September 22, 2020

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Mother's Holocaust storiesrecounted

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/9/2019 (360 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As time and age claim the Holocaust survivor population around the world, it becomes increasingly imperative that the second generation of survivors take up the mantle of their storytelling.

That is precisely what Halifax writer Irene Oore has done — and she has done it with grace, reverence, poignancy and power.

Oore was born in Poland, grew up in Israel and is now a professor of French at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Oore’s brief memoir, The Listener: In the Shadow of the Holocaust, is primarily a retelling of the stories that her mother, Stefa, began sharing with her daughter when she was only four years old. Those stories focus on the years that Stefa spent on the run and in hiding as a Jewish woman during the German occupation of Poland in the Second World War.

Stefa’s stories are tales of trauma and terror, deprivation and desperation. They are stories of misplaced confidence, self-loathing and guilt and they are, by every measure, stories unfit for a child to hear. And yet they are stories that Stefa felt compelled to share with her daughter.

A lonely, only child, Oore grew up with her parents, aunt and uncle, all four of them Holocaust survivors.

"All four were haunted by their past, every moment of every day and every moment of every night," she writes. "I was their proof that they actually survived... I was their link to their present and their future."

That alone was a tremendous burden for Oore to shoulder. Her mother’s compulsive narration of her experiences only augmented that burden.

As a result, it was only after years of resenting and hiding from the stories that Oore began to understand her mother’s need to tell them — and her own obligation, as her daughter, to share them with her own children.

"It did not occur to me until much, much later," she confides, "that my listening to her, however imperfect, offered her perhaps a form of momentary relief."

At the start of the occupation, Stefa, her mother and sister moved from Lodz to Warsaw, thinking that the larger city would be safer for them. Mistaken, of course, they were confined to the ghetto, where disease, starvation, violence and cruelty were rampant.

Stefa managed to escape and obtain false identity papers, and spent the ensuing months often hiding in plain sight, posing at various times as a nanny and a maid. At one point, she slept in 56 places in a 41/2-month period.

At the end of the war, having escaped the fate of so many of her friends and neighbours, Stefa picked up the pieces of her life, reunited with her husband, had a family and moved to Israel. But she never escaped the war. And the trauma from the war affected everything she did and thought for the rest of her life, including how she saw the world and how she parented.

Neither Stefa nor Oore ever delve into great detail in their telling and retelling. But the minutiae of their experiences are not necessary.By lovingly reiterating her mother’s carefully chosen words and observations, Oore speaks volumes about trauma and the way in which it is unwittingly passed down from one generation to the next.

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.

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