I am not the progeny of exiles. My wife is. Others I’ve been close to are. When they’re being honest, they have admitted that among their parents’ generation, there were no heroes. Their world was not black and white. Survival required making compromises that left pockets of shame and guilt buried so shallowly that they were easy to expose. My narrator in Better You Go Home, the progeny of an exile, realizes part way into his quest to find his “abandoned” half-sister that the cost to press on could be enormous. He writes the following in his Steno pad:
“Paradoxically, history in this place is both alive and a graveyard full of
buried family secrets. What price are we, the progeny of exiles, willing
to pay to unearth those secrets? What price am I willing to pay? What
if I don’t hear what I want to hear?”
He questions, rightfully so, the degree of risk he is willing to take on in order to overcome the opposition from family members and former apparatchiks who have reasons to interfere. But he has yet to come face to face with that risk. He will, but his notion of cost is at this point still theoretical.
In The Taste of Ashes, Marci Shore reports the story of a Jewish family from Poland that illustrates an extreme of this sort of risk. Chaim Finkelstein escapes to New York. Driven to despair, “nearly to insanity by the hellish years of waiting,” Chaim tries unsuccessfully to find the wife and two daughters he left behind in Warsaw. After the war, a friend discovers that one daughter, Awiwa, now 14, survived by hiding outside the ghetto walls. Desperate to have his daughter with him, Finkelstein does whatever is necessary and finally arrangements are made to reunite them. “Yet when Awiwa did finally arrive in New York, it was not easy for the father and daughter. Both were in mourning, both were ensconced in guilt.” Neither felt comfortable that they had survived when the others had not. “She urged her father: they should kill themselves together.”
Easy for me to point a finger and say, poor choice. For them it was a choice that made sense. The pressure cooker that was that world pushed people to unimaginable extremes.
Why does this matter to us today? We do not live in a vacuum. The progeny of those exiles are us. We have no moral yardstick by which to measure our virtue until we have been pushed to a point of great moral risk. I hope to never face such a yardstick. Yet I suffer survivors’ guilt. Since I lack the courage or insanity to throw myself into such a pressure cooker (and they are cooking away in today’s world, in the middle east, in north Africa, right here at home in ghettoized neighborhoods and on tribal reservations) I will write and suffer anxiety because of the guilt and know that this is a privilege, a privilege I have done nothing to deserve, a privilege bestowed by walls of history that accidentally left me on the privileged side.