Passover memories yield a journey of atonement

April 23, 2000|By Daniel Asa Rose

WHY DID I take my children to Europe to retrace our family's escape from the Holocaust? It's a question I asked myself many times over the course of this harrowing and haunting odyssey. Partly, it was to repair the damage done to our family in the wake of our divorce; the boys and I needed to be connected to something larger than ourselves. But mostly it was because of a memory I had from many years before when, at the age my sons now were, I committed an act that could only be called blasphemous.

Passover, when I was a child, was the season for making fun. My Old World relatives, having escaped Europe to live dignified diamond-dealing lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side, were so out of it that I had to snicker. "Good yontov [holiday]," I'd snicker in the station wagon on the drive into the city, fluttering my eyes with mock joy in imitation of a great uncle who in the winter of '43 had jumped out of a cattle car and hidden in a pigpen. During the seder, when it came time to go around the long table reading, I scandalized my sisters by muttering beneath my breath about a low-salt Holocaust diet. I tittered about a Holocaust aerobics class.

The climax, however, came when the room fell silent to allow a small cousin named Benjy to stand on a chair and sing the Four Questions. On and on went his singsong voice as the bright-eyed boy gazed about the room, eager to please. My sisters tried to ignore me, but eventually I would catch their eyes and we would all burst into giggles, shooting our hands in front of our mouths, ashamed of our glee.

Keep smiling

But here was the thing that truly shamed us. Benjy's parents would keep smiling, their eyes shining with pride, as their son kept singing. Benjy's parents had been married before the war, to other people. They had each lost their spouses and children at Birkenau, at Dachau. Penniless, dazed, wandering Europe after the war, they'd met in a refugee camp, gotten married, had a son. A miracle. Out of the ashes, a baby boy. That boy developed leukemia and died at age 5. Though they were aged before their time, they mustered the courage to try again. They had a second miracle: another boy. This boy was standing on the chair now, singing the Four Questions.

Unlike the other grown-up diamond-dealers in the room, Benjy's father was not well-off. He dealt not in diamonds but in diamond dust. Diamond dust is necessary because only diamonds can polish other diamonds, and diamond dust is the thing to do it with. But it's not the most glorious part of the business. It's the most humble, and Benjy's father would come to the basement of my great-uncle's apartment building to grind some of my great uncle's leftover stones into dust to make his living, an act of charity that was never spoken of. Benjy's father would lose his wife in a few years, but he would remain close to his son.

Benjy would grow up to be a renowned neurologist, always rushing off to perform important operations. As an old man, Benjy's father's eyes would fill with tears, his eyelashes glittering with diamond dust, when he would report that no matter how busy he was, Benjy would call him once a day at five, every day. Later still, six months after Benjy's father died, Benjy himself would die of prostate cancer at age 41, a sweetly bitter man, eager to please till the end.

Joining laughter

But for now, Benjy was on the chair, singing the Four Questions. His parents' eyes shone, the candle glow reflected on their smooth cheeks as they mouthed the words in time with his singing. All their attention was focused on their pride and joy. It didn't matter to them that we laughed. God had been generous by giving them this boy, and they could afford to be generous with the privileged children from the countryside. Afterward, they smiled warmly at us, pretending to share in our laughter, as though the whole time we'd been laughing about how nice it was. This was their most generous gift of all.

At Passover, the Haggadah tells the story of four sons, one of whom is wicked because he removes himself from the group. What it took me half a lifetime to understand was that I was not that wicked son, that for me, making fun was my way of metabolizing the Holocaust, of filtering the horrors through at my own speed; that I had to have sons of my own and take them to see the tragedy of our people in the land where it happened, before I could pay for my blasphemy, and redeem myself.

The trip I took with two sons to find the hiding places where our ancestors survived the Holocaust was not only a trip to bond ourselves into a family after our divorce, not only a chance to heal and to get in touch with our deepest selves, in a land where our people died for being Jews. It was, above all, a trip of atonement.

Daniel Asa Rose of Rehoboth, R.I., is a novelist and journalist.

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