The stuff of memories

My sisters have decided that I must have been adopted. They came to this conclusion about ten years ago, when we first started having our annual sisters-from-three-continents gettogethers, where we often discuss our childhood. “Do you remember when I used to pick you up from that kindergarten on Rowsley Street?” my older sister asked me. “No,” I answered. “I never went to a kindergarten there.” “Yes, you did,” one of my younger sisters chimed in. “We all did.” You get the idea. For some unknown reason, I don’t seem to remember half of the events that my sisters claim happened in our childhood, even though I am the middle one among us. My older sister is four years older than me, and my twin sisters are six years younger than me. However, many events which supposedly occurred when I was definitely old enough to remember are totally unfamiliar to me. I can recall nothing about them. Of course, being adopted wouldn’t really explain why I don’t recollect these things because my sisters remember that I was there when they occurred! For some reason, I’m the only one who can’t recall them. The adoption bit is just their amusing way of justifying my frequent lapses of memory. But I also remember things that some of them don’t, and when they challenge me and insist jokingly that those must be memories from my “birth family,” I contact another older member of the family for confirmation, and I’m often right. We are all blessed to some extent with a “selective memory.” We all remember different things, and several people who experienced the same event will often have completely different memories of it.

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This phenomenon is completely normal, but it does make it difficult for someone trying to write a family memoir to resolve discrepancies about events in the family’s past. I often write memoir essays, and I’ve grown accustomed to being contacted afterward by elderly relatives who say, “You know, it didn’t happen like that at all.” I’ve also gotten used to replying, “Well, I told this story according to Aunty Chava’s rec ollections. I’ll write the next one using your version of some event.” Family members’ conflicting memories can have much more far-reaching effects. A friend of ours doesn’t eat gebrokts on Pesach, but his brother, who was brought up in the same house, does. Why? It’s all a question of memory. Unfortunately, their parents died while the boys were still young, and they both have entirely different memories of the few childhood Pesachs they spent in their parents’ home. One distinctly remembers eating gebrokts, and the other definitely remembers not eating gebrokts. No living members of the family can help them. Sometimes people will have completely different memories and feelings about a certain event or time based on their individual circumstances. During the Holocaust, my mother and aunts traveled to England on the Kindertransport and were evacuated to Shefford with Rebbetzin Dr. Judith Grunfeld. I have heard so many versions of life in Shefford that sometimes it seems like it was actually several different places. Some people remember hating it there since their non-Jewish host families were unsympathetic, which colored their whole experience negatively. Others loved it and remained friends with their host families long after the war was over. Some even went back to visit them many years later.

As the only writer in the family, I feel it is almost my duty to try to record some of our family’s past, especially things that happened during and immediately after the Holocaust. However, we keep running into the problem of inconsistent versions of the same story. Was my grandfather saved by someone pulling him back when the Nazis asked for all rabbanim to step forward for special treatment? Whoever it was had the sense to realize that the people who stepped forward were probably going to get “special treatment” Nazi-style—meaning they would be killed immediately since the Nazis were not known to have particular respect for rabbanim. Did the person who pulled him back later become my parent’s mechutan when my sister married his son? The jury’s still out on that one, and presumably will be until Eliyahu Hanavi arrives to resolve all disputes. None of the people directly involved are still alive, and their descendants can’t agree on the story they were told by their parents. But I’ve learned that sometimes you have to go ahead and write a story down even if the facts aren’t 100 percent clear, or the story may be lost forever. It’s all right to say that there is more than one version of an event. With all of my experience in writing down family histories, both my own and others’, I know I am definitely not alone in experiencing these strange lapses in memory.

I even see it happening to my own children! Last year my granddaughter Chedvah, like so many other children in Israel, was doing a study of her family roots and asked if she could come speak to me about her great-great-grandparents (my grandparents). I happily agreed, and as she is not fluent in English, I printed out one of the articles I’d written about my grandfather that had been translated in Hebrew. The story had been told to me by an elderly lady whom we met when we came to live in Jerusalem. It turned out that she had been a young girl in Nazi Germany, and her family had attended my grandfather’s shul. She painted a picture of a tall young brave rabbi who gave fiery anti-Nazi sermons on Shabbos mornings while the Nazis stood outside, capable of arresting him at any moment. As soon as Chedvah got home, my daughter called and said she’d been amazed by the article I had sent home with her. Why had I never told her the story? I had no answer. I was sure I remembered telling her! And so my “selective memory” is transmitted to the next generation. Come to think of it, I wonder if, after 120 years, any of our children will sit down to discuss family memories and argue, “But I’m sure Mum was adopted! I distinctly heard Aunty Shosh say so once when they were having a family discussion…”

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