from Children of the Holocaust
by Margit Silberstein
introduced and translated by Karin Filipsson
‘Two remnants from the war, my parents, were starting over. From where? From scratch? How can you do that? With only a blank page, a family tree with only the trunk left, all the branches brutally cut off?’
Förintelsens Barn (Children of the Holocaust) tells the story of Swedish journalist and writer Margit Silberstein’s parents’ escape from the Holocaust, woven together with Silberstein’s own experience of navigating her Jewish heritage while growing up in postwar Sweden. It is a beautifully written memoir that uses detailed precision and a simple, yet emotionally rich, language to convey the particular experience of inheriting a mixed bag of love, hope, survivor’s guilt and despair.
Using excerpts from their love letters, Silberstein recounts the poetic love story of her parents, who were forced apart during the war, alongside her own story as the child of refugees who wanted nothing more than for their children to fit into Swedish society while simultaneously cherishing their heritage: ‘My brother and I became their salvation, we gave their lives meaning and they loved us beyond everything. Is being the object of this sort of encompassing love always a good thing? It might give you self-esteem, but it comes with a devastating sense of guilt.’
Silberstein’s fine-tuned narrative conveys her parents’ wondrous love story, which shines through even in the depictions of horrific despair and paralyzing fear. It’s a story about two remnants of humans who are shaped by their destiny, a destiny which carries on to the next generation. Furthermore, it is a story about belonging and not belonging, believing and not believing, hoping when there is no hope, but still carrying on.
I am currently looking for a publisher for my translation of Children of the Holocaust. The following extract is the second chapter of the memoir, and describes Margit’s early life in Norrköping.
from Children of the Holocaust
A Precocious Girl
Bratca, May 7th, 1947
My beloved Ili,
I am writing to you about something that I know you don’t want to hear of. But I am telling you again; it is selfish and frivolous to bring a child into this world just for our own sake. We would only bring them sorrow, despair and pain much like our own lives have been full of. But if we as Jews don’t have children, then we have solved the Jewish problem ourselves.
Eventually, there were children. My Dad had begun longing for a child, he imagined a little girl named Eva.
Surely she will look just like you?
There was a girl named Margit, and I do look like my mother. I have three names; Margit, Asta, Elizabeth. Margit is after my aunt who was murdered, my mom’s closest sister; they had a special bond. Margit. I carry her name, and when my mom looked into my eyes she saw the mirror image of her sister. Margit is a common Hungarian name. For example, the well-known green island in the river Donau between Buda and Pest is called Margitziget. To me, the name is a symbol of my Jewish identity. The name Asta was given to me because my misplaced parents thought it was a typical Swedish name. Their reasoning behind this was simply that the daughter of my parents’ first friends in Norrköping, aunt Aina and uncle Einar, was called Asta. I have never been fond of the name. In Swedish, Asta rhymes with kasta, which means to toss something. The kids at school didn’t exactly bully me for the name, but I was teased about it often enough. I actually don’t know why my parents gave me the name Elizabeth. My identity consists of the two names Asta and Margit; they are intertwined and create the person I am. Sometimes Asta has been the dominating persona, and at other times Margit has been more prevalent. Mom and dad wanted my brother and me to be both Jews and Swedes. However, their guidance was often irrational and at times confusing. They were terrified that we would forget where we came from and not care enough about our Jewish heritage.
I met Lorika. She told me that she had seen you in Auschwitz. At first she didn’t recognize you. You asked her if you looked awful. She said no, but it was a lie.
My mom survived hell on earth twice, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She wasn’t supposed to get out of there alive. She did, but only as a shadow of life. Sometimes people will ask me, out of everyone, why did your mother make it? To which there is no answer. Or, the most accurate answer is probably chance. It was by chance that a few people were not gassed to death, not starved to death, not tortured to death in the monstrous machinery. Some ended their own lives by throwing themselves against the singing thread. A singing thread; it sounds almost poetic, but that was what the prisoners called the electric wire fence, because its vibrations sounded like singing. I understand why people ask this question, but still, I find it provoking. As if there was a strategy for how to survive Auschwitz. My mom was not a survivor, she was a surviving exception to the rule. The rest of her family was murdered. The fact that Mom’s tattered body managed to create life is a miracle to me, a triumph. Hitler did not fully succeed in his attempt at annihilation.
My dad got through almost two years of imprisonment in Siberia. Every one of his closest family members were killed in the Nazis’ concentration camps. He never found out exactly who. My dad never uttered one word to me or my brother about his pain or his loss. Were we, the children of the Holocaust, going to betray our heritage? After all the persecution, the killing, the degradation, everything our parents had to submit to—because they were Jews? That was the dramatic rhetorical question that lingered over my childhood. Even if no one expressed it out loud, the question was everywhere, in every little corner of my world; a world in which I tried to create some order, which I tried to make sense of. Certainly, it wasn’t pedagogically sensible, and it wasn’t intended as a childrearing method, but it was just there.
Never have I felt like I wanted to be anybody but Margit Asta; one human being, part of two worlds. If I feel like I am too much of one, I change swiftly into the other one. Tony Judt, the Jewish historian who died in 2010, described himself as a border-resident. He explained that he felt at home in spaces between places—political, ethnic and geographical.
When Mom and Dad were torn apart in 1944 and Mom was sent to Auschwitz while Dad was incarcerated as a working soldier, neither of them knew what had happened to the other. They found each other in the chaos after the war thanks to the Red Cross and by putting ads in newspapers, particularly in the United States. That was how many people found their lost ones again. When my mother and father were reunited at the Central train station in Norrköping in the early spring of 1948, everything had happened. Everything was gone. Everybody was dead. They were alone in the world. No Margit, no Irma—Dad’s dear little sister; no one from their families.
Two remnants from the war, my parents, were starting over. From where? From scratch? How can you do that? With only a blank page, a family tree with only the trunk left, all the branches brutally cut off? Never again would they feel the sense of togetherness with their parents and all their siblings during Friday night Sabbath, when the candles were about to be lit. Gathering with friends and wretched beggars, who in accordance with old Jewish tradition were invited to the Sabbath—this world was no more. Now there was just the two of them, alone on the planet. But somehow they would build a new life, although on fragile ground. My brother and I became their salvation, we gave their lives meaning and they loved us beyond everything. Is being the object of this sort of encompassing love always a good thing? It might give you self-esteem, but it comes with a devastating sense of guilt.
Swedish class society could have been captured in a snapshot from the block where I spent my early childhood. We lived in a two-room apartment without hot running water on Generalsgatan in downtown Norrköping. The bathroom was in an outhouse in the backyard. On Saturday mornings, Mom and I would listen to Rasmus, Pontus and Toker from our thick, brown Radiola radio. Dad would be at work, and my brother was still too young to listen to radio shows. ‘By gum, you’re dumb!’ Rasmus would say to his sister on the show, and this expression was on everybody’s lips, since back then we didn’t have TV, so the radio was the campfire.
My classmate Eva lived across the street from us, in a house which had an indoor bathroom. Eva’s mom worked in the downstairs bakery, from which the most wonderful smell of freshly baked goods trickled out. Every morning, Eva’s family had fresh buns for breakfast. I can almost still recall the smell of fresh bread and nostalgia. I was jealous of both the buns and the bathroom. A bit further down the road from us was the nice street, where some of my classmates lived in apartments with high ceilings and rooms of their own, something I could only dream of, and I did. Those kids were not allowed to call their parents by their first names, which seemed very strange to me. Life in these beautiful homes was a tantalizing fantasy in my mind. To be sure, I felt more comfortable in houses similar to my own, but I was also breathlessly astonished by the inaccessible nature of a world which was not mine. At home, in our small apartment, my brother Willy and I slept on a fold-out couch in the living room, and my parents slept in the kitchen.
Our building was exactly like the ones you can see in Swedish movies from that time. I still remember Fru Carlsson, who would scream out loud in the middle of the night and walk outside wearing only her nightgown. We all knew that she was sick, and we felt sorry for her. Fröken Andersson was a friendly lady, but once she got annoyed with me. She would walk up and down the stairs from her apartment down to the food cellar, carrying jars of jam that she had presumably preserved herself. Every time I saw her I would curtsey and say Goddag, and eventually she got sick of it and asked with a frown why I had to keep doing that. I didn’t understand, I had been taught to greet grown-ups this way, so I did. I even curtseyed when the phone rang and it was a grown up on the line. Three-six-four-eight. Good day. And curtsey.
There was a small arbor of lilacs in our backyard. If you were lucky, the friendly women in the building would be sitting there and they would offer you sweet saft to drink and cinnamon buns to eat. There was a girl named Siv, who was a few years older than me. She would come over to our yard from one of the other houses, and she had her own corner where she would let both boys and girls kiss her on the mouth. The yard was also the arena for my bicycle practice. I had been given a two-wheeler and I was learning how to brake. I was a slow learner; it was difficult to use the brakes correctly. Again and again, I biked straight into a fence at the far end of the yard. It was absolutely forbidden to leave the fenced-in yard around our building. I was not to sneak out through the iron gate, and I was told to watch out for strange men. Once, I snuck out into the street anyway, and Dad was very angry when he found me. I remember how he picked me up by the suspenders of my red overalls and carried me inside. But is that really my own memory? I was only four or five years old after all. Perhaps the incident is part of a story someone told me.
I was a serious child, precocious and very neat. I always placed the clothes I was going to wear the next day in kindergarten neatly folded on a stool, after I had said my prayers and asked God to bless Mom, Dad, Willy and myself. Sometimes I included Kristina in my nightly prayers. She was a classmate of mine who lived in Saltängen, a poverty-ridden neighborhood where the Swedish illustrator Albert Engström supposedly got the inspiration for his figures. I always considered Kristina to be poor, I believed that I could spot poverty when I saw it, and Kristina’s despair was deeper and harder than my family’s struggles. I visited her house a few times, and it was a messy and crowded home with many children. She had few friends but she was always invited to all the birthday parties because she would always bring the nicest and most expensive gifts. For example, a precious perfume bottle which smelled sweetly of lilies of the valley. I thought she was buying herself friendship. She also brought bags of candy to school and shared them generously during recess.
Dad worked at the wool factory, YFA, and Mom stayed home and did embroidery, patterns and initials on sheets, pillowcases and tablecloths for customers; it was important to keep a nice and neat linen closet. My friends enjoyed our house, maybe because it was a little louder and more easy-going than they were used to. I think they also felt that Mom and Dad were happy to have their daughter’s friends over. The fact that our home was livelier and louder than most families’ was of course equally good and bad for me, since children often want things to be the same as everywhere else. Mom and Dad spoke louder than most people when we were taking the yellow streetcar in Norrköping. Embarrassing. Sometimes they would speak Hungarian at the same loud volume. This was a fate worse than death to me, the child sitting next to them. Especially since back then Sweden was a homogenous country without many foreigners.
My parents plodded along, there was no excess, but everything was clean and neat, my mom was especially particular about hygiene. I remember her sweeping the kitchen floor methodically, tiny piles, not a crumb left behind. Or peeling potatoes in a grey steel tub. Neatly, everything had to be done properly. Neatly, nicely, perfectly. Dad was no worse; he enjoyed wiping the surfaces until they sparkled, was proud to get them to shine. I don’t know if they pondered how they were expected to behave to become assimilated in this new country. They were grateful to Sweden for taking them in and they did their best to show their gratitude and be good Swedish citizens, which they eventually became. I created my own manual for childish and inconsistent integration, based on my parents’ instructions: don’t stand out, but don’t forget who you are either.
Many Jewish children did not participate in the teaching of Christianity at school, which probably consisted of more indoctrination than it does today. I did participate, and I was fascinated by the story about Jesus, even though I knew that I wasn’t supposed to like him too much. He was not the Messiah, not my savior. I sang the hymns but I tried to avoid praising Jesus by just moving my lips. Hypocrisy? I prefer to call it a strategy. The ten commandments on the other hand were without complications; they were meant for all of us. When I told my best friend that I was Jewish she came back the next day, concerned, and told me that her dad had said that I was of a different race. That seemed strange to me. Ingrid and I were like two peas in a pod. Did I belong to another race, another kind?
I loved my teacher, Mr. Lindén, the way children do when they assign their teacher a place on a pedestal, next to their mother and father. Mr. Lindén was one reason I felt as if my Jewishness was exciting and interesting. He made me grow and he even cared about my parents; sometimes he would call them just to check in and see how they were doing. I have forgiven him for reading out loud in class the note where I had written the name of a boy I liked. My friend who was sitting at the desk next to mine had asked me which boy I had a crush on. I don’t know whose face was most red, mine or Carl-Henrik’s. In my diary I wrote about Mr. Lindén, proudly describing how I sat next to him during lunch:
After everyone had left and it was just Mr. Lindén and me there, he asked me which books I had been reading. I said that I had just finished The Diary of Anne Frank and a book about Joan of Arc. He said that I ought to read Exodus. I know that Dad has read it. I think it is a difficult book, but Mr. Lindén said that I was mature enough to read it. I ran home and told Mom what had happened.
Exodus is about the creation of the state of Israel. The Diary of Anne Frank was my constant reading companion for a long time. I was devastated when Mr. Lindén left Norrköping. One year after he had gone, I wrote in my diary:
There’s something I have to tell you. Saturday April 26th, 1962, I received a letter from Mr. Lindén. Can you believe it? This was a happy day in my life as a twelve-year old.
I liked school and was a meticulous student. But I disliked Mondays, they made me anxious. That was the day when the teacher always asked us about what we had done over the weekend. Often, my classmates had visited their grandparents, maybe seen their cousins. I was envious of them.
My best friend Ingrid and I created a world full of secrets. Often, we would go down to the stream, Motala Ström, near today’s Museum of Work, where we would stick small paper notes into the bark of the trees. After school, we went back to check whether or not our notes were still there. I don’t remember exactly what we wrote, but it was probably about the fact that we were best friends and how much we liked each other. If we ever parted as anything but friends, our moms had to call and beg us to be friends again. Those were strong emotions. When Ingrid moved to Stockholm, I think it was when we were twelve, I was very unhappy. No Ingrid, No Mr. Lindén. But I got to travel to Drömstigen in Bromma, Stockholm, to visit her during weekends and school breaks. Once we snuck into the cinema which was showing Dear John with Christina Schollin and Jarl Kulle. It was my first time watching a movie that was not intended for children. Years went by and Ingrid and I lost touch. We met once as adults, but the magic was gone.
Whenever I went home with my classmates after school, I had to wait in a separate room until they finished their dinner with their family. Looking back, I have often wondered about this and thought it strange that I wasn’t offered a seat at their table. At my house, we did it differently and I preferred it our way. We always invited anyone who was at our house to sit down for dinner with us. It was a natural thing. Our food was a little bit different than the food at my friends’ houses. Chicken, game hen, paprika and spicy food were served more often at our house.
Albert Bonniers förlag, 2020, 192 pages
Foreign rights: the author.
We are grateful to Margit Silberstein and Albert Bonniers förlag for permission to publish this translated extract.
A review of Förintelsens barn was published in SBR 2022:1.
Margit Silberstein is a Swedish journalist and political commentator. The memoir Förintelsens barn is her second book.
Karin Filipsson is a literary translator working between English and Swedish.