Boom goes my generation with all of the energy and chaos of an atomic blast. Born between 1945 and 1964, there are seventy-six million of us in the United States. Boom goes my generation as we take our places on a historical continuum of social and political revolutions. Boom goes my generation as we take care of aging parents and the children many of us had in our thirties and forties instead of our twenties.
I write this column in my mother’s room at the Hebrew Senior Life Rehabilitation Center. Her house has just been sold. At the moment, her world has shrunk down to one bed as in, “a bed’s come available.” She’s been poked and prodded and operated on while, boom, my siblings and I chase her benefits, balance her checkbook and watch her assets dwindle until Medicare kicks in.
I also write this column after reading Susan Kushner Resnick’s funny, poignant and storied memoir about her relationship with a loveable, difficult Holocaust survivor named Aron Lieb. Boom goes my generation and some of us will blow up before we can appreciate the multi-generational relationships that can so enrich us. Kushner’s memoir is a vital reminder of how important it is to reach across the generational divide, and simply put, love each other.
The title alone—You Saved Me, Too: What a Holocaust Survivor Taught Me About Living, Dying, Fighting, Loving and Swearing in Yiddish— maps out Kushner Resnick’s book to some degree. The reader is cued into the fact that it is also a Yizkor book—A Book of Remembrance. Kushner Resnick tracked down the prototype of such a book about Zychlin—Aron’s shtetl in Poland. “This is not your first appearance in a book,” Kushner Resnick writes to her dear friend. “The other one, published when I was eleven years old [in 1974] is called The Memorial Book of Zychlin.” Boom. Most of that generation of Europe’s Jews disappeared in a pestilent cloud of Nazi genocide.
But You Saved Me, Too is a book of life as much as it is a Yizkor book. It begins with the fact that Lieb and Kushner Resnick both liked to talk to strangers. It tells the truth that their friendship rescued Kushner Resnick from a crushing post-partum depression. That was in 1997. Kushner Resnick has a baby that she leaves in babysitting at the JCC so that she can swim off her depression. She meets Aron Lieb on a lark at the same JCC. “[Aron was] my faux father, my son, my crush, and my cause.”
You Saved Me, Too is also a quixotic book. For anyone who has shepherded a parent through the murky health care system, Kushner Resnick’s advocacy for Lieb’s benefits and his dignity will resonate, deeply and painfully. Kushner Resnick is not shy about indicting the Jewish community and its leaders for Lieb’s benign neglect. In her tongue-in-cheek style, she takes on the honchos, the machors, who made empty promises to help a man who bore the ultimate tattoo of Auschwitz.
That tattoo, the number 141324, takes up residence in Kushner Resnick’s imagination. She notes the sloppiness of the letters—the tattooist must have been in a hurry to go down the long cue of people arriving at Auschwitz—the fact that, “for fifty years, every time you’d taken off your shirt at night or reached out to adjust your side-view mirror on a summer day, you saw those numbers, 141324, the brand the Nazis gave you when they thought you were theirs.”
Boom. Kushner Resnick becomes, in essence, a third-generation survivor or a 3G. She’s bent on keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, intent on telling stories that go beyond the blue Yizkor books from Polish shtetls. “Eventually all the tattooed arms will disappear” she writes. “Then the forgetting will truly commence. … How would the numbers look on my arm? I could get the same tattoo in the same place. 141324. Whenever people asked what it meant, I could tell them about you.”
Although Kushner Resnick, is speaking metaphorically, there are 3G grandchildren who have actually tattooed their grandparents’ numbers on their arms. It’s a radical act that has stirred up as much pride as it has consternation among their survivor relatives. Those numbers are also an address of unimaginable tragedy and entrenched optimism. For all of his heartache and kvetching, Lieb survives because he has dealt with unbearable horror as much as he has thrived in the small joys of life like meeting his friends for a daily cup of coffee at McDonald’s.
With no significant family willing to care for him, Kushner Resnick becomes Lieb’s healthcare proxy and has power of attorney over his affairs. She secures his reparations and learns that she has to open a separate account so that the money is not taxed and therefore not counted as an asset. Boom. She learns that the Boston Jewish community pays mostly lip service to the survivors among them and that it’s a problem also prevalent in Israel.
Halfway through the book she questions her involvement in Lieb’s life. “I can’t write anything conclusive until I figure out why we’re together,” she says. “Some writers say they find the answers by writing their way towards them. But I need to know the last line before I type the first word.” I think I know what she means. My mother sleeps as I type these last words about Aron Lieb and Susan Kushner Resnick, the woman who made his life a blessing for the world to read.