Scene: Autumn 1963. HELENA, age 12, dressed in school clothes, peels carrots at the kitchen sink. MOM, 34, stands next to HELENA washing lettuce. Light pools around them, reflecting the scene in the dark window behind the sink.
I read a book that I can’t stop thinking about. It’s giving me nightmares.
What book is that?
It’s called Eva by someone named Meyer Levin.
What’s it about? Why is it scaring you?
It takes place during World War II. A girl/woman, I can’t remember how old she is, tries to hide that she’s Jewish but she is found out and ends up in Auschwitz. She survives, though.
Where did you get the book?
I found it in Dad’s den.
Continues to wash lettuce, not looking at HELENA.
If you want to know about the concentration camps, you can ask me.
Making an exaggerated eyeroll.
Why would I ask you?
Turning to face HELENA, looking directly into her eyes.
Because I was there. I was in Auschwitz.
Continues peeling carrots, turning her gaze to the sink and the carrot peels that continue to pile up. The room remains quiet except for the voices of young girls fighting elsewhere in the house.
The ground shifted under my feet that evening and never returned to the pre-knowing state of solidity. Cracks and crevasses stretched dangerously through the remainder of my adolescence and far into adulthood. As I continued to peel carrots, stunned and wordless, my body knew that I had walked into a deep, deep truth. My life, my vision of my mother would never be the same. My breath would never come as easily. My heart might never crawl back out of my throat.
Placing my mother in the camps with Eva, in those lice-infested barracks, sleeping on wooden planks with dozens of other emaciated women, made my brain hurt. How could this be? She stood next to me, washing lettuce. My childhood slipped down the drain into the garbage disposal with the carrot peels.
I don’t remember the days, weeks, months that followed her revelation. I could create memories, convince myself that I thought about it each night in bed, that I asked my mother hundreds of questions, that I wrestled with the knowledge until I could accept it. But truthfully, I don’t remember. What I remember is that moment: the shock, the not wanting to believe, and those bright orange curls falling into the sink.
So began my initiation into becoming the keeper of my mother’s trauma. Along with the shock came the understanding that this was a secret of sorts, something never talked about in front of other people. During the sixties, the events of the Holocaust (a term not yet commonly used) still wore a shroud of shame and secrecy. My mother had told nobody her complete story, not even my father. “Let’s not talk about it,” said her uncle who brought her to America from a displaced persons camp in Sweden. She felt like a rape victim might feel, dirty and unreasonably at fault for her suffering. Being a survivor held no honor, no allure. That evening I had no idea what lay ahead.
Helena Fagan (she/her) lives in Juneau, Alaska where she writes on her husband’s commercial fishing boat, on beaches, and in coffee shops. Her mother’s history as a Holocaust survivor, the grandeur of Alaska, and her long career as an educator influence her writing of memoir, young adult novels, and poetry. Her poetry and nonfiction have been published in Tidal Echoes, Cirque, Alaska Women Speak, Ground, and North Coast Squid.