A photo of furniture in an attic or a basement.

First Person

Is This How We Would Sleep If We Were in Hiding?

The writer was terrified by her dark fantasies of fleeing from Nazis with her Jewish family. But what disturbed her even more was learning that she wasn’t alone in her paranoia.

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My husband stretches out on his side of the bed, trying to decompress from another day of work-stress, life-stress, and the stress caused by the news these days.

I lie down with him, my knees curled up to my chest. We’re on top of the covers, not ready for bedtime, just relaxing before another evening of dinner-making, dish-doing, lunch-packing, and explaining current events to our kids. I’ve already changed into in my “knock-around clothes”— not work clothes, but not quite pajamas, just in case there’s an unexpected knock at our door. Our 6-year-old son climbs onto the bed with us. He drapes himself over me like a blanket and shoves his head between me and my husband.

We’re small people. Wrapped around one another, we fit in the queen-size bed with room to spare and, for the moment, it’s doable, even comfortable. Sleeping this way—or if we had to make room for my 9-year-old daughter, too—would be difficult. I know I would quickly become restless, desperate for space, for air.

That’s when the question forms in my head: Is this how we would sleep if we were in hiding?

I have not earned this question. My ancestors, all Jews from Europe, came to this country at the turn of the 20th century. Their emigration predated Hitler’s rise by almost a half-century. If anyone was left in Europe at the time of the Holocaust, I am not familiar with their stories. Members of my husband’s family, all European Jews, would come later. We know of the distant uncles who arrived in the New York City area after being liberated from concentration camps, emaciated and desperately poor. I’ve heard of their stories, but they’re not my own. They are my children’s ancestors, they are not mine.

I’ve always had intrusive thoughts, but they used to be mundane, ordinary, boring. I still can’t pump gas without thinking of the cute guy whose dad owned a Sunoco station where I grew up. I can’t use a microwave without thinking about the Howard Johnson’s sign that advertised “Now Cooking With a Microwave!” It was a selling point in the early 1980s when my grandparents took me there for just that reason. But since having children, my intrusive thoughts have become more sinister and they have a theme.

When my daughter was young, we used a baby monitor even though the townhouse we lived in was so small I could hear her cough in her bedroom upstairs when I was in the furthest corner of the house. Still, I kept the small white speaker near me at all times. When we tried to let her “cry things out,” the shrieks could become unbearable, even though I knew they always got worse right before she fell asleep. There were nights all I could do was shut off the monitor and put a pillow over my head. When that worked to dampen the cries, even a little bit, my heart rate lowered perceptibly. And that’s when I’d think, But what would happen if we were in hiding? So I’d get up to comfort my daughter, because I could. I savored the freedom of movement because it was mine.

As a Jewish kid in Pittsburgh, I was first exposed to the Holocaust in a middle-school history class at my private all-girls school. Prior to that, I have no memory of my fiercely assimilated family mentioning 6 million murdered Jews—or the 11 million other marginalized people who were murdered—though we certainly talked about it more after my dad visited Dachau following his business trip. Oddly, these things coincide in my memory, though I can’t be sure they happened the same year.

I first had the dream about the forest at this time. It was cold, and there was snow on the ground. The trees were tall and bare with short black branches—almost as if they had barely survived a fire, as if they were free-standing sculptures of charcoal against the white-grey sky. I was hiding from men with long dark coats, fur hats, and guns. I knew there were dead Jews in the forest, even though I couldn’t see them. There was no plot to the dream, only setting. It was like a tableau my subconscious created, certainly influenced by a recent reading of The Diary of Anne Frank, or maybe it was the strings of digits I had seen on the arms of the senior citizens at the reservoir where three generations of my family would get together to walk on summer nights after dinner.

I knew my dream took place in a forest in Germany, but I don’t know why or how I knew that. For some reason, I woke up wondering what the difference was between Black Forest Cake and German Chocolate Cake, and which one had coconut, because I don’t like coconut, and dreams take us places where we have no control.

Despite the sinister elements in the dream, there was no fear in it, just a very basic understanding that things like this happened. As a middle-schooler, I was aware I could end up alone and cold in a forest. It was a fact I knew and didn’t question. And it didn’t bother me, not on a level I could understand. I was more concerned about cake and whether or not it would have coconut. I was in seventh grade. I had no mechanism to understand the enormity of the terror. Anne Frank told a tale in words so plain—so normal, in some ways, so mundane—that her story seemed as unremarkable as it did universal. Except it wasn’t universal. I was a Jewish pre-teen, one of the few Jews in my school, reading the words of a dead Jewish teenager. While I felt invincible, in a middle-school way, the seed of the idea that I was “other”—and potentially unsafe—had been planted.

The Hanukkah after my daughter was born, my mother-in-law gave me Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, Francine Prose’s exploration of Anne Frank’s artistry as a writer. My mother-in-law and I had little in common, but a book about a Jewish writer killed by Nazis hit on quite a few of our shared interests. When I finally had enough sleep and regained the ability to read more than two sentences in a row, I picked up the book.

In middle school, hiding in a secret attic seemed doable and—I’m ashamed to admit it, though I know I’m not alone in this—almost exciting. But as a new mom with a crying baby and a growing family, I could not read about Anne Frank.  I now see The Diary of Anne Frank, my dream in the forest, and every piece of Holocaust cinema I have ever appreciated, in a more immediate way. When I think about the Holocaust now—more often than I have since middle school, due in no small part to the rise of anti-Semitic hate crimes in Europe and the U.S., including the murder of 11 Jews in my hometown at the Tree of Life synagogue, and the recent murderous act of terror in a Southern California Chabad—it is no longer in terms of what I can weather. My thoughts now are about protecting others, including but not limited to my own.

What would I do? What could I do? What will I do? This is what goes through my head during my most relaxing, intimate moments.

Shortly after that evening on our bed, I told my husband about my intrusive thoughts. And then he told me, he has them, too. Whenever we’re in a small space, like the bathroom when all four of us are getting ready in the morning, he imagines the door closing, cutting us off from the rest of the house, the rest of our lives, forever. When he told me this, it made me feel less alone, but also even sadder. I had hoped my intrusive thoughts were my private quirk, but one that didn’t make me too odd. I had thought I was immune to generational trauma, especially as a third-generation American. I realize now I’m not the only one holding my breath, hoping our quiet moments stay quiet.

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