Passing memories down the generations: Jack Fogel and family

first published in the Centre News April 2017 — Jewish Holocaust Centre

“I marvel at the resilience of the Jewish people. Their best characteristic is their desire to remember. No other people has such an obsession with memory.” Eli Wiesel

There is a scene near the end of the film “A Woman in Gold” where Maria Latman (played by Helen Mirren) is granted the return of the Klimt painting of her aunt Adele, by the Austrian court,

Afterwards as she is walking the streets in Vienna with her nephew, she stops and says “I will be back in a minute”. Maria walks to a grandiose building, climbs the stairs and enters the reception area of a business. She says “I used to know this house, may I look around?” The receptionist says — of course, welcome.

The following scene is one of Maria walking through the rooms of the house reliving and wrapped in her memories. This building was the house she grew up in.

Memory has been defined as a) a social process; b) inherently selective and interpretive and c) the meaning we give to experience. Memories can be prompted by personal mementos — keep sakes; something that reminds one of past events; like souvenirs of an event or occasion.

When Holocaust survivor Jack Fogel 91, was liberated on 3rd May 1945 he had no mementos, nothing at all in his possession. Until he tracked down his sister’s husband in Israel many years later he had no photos. However he had a lot of memories.

Jack aged 15, his three brothers, one sister and their parents shared a room with another family in the ghetto near Turek, in occupied Poland in 1939. They all slept on the floor. Jack spent a lot of time outside to get away from everyone in the room.

Jack was standing on the street one day when German soldiers pulled up in a truck. “I was loaded on the truck with about 20 other people. They drove us away,” Jack recalled. “This was the last time I [seen] my family. They all died in the holocaust.”

Jack has been a volunteer for the last 18 years at the Jewish holocaust Centre. Each week he gives testimony to school groups that visit the centre. Jack says “I tell my story twice a week. This is my story”.

It would seem that this retelling of his story has enabled him to speak about the memories rather than keep them inside. Jack says that other survivors at JHC (or others he knew when he first arrived in Australia) were very reluctant to pass on their memories or stories to their children. However they couldn’t explain why they found it difficult.

Jack didn’t speak to his two daughters about his memories when they were children. When asked when he started talking about it, he replied “I didn’t want to tell horrible stories to my girls. If you have been through those atrocities are you going to tell your children what happened to you?”

Judy Kras, Jack’s eldest daughter did not attend a Jewish day school and did not have a lot of Jewish friends. She says she was in her teens and a member of Habonim Dror when she recalls “my earliest memory of that distinctive knowing that he was a war survivor and lost his family in the war.”

Judy felt as a teenager that it was a chicken and egg situation. Specifically she can’t recall when or how it became a “no go zone” to talk or ask about what he did or happened to him in the war.

“I would not be alone in saying that there was never a time when my dad sat me down and said I went through the war and this is what happened,” Judy says. “He was a child. He did not go off to war as a soldier.”

Judy believes that her father finds it much easier to tell someone else’s children rather than his own. Telling the story at JHC is easier than telling your girls at primary school age. She goes on to say that she knew her parents friends were Polish. She knew they were survivors but doesn’t remember when she actually found out. “It was kind of there but not really discussed”

Judy feels that the connection with her father is different from that with her mother. He worked long hours and wasn’t around as much as her mother. “In my memory it was my mum who said more, she was a bit of a go-between. I think she might have been the gate keeper”

Jack’s grandson David Kras attends a Jewish day school. It was in the latter years of primary school that David says “I remember seeing the tattoo on Grandpa’s arm and asking mum what was that…that was how the conversation started.” Judy was continuing the tradition of being the gate keeper.

When he found out and heard about what his grandfather had been through as 15 year old boy David found it surreal.“I wondered about how strong and resilient you would have to be to come out of something like that,” says David.

He empathised that his grandfather worried that his parents would be anxious about where he was. Jack was more concerned about his parents than about his own well being on that day in 1939. David said he would have felt the same. He too would have worried that Judy and his father Mark would have no idea where he was.

David says that his grandfather doesn’t refer to his past very often to him personally. In fact David learnt a lot about Jack’s life, past and the present and what happened in between, at school. It was when he “interviewed” him while undertaking the “living historians project” with his classmates in year 7 and when studying the holocaust in depth in year 10.

When David’s class visited the JHC, Jack gave testimony that day. David was proud that his grandfather shared his memories with not just him but with his classmates as well. David says while he was familiar with Jack’s story “no-one should really have to think about” trying to imagine what they would do in the same circumstance.

Judy comments that “the artefacts (mementos) at JHC touch the emotion.” They make the stories much more human. David says he wanted to hear his grandfather’s memories. Coincidentally for him (also) it was the mementos at the JHC that made a significant impact. It was the children’s toys that affected David. He said “my toys comforted and made me happy.” He realised that here were the toys but not the children to play with the toys.

Since arriving in Australia in 1949 Jack has been back to Poland once, nearly 20 years ago. He returned to his home town with his wife Ruth. It didn’t mean much to him. However his wife was very excited to see where he lived.

At Ruth’s insistence he climbed the stairs of the house. Jack reached the top and could not bring himself to knock on the door. What if someone opened the door and then slammed it in his face. He could not bear that thought. So he left. He returned to his wife in the street.

Jack did not get to relive his memories in his family’s home (unlike Maria Latman), but he has now shared and possibly relived them with two generations of his own family.

The relating of memories across generations can sometimes be affected just like the children’s game Chinese whispers, where the stories told of our experiences (our memories) change as they are repeated. Monica Eileen Patterson in Memory Across Generations: The Future of “Never Again” (2003) says:-

The experiences that produce our memories take place within a complex of power relations, and are recalled, remade and forgotten within a set of power relations as well. The very idea of inter-generational memory highlights the importance of understanding not only the past in which consequential events have occurred, but also the intervening periods between these earlier times and the present.