Commentary: The Silent Time

…In the dark I see shining toward me
faces of epitaphs
wailing their song.
Graves of the whole
vanished Jewish world
blossom in my one-man tent.
And I pray:
Be a father, a mother to me,
a sister, a brother,
my own children, body-kin
real as pain,
from my own blood and skin
be my own dead,
let me grasp and take in
these destroyed millions…
Who else, like me, has
his own nighttime death-garden?
Memorial Poem, Jacob Glatstein

One day there will be no more remaining Holocaust survivors. The world knew this logically; very soon, it will know it experientially.

I once heard a Holocaust survivor speak about this concept. One day, he said, the Holocaust would pass from living memory, from numbers on the arms of living men and women, stories told in auditoriums and around coffee tables in New York, Paris, Moscow, and Jerusalem, into the shadowy realm of history, to take its place alongside the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Khmelnitsky uprising. To dwell in dusty books and on the screens of televisions, images flickering for a moment while the viewer searches for the remote.

Since the moment they were liberated, many of the survivors bore within them a constant awareness that, like it or not, they were witnesses to one of the most monumental horrors in human history. That they bore a responsibility to, and were forever bound in a covenant with, those who had gone to their deaths. From the time Holocaust memorialization came into vogue in the 1960s, there was a creeping awareness that those wishing to make a record of memory were racing against time; that one day the sun would rise on a world that had within it no living witness of those days of horror. In the 1990s, the push became more urgent, with millions of dollars spent on projects to make recordings of oral history, to collect documents and artifacts from the ever-diminishing population of survivors. We have been hearing for generations about the day of which he spoke. My interlocutor’s insight was nothing novel. But he gave the time after it a name I had never heard before. He called it the “Silent Time.”

The last survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was either Simcha Rotem, who died in 2018, or Leon Kopelman, who died in 2021. The last survivor of the Sobibor uprising, Semion Rosenfeld, died in 2019. In the spring of 2022, I read that the March of the Living, on hiatus during the Covid pandemic, would resume. It would be the last year that living survivors would participate; the organizers were unable to find enough who were sufficiently healthy to make the trek. There is more Holocaust education in American and European schools than ever before, more ready access to comprehensive information than at any time in history. Yet the number of people who have never heard of Auschwitz, who have only the dimmest inkling, or no inkling at all, of the unprecedented ghastliness of those years, grows at a steady pace. The Silent Time hasn’t yet come. But it is no longer part of a dimly foreseen future, lazily drifting in our general direction. It is imminent.

In my own family, we experienced the approach of the Silent Time slowly but inexorably, with the deaths of cousins, uncles, and grandparents over the course of decades. Each death marked the erasure of a world of memory, excepting only what dry, inadequate details could be inscribed by pen on paper, or with video or audio recordings necessarily curtailed by the limitations of the medium.

My mother’s mother died in 1989. She arrived at Auschwitz at the age of 23, with little idea of what to expect or of the scale of horror she would soon be witness to. She had the presence of mind on arrival to realize that she was standing in the “wrong” line. When the guards’ attention was directed elsewhere, she ran to the other line, dragging her two terrified sisters with her. All three survived a year through Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Her husband, my mother’s father, died in the final days of 1999. He came from a farm near Piestany in Slovakia. He joined the partisans, but he spoke very little about the war years. We know almost nothing of his experiences. When he returned home, his parents and seven of his eleven siblings had all been murdered. In 2016, my father’s father joined them. He had given his exit visa to Palestine to his older brother and worked in the Zionist youth movement in Hungary before the war until the fateful day in 1944 when the Nazis seized control of the country and began their deportations. He and his younger brother were together through hard labor, and he had held his brother in his arms as he died of exhaustion and sickness in a Gross-Rosen subcamp. Out of an extended family of seventy or so people, only a handful of cousins and his mother had survived. After the war he endured three decades of Soviet tyranny before being able to emigrate to America.

In 2021, while Covid prevented much of what we used to consider normal human interaction, my last surviving grandparent, my father’s mother, died. She had been fourteen years old when she arrived at Auschwitz, lied about her age to Josef Mengele, and was directed to the line that led away from the gas chambers and the crematoria. In the ensuing months, she lost everyone in her family except for an aunt and a cousin. She was ninety-one on the day she died. Not many of the alumni of the camps could have been younger than she. How many, now, could be left?

There is a box in which I keep my family’s prewar photos. I see the faces in those pictures sometimes in my dreams, sepia-toned and fading. The beards and modest clothing of the more devout, shaven cheeks and lower necklines of those exploring the boundaries of modernity. Some grave, aloof, some haunted by tragedy and loss. A few with a hint of mirth. Families gathered at tables and in yards, at study in schools or at play in forests and riversides. Images of a world unknowingly plunging toward a destruction unparalleled in human history. Pictures from a civilization about to be destroyed. The few such artifacts that survived the war, hidden away by neighbors in attics and cupboards on the off chance that any survivors would return from the death camps.

Most of our family’s prewar photos have found their way to me. It fell to me to collect, catalogue, identify, and scan them for a posterity that shows, at best, a lukewarm interest. What were they like, the people in those photos? What books did they read? What thoughts did they think? What music stirred their souls? What loves and hates, regrets and dreams lay behind the eyes that stare at me from those antique scraps of paper? I obsess over these questions that no longer have accessible answers. Most of the people in those pre-war photos are only names, leaves on a family tree.

For some I know a birth date, a death date. For a few, I might know a few paltry details—for very few, I might have an anecdote passed down orally, yet to be written in any permanent form. Too many of them exist only as photos, without even a name remembered by anyone still living, swallowed up by the relentless pace of time and the fading of living memory.

“Really?” my cousin asks, incredulous. “You never had that nightmare?” My wife looks at him as if he has three heads. Her family left the shtetls of Galitzia and Volhynia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. She is third generation American in the branches of her family most recently arrived on these shores. Fifth or sixth generation in some of her other branches. No one in her family bore a number on their arm. None of her kin were pushed into mass graves or vanished as smoke into the sky on a spring day.

I am silent. I know exactly what my cousin is talking about. I have tossed and turned to the nightmare of being trapped in a Nazi death camp many times—less often as I’ve aged, but it’s never entirely left me.

My cousins and I all know that dream. We have dreamed it all our lives, from the time we were children. Three of my grandparents were from Munkacs, the “Jerusalem of the Carpathians.” When the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944, the Jews of Munkacs, the majority of the town’s population, were confined to a ghetto of a few city blocks. Between May 15 and June 7, 1944, daily transports carried 144,000 Jews from Munkacs and the surrounding cities to Auschwitz, where the vast majority, including most of my family, were murdered on arrival. My cousins and I were the first generation of our family born in America; born less than a decade removed from the Munkacs our parents left in the early 1970s. Growing up, nearly everyone we knew over the age of 50 was an alumnus of Auschwitz and a dozen other camps scattered across Eastern Europe. Some of them had lost wives, children, whole families whose identities I wouldn’t discover till years later, if ever. All of them did things to survive that we, in our modern security and prosperity, can only describe, and never truly imagine. The children of my family grew up surrounded by survivors, listening to their conversations and their songs, in the rustic Hungarian of Carpathian Ruthenia. They were remarkable people, by and large, who had put the horrors of their past behind them and had striven to become productive citizens. They had built new lives and had families, and did their best to live without bitterness. They were our grandparents and great-uncles and great-aunts, loving and generous, but they could not help passing on some tiny measure of their trauma to us. Not enough to truly understand what they had gone through. But enough, perhaps, to get the gist of it, to have a speck of their terror and pain imprinted in our souls. My wife tells me of new research, that trauma can be passed down through DNA. It sounds like Lamarckian voodoo to me. And yet there is no denying that my cousins and I have an experience alien to her, and the others like her whose families had lived in America before the war. My wife never had the nightmare. She couldn’t understand the panic I felt when I realized, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, that our children’s passports were about to expire. The idea of possibly needing those passports, of having to flee, was never even a passing shadow in her upbringing. She looks on with detached amusement as I hide away a small hoard of easily transportable valuables, “just in case.” “The American cousins are different,” my grandmother once said. “Not worse or better, just different.”

We are at Yad Vashem, my 13-year-old daughter and I. We stand before a photo of a woman, hunched with age, leading some children by a fence in Auschwitz. I know the photo. Without reading the caption I know it is from the infamous Auschwitz Album taken by an SS photographer. I know that this unknown woman, photographed from behind so her face is obscured, is from Munkacs. She and the children are on their way to their deaths. Perhaps she arrived on the same train as my family. Perhaps she was with my great-grandparents during their brief and fatal visit to the gas chambers, just after their arrival. “Why didn’t they leave before it got to this point?” my daughter asks. How can I explain it to her? How can she understand? She did not grow up with the memory of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, of Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald. She is not ignorant of Jewish history, but the war years are as remote to her as any other of the myriad persecutions she knows, intellectually, that her people have suffered in history. She has grown up in a time of prosperity and freedom that would have been incomprehensible to her ancestors of a few generations past. She knows that even in the worst-case scenario, Israel is always open to her as a refuge, but she can’t really conceive of ever having to flee her homeland, the trauma of uprooting herself from everything she has known. I explain that many of the people whose images she sees didn’t have the resources to leave, and that, even if they did, no country would take them while it was still possible to get out. As we leave, our conversation turns to the importance of remembrance, the duty to carry the legacy of the murdered millions into the future. I speak to my daughter about the coming of the Silent Time. Like my wife, she is aware of its approach, but the full meaning of it, the warp and weft of it, is beyond her understanding. It is not her fault. She did not grow up surrounded by the legacy of the camps, did not consume it with every spoonful of my grandmother’s chicken soup. She is one generation too far removed to feel it in her bones. The American children are different too.

A painting hung in my grandparents’ house for my entire life. My father doesn’t remember when they acquired it; it may have belonged to their family before the war. It depicts a man in baroque clothing and surroundings, idling in his study with a well-worn volume open before him.

The painting, nameless as far as I know, was one of the “Roccoco Series” by interwar period Czechoslovakian-Jewish painter Beregi Sandor (also known as Sámuel Welber, 1876-1943/4). Beregi, a native of Munkacs, was best known for his sensitive portraits of the Jewish community of Munkacs and of the non-Jewish Carpathian peasantry. In a diary entry, Beregi’s contemporary, Adalbert Erdeli, wrote that Beregi was “a man with a big heart, a man-artist, devoted to beauty. He is witty, unable to offend anybody in a company. He was a straightforward person, very kind. Life forced him to paint portraits of dead grandparents…. To judge his creativity, considering just his remarkable witty caricatures and female portraits, would be wrong. Sámuel was a magic artist.”

Nobody knows for certain how Beregi died. Was he beaten to death by Hungarian fascists in Budapest in 1943, as some eyewitnesses insist? Was he herded onto the cattle car bound for Auschwitz in May of 1944, as others reported? He exists now only as a name, and in the paintings he created in life. As far as I know, there is no surviving photograph of him. In some ways Beregi is more mysterious and less remembered than the nameless faces in my family album, who at least have an image to survive them.

My family’s Beregi painting is hardly a masterpiece. It’s not remotely his best work. “Roccoco Series” was a nod to a passing fad, paintings he could dash off to pay the bills, allowing him to wander the streets in search of subjects that spoke more profoundly to him as an artist. The painting came into my possession when my grandmother died in 2021. I spent days studying it, noting the tiny flakes, the pinholes worn into the canvas. I called Yad Vashem, offered it to the museum’s collection if only its art restorers would do what they could to preserve it. The discussions went on for months, intermittently interrupted by the pandemic and its disruptions, staff turnover and allocation of resources elsewhere. I persisted. Finally, the day came. Carefully, reverently, I wrapped the painting, frame and all, in bubble wrap, slid it into its box, carefully sealed it in against the elements. Then the courier was at my door, and the painting was gone, too quickly for a proper farewell.

Later that afternoon I gazed up at the sky, imagining I could see the contrails of the plane carrying the Beregi heavenward. A small vestige of a lost civilization, on its way to join its fellow-relics in its new home in Jerusalem. There, to serve as receptacles of memory to weather the Silent Time. Because the Silent Time is almost upon us. Next year, the year after, perhaps five years from now—we, and all who come after us, will live in the Silent Time forever.

Republished with permission of White Rose Magazine

Brian Gottesman was born in 1978, the son of recent immigrants to the U.S. and the grandson of four Holocaust survivors. He lives in Delaware with his wife and children. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he practices law with the law firm of Gabell Beaver LLC. He is the author of “Gudmund’s Solution: A Tale of Legal Wrangling and Settlement from Viking-Age Iceland” (The Bencher, 2006) and “The Silent Wife: A Legal Tale from Ancient Sumeria” (IN RE, 2006).