Review of Memoir of a 2G: Story of Secrecy and Resilience by Patricia C. Bischof
Patricia Bischof is an artist and teacher in Tucson. She teaches art at Marana Middle School, creates mixed-media and found-object artworks, and collects vintage women’s accessories. She’s also a “2G”: the daughter of two Holocaust survivors who came to America during World War II. This fact forms the backbone of her moving, fascinating memoir.
Bischof was born around 1944 in upstate New York, where her family lived on a farm. She describes a childhood of loneliness and fear resulting from her parent’s harshness and emotional distance – but also threaded with happy times of peace and joy in nature, picking wild strawberries or watching polliwogs. Her father was silent, withdrawn, and depressed, while her mother was harsh, controlling, and fault-finding. Her mother placed adult-level responsibilities on Patricia from a young age – such as keeping the house clean and caring for her three younger siblings – and expected perfection. Her father barely spoke to her.
“They hoped that by coming to America they would be free, to live without fear of being murdered, of having all their belongings confiscated and without constant fear of being the next one being exterminated.”
Her father had been released from Dachau only five years before Patricia’s birth. Her mother, who had grown up sheltered in a wealthy Prussian family, had been put on an ocean liner, alone, and sent to safety in the United States, with only $25 in her pocket – while the rest of her family remained behind in Poland, doomed to die. These traumatic experiences left Patricia’s mother and father unable to parent properly. They also were unable to speak to their children about what had happened to them.
Bischof has tremendous empathy and compassion for her parents. They had to work hard and be strict in order to survive; when they were first married, they lived on $28 a month in New York City, about $500 in today’s dollars. And their trauma left them emotionally broken. But Bischof is also very aware of the effects on her life: she grew up yearning for connection and approval, terrified of making mistakes, and full of confusion and ambivalence about her own identity and ethnicity. She didn’t date until she was 21, never married, and never had children.
“The America that I am so familiar with gave my father and mother the ideal to succeed, achieve, and nurture a fresh new life for themselves. It gave them the promise of liberty and hopefully some happiness and peace in each of their lives.”
Bischof often uses the word “voids” when she describes her childhood: Her parents never told her about her family background or history, leaving empty spaces. Where there should have been a grandparent, aunts and uncles, or cousins, there were voids because these people had died, sometimes without a trace. There was a void of communication and understanding in her family life, and the void of her father’s emotional absence. Growing up, Bischof knew very little about her parents’ experiences in the Holocaust – she only learned after researching her family history. And later, whenever she tried to tell her story to people, they would not want to continue the conversation and would leave a void in the air.
In 1935 the Nazis, then in power in Germany, passed the Nuremberg Laws, taking citizenship away from Jews. The law also said that Jews who had been incarcerated in prison camps and then released were forbidden to talk about what had happened to them. The Nazis wanted to keep the camps a secret. And the natural reluctance of traumatized people to talk about their trauma fed into this silence. The result was a lack of information about what happened during the Holocaust – both for the children of the survivors and for society in general. Bischof describes how, as a child, she herself sometimes wondered if the Holocaust really happened, because no one talked about it. Her book breaks the silence and helps fill the void.
Bischof’s father spent two years in Dachau. His parents were murdered in Riga Concentration Camp. Bischof’s maternal grandfather was shot for being too slow during a death march, and her maternal grandmother may have died in the Warsaw ghetto uprising; no one knows for certain.
Thankfully, Bischof leaves the specifics of the Holocaust in the background – except for a few events that she narrates vividly, so there will be no mistake about the horror of what her parents experienced.
The second half of the book outlines Bischof’s adult life – an uplifting, astonishing achievement considering what we know about her childhood. She became an art teacher and Girl Scout leader, founded her own company, traveled all over the world, earned a degree in psychology, and moved to Tucson on her own. Talking with a counselor and participating in a twelve-step program helped her understand herself better and put her demons to rest.
Bischof’s story also offers a heartfelt celebration of American ideals, and a reminder that the American immigrant experience is one of hope, dedication, courage, hard work, and gratitude. Her parents arrived with almost nothing, and they worked long hours at menial jobs to earn a place for themselves and their children in American society.
Bischof’s memoir is a patchwork of her memories and thoughts, often repeating and circling back around to ideas or events again and again. That, and the stiltedness of her sentences, can make the book a little challenging to read at times. It’s as if, as much as the author had to work hard to find sense and connection in her own life, the reader also has to work a little to answer questions and discover Bischof’s meanings. In some ways, we have to piece her life together, just as she did – and just as we often have to do in our own lives.
“They wanted to be free from prejudice, live in a safe environment, be left alone to do whatever they wanted and live like anyone else with the opportunities to achieve a life of freedom and victory.”
The memoir was self-published, which means Bischof had to do much of the work of creating the book and marketing it, herself. This accounts for some of the book’s faults – it could have benefited from an editor and a more enticing title. But this also speaks to Bischof’s personal qualities of self-reliance and dedication. She grew up feeling that she had to do everything herself, and her memoir reflects that.
Often, the value and pleasure of reading memoirs is discovering connection – seeing oneself in another person’s life story, and realizing once again that we all have so much in common as human beings, no matter what is our background, ethnicity, or the details of our life story. Bischof’s memoir asks us to listen to her – not just to hear her personal story, but so that we can connect to it and understand how her story has deep relevance to our own.
Patricia Sanders lived in Globe from 2004 to 2008 and at Reevis Mountain School, in the Tonto National Forest, from 2008 to 2014. She has been a writer and editor for GMT since 2015. She currently lives on Santa Maria island in the Azores.