The silence of the survivors
Author Patricia Bischof on how the Holocaust affected her parents, and her upbringing in New York
By Michelle Naim
The atrocity which left approximately 6 million Jews dead did not only follow with the pain and trauma of those who were lucky enough to survive it, but also their children who had to live with their parents’ roaring silence day in and day out.
In her book, “Memoir of a 2G: Story of Secrecy and Resilience,” Patricia Bischof speaks with a voice that we don’t often hear. The title refers to a designation that Bischof described as “someone whose parents endured, witnessed, [or were] involved, during the Holocaust, in the Second World War.”
She writes of the difficulties she faced as a child of two Holocaust-survivor parents. Her father, Henry Bischof, and her mother, Ruth Renzema, met in New York and began a family. Straus News spoke with Bischof, who lives on the Upper East Side, about her upbringing and how she came to write her story.
Both of your parents were Holocaust survivors?
My mother was from Prussia and she left for the USA in 1937 as a tourist. Her mother [my grandmother} knew things were going on, and sent her on a boat here. My mother was from the northern part [and] my father was from a southern part of Germany, Munich. And Dachau was just outside of Munich. My father was in Dachau for 22 months and he came here in 1947. My mother escaped [from Germany], but still she was a survivor. She didn’t come here because she wanted to be the President of the United States.
You didn’t know your grandparents growing up?
I know you and your cellphone that’s taping my voice better than I knew what my father and mother went through. Nothing was talked about. Not untypical of children growing up with parents that had that kind of background. What parent wants to tell their children about atrocities? So I somewhat understand it, on the other hand, I’m not happy that I don’t know what went on. I was just getting to know my father when he died. I was 19 years old. My mother, when he used to come home from work, she would say, “Leave your father alone.” I mean, he was depressed. I didn’t know that then but [it] makes sense now.
Why should people read this?
It’s very apropos in the sense that my parents were immigrants, they were refugees. And they came to this country, the land of opportunity. And I see the parallel with people coming from South America, or Mexico, or Russia, they’re coming for a land of opportunity. Nothing is a perfect situation, America included, but it’s the best deal in town. I was brought up very patriotic by my mother. I put my hand on my heart and I was a Girl Scout later and [I was taught to] have respect for the flag.
So neither of your parents ever spoke about their struggles?
If we left the light on or the refrigerator door was left [open] more than a second, [my father] would freak out. I don’t know if that had to do with him being incarcerated. I remember there was this bread drawer and there were pieces of bread in the back that were a little bit older, and he flipped. I think it had to do with the concentration camp, that we’re wasting, we’re not going to eat that bread, we’re going to throw that out? And here’s this new bread, you’re going to eat that? He was very angry.
How would your mother react to that?
I think my mother tried to help my father. I don’t want to say remold him, but just try to help him. I think she was more grounded, certainly. For some reason my mother couldn’t [open up] with me. Maybe I was too close because I [was] her offspring. I said, the Shoah Foundation is looking for people to be interviewed that had the kind of history you’ve had. She said yes. I couldn’t believe it. I think this was part of her healing, her ability to finally let go and tell her truth. So I set up the interview. I was emotional, it was the first time [I ever heard her talk about it.]
What hit you about it?
That she was able to finally let go. For people such as my mother and my father, to dredge up past history, that’s why people don’t want to talk about it. It’s quite emotional; psychologically it can do something to them as well.
What do you remember about your father?
I asked him, when he would come home from work, “How was work today?” “Lousy!” He would always say that. I didn’t ask him every day, but he would always say that. “Hi Dad, how was work today?” “Lousy!” That I do remember.
I attribute it to this — my father was a very elegant, dapper European man. If he were to be introduced to you, he would take his hat off. He had some elegance about him and his store. It was a fabric store, with elegant fabrics — linens and worsted wools, pure silks. And the women, they wanted polyester and all that stuff. [He] had to try and sell what the public wanted and I think that that’s maybe where he missed out.
Is your mother still alive?
Talk about finality of numbers — December 31, 1996 is when she died.
What was that like for you?
I was relieved. My mother was so judgmental. I was so creative when I was a youth, I’d show her the clothes I’d made for my doll and she’d complain about it. She never said anything good and that was throughout life, except for that one time she said, “Ya, I’ll interview.” And she apologized once, that’s one thing I remember.
What would you ask your parents if they were here?
I would love to know exactly how my father got in [to Dachau]. What it took for him to recuperate from living in that kind of turmoil. What it was like growing up in Europe under the kind of environment that’s a little bit similar to today in the sense that there’s a dislike if you’re not total America. You know, we’re all Americans, we all have souls, we all have some worth to ourselves.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.
Sign up to get our newsletter emailed to you every week!
Enter your email address in the box below.
Select the newsletters you would like to subscribe to.
Click the 'SUBSCRIBE' button.