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I tried to hide my father’s Holocaust memories from my son

MICHELLE THOMPSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

I tried to hide the Holocaust.

I tried to hide it from my son – and for the first 10 years of his life, I was successful.

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I achieved this in part by concealing all related reading materials (my kid is an insatiable bookworm), but mainly by never once leaving him alone with my father. Not for one minute. Not even to take a bathroom break when my dad was visiting us.

People with relatives who lived through the Holocaust can tell you that there are two kinds of survivors: those who never, ever talk about their experiences from that time, and those who never stop talking about them. My father falls decidedly in the latter category.

Emotionally shredded by a harrowing childhood, he unwittingly perpetuated the damage by sharing his tales with me and my siblings long before we were psychologically equipped to absorb them.

When I was 5, my bedtime stories were never The Wind in the Willows or Green Eggs and Ham. Instead, they were about bodies stacked like cordwood, babies swung by their legs into brick walls and showers that weren't really showers.

Telling a child that she and all her kind are so despised that factories were designed to eradicate them is not the best way to boost her self-esteem. My father's early oversharing filled me with anxiety, and an almost lifelong subterranean sadness (I think I've always been a bit of a trembling wreck masquerading as a stable, functioning human).

I was determined to spare my son the same fate.

So, when I learned that his teacher had assigned the book Hana's Suitcase – the true story of Hana Brady, who was killed at Auschwitz – I was apprehensive. And when I told the teacher of my misgivings, and she discovered that my father was a survivor and asked me if I would please invite him into my son's classroom to talk about the past, I was truly torn.

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On the one hand, I wanted to accommodate the teacher and help make the lesson of the Holocaust more real and meaningful for the children. A part of me also wanted to give my father the opportunity to bear witness in an educational setting (he had done it everywhere but there).

On the other hand, I was afraid of the gruesome details he might divulge. He doesn't have much of a filter, and I didn't want him to devastate any tender-hearted tots, especially my own.

I told the teacher I would mull it over, and explained why I might decide to decline.

After a few days, I called my dad to run it by him. He seemed keen to participate, even after I cautioned him that he would be addressing little kids and would have to soften his approach; in fact, leave out many of the harsh particulars. He agreed. He assured me it would be fine.

I set a date with the teacher and told her I wanted to be on hand in case I had to disrupt the proceedings if things got wonky.

I didn't sleep well the night before the presentation. I woke up early, wondering if this would be the day that I broke my son's heart and ruined his life. I got him to school and then waited outside for my dad, who was meeting me there soon after.

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I saw him inching carefully up the icy sidewalk. He looked old and fragile.

The teacher introduced him and he began his speech.

"My name is Otto Friedman. I am a Holocaust survivor. I was born in Hungary in 1934. My grandparents were also born in Hungary and, like my mother and father, considered themselves Hungarians first and Jews second."

Then he told about the rise of the Arrow Cross Party and about his mother sewing the yellow star onto his jacket ("… we were no longer Hungarians, and I was no longer a child"), and about his father being taken away and murdered.

He talked about being forced into the ghetto ("I will never forget walking between the rows of frozen bodies …"), about his aunt dying in a concentration camp, and how he was saved by Swedish diplomat and humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg.

The whole time he was speaking I was watching my son, feeling as if an invisible hand was squeezing my lungs. And then it was over.

My dad ended his presentation with a quote from Nelson Mandela – the one about no one being born to hate another person because of the colour of his skin or his religion. Then, the teacher thanked my father, the children applauded and my son jumped to his feet and hugged my dad hard.

And I could see that his emotional state wasn't one of shock or fear or despair. No. He was brimming with pride and love. It was okay. The timing was right.

A 10-year foundation of happiness and security had been laid down. My son was ready to take on some weight.

Elyse Friedman lives in Toronto.

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