On Being Jewish
By Peter Uhlmann
My daughter claims I have always been sad. She "feels my pain" and states she has inherited my unconscious melancholy. She is very sensitive and can easily express her emotions, and I believe what she says. I am not a morbid person. Most people who know me would mention my sense of humour as a characteristic trait. My wife complains about my frequent sarcasm and my son groans at my tendency to make puns. I am also very content with my life and feel generally blessed. I have been happily married for almost forty years. We have three wonderful children. I live in a part of the world where others save their pennies to visit for two weeks out of the year.
Until recently I enjoyed a satisfying job and good health. Even the loss of my work and treatment for cancer has created some positive changes in my life. I feel I am a loving, positive person. Yet, I know what my daughter means. I do carry about some deep, mysterious sadness, and have done so all my life.
I was not always aware of this sadness. Had my daughter made her comments fifteen years ago, I would have disagreed with her insights. Around that time we were visiting friends who were Jewish. They were upset with me for not teaching my own children more about our Jewish heritage. I told them that my own childhood was lacking in Jewish religious education and that I wanted my children to make their own decisions regarding spiritual values. If they were interested in Judaism they could explore it themselves. Our hosts became quite angry and at one point the husband raised his voice and called me a "Holocaust survivor!". That ended the discussion. I thought his comment was bizarre, but it must have struck a chord because the memory has remained.
A few years later I was a participant at a workshop sponsored by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. These seminars dealt with issues of death and dying as well as other examples of loss such as divorce, abuse, etc. For reasons that I do not recall, I started exploring my feelings around being a Jew and this culminated with me screaming "I am a Jew" at the top of my lungs for several minutes. I never hid the fact of my Jewishness, but to be honest I didn't advertise either.
My last name is originally German and I seemed to pass as a Gentile. When it was time for me to enter medical school I received invitations from medical fraternities to join their ranks. During "rush week" I quickly noticed that the other pledges were not Jewish. (As a Jew you learn to recognize other "landsmen".) I was asked to join one of the fraternities, but when I asked them if they had any restrictive policies about Jewish members, the embarrassed reply was "yes".
It then became apparent that only non-Jews were invited to rush week, but because no one knew me (I had attended a distant undergraduate college.), and my last name gave no clue, I was inadvertently asked to participate. The good news is that a second fraternity with similar restrictive clauses chose to change their charter and welcomed me as their first Jewish brother. My four year association with this fraternity was extremely pleasurable and rewarding.
My only formal Jewish education was attending an ultra reform temple in Chicago. We jokingly called it "St. Sinai on the Lake". I attended Sunday school and at age thirteen, I was confirmed rather than bar mitzvahed as my older brothers had been. I never learned Hebrew or travelled to Israel. My future attendance at temple was for ceremonial occasions only.
I have a not-so-latent obsession to read or view material concerning the Holocaust and/or the second world war. My family laughs when I go out to rent a video. They want to know what "Holocaust film" I will return with. I am compelled to see movies such as "Sophie's Choice", or "Schindler's List". I read books, both fiction and non-fiction about Holocaust themes. I especially enjoy those that describe personal journeys with dangerous escapes or heroic deeds. Sometimes I just want to read about life in the shtetl or ghetto. If I am honest, the acts of horror also captivate my attention. I have never been to visit a concentration camp, but intend to. The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. is the closest I have been to the physical reality of the war.
Why this morbid fascination and curiosity? Where does my sadness originate? My immediate family escaped the Holocaust in Germany. My parents immigrated to Chicago in 1938. I was born two years later. They say I was an "accident" because my mother was in her forties when she conceived. After I was born she was hospitalized briefly for depression. Was it an accident that I was conceived around the same time my paternal grandmother was murdered in Theriesenstadt? Was I unconsciously brought into this world to replace lost souls?
My parents never discussed their pain around leaving Europe. My father, a physician, left an important university appointment in 1933, the day after Hitler became Reich chancellor. They left Germany to live elsewhere in Europe before emigrating. How did it feel to secretly return to Germany and say goodbye to family for the last time? How was it to survive when so many perished? His sister died in the Warsaw Ghetto. I was told some facts. I saw some photos in an album. Feelings and emotions were never expressed. We spoke German at home.
I have a video interview of my aunt talking to an interviewer about her life before leaving Germany. This was arranged through the work of Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. She describes her work in the underground, and Kristallnacht, and the death of those close to her. But she turns off the emotional reactions as soon as they attempt to appear and instead focuses on an intellectual discussion of events.
I look back sometimes and wonder. When I was eleven years old my parents took me to Europe for a summer holiday. We went to Germany and Austria as tourists in 1951! This was only six years after the war. The railway stations were still mostly rubble from the Allied bombs. Later I learned that my father went to Frankfurt to claim financial compensation from the German government. I even received a few hundred dollars for every month I was in university as part of the reparation agreement.
Later I went on to specialize in psychiatry. Another accident? As part of my training I spent a lot of time looking at my life and my family interactions. I saw in myself a tendency to deny my emotions and intellectualize. I worked hard to reverse this trend. This period coincided with the "hippie" era so drugs also assisted me in my quest for emotional and spiritual answers. I learned a lot, but until my daughter mentioned it, never really recognized my sadness.
Now I understand the sadness to be inherited, almost archetypal. It has roots in Judaism and branches in my immediate family of origin. Some of the flowers are in my family and the seeds are dispersing to grow in the future. The difference now is awareness. Sadness is not the problem, denial is. My daughter and I can talk and share. As a film maker, she wants to create a documentary exploring our relationship and our mutual experience of sadness.
The impetus for the film arose when I talked about visiting Germany and seeing the birthplace of my parents. I plan to visit a concentration camp. Also we just learned that an old house belonging to our family was recently relocated to a museum with plans to restore it as an example of German-Jewish heritage. My daughter wants to travel with me and perhaps witness the healing of some wounds. The thought of this common adventure fills me with happiness. I want to see how the film ends.
from the July 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine