I stood waiting for the train with my mother. The sign said 59th Street and Lexington Ave, but for my mother it was Poland 1943. As the train roared into the station my mother was picturing what it was like for her father to be tightly packed inside a train for days. How he was locked in with no information, food or water. He did not know where he was going, the length of the journey or what would happen to him when he arrived.
That train was traveling to Auschwitz-Birkenau. You ask what world do I come from? I am an only child and a “3g” third-generation holocaust survivor. I am the last generation of Jews who will have first-hand relationships with survivors of the Holocaust.
My grandfather survived genocide and witnessed atrocities that have no doubt been passed on from one generation to another. Some of the most important events in my family history happened before I was born. Events that have indirectly affected my life.
I am an only child. This fact is not lost upon me; every moment feels as if it’s only going to happen once. As an only child, each event is a first and a last, there would never be another bar mitzvah or another high school graduation after my own. Of all the “first” and “lasts” college is by far the most emotional because it is emphasized by the physical separation. There are no younger siblings to distract my parents from the obviousness of my leaving home.
Along with the exhilarating freedom and immense opportunities of a new environment, there rest a sort of weight, an invisible thread, reminding me, that as an only child, this journey also means something else for my parents. Don’t get me wrong I am not reinforcing stereotypes about only children, if anything I grew up more independent, not less because I grew up in an environment of mostly adults. And often the youngest person in the room must work the hardest to prove themselves. On the contrary growing up an “only child” is an experience that cannot be defined by clichés and stereotypes.
Growing up I developed a special relationship with my parents. There were no siblings to take my side in fights and on the other hand no siblings to fight against, no brothers to confide in and no sisters to share my chores. My parents became in a way both parents and surrogates for the siblings I never had. I came to see them more as equals rather than as family rulers and we developed a unique bond through our joint experiences. Being an only child opened me to share thoughts with my parents, to have honest conversations over dinner and to benefit from their wisdom. Of course, we didn’t always agree especially about politics, though we also teased each other and nurtured our little triad. My mother would call our family a triangle. My parents and I became a tight unit, a bond that would feel incomplete if somehow one of the triangle sides was broken. All the more powerful because of our Holocaust roots. Sending me to college is as new to my parents as it is to me. And there is all the more excitement in planning when you neither have the practice of previous experience nor the guarantee that things will get easier the second time around.
Though at times I wonder what life would be like with a sibling, I wouldn’t trade my “only” experience for the world. I’m sure those siblings wouldn’t trade their experiences either, though over the years I have had many jokes offered by friends of annoying brothers. I am conflicted about wanting to be free of my parents, therefore making this moment bittersweet. I am extremely excited to start the next chapter of my life yet torn somewhat by the prospect of loss. Somehow a familiar thread linked to my legacy even though I never experienced any of it first-hand. I am looking forward to this new chapter, after all it is, but another first. And another last.