As the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz approached last month, discussion turned to the shrinking number of survivors. My father-in-law, Bill Gluck of Vancouver, was one of them, having been deported to Auschwitz from Hungary in 1944, a beautiful boy of 13 with piercing green eyes, a compact frame and a knockout grin. We mentally celebrated his life on that anniversary. But not 24 hours later, his ailing body gave out.
As we began to grieve my father-in-law’s death, I became aware of the delicate dance between remembering Holocaust survivors for the individuals they were, and invoking their identity as survivors.
Esteemed psychoanalyst and child survivor of the Holocaust Anna Ornstein specializes in trauma. Yet even she bristles at being called a “survivor,” telling the Washington Post on Jan. 23, “That’s almost like another crime.” She added, “We were reduced to a race…. This is my name, I had parents who raised me a certain way, and that was not washed away.”
Mourners don’t have the luxury of asking the departed how they wish to be remembered. In any case, we each carry our own points of salience with us when we remember.
At my father-in-law’s funeral and shiva, Bill’s nephew recalled dancing on his uncle’s feet. My husband described the invisible love that had been all around him, like clean air. Bill’s daughter reflected on the heartiness of autumn’s last remaining leaves as she had helped make her father comfortable during his final weeks. And there were his fellow Holocaust survivors, coming to pay respects to a departed member of their own.
Before I met him some 20 years ago, my father-in-law had visited Vancouver schools, telling students his personal story of survival and freedom. For some of the audience, this was their first experience of learning about the Holocaust. One of these students later befriended a young man from Toronto when they studied together at Queen’s University. That young Torontonian would, a few years later, become Bill’s son-in-law.
My stepmom encountered Bill years before I met him, hearing him relay his personal account one evening at Vancouver’s Jewish community centre. I, too, recall reading about Bill’s journey in the pages of the Jewish Western Bulletin (now the Jewish Independent) before meeting his son, who I would go on to marry.
Survivors manage to touch so many, directly and indirectly. Yet, as each one is, my father-in-law was so much more than the sum of those harrowing experiences. Along with his wife, my beloved mother-in-law, Bill built a life of love out of the depths of inhumanity. He lavished a great deal of affection and nurturing on his family, and found his own moments of serenity and solitude as he took up distance sailing around the islands of British Columbia in his later years.
As the rabbi spoke about my father-in-law at the graveside service, he spoke of the godliness that surely ran through him. In young Bill’s harrowing months at Auschwitz, he had found ways to help his fellow inmates. Perhaps most profoundly, Bill had also committed to memory details of instances of kindness amid the horror. Sometimes a certain German guard in the camps would help him – pulling him out of a work line to give him a less strenuous task, placing him on a bicycle during a long march, even giving him his gun to hold. These stories of goodness didn’t die with Bill, for my father-in-law had taken pains to impress these anecdotes upon his children.
Perhaps the godliness of survival is also the godliness of looking for kindness wherever it happens to be, and instilling goodness in the everyday. Bill wanted life to be simple and good; he wanted to find kindness around him, and he hoped others did too.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. A version of this article was previously published in the Canadian Jewish News.