Couplehood and family are the basis of human society. They reflect a psychological and biological need. They provide support and defense against the harsh realities of life. They constitute the economic infrastructure of life as it is commonly lived. In the Holocaust, as the whole world came unglued, couplehood and family were almost the only refuge. In the bleakness of the malevolence that descended upon the Western world, these spots of life gave off a light that even stronger than before and expressed the powerful need for this basic human bond.
People did not know what the next hour, let alone the next day, would bring. Accordingly, they tried to establish settings that would give them the illusion of stability. People fell in love in the most implausible places; people married even though they did not know whether they would be able to survive individually or together, let alone establish a conjugal nest. They felt the need to make their marriages official, sometimes as protection against deportation to the east and sometimes due to the wish to be deported together. They felt the need to follow the traditional wedding ritual, affixing the Jewish Star to a white dress or a fancy suit that had survived from bygone days, and to commemorate in a photograph the bride, the groom, and the happy family gathered around. Concurrently, there was free couplehood, quick and provisional assignations that had nothing official about them. Such couplehood often reflected a need for protection from the surroundings; as occurred among the partisans. At other times, it expressed a psychological need for warmth and understanding in the face of the vileness all around.
Family and spouse were sources of strength. They needed to be protected. They needed one more loaf of bread. You tried to sell one more object that did not exist in the ghetto streets, to people who had no money to buy it to begin with. You stood in line for hours, in the freezing cold, clutching your pot at one more public kitchen. Your love swelled and your heart ached when you realized that you could not meet even their minimum needs. The choices were impossible—you go, run to the forest, I’ll stay with the children. Place the children in hiding. Write a last letter to someone you love.
And the opposite spectacles: the disintegration of the family, the destruction of the traditional structure, and the inability to build a new structure. The impossibility of coping with the terror together. Ones spouse is perceived as adding to the hardship, as someone who takes instead of giving. As someone who’s bad for the children. Everything has become radicalized, everything is toppling. To divorce ones spouse in the ghetto—one needs energies which are hard to find, but just the same.... Couplehood as a way of obtaining money, food, life. Forbidden loves that probably would never have occurred in the world that used to be.
Couplehood and family in the Holocaust are painted in bold colors. Looking imminent death in the face, they are a source of anguish no matter how one looks at it.