Monday, February 20, 2012

Research about my Grandmother's Family

With my Grandmother's recent passing, I've had the task of doing some research about her family. She rarely mentioned them, as they died when she was little more than a girl and the memories of them were very, very painful.

She was a Holocaust survivor. At thirteen, her father sent her to visit family in Moscow for the summer. The family was very special. They had adopted her father after his entire family was killed in a Polish pogrom during World War I- when he was just a boy.

The year she came to Moscow was a tragic one. It was June, 1941.

Within a few days of arriving in Moscow, my grandmother received a missive from her father in Berdichev (Ukraine) telling her to stay in Moscow and not return home. That was the last time she heard from her family. The family who adopted her father- the child of a pogrom, adopted his daughter- the child of a war.

George Segal. The Holocaust. Public Sculpture outside the Legion of Honor. 1984.

Before the war, Berdichev was called the "Jerusalem" of Ukraine. There were thousands of Jews living there, a vibrant metropolis of religious and secular culture. Synagogues. Yiddish Theaters. Yeshivas. Children playing in the streets. People living their lives without harming anyone else.

It is easy to see why such a city was a priority for the Nazi Gestapo. Within three months, all the Jews in Berdichev were arrested, herded into a ghetto, and quickly exterminated.

Since my grandmother's funeral, where I gave a speech to honor her life, I have been thinking about what I discovered about her family and what I read about the horrors that occurred in Berdichev. What we know about the hundreds of thousands of Jews that were played with and tortured like they were nothing is very, very little. Of her family, I only found her father in a Soviet catalog of names and in someone's testimony at the Holocaust Museum in Israel. It's horrifying to think how her family was gathered up and slaughtered like animals. How her mother, sisters and baby brother remain anonymous in a mass grave. 

 Page of Testimony from Yad Voshem

As I stood at the Holocaust memorial outside the Legion of Honor, I felt grateful that my grandmother survived and that I could tell the story of her family.  Whereas before this sculpture made me ache with fear and horror, it now seems a welcome memorial to the unnamed innocents. A powerful way to honor and remember the dead. A caution for the future. 

The man who stands holding the barbed wire fence stares out at me with resignation, in accusation, in defeat, in suffering, maybe also in hope. "What will you do about me? About us?" He seems to ask. It's a bleak image. The stark white of the figures on concrete makes them anonymous. Forgotten. A fill in the blank. They could be anyone. They could be me. My family. My friends and loved ones. They could be you.

In his dedication of this memorial, the artist George Senegal, writes: 

"We will never forget the genocidal slaughter of six million Jews, including one and a half million children, in the Nazi Holocaust 1933-1945.

"We will never forget the apathy of a world which allowed that Holocaust and the deliberate murder of millions of other people to happen. 

"We will never forget the martyrs of that evil abyss in history. Nor will we forget those Jews and the righteous of all faiths who resisted and fought that evil. 

"In memory of those martyrs and fighters, we pledge our lives to the creation of a world in which such evil and such apathy will not be tolerated."

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