshua, it dulled my father’s grief, knowing that in some way his brother would live on, and bearing my uncle’s namesake continued to offer me perspective about my own past.
My mother-in-law had her own share of hair-raising Holocaust stories. As a young teenager, she’d hidden from the Nazis in a Swiss family’s basement. For more than five years, she didn’t see her parents. Each and every day, she and her sister lived in fear that they would be discovered and ultimately killed.
The fear of death is huge, and when faced with war or illness, dying is often the inevitable outcome, but living with hope can save us. After receiving my first cancer diagnosis, my oncologist looked me in the eyes and said, “If this doesn’t rivet you, nothing will,” and he was so very right. Having cancer shed a new light on my life, in the sense that it encouraged me to slow down, be mindful, and appreciate the smaller things.
Now that I’ve been a writer for more than fifty years, I’ve often turned to this form of creative expression as a way of understanding certain lived experiences and healing from them. Writing about cancer was no different, except that I hoped that detailing my journey would also help others navigate theirs. Taking stock of our lived experiences through the written word can help provide a much-needed perspective.
When I was in my 40s, I wrote about my midlife crisis. For a while, I lost hope, but what grounded me was thinking about my father’s story and how he never lost hope and perspective. It was a difficult time for me, as my three adolescent children were becoming more and more independent and didn’t need me as much as they used to. At the same time, I was becoming preoccupied with the inevitable physical and psychological changes inherent in the aging process. There have been so many shifts over the years, but when putting them into the proper perspective, none were as serious as dealing with terminal illness, childhood traumas, or the effects of war. Simply put, my own challenges just didn’t carry much weight, relatively, and I realized the importance of maintaining a proper perspective on life.
These days, I find that looking back not only puts life into perspective, but is also an excellent way to bring hope to the present. This became even more apparent when I was in my 40s and discovered a special family heirloom. While doing some spring cleaning, I sifted through our hall closet — the place where we put things we didn’t quite know what to do with — and made piles of what I wanted to keep and what I wanted to discard. (These days many people are guided by Japanese organizing consultant/author Marie Kondo’s philosophy of only keeping what brings us joy, and I think I’ve always intuitively lived that way.)
Anyway, as I went through that closet, I pulled out my first nurse’s uniform from two decades prior. I placed it into a pile called “Questionable and to Be Reviewed Later.” Then I stumbled upon my father’s figure skates that he’d worn while teaching actor Paul Newman how to skate when my dad worked as an instructor at Rockefeller Center. I didn’t have the heart to give away those nostalgic items.
The items that were easy to discard included party invitations from ten years earlier, my children’s Halloween costumes, birth announcements, expired coupons, old straw hats we used to wear at Jones Beach, and incomplete decks of playing cards.
The “Must Keep Pile” was the most fascinating, because this comprised all the things that helped honor and respect the idea of perspective, and which gave me hope about the present. This pile included baby pictures, old school notebooks, kindergarten pictures, Dad’s favorite clothes, stamp and coin collections; and other miscellaneous collectibles, such as framed photographs with broken glass, awards won in tennis tournaments, autographed paraphernalia, posters, and favorite outfits.
Sorting through this memorabilia provided me with a perspective on my current life while also taking me for a stroll down memory lane. It’s amazing how an entire era can be illuminated by one item. During this task, I came across a very special treasure that touched a magical place within me where my inner writer resides. In a carton of papers, which included my children’s artwork, letters from sleepaway camp, old report cards, and income tax returns, was a stack of faded papers in a plastic sheath. It was something I’d seen before but had misplaced. I felt my eyes momentarily bulge like a bullfrog about to pounce on its prey as I realized what I’d rediscovered. What I was holding was my maternal grandmother’s journal depicting her life as an orphan during World War I in Poland — she’d been orphaned at the age of eleven. I yearned to share it with my family as a way to provide a much-needed sense of hope and perspective.
My grandmother, who was also my caregiver committed suicide when I was ten years old, and although I knew she was tormented, I never really knew why until I read her journal. Typed on an old Remington typewriter, the document was single-spaced, on paper that had turned light brown over the years. Correction fluid wasn’t available yet, so the pages were filled with strikeovers. Grandma Regina obviously didn’t care much about the use of paragraphs, as the fifteen pages were typed as one continuous document without indents.
For years after my grandmother’s suicide, I’d been fascinated by her story. I’d gathered bits and pieces of information about her life and had concluded that she’d had her share of childhood traumas and miseries, but once again I was reminded of the extent of her misfortunes. Reading about her trials and tribulations offered me perspective about my own life and how little annoyances like having to shovel the snow in order to get my children to school was nothing compared to what she’d been through — like having to identify her dead parents lying on an infirmary floor. I also realized that I’d inherited from my grandmother the passion for the written word and the importance of writing for healing, something I’ve advocated for others for many decades since.
My grandmother was born in Poland in the early 1900s. Her journal began with her father telling the family during dinner one night that war had been declared — Austria-Hungry against Russia. The following morning my grandmother looked out her second-floor bedroom window and watched “swarms of soldiers marching” among the children on the way to school. “There were horses running without riders on their backs. Many of those who were riding horses had neither arms or legs, as blood poured from their bodies,” she wrote.
She observed that the soldiers looked emaciated, and their clothes were all torn up. They were hungry and looked as if they could eat anything in sight. Within moments, they began running into homes on the street and raided the residents’ refrigerators. There were people standing on the street holding out jars of water. Some of the soldiers reached out for the water, but they barely had time to swallow, as they were ordered to march on.
My grandmother said that her mother was frantic and wanted to run with the army, but her father refused to leave. The next day, my grandmother roamed the streets and saw menacing-looking Cossacks dressed in long black coats and fur caps with ammunition slung across their breasts. In their hands, they held swords raised toward the heavens.
“I ran when I saw a young boy on the deserted street and the Cossacks were hacking him into small pieces. His mother ran to pick up the bloody pieces on her apron. My father finally decided it was time to leave and go to Poland as the fighting continued relentlessly,” she wrote.
Finally, her father agreed that they should all leave, but a cholera epidemic had already taken over their small village.
“First, only a whispering with single cases here and there, and then we all went into a state of horrified stupor. The stores closed. There was no school. There was no visiting, no handshakes, and no taking money from others. Some people had a little bag of camphor around their necks, which was thought to offer little protection against the disease,” she wrote.
My grandmother’s parents died a slow and inevitable death from cholera. Without warning or anticipation, my grandmother was orphaned with her eight-year-old sister.
“I was only eleven years old and very scared,” she wrote. Just before the war broke out, her two brothers had left for jobs in Vienna. Her once full and lively household was now empty, and more than half the town’s population had perished.
Much like children today who come from troubled homes, my grandmother found solace and hope in the daily ritual of attending school. She felt as if it was the only time she was cared for, and the only place where she could still behave like a child. Thankfully, she received a lot of support and food from her school, as well as from compassionate neighbors, but she still felt empty inside — all the compassion in the world couldn’t compensate for the sudden and tragic loss of her parents.
She and her sister finally decided to trek through the snow and hitch a ride to Vienna to find their brothers. When they finally found them, they felt very unwelcome in their brothers’ family homes. Their brothers’ wives practically slammed the doors in their faces. They said that they had enough trouble feeding their own children and didn’t have enough money to also take care of them.
Feeling that there was no other choice, the brothers decided to place their sisters in a small nearby orphanage. The shift in living situations was almost too difficult to bear. While at the orphanage, the girls learned that they were the only residents without parents. They wore “rags” that no one else wanted, and as their bodies grew, they became hungrier and hungrier. My grandmother’s journal ended with her high school graduation and her subsequent struggles to support her and her sister while working as a bank teller. All in all, my grandmother’s life was filled with turmoil and grief, and although just about everyone has demons to deal with, the fight for survival is, by far, the most primal and difficult.
I read my grandmother’s journal for the first time when my children were younger, and the second time when they were young adults. Each time, I was able to link my current perspective to that of my past, which gave me hope in navigating my own life challenges. What affects us now depends upon our current perspective. Of course, our family went through the usual turmoil relating to our children’s adolescent years, but overall, our life was safe, relatively calm, and somewhat predictable — something I couldn’t have said about my grandmother’s life. There were no menacing, hungry-looking soldiers marching down our street, and no deadly epidemics to fend off (not until now, that is).
Reading my grandmother’s journal also gave me hope and inspiration when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. As part of my healing process, I wrote Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal, which shared both of our stories.
There’s no doubt that there are times when life feels overwhelming, but when we look outside our own stories, we usually learn about someone else who is in a more tenuous predicament. Like my grandmother must have felt, I find that when life throws us curveballs, it’s very helpful to write down our feelings as a way to understand what’s happening and also to come to terms with our situations. Reading about the life experiences of our ancestors can give us a true sense of hope and perspective; plus, it’s a way to maintain a sense of control over our circumstances, try to change what we can, and let go of what we cannot change.
I am already more than six years older than my grandmother was when she committed suicide, and I continue to acknowledge the importance of maintaining hope and a sense of perspective in my life — knowing that the past gives me insight and meaning into my future.
My grandfather once confessed to me, “You watch, my dear, history will repeat itself. Mark my words.” Although he mentioned this in the context of fashion, I can certainly see how it applies to just about every aspect of our lives, as I continue to remind myself of the importance of instilling hope in my children and grandchildren by sharing stories that give them a much-needed perspective.
–Originally published in Post Road
Previously Published on Medium