I wonder what my father would say. Have you ever had this thought come up in your mind, no matter how many years since one of your parents have passed you suddenly wonder how they would react? This is what came up for me so very strongly just over a month ago in Kigali, Rwanda, when I sat listening to the amazing survival story of a young, dynamic 31-year-old male whom I will call Peter (a fictitious name). Peter who was just over 2 years when his family was slaughtered during the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994. More on this later.
Actually, my father, who passed away at the age of 96 less than three years ago, never hid what he felt. I should know what he would say, because he definitely wasn’t shy about it, in the 60 years he and I were around in this world at the same time I can think of numerous times he said just what was on his mind.
For example, when I was about 15, for some reason I found myself sharing with him that I had invited some friends over the house when he and my mother were away and we smoked a few joints of marijuana (not something I did too often). “What!?”, he screamed out, “Do you want to be a hoodlum!!?”
Many years later, when I lived for over 4 years in East Asia, I would write long, philosophical letters sharing my experiences with my parents, my questioning and fascination with the practice of the martial art of Aikido which I did daily. I explained to my father that it was a life-time practice, a “Zen practice of a lifetime”, to which he replied: “Forget the lifetime, you have a good mind, do it in one year.” When he and my mother visited Japan, I was excited to take them to my Shiatsu class and to give my father a treatment at their hotel: “Very nice, Ronele”, he said, “But this is what you want to do? To work in a sauna?”
Eventually, upon returning from my long voyages abroad I entered a career of business development and marketing in technology start-up companies. I never could really find myself there, I did my rounds hopping and changing jobs, sometimes successful, other times not, nearly all times frustrated, passion-less and unfulfilled about having a career in “business”. I would, as always, share my sentiments and struggles with my dear father: “Ronnie you’re not a businessman, your too sensitive, they will just rip you off!” So it was with my beloved father, he always had an opinion, usually different than mine and I always seemed to want to hear it.
One of the most memorable of his reactions was when my wife and I came to visit my parents on the Sabbath before I would be leaving for the UK to do a “special trip” in honor of my 50th birthday- a “Vision Quest” in the forest. I did not tell him till a day before my departure, fearing that he might give me some flack about it all, after all this was obviously way way out of his “comfort zone”. I explained to him that I would be gone for 10 days in an organized program, 4 of these days I would be on my own without food in a forested area in the south of England. That this was an ancient Native American custom that was now adapted for the modern age for people to mark meaningful milestones in their lives. I will never forget the silence and then how he opened his big, brown, then 86-year-old eyes, very widely, slapped his face as he nodded his head in disbelief, turning towards my wife Merav: “A What! A ‘Vision Kvetch”!...what is this mishigas (craziness, in Yiddish)…Oy Vey Iz Mir!...what do you need it for?!!”
That was my father. We really were in two different worlds.
The Other Side
But that was only one side of my father, Mordechai, he had others. My father was an educated man, with a master’s degree in education, a career in teaching, vast experience in running schools, Yiddish journalism and managing cultural activities for the community. My father was a Holocaust survivor, who had been miraculously saved, had endured great hardship and misery in the ghetto, the labor camp and the Partisans. He and his sister Fanya, were the only survivors of their family, their parents, two siblings, grandmother and tens of uncles, aunts, cousins and other relatives, perished at the hands of the Nazis and their accomplices. My father was a refugee who re-built his life with amazing resilience, forged a family and lived an impressively creative and long life.
I am an offspring to this story, what is called “the Second Generation”. For all our many differences, I have long felt that “my father’s story” is not just his story, but in many ways, is part of me as well. For many years I studied his story, learned all that I could learn, committed to memory dates, names and incidents that took place decades ago; I worked for months on gathering and compiling hours of video testimony. My father was with me on this, and I was with him. When age-related dementia and physical decline began to take its toll on my father, I worried: how will I be able to persevere without him? What will be of the memory and knowledge of those of his family who were so brutally put to death, and all the richness of life that was theirs in their small town of Zhetl, Poland? (Today Belarus).
In July 2019 I received my answer. I had embarked on a 5-week journey to India, my self-designed “rite of passage” for age 60, in which I would give volunteer workshops to the disadvantaged in India and partake in Yoga and other transformational workshops for myself. It was “time for me” to mark the occasion. Or so I thought. Ten days into my journey the phone call arrived that my father was on his deathbed. Alas, there was something more important for me to attend to. I raced back by all means of transport and arrived at my father’s bedside at the nearby nursing home where he and my mother resided. He was unconscious, his eyes were closed and he was breathing deeply. I knew we were coming to an end. And it was in those moments that I found myself saying aloud to my father that I would not let his story be forgotten. That I would take up and carry the torch forward as best I could. He died the next morning.
I have made good on my promise. So far. Within months, I commissioned a film editor to help me produce a short film of my father’s testimony, and within a short period after that an abridged edition of less than 10 minutes. Less than 10 minutes, is that so difficult for me to show? Well, actually it was. The film, which is very emotional and moving, also seemed to me to be very personal: would I be doing justice to my father by showing it widely? I deliberated with myself for months, and to some degree I still deliberate. The film, which I called “A Sacred Legacy”, are the very words of my father from deep within his heart. They are now deep within my heart. When I share the film, I do so with a sense of sacredness, I must share it but I also must trust that whoever receives it will also understand what is meant by sacred.
Back to Rwanda
In February, 2022, I went to Rwanda.
I had planned for some time to visit this extraordinary country in Africa, to experience its nature and its people. I had to cancel the trip once due to Covid-19, and by the time I did manage to travel my motivation for coming to Rwanda had shifted considerably. I still had a wonderful 4-day trek on the Congo-Nile Trail, which was a fabulous and challenging experience. However, most of my time was spent differently: I wanted to meet and interview Genocide survivors, their offspring and people who work with them. I wanted to hear their stories. Stories from a horrific genocide in our time, where about 1 million innocent Tutsi and moderate Hutu people were butchered to death in 100 days- defenseless men, women and children. Even 28 years later, the pain and trauma remain, how could it be otherwise?
I was helped generously in my desire to meet these people and gave it my all. I found that because I was “carrying with me” a “sacred legacy” of my own from the Holocaust, I could somehow resonate differently with those whom I met. Somehow, with no explicit reason to cite, I could profoundly understand where they were coming from, could feel where they were. There was a connection of a different kind. Could it be that those who have suffered genocide or are carrying a legacy of genocide forward, could it be that they have a way to understand each other that is beyond words?
In the end I was privileged to meet with 24 individuals, each and every one of them touched me deeply. Each and everyone had a story to tell about the treacherous events that occurred, I left each conversation or interview differently than how I had entered it. One second-generation young man quoted his deceased father, who had been the only psychiatrist in Rwanda after the 1994 Genocide had come to an end: “The Genocide is a past that is never a past.”
Getting back to Peter whom I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Peter and I met on the last day of my stay in Rwanda. He openly shared with me his story: how he was saved by an adolescent cousin who took him in her arms from inside his parents' home, without the consent of his mother, and ran with him to their home in the countryside. His mother had feared leaving the capital city of Kigali and remained even though she was warned that Hutu militia would be coming for them. The whole family was murdered, only Peter, the toddler, survived. After the Genocide was over he lived with relatives but was subjected to physical abuse and violence by his uncle. Orphaned and alone in the world, Peter has courageously made his way, has built connections, has received a good education, and he continues to pave his way due to his initiative and resilience.
Peter told me: “I live my life not only for me but for my parents and siblings whose lives were taken.” During the Covid lockdown he found himself writing a letter to his mother, “talking to her” in his writing, a mother whose face and voice he cannot recall. He was only two years old.
As Peter talked I could feel his words reverberate inside me. I could visualize his mind, what it must be like to write to a mother whom you can never recall. And as he talked I began to wonder what my father would say…
Carrying the Torch
During the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, as our lives were all being reshuffled, I found myself seeking a call to do something more. I could sense in me what Viktor Frankl called an “existential vacuum” that demanded attention, what can be termed a “cry for meaning” that may or may not be heard. It was during this time that I decided to engage in a project that had never occurred to me in the past but which has come to fill me up more than I could have imagined. I decided to take up a PhD in “Wisdom Studies” from Ubiquity University, an online institution that focuses on holistic education and social activism, an institute which encourages students to self-design their path to pursue research and exploration in what resonates most deeply for them. Thus, at the age of 61, I found myself a student once again, only this time, in contrast with the past, I was a student with a passion…
I am pleased to say that now, some 16 months later, I have completed all 10 of my pre-dissertation courses, 10 papers have been filed and I am ramping up to begin my dissertation research on a topic that I have chosen, but I believe has chosen me no less:
"Life review as a means for personal reflection, spiritual growth, search for identity, meaning, and legacy creation in Second Generation children of Holocaust survivors, in their second half of life".
I am looking at what is before me with a sense of reverence, excitement, and anticipation but with a bit of fear, as well, to be perfectly honest. Will I be able to forge ahead with a sense of purpose and depth, or might I stumble and sink, because of the difficult emotional nature of the topic itself? I remind myself that this is all part of what is meant “to carry the torch”. To move forward, even where difficult, to seek the light even where there is darkness. This is my commitment. This is my responsibility.
Once again, I ask myself- what would my father say?
I think I know what he would think. Not everything needs to be said. Some things can be understood best without words.