15 November 2012

Sendak “born to Holocaust survivors”?

Gail Gauthier clued me in to this interview with Maurice Sendak at The Believer. It was no surprise that the conversation touched on the Nazi Holocaust. Sendak stated:
Nearly all my relatives died in the concentration camps, except my parents.
“Nearly all”! Well, a few seconds later he said:
The only one who talked about it was my grandmother, who was a very fierce woman. The only grandparent I had.
Okay, nearly all his relatives except his parents and one grandparent.
She was the only one who came over. Who was brought over by her idiot daughters, my aunts. And idiot uncles, her sons.
Okay, except his parents, one grandparent, and an unknown but plural number of aunts and uncles.

And at least one of the uncles or aunts had at least one child:
We [Sendak and his older brother and sister] had a cousin. We were not supposed to like her, because she was a communist. She was very plain. I adored her, and me and my sister would steal off and go to her house. She sat and talked to me and told me that I knew how to draw and that I could be an artist, or anything, and I thought if she was in the world, then good was in the world.
And about that grandmother:
Her husband died when he was forty, which drove my mother crazy. She blamed his death on my grandmother, which is why my grandmother sent her to America—shut up, get outta here. So she came to America. A sixteen-year-old girl, alone.
Sendak’s mother, Sadie Schindler, was born in 1895, and if she came to America at sixteen that was even before World War I. Which means her father had died decades before the Nazi concentration camps. So Nana Schindler was indeed “The only grandparent” Sendak knew, but the Holocaust wasn’t the reason Sendak didn’t know his maternal grandfather.

Sendak did tell a story about his father learning that all his family had been killed in Europe, the news arriving on on the day of his bar mitzvah. That was in 1941, and Philip Sendak’s home town of Zambrow, Poland, was wiped out by the Nazis starting in July 1941, according to different sources.

So Sendak did lose relatives he never had the chance to meet in the Holocaust—but not “Nearly all” his family except his parents. The Holocaust was undoubtedly part of his psyche and his artistic inspiration, but its actual effect on his relatives became exaggerated.

In its obituary for Sendak, The Jewish Press described him as “born to Holocaust survivors” even as it reported his age. He was born in 1928 in Brooklyn to a couple who hadn’t survived the Holocaust because it hadn’t happened yet and they were thousands of miles away when it did. But that’s apparently not how Sendak saw himself.

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