In light of the Muslim ban, the purposeful omission of the word “Jews” from the White House’s official statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day and my mother’s 70th birthday, I am choosing to tell the story of my family’s origins today. It is a more detailed account than the one I gave on Facebook and Instagram over the weekend. I’ll give you fair warning. It is not an easy read and I struggled while writing it. Many children of Holocaust survivors were brought up without their parents sharing their story and without really talking about it all. We’ve pieced things together from relatives and accounts from other people who lived in the same town, mostly after my grandparents passed away. Honestly, I am not sure if it’s appropriate to tell here but when I tried to write about my family’s story, it felt disingenuous to gloss over the ugly parts. Plus, someone should write them down. That’s how we remember. It is now my responsibility to never forget the circumstances that brought my family to this country, to teach my children about our ancestors and to share their story with all of you.
In 1949, my mom came to America through Ellis Island. Her family was Polish but their town had been wiped out in World War II so she was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany along with many other Jewish people whose homes and families had been decimated during the Holocaust.
It’s important to remember that Jews weren’t nearly the minority back before the war that they are today. They had many thriving communities all across Europe. My grandmother was one of six children and the only one to survive. My grandfather was one of thirteen and only four of them survived. One of my grandfather’s siblings died the day the Nazis invaded their town. As I’ve heard it, Nazi soldiers walked up to the first house on the street and told the people living there to bring them their youngest son. The family did as they were told and one of the soldiers shot that boy in the head. It was a warning to the other Jews in the town to comply or risk extermination. Very effective obviously. The boy would have been my great uncle.
My grandmother also lived in the same town and was 13 years old the day the Nazis invaded. She spent the day hiding in the sewage under an outhouse with her best friend.
I did not hear either of these stories from my family. I read them in a book written by the surviving members of the town, years after my grandparents had passed away. Exactly what happened to my family next is unclear but I know my grandparents spent many years living and hiding in the forest. I don’t know if they fled together or if they found each other out there. I don’t know if they were with their parents or kids who were on the run on their own. One horrific story I found out only recently was that at some point during the war, my grandparents had a baby. One night when a group of Nazi soldiers was searching the forest for Jewish people, the baby started crying. Someone covered the baby’s mouth with their hand so that their group would not be found. Their baby suffocated that day and I cannot imagine living with that even though I completely understand the necessity at the time. I’m sure whoever did it saved my grandmother, my grandfather and many others that day.
We do not know if my grandparents were found by the Nazis during the war and put in concentration camps or if they were found after the war and put in a displaced person camp. In either case, a displaced persons camp in Germany was where they ended up. They had no home or town to go back to. They had grown up with no schooling or organized religion. And of course, they had very little family left.
My mother and her older brother were both born there so they were living in the camp for at least five years.
When America began letting in Jewish refugees, my mom was two-years-old. Her father had a relative in California who sponsored their family (only Jews with relatives in America were allowed in) and the plan was to move there. Unfortunately, he got sick on the boat over and they were detained at Ellis Island until he got better. They ended up having the opportunity to stay in New York because another relative offered him a job at his grocery store in Brooklyn, a neighborhood filled with refugees. They moved into an apartment adjacent to the store where my grandmother brought in a second income as a seamstress.
My grandparents didn’t bring my mother or her brothers up to be very religious because they feared history would repeat itself and it was best to keep your head down and your Jewish beliefs quiet. They spent their lifetime working hard and trying to blend in. They didn’t find the “American Dream” as people think of it today. What they found was freedom and safety, but they were suspicious and still suffered greatly. Many Holocaust survivors died young from the physical after effects of being malnourished and living in horrific conditions for many years. My grandfather passed away at the age of 47 when my mother was 16. My grandmother developed multiple sclerosis and was put into a nursing home at the age of 50. She was also suffering from what would probably now be categorized as PTSD. Some call it Survivor Syndrome.
I remember meeting my grandmother once as a little girl while she was in the home. She was frail and quiet and she gave me a stuffed white cat. I remember that visiting her made my mom sad and can vividly remember sitting on the floor next to my mom while she sat on her bed, quietly wiping tears from her eyes while on the phone. It was the first time I had seen her cry. I think that must have been the moment she found out her mom passed away but I’m not sure. My grandmother lived until the age of 55.
My mom turned 70 yesterday. Both her parents passed away over 40 years ago. And although my grandparents lives might never have recovered from the Holocaust, because of their perseverance, their children got to experience the freedom of America that we know today. And their children’s children. And now my children.
In 1949, my family was among the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and the Statue of Liberty allowed our story to continue.