Categories
Interviews

An Interview with Madelaine Zadik by Andrew Miller, Mud Season Review, Creative Nonfiction Editor

“…although we cannot escape grief, grief and joy do not contradict each other. They can coexist, and thus we do not need to fear grief.”

 

The first paragraph of your essay suggests a “nature-nurture” question: How much has your life been structured by your mother’s emotional state while pregnant compared to your upbringing?

Both have had a strong influence on me, and I am unable to isolate or measure the effects of either one separately. What I didn’t mention in the essay is that my mother often spoke about how wonderful she felt while she was pregnant—except for becoming allergic to peaches. So, there was always a potent mixture of both grief and joy. In my upbringing, the Holocaust was always in the air I breathed. The absences and losses had a big presence. As I wrote in the essay, many of my parents’ friends were Holocaust survivors, and many of my friends were also children of survivors. One childhood memory that stands out is an incident while we were visiting a distant relative who, when he heard sirens on the streets below his New York City tenth floor apartment, dove under the bed screaming, “They’re coming, they’re coming!” But, on the other hand, my mother had an incredible capacity for finding joy in life and did her utmost to pass that on to me. She always encouraged me to do whatever would make me happy. She was a formidable role model for how to enjoy life despite all odds.

You wrote that your parents became skilled at “entombing their trauma.” How do you think they would react to your essay—which does the reverse?

I suspect they would be shocked. They thought they were protecting me from the pain, so they would be surprised by the extent of my anguish. Additionally, I think they were hiding their trauma from themselves. They would probably still deny their own emotional wounds, especially since they escaped when others experienced so much worse. Then again, I think my mother would say, very matter-of-factly, that of course there is grief, but you must go on. Otherwise, you are letting them win.

How much do you think your mother’s experiences triggered her interest in environmentalism? Is it likely that people who champion environmental or social issues are affected by early trauma?

I see no direct connection. You don’t need to have suffered trauma to be an activist. Anyone paying attention will see what is wrong in the world and what needs fixing. One must have some kind of moral compass, however, and acting often requires courage. Those qualities are not restricted to those who were affected by early trauma.

After your mother’s death, you packed her writings into boxes and avoided opening them. Why did you feel this way?

My mother and I had an extremely close relationship. Her death left a gigantic hole and gut-wrenching grief that filled every corner of my body. I needed distance so that I could function and not be overwhelmed by my pain. I needed time to let the wounds heal. It took me a year to be able to unpack her silverware and place it in my kitchen drawer. Now, every time I use a fork, I smile as I think of her, rather than cry. I have made my way into the boxes of papers and have been able to extract information and to do some organizing, and there are always surprising finds. However, there are still times when I run away in avoidance. Sometimes I just need a respite from the sadness and pain.

Could your mother’s writing contain fodder for more creative nonfiction or fiction? Wouldn’t that be a way of honoring your Aunt Helga and other victims of the holocaust?

Absolutely! I have written and published other essays (links at https://madelainezadik.com/) and am currently working on a memoir about my relationship with my Aunt Helga. Plus, I have ideas for additional writing and creative endeavors. I have loaned some of my mother’s photos and papers for an exhibition in Wroclaw, Poland, the former Breslau, Germany, the city my parents were from. The exhibit, opening in May and running through the summer of 2024, will showcase and celebrate the former German Jewish community in the city, once the third largest Jewish community in Germany.

How have your life experiences affected the books and articles that you read? Are you drawn to stories about the Holocaust, or do you tend to avoid them?

My life experiences made me very sensitive to the pain of others and to the dangers of what is going on in the world, which of course affects what I read. I tend towards more serious reading, rather than just light fun reading, although it would probably be good for me to do more of the latter! There are times when I am drawn to Holocaust stories and other times when I avoid them. I have a collection of first-person Holocaust narratives sitting on my bookshelf, most of which I have never read. Since I am currently working on a memoir, I have been reading lots of other memoirs, many by children of Holocaust survivors. I’m drawn to second generation writers exploring family legacies and pursuing imaginative strategies for writing about and reclaiming the past.

I found your essay compelling and informative. What do you hope that MSR readers take away from “Grief?” 

I have learned that although my grief will never disappear, I can still feel joy, and the best way to honor my Aunt Helga is to delight in my life. I want readers to understand that although we cannot escape grief, grief and joy do not contradict each other. They can coexist, and thus we do not need to fear grief. I hope what comes across is that all our stories are of significance, that we should value our own truths. I hope I inspire others to speak up and allow their voices to be heard.

What other authors inspire you and why?

One of my all-time favorite writers is Terry Tempest Williams. Her gorgeous writing takes me deep into the landscapes she loves, and her passion always shines through. I trust that when I pick up any book of hers, I will be fully immersed in her world. I so admire her advocacy for social and environmental justice and her ability to seamlessly weave the two together. A big inspiration for the memoir I am now writing was Karen Tei Yamashita’s Letters to Memory. After her aunt’s death and finding her correspondence, Yamashita began excavating the family history of being interned as Japanese Americans. Her approach is wonderfully creative and unconventional, and enabled me to reimagine what memoir could be. Masha Gessen is another writer who inspires me with her courage to tell the truth and stand up for what she believes, often at great risk. Dani Shapiro’s recent book, Signal Fires, is a skillfully crafted novel that deals with issues of family secrets, and I particularly admire her mastery in moving back and forth in time.

By Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is the creative nonfiction editor of Mud Season Review. He has a BA, MS, and Ph.D. in biology and spent most of his career at the US Army Engineer R&D Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi. After retiring from the government, he taught at Thomas University in southern Georgia. He now lives in Florida, volunteers in prisons, restores antique stained-glass windows, and writes.  His nonfiction and fiction have appeared in Front Porch ReviewBlue Lake ReviewThe Meadow, The River, Arkansas Review, Northern New England Review, Northern Woodlands, Maine Homes, Fatherly, and Toastmaster Magazine. His website is http://www.andrewcmiller.com/