Chapter 6: Generation to Generation
By Sassa Åkervall, daughter of Magda Wilensky (née Kahan)
My mother and I rarely spoke about her trauma from the Holocaust, at least not in detail. It was a not-so-well-kept secret in our family that if you don’t talk about things, they don’t exist. So the story I have to tell consists of fragments, bits of memories that have faded in the distance due to time. I’ve also picked up a few things from speaking with my brother and my husband, who was a confidant of my late mother. If I don’t get all the details right, at least I am doing the best I can to help her story come to life.
In 1997, my mother was interviewed for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Visual Library. Afterward, she gave me two tapes and was eager for me to see them. I think being interviewed for this project made her feel important—more important than just being my mom. I remember that I felt so awkward realizing this, to the point where I would push her request to watch the tapes to the very back of my mind. To me it seemed like she wanted to dwell on the past, whereas I wanted to not be reminded of things that had happened to my mother in the past. At the time I thought, why is this so important to her? How naïve I was. Needless to say, my mother and I had a very complicated relationship.
With a newborn son and a three-year-old daughter, my focus was on the children more than on my mother’s story. I told myself I didn’t have time to sit down to watch the tapes. I know I made up that excuse, maybe knowing it would be too painful for me—not even acknowledging how painful it had to be for her. Here I am, so many years later, and I still haven’t watched more than half. What is my excuse now? Both my children, now young adults, have watched them. I think it would be something we could discuss together, so that we can remember Grandma together. The older they get, the more distant her memory will be to them. They were both very young when she passed.
When our family had an opportunity to move from Sweden to the United States in 2004, we were very excited. I had planned to spend the last six weeks in my mother’s house, as a sort of kick-off to our big adventure. But five days before our scheduled move, my seventy-nine-year-old mother suddenly died from a heart attack. It was quite a shock for all of us, but especially to me. I knew she had her aches and pains but I never thought she would be gone just like that. My husband and I had planned to have her come visit us in the United States for long periods at a time so that she wouldn’t be too lonely. I don’t think I had realized how much we meant to her and how much she needed us until one day, just a few days before the heart attack, she told Isak, then just six years old, how much she was going to miss him. I remember saying, selfishly, “But Mom, we are still here for another five weeks.” Looking back at that moment, I realize how immature and insensitive that comment was. I have oftentimes wondered if it was the defining moment when her heart decided it was time to just stop beating.