To be the Grandchild of Holocaust Survivors
Nothing could ever compete with my Bubbe. Whether it was the biggest movie opening or the biggest party of the year, we reserved every Friday night for her and Zayde. My Mother, Father, brother David and I would go to Bubbe and Zayde’s house for Shabbat dinner, Bubbe would light the candles and make chicken soup, and David and I would recite the Kiddish and the Ha’Motzei. It was always a wonderful meal together: that was our special Bubbe and Zayde time. At the end of every meal, Bubbe would always have a small toy or allowance for us. And as David and I sat glowing from our new gift in the car on the way home, my Mother would often say, “You don’t know how lucky you are to have your grandparents.”
It wasn’t until much later that I appreciated my Mother’s statement. It wasn’t until much later that I knew my Bubbe’s story. Prior to the Fall of 1939, in Lodz Poland, my Bubbe, too, enjoyed Shabbat dinners with her grandparents. But then the Germans came.
Some of the sudden changes to Bubbe’s daily life I could imagine from having viewed Holocaust-themed movies or reading Holocaust-related literature. I could imagine the invasion of a foreign army, the closure of local Jewish businesses, the sudden food shortages, and, abstractly, the mistreatment. I could imagine the yellow armbands, and the inability to walk on sidewalks. But, growing up, I never knew how these things affected Bubbe, specifically. I didn’t know and couldn’t appreciate what, exactly, had happened to her and her way of life.
I wanted to know. I thought about asking Bubbe and Zayde questions about it all of the time. I wanted to understand more than just “they are survivors.” But, the moment just never seemed right. When is it appropriate to ask probing questions of your loved ones about the Holocaust…questions that will undoubtedly spark painful memories? I struggled with this question.
And so I sought to learn more about Bubbe’s experience in indirect ways. I read and studied extensively. I traveled to Poland and Germany. I visited and later became involved with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown Manhattan and its Young Friends group. Given the absence of specifics about my own grandparents, I concluded that I could at least learn more about the Holocaust and the survivor experience generally. For a short time, that helped to fill the void.
Thankfully, my Mother ultimately convinced Bubbe to record her testimony. This was no small feat. My Mother had to resort to heavy statements like “you owe it to your grandchildren,” knowing full well that Bubbe would do anything for her grandchildren. When I subsequently watched the testimony, Bubbe sat next to me and kept me company as I learned her story for the first time…
Among far too many harrowing details to recount here, her testimony includes a particularly heart-wrenching part where, early in the Nazi occupation, she gingerly approaches a man who lay badly and brutally beaten in the mud on the street to see if she could aid him. She recalls his tears, his blood, and his stinging question: “Hanna, Hanna, you don’t recognize me? You don’t recognize me?” She describes how she hadn’t recognized the man – her own grandfather – because of how badly the Germans had battered him and because they had shaven off his traditional Jewish beard. She had never before seen him without his beard. The testimony also includes a segment where Bubbe describes how her Mother – my Mother’s future Bubbe – was ripped away from her and loaded onto a truck…deemed, at the age of 39, too old to be useful to the Nazis, and never seen by Bubbe again.
Throughout the testimony, Bubbe repeatedly leaned towards me and said, “Rob, it’s true, Rob, it’s true!” Not because she thought I doubted what I had heard; rather, she understandably suspected that I’d find the story – her story – so otherworldly, so incomprehensible, that I’d struggle just to comprehend it. She was right. How did she survive that? I was in awe of the woman sitting beside me – my kind, gentle, ever-generous and loving Bubbe. I was in awe of the fortitude needed to survive all that she did and rebuild a life – to rebuild with no family and no resources. But, survive she did. And rebuild she did.
In January, Bubbe turned 90 years old. A few weeks ago, she received the unwelcome news that she has lung and spinal cancer. When the doctor asked Bubbe that all-too-routine question about her family’s medical history, my Bubbe replied, “Family? What family? What history?” I realized that, similarly, my Mother cannot answer that same familiar question. The small things we take for granted.
On this Yom HaShoah, I cherish all of the remaining survivors and I pledge to do all that I can to commemorate their stories and the stories of those who are no longer with us. And I reflect, once again, on my Mother’s statement: “You don’t know how lucky you are to have your grandparents.” I do know, Mom. I do know.
Robert Jordan is an attorney in New York City. He is the Chairperson of the Board of the Young Friends of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, co-sponsor of the Annual Gathering of Remembrance (AGR), a community-wide observance of Yom HaShoah to be held this year at Temple Emanuel on April 7, 2013. This column is an adaptation of his remarks at the 2011 AGR as a representative of the Third Generation. His grandmother, Helen Jurysta, is a survivor of Kielce, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau. She currently resides in Vineland, New Jersey, and is undergoing treatment for cancer. Rob may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on twitter at @robertjordan33.