Crossing Boarders

After a few weeks of decompression, I am finally able to sort through some of my feelings about last month’s commemoration ceremony in Radom.  At times solemn, while at other times celebratory, the event was a reflection of how present day Catholic Poles choose to confront Poland’s complicated relationship between Christians and Jews.

Poland’s internal and external struggles to reconcile its past were highlighted by the incongruity of a klezmer band playing music at the entrance of the Jewish cemetery, and by the reverence demonstrated when a Holocaust Survivor spoke about his fond pre-War memories, followed by a concert of a well-known Polish performer.  While one can say that this combination of somber commemoration and entertaining celebration reflects the merger of past and present, not all of us are ready for the journey.  Poland’s past has a long way to travel before it catches up to present day Jewry.  At least, 75 years later, Radom, as well as other cities and towns across Poland, are making valiant entrances.

The words that come to mind in response to these efforts are: hopeful, family, new friends, what’s next.  The energy and resources put forth by the Radom government to create a meaningful event for Radom’s residents, as well as us – Radom’s diaspora Jews – was impressive, giving me hope for a future that continues to recognize the contributions of Radom’s pre-War Jewish community to the city’s development and stature.  New bonds were also created amongst Radom’s Jewish descendants from France, Israel and the U.S. as we shared our families’ stories.  Our tribe was expanded beyond our own personal boundaries.

Yet as Radom moves forward to reveal and slowly embrace its Jewish past, Poland’s right-wing government turns backwards.  Steps to bolster Jewish history throughout Poland are met with either resistance or exaggerated emphasis about acts of heroism by non-Jewish Poles.  The desire to distinguish Polish national pride from the history of Polish Jews has the effect of treating diaspora Jews as “the Other,”  thereby maintaining the legacy of two separate Polish countries within one landmass.  Reducing Jewish Poles to eternal visitors, while Christian Poles are the “real” citizens, serves the national government well by always providing a scapegoat when things go wrong.

But we “Radomers” have learned our lessons well.  We are empowered by our memories to move forward against denial, to bring our ancestors’ pasts into the present, and have everyday Poles walk amongst the spirits of their forgotten landsmen, who fought side by side in early wars to keep Poland free and independent, sharing traditional culinary dishes, speaking a common language, and on occasion, saving each other.




One by One

Tomorrow I will arrive in Radom for the start of the events organized to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the Radom ghetto.  What will it feel like when, along with other Jewish descendants and Christian residents of Radom, we gather to honor the memory of a Jewish community decimated by the Nazis?  Will my legs fail me as I stand before the wall where my grandfather Ruwin was shot?  Will I feel the trembling of my grandmother Gitla and great-grandmother Golda as they boarded the train to Treblinka?

When we think or speak of the victims of the Holocaust, we most often consider them as a group rather than distinct individuals having their own lives, emotions, experiences.  Yet each child, woman and man was unique.  My grandfather, who bought and sold leather goods, and along with my grandmother operated a concession stand during the summers in the Polish traveling circus, had their own stories to tell.   Will I hear them cry out as I recite their names in the Synagogue Square?  Ruwin, Gitla, Roiza, Mortcha, Bilah, Malka, Mania, Lazer, Yankel, Heniek, Frania, Yosel, Leon, Moishe, Avram.  One by one their lives were obliterated, their separate and distinct existences vanquished.

How can I pay proper tribute to my ancestors when I never got the chance to meet them?  I can mourn their loss, but what images will come to mind when no photographs of my grandmother survived, and the picture I have of my grandfather comes from a computer image of his ghetto identification card recently uncovered?  Are these fragments sufficient to do justice to their blessed memories?  And what about their own mourning?  Robbed of sharing in their children’s milestones and the love of grandchildren, their futures were cut short.

We – the descendants – represent the continuation of their lives.  We embody them wherever we are, at any given moment.  We are the proof of their existence.  We reflect their light.  This is how we honor their memory.  One by one.




Walking Through a Wormhole

For “Second Genners,” as the children of Holocaust Survivors are often referred, “memory” is not a simple construct.  Rather, it encompasses the obligation to memorialize our murdered ancestors, not only by reciting special prayers and commemorating Yom HaShoah, but virtually experiencing their suffering that filters through our DNA.

It is a profoundly deep level of consciousness evolving from constant exposure to those who have lived through traumatic psychic injury.  The soul damaging destruction caused by the Holocaust infiltrates second and even third generation descendants, with recent research bearing this out.  We have inherited unconscious memories not of our own making, but feeling no less real.  While we may not experience the same level of threat when these memories surface, we are on alert.  Images that should be perceived for what they actually represent are transformed into memories of something much more sinister.

For my father, the worst of those memories occurred when he was in the hospital for heart or back surgery. It was as though he had been sucked into a wormhole.  It was 1939 again and reality became a nightmare for survival.  He would rip the intravenous tubes out of his arm and climb onto the window sill when no one was in the room.  When my brother and I would visit, he spoke to us in a hushed voice, sometimes even in Polish which we did not speak, urging us to run and hide from the demons chasing him.

While I have never suffered such delusions, I am nonetheless sensitized to these types of images.  Unfortunately, the doctors and nurses treating my father had no clue what to do other than forcibly restrain him.  This of course just increased his fear.

As someone who has always tried to face my anxieties, I have wrestled with the evil that haunted my father and still lurks in my own head.  Instead of pushing those thoughts away, I have chosen to study and ultimately transform them.  This process has taken me on a path towards reconciliation through restorative justice – my gateway to peace.



A Different Kind of Sorrow


I was named after my maternal grandmother Sarah.   Sarah was not a concentration camp survivor, having immigrated with her family to the United States well before the Second World War.  Originally I was under the impression that Sarah was from Russia since that is where I was told my maternal grandfather Morris lived before he and his siblings sailed to America in the early 1900’s.  However, after receiving my grandmother’s death certificate, her place of birth was listed as “Russia/Poland.”  This actually makes sense given the many changed hands under which Poland was ruled.  Indeed, my grandfather’s own hometown of Bolkovysk, Russia (also spelled Wolkovisk in Polish and Volkovysk in Belarusian) became a volleyball between the Russian Empire, Poland, and Belarus.  However, regardless of the spelling or government in control, Jews from the Pale of Settlement were no strangers to pogroms.

Almost everything I know about my grandmother Sarah comes from the vital statistics found on census data, and the few photographs my mother Beatrice, or Beatie as she was affectionately known, so meticulously labeled.  Oddly, there is only one picture of my mother with the woman after whom I am named, and that is a family portrait, not a snapshot of mother and daughter.  Given how close I was to my mother, I nonetheless cannot discern why this was.

I do know that my mother and grandmother were no strangers to grief, though their suffering occurred due to acts of nature and not “acts of man.”  Before dying of breast cancer at age 39, my grandmother’s slightly older sister Elsie had already passed away from illness, as had Eli, the youngest of my grandmother’s three children.  While dying early was not uncommon during those times, that fact does not make the suffering any easier.

But it is a different kind of sorrow from the misery that possessed Holocaust Survivors, and likely still possesses the few Survivors alive today.  At least that is how it appears to me based upon my father’s behavior.  The holes in the hearts of the grief stricken who experience a loved one’s passing from “natural” causes are not generally filled with intense indescribable rage.  There is a distinction for them between the deep sadness they feel and a heart mutilated by unspeakable violence.  In the former, hearts are broken but souls are intact.  For Survivors, their hearts were tortured by the agony of what they witnessed, forever tormenting their sense of being, irretrievably rupturing their souls.



A Nice Jewish Girl Nazi Hunter

Not every child of Holocaust Survivors wants to be a Nazi hunter.  But I did.  I imagined scenarios in which I searched for Nazi’s who escaped allied capture, and when I found them, which I always did, they were brought to justice where they had to admit to their crimes.   I did not know anything then about the help they received from Nazi sympathizers and governments that believed fascists were better than communists.

Yet maybe it is precisely the nice Jewish girls who have these dreams.  Perhaps the collective unconscious of our ancestors has been haunting us, motivating us to seek justice.  So, although neither of my parents spoke much about their own parents except to tell me how each one of them died, I have taken it upon myself to uncover their life stories.

It was only a few years prior to my father’s passing that he began talking more specifically about his mother, and that is due to my constant prodding.  Between his faded memories and information discovered through years of meticulous research, I have been able to piece together portions of the lives of my father’s beloved family.

My father’s mother Gitla was killed along with her mother Golda in the gas chamber known as Treblinka.  I was told that she had dark hair like me, was petite and gentle.  My grandmother was very intelligent, and unlike many, she could read and write.  She often helped my father with his homework, and he cherished those quiet times with his mother.

Though my grandmother was a great cook according to my father, it was my great-grandmother Golda, who lived with my father and his parents, who did all of the food preparation.  Fridays were codfish and herring, chicken or meat, and other traditional Polish dishes.  Shabbat candles were lit, prayers recited, and on Saturday the Rabbi would come to my grandparents’ home for leftovers, while my father would have to recite what he had learned at Cheder that week.

These are just some of the loving memories my father shared.  I wish I knew more.  It is difficult to trace the genealogy of women, particularly if they married and adopted their husband’s last names, which of course every married woman in my grandmother’s generation did.  The most useful information comes from death certificates since those contain “maiden” names.  However, gathering enough information to be able to make a legitimate request for a death certificate takes many years.  Skill and luck are both necessary for a successful search.   Of course, in the case of my father’s mother – as with all of the victims killed by the Nazi’s – no death certificates were issued.  No individual graves were dug either.














I always wanted to be a Nazi hunter but I was born too late.  How else could I avenge my grandparents’ deaths and heal my father’s pain.   To track down the murderers who took the lives of my family and millions of others had the potential of making me a hero in my father’s eyes.  It just might have been enough to finally please him, though probably not.

As a daughter of a holocaust survivor, my “second generation” status has been imprinted upon me.  I have memories that are not my own, as well as feelings of grief and abandonment, though I never met the grandparents over whom I feel such deep loss.  I have inherited the legacy of the survivor community in which I was raised, and that has left me with nightmares and occasional anxiety when riding on trains.

I have never shared these feelings with my father, or any other of my relatives who miraculously survived the ghettos and concentration camps.  It just felt wrong to say that I could even remotely understand what they experienced.  But now, 7 years after my father’s passing, I feel the need to at least memorialize those fragmented lives.

Though I know I will never be able to bring back the dead, I need to find some way to do more than say Kaddish to honor the victims of the Holocaust.  Possessed by the spirits of my ancestors,  I must bring Jewish life back to the home they kept hidden in their hearts.