My name is Menachem Kuchar
I am a survivor
My name is Menachem Kuchar
I am a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust
My name is Menachem Kuchar
I am a second generation survivor of the Nazi Holocaust
Everyone is aware of the suffering and tribulations of those — our parents — who lived through the horrific years, experiencing unspeakable tragedies in Europe, the place Jews mostly believed they had found refuge for over 2,000 years. Families torn apart, 6,000,000 murdered in the most brutal and inhuman ways.
How could anyone surviving this experience continue living — survive, the word itself is obscene, but what better description? Words simply are not a powerful enough tool to express the emotions. How could they continue to live, to want to carry on, in this miserable world that so betrayed its humanity?
Most survivors saw purpose in their survival. That they walked out on their feet while most stayed behind, ashes. They were spared by whatever, for something. Call it Fate, call it God, call it Destiny — no-one returned from hell unscarred.
Everything they touched had changed. Those, not the most broken, tried to return to a normality, to a semblance of their previous lives, lives without parents, grandparents, siblings, children, spouses, neighbours, friends.
Some picked up where they left off, but most couldn't. Because their homes were stolen from them, because the locals tried to — and sometimes did — murder them, because an immense trauma impeded any desire to go back to whence they came, because there was no-one nor nothing for whom nor for what to return.
To whatever life they re-emerged, they were determined to live it, in every sense of the word. To abandon and discard the past, except in their intense inner thoughts, in their very private space, in their nightmares deep in the darkness. How they reacted behind closed doors we never knew. They never forgot, they never found true release. Scream and howl and cry in the dead of night.
As a result we and our parents acted out a pretend game, a charade. They pretended we didn't know there was something different about us and we too pretended that we didn't know. It was all a sham, but it allowed a semblance of normality. That was important. But we all knew it for what it was. Did they really think if they didn't talk about it it never happened, it may vanish?
On the other hand, we really did not know, because they never told us. Neither did anyone else. We knew enough to know something. Not everything you know and learn you acquire through your five senses. There's a sixth sense, and even a seventh in your relationship with your parents, a non-tangible perception. You are not consciously cognisant of it nor can you describe it. Even now as I write I am unable to quantify it. But I live it, here and now, even though our parents are no longer with us; I have lived it my entire life.
Our real senses also picked things up. The looks they gave each other in certain situations, conversations with their landsman, a special relationship, a camaraderie built on joint experience, culminating in the ultimate of all awesome experiences. They spoke a vocabulary of which we understood only some of the body language. Their friends knew everything, and we, nothing. My father had been dead for ten years before I found out, by mere chance, that I had had a sister! I was twenty-three years old. It was only in my fifties that my mother finally revealed that I was indeed really left-handed and she had forced me to use my right hand, because "in Europe this was a bad omen — it looked weird". Everything was designed to protect us, a shield for our, and their, sanities. Yes, considering, we do appear to be normal, even quite sane.
Our attitude to Jews, and to non-Jews too, was different to that of indigenous Jews. I can walk into a room of strangers, everyone hush. I immediately perceive the second generationers in the crowd. They gravitate towards me. A magnetism, a common fear, a shared sinister secret.
As a child, only Jews with central European accents were real Jews. The articulation may be Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Romanian, German, Polish. We had one Englishman in our shul. I thought him a spy, or perhaps lost, but he always returned the following shabath.
I was often embarrassed, not for myself, but for my parents when they conversed with native English-speakers. I felt their pain at not being able to express themselves precisely, at being foreigners in their midsts. I would try and cover for them, speak for them. That seemed to cause even more frustration, so I stopped, holding the embarrassment, with my many other private burdens, well inside.
Australian-born Jews and the post-Holocaust mixed like water and turpentine. We had our own shuls, our own rabbis, our own social arena, even our own sports; we didn't mix socially. We didn't feel overly at home in their shuls and they were in the main very lost in ours. Our attitude to tradition was very different. We came from generations with a tradition, they from a shallow, short Jewish continuum, a panoply of Jewish traditions that arrived to distant shores. I recognise why we should not have expected them to understand us. They were happy before we came along and changed the rules.
We and our parents were polite and courteous in this company, but neither side understood, nor overly cared about the other. Empathy was lacking. There was tension in the air. They never understood me and my generation, not my very real hang-ups and never our Judaism. They never really wanted to.
How could they possibly relate to capos? Our parents recognised them, knew them, ignored them, openly snubbed them — to the locals we were all one.
All the time we kept alive our secret. Our parents tried to protect us from it and we to protect them. From what? Because they wouldn't let us really know, our situation was worse.
One of our biggest challenges was our inability to achieve our parents' expectations. We weren't living our own lives. We were living the lives our parents never had because of the war, the lives of our uncles and aunts and cousins, whose lives were viciously truncated. We had no choice in what we did, where we went. I was supposed to be Beatrice, but alas the chromosomes were confused. As my mother had no Y chromosomic name prepared she selected that of a doctor who appeared on cover of the newspaper. Having a good local name would provide me protection, hide my cursed identity. But she could never pronounce it. (I never checked who this character may have been, but as my mother had resided in the country for just two years with no previous knowledge of English, it is possible I am named after a mass-murderer who just happened to have been a doctor. Now that would be ironic.)
At a later date she decided my brother would make a better doctor — she was correct about that — but that I would be a great solicitor. For years that's how she introduced us. Post trauma Europeans thought these were the only portable professions. Portability was important. That's why we all come from families of only one or two children. Each adult can run and hide with one child; two introduces many pitfalls. Responsibility for repopulating the Jewish world was left largely to us, the second generation.
We had to be culturally rounded individuals. I learnt ballet, piano, clarinet, swimming, soccer (never rugby or cricket). I wasn't given a choice and I wasn't particularly good at any of them. Why was music acceptable and art beyond the pale?
When I informed my mother I had enrolled in engineering, I audibly discerned her palpitations. How could I ever make a living, bring up a family on something so trivial and childish, whatever it was? She didn't know anyone normal who was an engineer . . . and then eighteen months later I switched to Computer Science! In 1972 who knew what a computer was?
In each and every endeavour we had to excel. I wasn't allowed to be second in anything. I had to be first in the class; I had to swim faster than anyone else; I had to be the best pianist in the group; I couldn't play merely for enjoyment. Achieve, achieve, over-achieve — there was no other game in town. And if we managed to get close to any of their impossible expectations, the level suddenly rose, higher and higher. In essence nothing was attainable.
My parents never understood me. I don't think they tried. What I thought and believed was irrelevant to their future and thus to mine. It had to be what they thought, what they wanted. I was living their escaped dreams, fulfilling their lost life. Yeshiva after high school? Out of the question! No-one in our family did that! [Really? My father comes from a rabbinic family. I guess grandpa became chief rabbi and av beth din on knowledge he found at birth.] You've got to get a profession! Become a real man. Then, maybe then . . . . First stand on your own two feet . . . you never know when you may again have to run.
Was I being criticised for what I did wrong, badly, imprecisely, illogically? Or was I being criticised for being the me who was me, not their presumed or desired me. In their eyes, there was only room for one me. I agreed, but that me is me! Is that so bad?
My mother left God in Auschwitz. She didn't recognise Him any more. She, as opposed to my father, was an active assimilationist, though she couldn't quite break away, not totally. As much as she tried, as much as she believed she wanted to. In the end she did start to return.
As much as I rejected the assertion that I was a combination of people about whom I knew very little, glorified martyrs, my slaughtered relatives, in many ways perhaps that is whom I now am. Can I know? Can I know how much their over-the-top expectations formed me into whom I am? I fight it. I want to choose. Am I better for it? or worse or difficult or . . . .
I never knew them, these martyrs. They were partial narratives of angels. So I could never know whom I was supposed to be.
Who does understand me? I am complex, a conglomeration of dreams about many people who no longer are, for whom I substitute. My mother-in-law certainly doesn't know whom I am. She thinks she does, but she's clueless. We can't even laugh at the same jokes. The source of her myopia? She doesn't speak with a central European accent. Our backgrounds are oceans apart. Merely growing up in Sydney did not place us into the same Australian mindset.
I can say about my mother too, that she never knew whom I was, the real me. Towards the end of her life we conversed daily, small talk and family history in the main. Was there ever a warm relationship between us? I don't know. I don't possess the analytic tools to measure. I don't believe she ever accepted the real me, the me I wanted to be, the me I wanted her to accept, to get to know, to proudly call her son.
She did everything for me, but was she doing it for me, for a me or for herself? For an imagined son who could never exist in the real and cruel world we inhabit? Can I chance a guess at what a parent-son relationship should look like in normal times? from the perspective of a son? from my personal experience and those similar of my contemporaries? Could we ever know?
I pray we have been successful in recognising our children for whom they are and not for what we wanted or expected them to be.
My name is Menachem Kuchar
I am a survivor
I am an artist
My name is Menachem Kuchar Yakar
I am an Israeli
I am a survivor
I am an Israeli — not Ashkenazi, S'faradi, Teimani nor any subgrouping
I am a Jew living our ancient ancestral homeland in the Land of Israel
My name is Menachem Yakar
12th April, 2018 -- 27th Nisan, 5778 -- Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Day
You can send comments to Menachem here: