She never talked to us about her experiences

By Reporter staff

The Jewish Federation of Greater Binghamton will hold a hybrid Yom Hashoah program on Monday, April 17, at 7 pm. It will include recorded excerpts from the survivor testimony of the late Ruth Buschman. Buschman’s children, Suzanne Buschman-Erez and Steve Buschman, will join the program on Zoom. Below is an interview with Buschman-Erez. For more information about the event, click here.

The first question children of Holocaust survivors are usually asked is, “When did your parents first talk to you about their experiences?” Suzanne Buschman-Erez can’t answer that question because her mother, the late Ruth Buschman, never discussed her life in Europe during World War II. “My mom never really talked to us about her experiences in the concentration camps, or what happened with her parents and brother,” Buschman-Erez said in an e-mail interview. “We just knew that she was in the camps and didn’t know much more. After my mother and her three sisters got out of the camps, and moved to the U.S.A., they didn’t want to dwell on their memories. They wanted to start anew. They deliberately chose not to marry European men who had similar experiences. The four sisters all married Americans and moved into life as Americans.”

Unlike many whose parents were survivors, Buschman-Erez doesn’t lay claim to being a Second Generation survivor because her mother and father didn’t want their children carrying that burden. “We are true Broome County children, running around the neighborhoods, going to the public school system and cheering for the local high school team,” she added. “Except for the fact that we were Jewish, we didn’t think of ourselves as any different from our neighbors. Of course, being Jewish made a difference in what we did and didn’t do (such as Christmas activities), but we did not even know we were children of a survivor.”

This led Buschman-Erez, who lives in Israel, to note the very different way Yom Hashoah is experienced in that country: “Yom Hashoah in Israel is a day of remembrance. All televised programmed programs are cancelled. On cable TV the only shows are movies about the Shoah. On Israeli channels, (such as our ABC, NBC or CBS), the day is filled with stories from survivors and documentaries about the war. The school systems dedicate the week to talking about the war, Hitler and the camps. Grandparents, when they were younger – many are much older now or have died – would go to the schools and speak to the children.”

She added, “My children and I, and my grandchildren, all live in Israel. We experience Yom Hashoah each year. In the school systems, the children are asked to speak to their grandparents about their experiences of the war. My children have always known that Grandma was in the camps, and so do my grandchildren. We never discussed the details, mostly because I didn’t know them.” 

Buschman-Erez noted that her experience with survivors in Israel has been very different. “In Israel, we are surrounded by families such as ours, families with grandparents who were survivors,” she said. “My partner’s parents were both in the war – one in the camps and the other living in the woods to escape the camps. My son-in-law’s grandmother was in the camps. My daughter-in-law’s grandparents were in the camps. Everyone has a family member [who] was in the war. We do not forget. We live with survivors every day.”

Learning more about what it was like for people to live through the Holocaust taught Buschman-Erez a different way of looking at those who survived. “Some survivors in Israel live in great poverty – the memories of the war were too great, and they were never able to get a handle on living,” she noted. “Some survivors spent years in the camps – my partner’s mother was 12 when she went into the Warsaw Ghetto and was 20 when the war was over. She had nightmares of the ghetto her entire life. In Israel, survivors, children and grandchildren of survivors have a community to support them. It doesn’t make it easy, but it helps that people understand.”

This knowledge also has helped Buschman-Erez better understand her mother and why she refused to share her story. “My mother’s silence used to frustrate me, until I realized that some feelings and memories can be too big to face,” she said. “Living in the camps, having your parents torn away from you, living in starvation and fear – can all be too strong to confront. We all have our way of going forward... Now, as an adult, I do understand how those experiences affected who my mother was as a person and how she dealt with life.”

Her mother’s refusal to discuss the past affected other parts of her life. “Just the way my mother never discussed the war and the camps, my mother never discussed the hardships she experienced in life,” Buschman-Erez said. “When my brother died, my mother sat shiva, and didn’t talk about him again. She grieved deeply until her dying day, but she didn’t want to talk about it. She didn’t want to go into those feelings – what would it have helped to bring them up? She didn’t deny it happened, but then again, it was better to put those feelings in a box and not think of them. It was the same way with my father’s Alzheimer’s. She never mentioned it and kept saying, ‘It is getting better.’ Putting stuff in the past, not taking them out, and only looking at the future was her way of coping – something she learned from the camps.”