Lev Raphael: Author Appearances

Writing a Jewish Life

This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2002 issue of Tikkun magazine and is based on a keynote address given at "From the Holocaust To Healing the World," Houston, Texas, October 14, 2001.

I grew up in a minefield. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I never knew when I might say or do the wrong thing and spark a devastating comment from my parents, something so dark and humiliating that I would feel as if the ground under me had exploded and a whirlpool had opened up and swallowed me alive.

Nothing could be wasted in our home, nothing could be thrown out. If I were scraping some unfinished food from my plate into the garbage can, I might be greeted with, "You know what we would have done for something like that in the war?"

No, I didn't know, not really, and I was afraid to ask, because I was wasting food when my parents had starved during the war. How could I be so thoughtless and cruel?

Of course, it was always "the war"—as if no other war had ever occurred in human history and no other tragedy had ever befallen the Jews. It was the air we breathed, the silence between words, the beast in the jungle waiting to spring. It was the horrible nightmares my father had, nightmares that had him crying out wordlessly, waking everyone up except himself. Their grip was so fierce that my mother had to shake and shake him to bring him back. I never knew the content of those dreams, just their coordinates: the war.

For me, growing up, there seemed no other significant experience in the world but that war, the one that had stolen from my parents their family, their friends, their home, their country, their past. There were no mementos of their lives in Europe before the war, hardly any photographs. Even memories were in short supply because they were dangerous — they invariably led to pain.

But there were mines, everywhere, waiting to explode.

Like the time when I was around eight years old, making a hand puppet from an old white sock on which I'd crayoned a face. He was going to be a superhero, so I tied a handkerchief around his neck to make the cape. But he needed an emblem, which I drew on his chest with gold glitter. A bolt of lightning. It looked so good I drew a second one and showed it to my mother, expecting praise and smiles. I was the kind of kid whose school art projects were almost always misshapen — these even bolts of lightning were a real triumph for me.

"It's just like the SS insignia," she said. So, the everyday scene of a child showing off his creation to a parent—played out tens of thousands of times in every family—was turned into a lesson of unpredictability and shame. It could happen anytime, anywhere. Whatever I was proud of could set off an explosion, could take my mother or father away, could crush me into insignificance.

And there were more than just these spare and critical comments. There were flashes of something closer to narrative, like flares lighting up the scene of devastation on a battlefield, or eruptions of some smoldering volcano. Who can remember what set them off? A song on the radio, an article in the newspaper, even something in my homework. Anything. Everything.

Though I was a mouthy kid, I had no words with which to respond. What can a child say when he's having after-school milk and cookies and somehow the war has joined him and his mother at the table, as inappropriate and ineluctable as death?

"In the ghetto," I remember my mother telling me, "we ground up glass and wrapped it with a little food to put in the rat holes, then stuffed the holes with whatever we could find." My mother seemed proud, and I think I was supposed to admire her cleverness. The resourceful Jews trapped by the Nazis, taking care of themselves.

But all I could think of was the rats, imagining them coming through the walls, my walls. Even as an adolescent, I was silenced. Once, while frantically looking for my keys, I threw things around my room and left without picking up the huge mess on the floor. When I returned, my mother told me it was just like when the Nazis stormed into her house in 1941 and started tearing it apart.

Tolstoy famously wrote that "all happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But I think that doesn't hold true for families of Holocaust survivors because we share a common landscape, the one that Lesbian Jewish poet Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, described this way: "where I came from was/burned off the map."

What might be a little different is that my search for understanding of what happened to my parents, what had spoiled and twisted their lives and left me an inheritance of terrible ambivalence about being Jewish, led me to become a writer.

In other words: a traitor, a spy, a betrayer of family secrets.

How did it happen?

I was in love with storytelling from an early age. My mother read to me, but I learned to read by myself quite well and quite early — partly through studying the captions to photos in LIFE magazine — and I was also writing little stories myself. In second grade I discovered science fiction and wrote a story about an alien who landed on earth, looked around and didn't like what he saw, so he flew away. Surprise, surprise.

I was a stranger in a strange land, and I don't just mean America, I mean my family. Novelist Elizabeth Benedict puts it this way: "The living room. The most treacherous country of all." Even in second grade, I was trying to make sense of this alien territory that was home.

My parents spoke Yiddish and read a Yiddish newspaper, had Jewish friends, and yet looked down on American Jews. Partly, it was because American Jews had done so little to help my parents when they immigrated to the United States in 1950 and had even failed to live up to promises of support, but mainly because, to them, American Jews were inauthentic, a cheap imitation of the real thing. The real thing was the Jewish Atlantis, a lost and mythical Yiddish-speaking land that had been destroyed by catastrophe, burned off the map.

Even though my father kept his store open on Saturday, he and my mother made fun of the Reform rabbi who drove to the shul down the block, and mocked the ungemacht (overdone) hats of the women going to services. "It's an Easter parade!" And my father often told variations of a joke I'm sure many of you have heard. A woman asks her Orthodox rabbi to say a bracha over her new car and he refuses: "What are you, crazy? Who does such a thing?" She finds a Conservative rabbi, and he also says no, but more politely. The reform Rabbi she locates is affable and says, "I'd be happy to — but first you have to tell me — what's a bracha?" That was my father's verdict on American Jews, the smiling disdain of a man who grew up in the same part of the world as Elie Wiesel but never set foot in a synagogue after the war.

For a long time during the war, my father had to pretend to be Christian. He learned to read the Latin prayers so well that he forgot how to read Yiddish and had to be taught by my mother when they met after the war. My multilingual mother, who prided herself on her literacy, not only remembered her native tongue, but, as she would be happy to inform you, spoke a pure and literary Vilno Yiddish. The Yiddish she heard in America made her cringe. What she encountered in the United States was no better than a Yiddish version of Brooklynese, or, you should excuse the expression, Pig Latin.

My parents made me attend an Arbeiter Ring Sunday school, but I never enjoyed it much. Why should I? Despite speaking Yiddish, these were people my parents didn't have an ounce of respect for, especially the ones who had offered my mother a job when they saw her work in Brussels, but reneged on the promise. She had been teaching Yiddish literature at a Bund-organized school whose students were either survivors or hidden during the war. They thought she was terrific in 1947 in Brussels, but, in 1950 New York, they thought she was nobody. I'll never know why. But I can still recall the way one of my younger teachers looked at my mother the first time they met, sometime in my early teens, mouth slightly agape, clearly drinking in my mother's beautiful Yiddish with as much rapture as a Czarist Russian emigré meeting someone claiming to be Anastasia.

When my consciousness of Israel started to develop, I asked why my parents hadn't gone there after the war and the answer was unswervingly angry from my mother: "Live with all those Jews! I had enough of them in the ghetto and the camps!" So — being with Jews, being Jewish itself did not seem something to be proud of. Worse, it was dangerous.

We had an uncle in Israel. There were pictures of him and his family. Why didn't my mother write to him? She didn't say it outright, but it had to be because he and her other brother had managed to escape from Vilno into Russia when the Nazis came, and she was left to take care of her parents. Left. A small word that covers an enormous tragedy. The five of them were on the last train from Vilno, but the Russians cleared it of Jews at the border. My mother's brothers ran after it, urging my mother and their parents to run too, but they couldn't. And so the three of them made their way back to Vilno, on foot, 400 kilometers my mother said, with bombs falling around them. Take care of her parents? Impossible — the Nazis shot her father at Polar and gassed her mother at Treblinka.

In first grade, perhaps around the time of the Eichmann trial, a girl at school told me that "they threw Jewish babies up in the air and caught them on bayonets." This was a people I wanted to identify with?

I don't think it's an accident that my favorite book as a little boy was The Three Musketeers, which I read over and over so many times that it annoyed my mother, and the book's binding broke and frayed. It's a novel where swords are wielded not against infants but adults, a book where a solitary young man plunges into a tumultuous world of adventure in which he triumphs. It's true that little boys often imagine themselves as powerful and daring because they are surrounded by giants, but for me this book had deeper resonance. I see now that it was a story of conquest while the few stories that were emerging from my parents were anything but heroic, at least as a boy would understand them. My parents had been victims; people had tried to kill them. Later I would learn that it wasn't just—just!—the brutal machinery of Nazism that they faced.

My father had cheated death twice before being imprisoned in Bergen Belsen. Once as a slave laborer in the Hungarian army when a Hungarian officer had lobbed a grenade at him and missed, a second time when he was standing in front of a firing squad and the RAF started bombing the area and he escaped. And he had cheated death a third time at the war's end when the train he was on from Bergen Belsen was stopped by the U.S. Ninth Army, and the Jews crammed onto it were saved from being machine-gunned and thrown into the Elbe.

Though I was an extroverted and noisy child (my mother said that she always knew where I was in our large, rambling apartment), I spent much of my growing up deep inside books. From an early age, if I liked an author, I read everything that person had written, some of the books twice or three times. Call it training to be a writer, call it escape. It served both purposes very well.

I read four or five books a week from the local library housed in a turn-of-the-century Gothic pile, always relishing my own choices over what was assigned at school, which was usually less interesting and less complex. For years I read science fiction and history, fascinated by alternate universes and by maps of Europe that showed vast territorial changes. Look at one page, a country exists. Turn the page to another century, and it's gone. I knew something about such disappearances. I read obsessively about dolphins, about attempts to communicate with them. Of course I was interested in this kind of investigation—wasn't I living in a murky submarine world of my own, with connection out of reach?

But when I discovered Henry James in junior high, where an English teacher had assigned his short novel Washington Square, something precious beckoned to me. Though I wouldn't have been able to express it at the time, this story of the shy, ungraceful daughter tyrannized by a contemptuous father struck home, struck a chord in my home. I knew what it was like to feel out of place, criticized, different at home and in the world.

It may be hard to remember, but the 1950s and 1960s were not remotely like the 1970s—there was little open discussion of the Holocaust yet. As Alan Mintz has written in Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America, in the post-war celebration of victory over fascism there was no room in America for this dark story without a happy ending. American Jews themselves were busy entering American society and making their mark, and for the most part they didn't want to hear what survivors had to say, so Holocaust survivors often felt stigmatized and silent. Survivors didn't have moral stature yet, and the whole subject was painful and embarrassing. I knew no better way to stop a discussion with my Jewish friends' parents than to say, "My parents were in concentration camps."

My parents were not only burned and branded by the past, they were resentful of the present in which money was extremely tight and their suffering only seemed to count for something among their network of friends who were all Holocaust survivors. My parents were angry, and their anger could erupt unexpectedly. With all their wealth of languages—Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Czech, German, French and more—they spoke English with embarrassingly heavy accents and could become enraged—in public—over what seemed to me to be trivialities. They embarrassed me, and in my grammar school classes I had the misfortune of being the only child of immigrants in a crowd of children whose parents were all comfortably bourgeois yekkehs. My classmates had large allowances, went to summer camps, joined the boy scouts, even traveled outside of New York for vacations. New England. Florida. California. These were all impossible for me.

A difficult environment to grow up in, but a rich field of observation—yet it remained buried treasure for years. I took creative writing courses in high school and college and discovered a stronger facility with language and imagery, with words, than I'd known I had. But my writing was as far away from myself as possible, and by that I mean as far away from my world, my own observations, my truest knowledge. The fiction that I wrote expressed my desire to erase my difference, to flee into another reality, any reality. My writing was profoundly un-Jewish, it said nothing about the Holocaust, and ignored my growing sexual conflict.

I was afraid of outrage and retribution both from non-Jews for being Jewish and from Jews for being either bisexual or gay. I had seen and studied the incredible uproar in the Jewish community generated by Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, which was published as I entered adolescence. The book terrified me for its defiance of taboos, for its open shouting at Jewish fearfulness and restriction. Roth once observed that what really made the book so infamous was that no one expects a Jew to go crazy in public. Not Jews, and especially not non-Jews, who as Portnoy says, "own the world and know absolutely nothing about human boundaries."

This was not mere rhetoric to me, this was real. My parents had seen their neighbors in Poland and Czechoslovakia eliminate human boundaries. And so I was afraid not only of betraying them, but also of exposing myself to potentially hostile goyish eyes. No wonder my fiction was full of disguises. It read like a series of desperate flares sent up for help.

But my creative writing professor in college understood those flares, and kept encouraging me to write something real. And even though I shared with her my confused sexuality, it took until my senior year before I was ready to begin claiming my talent as a writer. I was deeply in love with a non-Jewish girl who wanted to marry me, and the many layers of conflict were boiling over.

I needed her. I loved her. She loved Christmas—could I have a Christmas tree in our future home? It seemed impossible. Every time I walked down an imaginary road to our life together, I stumbled. What about our children? I knew nothing about how to raise a Jewish child, but I couldn't stomach the idea of raising a non-Jewish one. It would make me even less connected, less authentic, less me.

That was the year I read Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady and finally found an entrance into myself. It's a story of a free-spirited, independent, optimistic woman who finds that a huge inheritance leads into the blind alley of a loveless, cold marriage. Understanding at last the nature of her trap, she sits in front of a fire, mulling over what her life has come to, realizing that her imagined home of free expression and love openly given and received is really "The house of dumbness, the house of deafness, the house of suffocation."

I read that passage at three in the morning and was never the same again. That was the house I lived in. I saw it, felt it, finally had the words.

For several years my old college writing professor had urged me to write something real. Now I was ready. My writing started to take on an emotional depth and color that was new, and in less than two years, I began a story that was completely unlike anything I'd ever written before. It opened with a paragraph describing a boy's father and how the boy felt around him. I knew it was the doorway into a story I had to tell, and was afraid to tell. After I called my writing professor and read it to her on the phone, she urged me to keep writing, in fact made me agree to write a section, call her and read it to her, write another, call her, and so on until it was done a day and a half later. I was terrified—I was alive.

It turned into a story about the son of Holocaust survivors who felt alienated by his parents' past and crushed by it.

I was in a graduate writing program at the time and my workshop, including the crusty, gray-haired professor, hated it. They took turns dissecting my little story for an hour or so and then the professor disdainfully picked through the remains and pronounced it worthless. Did that mean anything? A simn a loksh ofn bord, as they say in Yiddish. The story won a prestigious writing prize judged by a famous editor and was published in Redbook, which had four and a half million readers. I made a lot of money and I received fan mail, realizing for the first time the power of being able to touch someone with what you write.

My parents were not touched; they were angry and disappointed. They had tried in their own way to shield me from the Holocaust, and here I was writing about it—and them—in disguised ways and writing about my own feelings. I wasn't supposed to have any feelings. My brother helpfully told me not to do it again.

I was devastated by their criticism, but I wasn't silenced. Winning the prize and getting published had given me more than enough positive feedback to feel emboldened to keep writing. I realized their approval was not a prize to long for. After all, as Janet Malcolm says, "Art is theft. Art is armed robbery. Art is not pleasing your mother."

Writing the story led me to consciously confront my troubled legacy as a child of survivors, and for the first time I started to read furiously about the Holocaust, steeping myself now in what for years had merely been bits of narrative gleaned from my parents, conquering my own nausea and fear of entering that Kingdom of Death. The timing couldn't have been better. It was 1978, and Helen Epstein had made headlines with her book Children of the Holocaust. Holocaust curricula were being introduced all over the United States, and Gerald Green's miniseries, "Holocaust," was filling America's TV screens.

I think that we children of Holocaust survivors can tend to feel we know a lot about those nightmare years in Europe, given the way they have left an imprint on our parents. But, like many others, I actually knew little in the way of facts before I began my reading of hundreds of articles and books of all kinds. I came to see that I had wanted to know less because the Holocaust had stolen my parents' past not just from them but from me, and had made reminiscing a dangerous and bleak prospect. This reading led me to teach a soul-stirring course on the Holocaust at the school in New York where I was an adjunct professor, and made me contemplate the possibility that my writing could serve a larger social purpose as opposed to being my individual path to success.

That's why the next five to six years were particularly frustrating. I was unable to sell a single story, anywhere. Rejections seemed to come by the pound. Perhaps I was young and overconfident and suffering from New York fantasies of greatness. Perhaps people weren't as ready to read fiction about the Second Generation as I had thought. I'll never know. What I do know is that it took being transplanted to Michigan—where I went to do a Ph.D.—to end the drought.

A black friend had told me she never felt so black as when she moved from New York City to Michigan and I have to tell you that East Lansing made me feel very Jewish. I, who had never been to a Passover Seder until I was twenty-three, sought out High Holy Day services for only the second time in my life. I moved into a Jewish students' co-op. I found myself attending Orthodox services; the feeling of sitting there for hours every Shabbat was like being wrapped in a warm and life-giving tallis.

This shift towards Judaism really had begun for me in New York before I left because my overwhelming immersion in reading about the Holocaust, about how Jews had died in Europe from 1933–1945, had left me hungry to know how they had lived. Though I'd read books of Jewish history before, I knew nothing about Judaism, and so I turned to books like Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Earth is the Lord's and Milton Steinberg's Basic Judaism. I found myself proud of my religion and fascinated by it.

In Lansing people at the minyan helped me learn prayers, learn what they meant, learn the structure of the services so that I could feel at home, and they invited me into their homes and taught me what it was like to make Shabbat a refuge from the week. The first time I lit shabbat candles in my little room, I truly crossed a boundary and became a baal teshuvah, one who returns. That same year I held the Torah during Kol Nidre, chanted by a Holocaust survivor with all the passion of a professional Old World Cantor. I felt exalted and faint, and that night I dreamt that someone was singing Av harachamim—merciful father. Isn't that what I needed?

Michigan—which we Jews there like to call the land of michigoyim—had other surprises for me. I met a nice Jewish doctor—with two sons. Not exactly what my parents had hoped for. I had supposed that they would cut me some slack because my brother had married a Catholic whom my mother called a "Poylisheh dripkeh," but we were both considered disappointments.

My partner had grown up with Orthodox Judaism forced on him without explanations. Whenever he'd ask why something was done, the answer was always "because." Well, together we started exploring how to connect ourselves to Jewish life, and I'm happy to say that our growing devotion to Yiddishkeit in many forms had a profound impact on one of my stepsons, who is now a Hillel Director.

This involvement with Jewish observance, which had been totally foreign to me, also led me to ask a simple question: if I truly had something to say, who was my audience? At the time I'd been trying to publish in national and literary magazines—but what about Jewish publications? Andekt America, right?

That was clearly the answer, and through the 1980s I steadily published again in places like the Baltimore Jewish Times, The Detroit Jewish News, Agada, The Reconstructionist, Hadassah, and even a Jewish magazine called Shmate.

By 1990 I was ready to publish a book of stories, Dancing on Tisha B'Av, whose subjects are children of survivors, coming out, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. I started touring bookstores and synagogues around the country and was amazed at the outpouring of gratitude for my work—and by the stories people told me. Quite often they were about secrets, about how individuals had found out they were Jewish in extraordinary circumstances.

I felt called. I recast a novel I'd been working on for years as a novel about secrets. Winter Eyes tells the story of Polish Jews who not only leave Europe but leave their Jewishness behind, or try to. They raise their son Stefan as a Catholic, and the book charts the price of hiding in this family.

After that novel I was drawn in different directions—children's literature, psychology and education, memoir, a book about Edith Wharton. But the years of writing and speaking about the Holocaust and its impact had worn me out, and I needed a break. I also felt that my sense of humor never found expression in my work, and that was troubling. So in the mid-1990s I turned to writing mysteries. These were not just any mysteries, but academic satirical mysteries with a Jewish gay protagonist. That's probably niche marketing at its finest.

My amateur sleuth's partner was the character who appeared as a child and teenager in Winter Eyes and so here, too, was a thread of Second Generation anxiety and pain as well as an attempt to deal with Jewish identity.

Twenty-three years as a published writer have taught me that publishing is a hazardous enterprise at best, an arena of life where it would be best to inject your self-esteem with novocaine if such a thing were possible. A writing career is as unpredictable as the stock market, exhilarating on some days, crushing on others.

These past two decades of writing have also made it clear that no matter what kind of success I achieve, it will not redeem my parents' pain but only my own. I think this is a realization that many children of survivors have to come to. The infamy that struck our parents' lives can't be erased. That doesn't diminish what we've accomplished, only sets it in a more realistic context. When I look back at my beloved Three Musketeers, I see there is as much sorrow as excitement, as much pain as romance. The book isn't just a stage for swaggering swordplay—it is filled with loss, betrayal, loneliness, and death. Yet D'Artagnan survives with his honor intact. He grows up.

My latest project, on the immediate post-war years in Europe, brings me back to that kitchen table where I sat with my mother after school, and it's something I feel as called to write as anything that has ever seized my imagination and stirred my dreams and opened my word-hoard, as the Anglo-Saxon poets used to say.

After the war, my parents met in a displaced persons camp and wound up in Belgium. My mother, from a prominent Bundist family in Vilna, became a teacher at a Bund school in Brussels that I mentioned before, whose students were child survivors of the Holocaust or Jewish children hidden in Belgium by priests and nuns and other citizens. The Belgians did a particularly fine job of hiding Jews, especially Jewish children. But these children had lost not just years of schooling, they had lost their connection to yiddishkeit, and my mother taught Yiddish language and literature in an atmosphere of safety, love, and excitement. From what I have gathered, these were extraordinary times. People were alive again, and Brussels was a small gan eyden, a paradise, after the sufferings of the war.

My mother always spoke fondly, joyfully of this time in her life, of the bakery on the first floor of their building whose early morning breads wafted them awake, of the squeaky tram line on their street, the delicious fresh vegetables they couldn't seem to find in New York, the oddities and humor of living in a bicultural and bilingual country. They lived in Anderlecht and my father learned Flemish, while my mother's pre-war French flourished.

I heard about the plays her students performed; I saw her look at photos of them with affection and longing. She had kept the going-away present she had been given—a gorgeous clutch leather bag—wrapped and untouched. She loved her students, and in researching a book about this school and this special time of rebirth, I have been searching for and finding some of them. My mother's favorite student lives in Melbourne, but I've been able to interview her in Brussels and Houston.

This book may take years. There are people I need to interview face-to-face in Los Angeles, Montreal, Toronto, Brussels, Melbourne. I'm anxious to contact those elderly survivors whose insight and recollections I need, though I also know this is a complex story that cannot be rushed. It is a book I was born to write, combining memoir, travelogue, history, psychology. It will be a journey and a joy.

For me, writing has proven to be a catalyst, a laboratory; it has led to a deepened Jewish consciousness, profound connections with my people, bridges built between Jew and non-Jew, gay and straight. It has healed my own inner world and I have seen it as tikkun olam. I hope that everything I write says in one way or another what Jews say after someone has had an honor during a torah service, yasher koach, may your strength be multiplied.

And that is especially true since September 11. One consistent thread in firsthand accounts of the Holocaust I've read is the response to shocking news, and particularly the news about the concentration camps.

In memoir after memoir, report after report, one hears Jews trapped in ghettoes or in hiding saying, "It can't be true. It's not possible." People didn't behave like that. Germans couldn't behave like that—they were so civilized, so cultured. My parents were among those who doubted the truth; it was simply too grotesque.

Initial accounts in American newspapers of Nazi atrocities were greeted with disbelief, as Walter Laqueur describes in his book, The Terrible Secret. When the Polish representative, Jan Karski—an eyewitness to the operation of the Belzec concentration camp—came to America to report what was happening in Poland, Justice Felix Frankfurter told him, "I can't believe you." He did not think that Karski was lying, he simply could not assimilate the unimaginable.

On September 11, I stayed by the TV Tuesday morning from the moment my youngest stepson called to tell me the World Trade Center was on fire and a plane had hit one of the towers. Even though I saw the second plane hit and then heard the news about the Pentagon, I quite literally could not believe what I was seeing. I'd just been in New York a day before and had flown past the World Trade Center through clear skies.

When my stepson said, "Oh my God, the tower's collapsing," my first thought was, "It's just on fire. The smoke and dust is from the fire."

Only later did I realize that, despite the evidence of my eyes, my stepsons' alarm, and the reports from commentators on the scene, I had immediately sought a less painful truth. Even though I had television, I, like Jews around the world during World War II facing the growing evidence of Nazi genocide, was vainly searching for a ray of hope.

When the first plane hit, my father was only three blocks away from the World Trade Center. Had circumstances been a little different, he might have been right on the scene and his car might have been one of the dusty, shattered hulks whose images have filled the news.

"Don't ask," he said. "It was like the war. The explosions—"

It was the fourth time in his life that he had escaped death.

Feeling the shock, feeling the sense of violation, the terror, but particularly the disbelief that has hit New Yorkers and the country as a whole, it is only now, some fifty years after my parents arrived in this free country, that I have a real inkling of what it must have felt like to say during the Holocaust, "This can't be happening. It's not possible." I feel closer to what my parents went through, in a strange and horrible way.

The unimaginable has come home, which makes the world all the more in need of healing, and writing, and praise. Yes, praise. The Polish poet Adam Zagajewski put it this way in a poem published by The New Yorker soon after September 11:

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gather acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanished
and returns.