Miranda Richmond Mouillot was born in Asheville, North Carolina. She is the author of the recently published book A Fifty-Year Silence: Love War and a Ruined House in France and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
Ask questions. Make sure to ask them while you still can. How I always hated those sentences, proffered by well-meaning outsiders whenever the subject of my grandparents came up. I always wondered about those people and their families. Had they ever tried it? Because in my family, asking questions could feel about as natural – and about as considerate – as reaching over and pushing your hand into someone’s face.
In A Fifty-Year Silence, which recounts my efforts to uncover the history of my grandparents, both Holocaust survivors, and the reasons behind their half-century estrangement, I wrote:
I’d find myself at a loss for what to ask: the subjects about which I felt most curious sparked so much anger and chagrin […] that I didn’t usually have the heart to broach them.
In the near decade it took me to tease my grandparents’ story out of them, I would go days, weeks, even months without venturing a query, for fear of stirring that pot of bad memories. Asking questions was too dangerous, too painful, too sad. Asking questions just wasn’t how it worked.
In the months since the publication of my book, many readers have shared little shards of the family secrets they carry with them, and asked me where to begin, how to find out more. In most families, particularly families of trauma survivors – and particularly families of Holocaust survivors, questions are the dangerous objects you’re not allowed to carry onto the plane. When your relatives have lived through a war, fled for their lives, seen the world they grew up in reduced to dust, and suffer with the knowledge that they came through and their loved ones did not, they earn the right to bar all inquiries from the boarding line. Like a security agent impassively tossing out a nail file, my grandparents would, more often than I can count, shut down my questioning with a shrug and a shake of their heads.
In my experience, you don’t learn the most from asking questions. Or at least, not from direct questions, not from the questions you’d think were the ones to ask. The need to know and the impossibility of asking are at the heart of every family mystery, and when readers come to me for advice about how to begin, I generally say that the best you can do is pull a chair up to the table and wait. And I tell them about my great aunt in Jerusalem, who used to bake the most wonderful cakes. She’d use her hands to weigh out the ingredients, plunging them into the canister and letting the soft white flour sift through her fingers. When you asked where her recipes came from, the answer was always the same: “Auschwitz.” And sometimes, if you stayed at the table, she’d tell you more. Of how the women in her prison block memorized each other’s recipes as they worked, or at night as they lay talking to one another from their splintery beds. Of starving mothers and sisters and daughters recalling teaspoons and cupfuls of ingredients they’d never taste again, parceling out pieces of their lost lives just in case one of them got away, to remember for the others. Where did you get that recipe? You never know which question will open the door. And in the wake of each one answered, a thousand more inevitably linger, unasked – faces, names, whole lifetimes, reduced to a few sweet morsels, crumbs on a cake plate.
Miranda Richmond Mouillot currently lives in the South of France.
- Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival by June Feiss Hersh
- Holocaust Survivor Cookbook edited by Joanne Caras
- Reading List: Holocaust Fiction and Nonfiction
Miranda Richmond Mouillot is the author of A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France. Her most recent translation is of The Kites, the last and greatest novel of French author and Resistance hero Romain Gary.