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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 14.1 (2003) 163-167

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Lynne Joyrich

A Blurred Image

I am a small child. I climb into bed with my mother, and I see the numbers on her arm. “What’s that?” I ask. “My birthmark,” she replies. Some years later, after putting together the stories my grandmother was forever telling us with a realization of the terms of my mother’s life, I suddenly remember that day, and it occurs to me that what my mother told me was not true. Some years beyond that, after spending a great deal of time struggling with the inaccessibility of that life, it occurs to me that what my mother told me that morning years ago was indeed true. As a Jew born in Poland in the 1930s, my mother was marked by history, if not literally by her birth itself. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I was marked by my mother.

Observances, Exposures

My mother, Ida, doesn’t like to talk about her past. Of the members of the family who survived, she was the youngest, the one who remembers least, the one who tries the hardest to forget. She lost almost all of her family in the war; the only others to survive were her mother [End Page 163] (my grandmother, Esther) and three cousins (Edith, Sally, and Helen, “adopted” by my grandmother and treated as my mother’s sisters). After the war, they contacted members of the family in the U.S., and eventually they all came to Detroit. For a time, the three sisters lived with Esther and Ida. Each one married a survivor; my mother was the only one to marry an American—and even this move out of a kind of inner circle was a small one because my father was already related to her through the family in Detroit. Though my father’s father had a respected role, the family always appeared to me as a matriarchy with Esther at the head; she was less our leader than a kind of goddess, a Jewish saint, worshipped and adored by all. She made it her task to tell the children the family history—stories of close calls and survival, repeated so often that they became more legendary than biographical: the time your mother would have died when they rounded up children in the ghetto if Oscar Goldberg hadn’t thought to wrap her in a carpet and carry her back home; the time your mother would have died had her size not persuaded others she was older; the time your mother would have died in the “hospital” in Plashov had not a kind infirmary worker from their home town propped her up in bed to make her look stronger; the time your mother would have died upon her arrival to Birkenau had not a friend who had a relatively privileged position in the camp whisked her off to the barracks where Esther herself had just been placed; the time your mother would have died had not luck or fate somehow intervened. . . .

My “aunts” did not tell these kinds of stories, or at least not with the same sense of mission and purpose. They relayed their experiences in a more everyday fashion, simply the stuff of their memories of youth. For instance, one Passover, a teasing argument broke out between Edith and Helen (the two forever locked in some kind of affectionate battle): “You were always the clumsy one,” one said to the other when she nearly tripped while carrying a tray into the dining room. “No, you were,” came the reply. “Remember when you almost fell with that bowl of soup . . . ,” launching into a joke about one of their many near-fatal encounters in front of a camp guard. The sisters continued their teasing. The kids from my generation, the second generation, looked on with growing amazement, awe, even fear, as the story progressed and we realized what they were really talking about. As I’d come to expect, my mother, under pretense of tending to the meal, left...


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pp. 163-167
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2004
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