Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. I lost a large chunk of my extended family in the Holocaust, and when this day comes round each year, I wonder how to keep their memory alive, especially as the people who knew them, survivors and the relatives of the dead, age and die themselves. My answer is a writer’s answer: stories. And so in memory of my family and the millions who died alongside them, I’ll tell one of our family stories today, to keep that memory alive.
My maternal grandmother came from Poland in 1928 as a fourteen year old girl with her mother and twelve year old sister. For six years, they’d been separated from their father, who had gone to make his way in America after being unable to find steady work in Poland and seeing the rise in anti-Semitism there. When my grandmother’s two older brothers were old enough, they followed. At that time, the United States had tough immigration quotas, many of them aimed at keeping Jews from Eastern Europe – in other words, my family – out. So my grandmother sailed to Ellis Island with her mother and sister, having not seen her father since she was about eight years old.
They left behind an extended family – grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. The family had lived together in the small town of Krinik, where my great great grandfather ran an inn. My great aunt still talks about her red-headed cousins, how they used to play together, and how she mourned the idea of leaving home to come to the strange New World.
My grandmother’s family settled in New York, and over the next few years, they corresponded with the family they missed back in Europe through letters. My grandmother used to tell me that one of her aunts was an expert seamstress, and when my grandmother made her first dress, and she and her sister both outgrew it, her mother bundled it up and sent it to show her sister in Europe how much my grandmother had learned.
Then came the war, and no more letters came. Only when it was over did the family find out what happened. When the Germans invaded the village, the aunts and uncles and cousins had hidden among neighbors. Adults were in one cellar, children in another. But another neighbor denounced the parents, and the Nazis came for them. As they were being dragged across the town square, their children, seeing, ran out to them. The Nazis forced all of them – parents and children — to dig their own graves, then shot them, every one. Every year my great aunt, the only remaining relative who knew them, lights a candle to remember them still.