Imagine growing up in a house of secrets.
The only thing you know of your mother’s past is that she danced ballet and went out with the captain of the swim team.
Only after her death do you learn she was in a concentration camp.
When you turn 20, you find out for the first time you are Jewish.
Try making sense out of that when your father collected Nazi paraphernalia and openly sympathized with Hitler.
This is the kind of story that elicits the reaction, “Wow, I can’t believe it happened to you.”
Julia Silverberg would have that same reaction — except that the story is her own.
With her straight almost-black hair and pale skin, Silverberg tells her story with remarkable candor. She even smiles throughout, as if she sometimes has a hard time with some of the details herself.
Silverberg’s legal name is still Nemeth, but she is changing it to her mother’s maiden name. She lives in Oakland. A massage therapist, she attends Mills College, and at 32, she is working toward her bachelor’s degree. For the first time in her life, she feels safe, or relatively so. But it has taken her a long time, and a lot of hard work, to get to this place.
“You don’t have to be a child of a Holocaust survivor to have an identity problem, but it certainly intensifies both the confusion of not knowing and the euphoria of discovery,” she said. “I have gone through very dramatic phases of not knowing and of being absolutely sure who I am. Now I just am.”
Silverberg grew up in Park Rapids, Minn., 20 miles from the nearest town. Her family, who left Hungary in 1957, one year after the revolution, raised Arabian horses and various animals on the 460 acres of land they owned. Her grandmother came in 1963 and moved in with them.
Her father was an artist and art restorer, her mother a dancer. And that was about all she knew about them.
“Here we were on this farm in middle of nowhere,” said Silverberg, describing the environment in which she and her two older brothers were raised. “Our parents were foreigners as well as strange. I always felt we were Gypsies or something, [with our] ornate gold furniture and leopard-print pillowcases. My mother had red-hennaed hair. Other mothers didn’t look like that.”
But their strangeness didn’t end with her mother’s hair color.
Her parents were older than most, and according to Silverberg, they were borderline paranoid of “any organizations from politics to little townhouse meetings to anything having to do with religion,” she said. “My father wanted to be completely self-sufficient and duck out of society. We planted a lot of our own food, butchered our own animals, and my mother and grandma baked and sewed most of our clothes.”
While her parents could be incredibly overprotective, they also didn’t care whether she got to school, so her attendance was irregular at best.
In addition, there were inconsistencies in their upbringing. Some years, they had a Christmas tree. But Silverberg remembers catching her grandmother praying in her room. When her grandmother saw her, she sloppily crossed herself. And she spoke Yiddish, but told her granddaughter she was speaking Low German.
Her father brought jars of gefilte fish from his frequent trips to New York, but he continually made anti-Jewish remarks. Silverberg can recall him playing German marching music and she and her brothers goose-stepping around the house.
“The first time I ever mentioned that was at a children of survivors meeting,” said Silverberg. “I started sobbing and couldn’t stop because I realized how macabre it really was.”
To this day, she is unsure of whether her father has Jewish blood. The last time she saw him, two years ago, he gave her a tour of the Budapest Ghetto, “which was totally out of character for him,” she noted. She believes he was born Jewish and developed an intense case of self-hatred, but she cannot be sure.
When Silverberg was 7, her mother suffered a stroke from which she never fully recovered.
“She was really different after that; she forgot how to speak English, and then she let some things slip out about being Jewish or the Holocaust,” she said. “She talked so much about the revolution or the communists, but I was too young [to understand].”
One year later, the seizures started. Silverberg remembers her mother convulsing on the floor, her eyes rolled back into her head.
Her mother’s condition got only worse from that point on; in moments of extreme confusion, she couldn’t recognize her own family members. While at times she could be more or less functional, at others, she was bedridden.
Silverberg remembers hearing the word taburnack, which means “work camp” in Hungarian, uttered frequently by her mother.
At 17, Silverberg felt suffocated at home and left, though she hadn’t finished high school. She went to Los Angeles, where her parents had an apartment. Soon after, she moved out on her own.
Silverberg’s parents had not allowed her to date, and she soon met someone who became her first boyfriend.
“When he said he was Jewish, I thought, ‘Oh he’s that mythical blood-sucking creature my dad hates,'” said Silverberg. Furthermore, “I didn’t tell him anything about my past. He thought I was a little farm girl from Minnesota, which was something I never felt like. I went along with it, rather than telling him about this bizarre Hungarian family.”
By this point, Silverberg’s mother had been diagnosed with cancer. She was in a lot of pain, and the medication she took made her delusional. During the Gulf War, she would call her daughter in the middle of the night.
“You have to break up with him, because they’re going to come for the Jews now and get you through association,” she would tell her daughter.
“I blew it off as European weirdness or her illness,” said Silverberg. “I didn’t really listen, but a small part of me did listen.”
Another thing she frequently told her daughter was “Mothers and daughters should be closer. I don’t feel we know each other.”
She died shortly after, in 1991, and most of her secrets went with her. However, she left an envelope for Julia to find, containing the original documents she kept from the war, along with a letter, telling her daughter she hoped she would realize her dreams and write her story.
Silverberg’s mother asked to be cremated (Silverberg believes it was out of survivor’s guilt since so many of her peers died this way), and it was after the cremation that she found the papers.
She took them to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and was able to find a picture of her mother in Bergen-Belsen.
The discovery made Silverberg feel like “I lost my mother but found myself…Finding out that she was Jewish and feeling, without a doubt, that I, too, am Jewish is the best thing that has happened to me.”
But it took her a while to come to that place. For 10 years, Silverberg lived in a sort of a fog, not knowing who she really was. She developed anorexia. She suffered from a number of phobias; some she had from childhood, some were a result of her discovery.
Throughout those years, people could not understand how she could be so greatly affected by something that happened to her mother, not her. Until Sept. 11. Then, suddenly, people began to understand.
“That was the first time I really felt united with people, as I felt like I had this low-grade trauma all the time.”
During those 10 years, she trained to become a massage therapist and tried to make sense of her past. She moved to the Bay Area three years ago.
Now, she feels better than she ever has. “Like I’m coming out of a long, dark night,” she said, evoking the Holocaust imagery of Elie Wiesel, intentionally or not. “I feel a real sense of accomplishment after I do something that scares me.”
She is studying creative writing at Mills College, and hopes to write a book about her family, and eventually, get a master’s degree in Jewish studies.
She is involved with Daniel Hoffman, the creative musical force behind Davka and the San Francisco Klezmer Experience, who has been incredibly supportive. “It’s rather ironic,” she said, “that I am with someone who is so strongly identified as a Jew, when my background was filled with so much self-hatred.”
She is in touch with her two brothers. One is constantly backpacking around the world and is currently teaching English in Bangkok. The other suffers from a number of disorders and barely leaves the house. She does not speak to her father. None of her relatives can understand why “she keeps pushing the Jewish thing.”
And especially in the last year, she has made progress in discovering who Julia Silverberg really is.
Additionally, she feels she can truly appreciate the smaller things in life, after being numb for the past 10 years.
“If I didn’t have to fight for everything, I wouldn’t appreciate the joy of the mundane,” she said. “Many people my age are already bored in their careers and bored with themselves. To them, there’s no more excitement in the world. I feel lucky for the experience and challenges that are mine.”