Category Archives: Holocaust

I Just Found Out My Relatives Were Murdered by the Nazis

Dear Josep,

I was planning to hold on to this post and write it for Holocaust Memorial Day, but writing is how I process things, and I’m processing, processing, processing.

So, to recap for our blog readers: at the beginning of last week I got an email through the contact form of this blog. It was from a man who introduced himself as a distant cousin. (I’ve since worked out that he’s my second-cousin-once-removed.) He had been looking for information on my grandfather, who had helped him with some details of a family tree years ago, and he came across the tribute to Zadie I wrote after his death last year. He offered to send me some photographs he had of my grandfather as a child, and I asked if I could see the family tree as well. I was excited, because up until that point, the origins of my father’s family were a mystery to me. I knew they were Ashkenazi Jews and that Zadie’s father was an immigrant from somewhere in Eastern Europe, but as I mentioned in that post, Zadie’s mother died when he was young and I knew nothing about her family. I wondered if the family tree would have any information on their origins. Maybe I would finally know what villages in Europe they came from.

I was not disappointed! The family tree indicated that my Zadie’s father, Yacov Shames (after whom my brother is named) was born in Ratno, and his mother, Dina Herman (after whom I am named, in part) was born in Kowel; both were villages with significant Jewish populations in the Volyn Oblast, a region which was then part of Poland and is now in Ukraine. The ancestors I have in common with my second-cousin-once-removed are Zadie’s grandparents, Shmuel and Yenta (yes, I had a great-great-grandmother named Yenta! ūüėõ ) Herman. Yenta was born in Kowel, too, whereas Shmuel was born in WŇāodawa, Poland and presumably moved to Kowel, married my great-great-grandmother, and raised eight children there. Shmuel came to America first, and then Yenta followed with her younger children, including Dina, in 1909. They arrived in New York and then moved to Denver, where a significant Jewish community had begun to congregate.

I immediately Googled these villages and consulted maps. I knew, of course, that my ancestors were probably from that general area, but I can’t quite describe the feeling of finally being able to point to one spot on a map and say, “This is where my ancestors lived.”

…And then I started to read about what happened to those villages and why there are no longer any Jews in that area.

I had known, in theory, that I probably had distant family members killed in the Shoah. With origins in Eastern Europe, and 60% of the European Jewish population wiped out during the Holocaust, it’s pretty unlikely for that¬†not to be true. Still, I knew that all my direct ancestors had been safely settled in the USA by 1914. I had grown up with this sense that my family had escaped in time, and that they were safe.

Then, on Monday last week, I look a closer look at that family tree.

Feyga Herman (b. 1883-Kovel, Ukraine (then Russia); d. 1942, Holocaust); sp. Mottel Mordechai Hopen (d. 1942-Holocaust)

The oldest sister, my Zadie’s aunt, had stayed behind in Kowel.

Strongly reminded of¬†Les 7 Caixes1, I slowly typed a phrase into Google I never thought I’d use in the context of my own family:¬†Yad Vashem archives.

And there they were.

My great-great-aunt, Feyga Hopen–probably the seated woman with one of her daughters. Courtesy of Yad Vashem

I immediately found records of my great-great-aunt Feyga, great-great-uncle Mottel, and their two youngest daughters, Hinde and Perel, who all perished at the hands of the Nazis in Kowel. Even worse, I discovered something my second cousin hadn’t seen before: that Hinde was married to Zisia, and they had two sons, Aba and Yosef, aged 10 and 8.

During my previous Googling about the villages, I came across this horrible page: translations of notes that were written on the walls of the Great Synagogue in Kowel, where the Jews were held before being carted out to the forest and shot. I just sat there and cried as I read it, knowing that my own relatives could have written those notes.

Being me, I decided to compile them into a “found poem”–a poem composed of bits of text taken from another source and reworked into something new. So I pored over the notes, reading them in their English translations and then finding the original Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish and going back and forth with Google Translate trying to make sure the translations were as accurate as they could be. (Alas, I can’t read in Yiddish. What kind of Ashkenazi Jew am I that I can read with reasonable comprehension in Spanish, French, and¬†Catalan of all useless languages–what have you done to me?!?!–but not in Yiddish?!?!)

I was putting the finishing touches on the poem, deliberating on what to include in the little “prologue” explaining the source of the phrases, and I decided to read more information about what exactly happened in Kowel.

So I began to read an eyewitness account; the story of a man from Kowel who survived by being mistaken for dead (twice) and then living in a hole in the ground for a year and two months until the liberation. I’m linking to it here, and I don’t think you need this warning, but I’ll give it to you anyway–do not read it. I shouldn’t have. It’s beyond… it’s just beyond. And when I was done I couldn’t bear to look at the poem I’ve been working on because it felt too clean, too neat, too distant from the actual horrors of what happened to the people who wrote those words.

That night I lay down next to Eitan and we heard the sound of joyous singing wafting through our bedroom window. We live near a yeshiva, and they were probably celebrating something–someone got engaged, or whatever. I thought of the description in the eyewitness account of the Jews saying¬†kaddish¬†(the prayer for the dead) together: “All of those being taken to die in that vehicle sobbed brokenheartedly, repeating the words: ‘May his great name be blessed forever and ever’ with the devotion and eagerness of those about to die in the name of the Lord.” We die like we live, I thought–in song and in prayer.

It’s hard to feel connected to the joyousness of Jewish life while mired in memories of our tragedies, though. I feel now as I did emerging from the gas chambers of Majdanek on my trip to Poland 14 years ago, blinking in the sunlight reflecting off the snow, trying to readjust to the fact that there is a world outside those gas chambers and that my place in this story is to live, to thrive, to laugh, to embrace my loved ones, and to take everything God has given me and use it to do good in the world.

The past week’s headlines have not been helping much.

Eitan showed me a little poem he wrote as I was working through all this that I think sums the whole thing up beautifully. (You didn’t know there were two poets in the family, did you?!)


Notes from the Martyrs / Eitan Levy

Scrawled on a synagogue wall in Kovel
They ask to be remembered
and demand vengeance

May my sons be your consolation
May my home in our land be your vengeance
May the Torah I learn move your lips in the grave
and the life that I live be the blood in your veins


Amen, may it be His will.

…I think I need to go back to reading obsessively about the Spanish Inquisition now. ūüėõ

Love,

Daniella


1. A Catalan documentary Josep recommended to me that I watched just one week earlier, about a woman from Barcelona who discovered, upon her mother’s death, that she was Jewish and that her grandparents had died in Auschwitz. Alas, I don’t think it’s available with English subtitles, but here it is in Catalan and Spanish.‚Ü©

A Damaged Mirror: A Holocaust Memoir Unlike Anything You’ve Ever Seen

Dear Josep,

What do you get when St. Jordi’s Day falls on Israeli Independence Day?

This very silly post.

What do you get when St. Jordi’s Day falls on the first day of Passover? I answered that on LtJ’s Facebook page last year:

(That’s matzah ball soup, for the record.)

So what do you get when St. Jordi’s Day dovetails with Holocaust Remembrance Day (which begins tonight)…?

Hmm.

How about my thoughts on a mind-blowing Holocaust book?

I met author & publisher Yael Shahar¬†because of another book her company published, in which a poem of mine appears: Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression & Empowerment of Women. She contacted me to give me my contributor’s copy, and we ended up meeting at Jerusalem’s First Station complex, chatting over a couple of fruit shakes and exchanging books. (This fateful meeting eventually resulted in a publishing contract for my upcoming novel. But that’s another story. ūüėČ )

Yael handed me¬†A Damaged Mirror¬†with a warning: “I brought this for you, but I’m going to let you¬†decide whether to take it. It’s uplifting in the end, but the first half… it really… really brings you to Auschwitz, in a way not many other Holocaust books do. ”

I wondered how much worse this book could be from all the other books I’d read and movies I’d seen.

“Is it… graphic?” I asked.

She chewed on that. “Not… exactly. It’s just very… vivid. I couldn’t bear to look back over it myself after compiling it.” She said that Don–her husband and our trusty editor–edited and polished it for her.

But I’m a brave soul, and I took it home and after a while of preparing myself emotionally, I read the book.

Suffice to say, it lived up to her warning.

I wrote last year about the gradual structure of my Holocaust education, from a gentle story in first grade¬†to my standing in the gas chamber at Majdanek at age 17. I wrote then that my trip to Poland was the climax of my Holocaust education. I didn’t think another level could possibly exist.

Well, it did, and this book is it.

A Damaged Mirror¬†is a “novelized” memoir that tells the story of Ovadya ben Malka, a Jew from Salonika, Greece, who was forced to serve in the Sonderkommando at Birkenau; and Yael¬†herself, who was born with memories she could not have lived.¬†Her quest to learn what and how she remembers intersects with Ovadya’s quest for forgiveness and atonement for the unspeakable things he was forced to do under the Nazis. It reads like a thriller and¬†offers a deep and very raw exploration of the unfathomable moral dilemmas of the Holocaust; of free choice & responsibility, forgiveness & repentance, memory & destiny. It’s such an important book, for so many different reasons.¬†When I thought about writing a post about it I was overwhelmed by the task because there’s just so much to say. I’m going to limit myself to two of the main things I took away from the book.

A Brutal Reality Check on What Really Happened at Auschwitz

Many of us know, in theory, what happened on the trains and in the camps. But¬†there are things we gloss over just because they are too awful to think about; things I think most Holocaust survivors never even saw, and those who did couldn’t bring themselves to describe them in detail.

For example… it seems naive when I think about it now, but before I read A Damaged Mirror, I had this image in my head that at least the Jews who were gassed died the way people die from carbon monoxide poisoning: slowly drifting into sleep.¬†I didn’t realize it, but I’d been holding on to that image as a tiny glimmer of solace in the face of the unfathomable fact that millions of Jews died this way.

Ovadya’s descriptions of what he saw while clearing away the bodies shattered my illusions. I didn’t think it was possible to be any more horrified and devastated about the Holocaust than I previously was. I was wrong.

And that’s just the gas chambers. There was more.¬†Some of the images¬†he describes literally kept me up at night. In the days and weeks after reading the book, I’d be in the middle of some mundane activity and suddenly one of those images would come back to me and I would need to breathe and ground myself, reminding myself that I am safe and my family is safe… as though it were my own trauma I was reliving.

And you thought¬†Man’s Search for Meaning was brutal. :-/

Difficult as it was, I think people need to¬†know those details. Especially these days when people compare everything from Syria to Trump’s election to the Nazi regime. Reading the book gives you a very healthy, if difficult to swallow, dose of perspective.

Questions of Agency & Responsibility Under the Worst Possible Conditions

Without giving too much away: Ovadya struggles to reconcile with the things he was forced to do under the Nazis. He feels culpable; complicit in the atrocities. Many would jump in here to say: but he can’t blame himself for the things he did. He did them under the worst compulsion imaginable.

Nonetheless, the book presents some very deep and difficult questions: is it really true that he didn’t have a choice? Couldn’t he have chosen to die rather than do the bidding of the Nazis? Would that have been the better choice?

If we say that he didn’t have a choice–that means he was completely helpless and had no agency. It means that the Nazis won, in that they completely stripped him of his humanity–the power of free choice, which, according to Jewish tradition, is what differentiates us from other living beings. We would rather believe that we always have a choice; that the Nazis could take away our rights, our freedom, and our lives, but they could never take away our humanity. I, for one, don’t want to accept that they could. I refuse to¬†grant them that victory.

But if we say that Ovadya¬†did have a choice–that makes him at least somewhat complicit in what the Nazis forced him to do.

Reading the book, I not only wanted to forgive Ovadya, I wanted desperately for him to forgive himself. I wanted to know that he could find some semblance of peace and resolution, not just for him, but for me; because who knows how I would have acted under those same circumstances? Would I have had the strength of will to walk into the gas chamber willingly rather than have to clear it out fifteen minutes later?

And who knows if that really would have been the right thing to do? What about the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who would never have been born?

Moreover, I wanted Ovadya to forgive himself because I felt that would be his one final triumph over the Nazis.

The book doesn’t offer easy answers or tidy conclusions. It really makes you think.

Kasva Press produced an excellent discussion guide called¬†Moral & Religious Dilemmas in the Holocaust¬†which brings excerpts from the book along with questions for people to think about and discuss. You don’t need to have read the book; it stands on its own.¬†You can download it for free on their website here.

Yael informs me that Kasva plans to re-release A Damaged Mirror under a new title in the next year or so. In the meantime, it’s available through their website and all the major distributors, including Amazon (Amazon.es too ūüėČ ). Yael also blogs at¬†https://www.damaged-mirror.com/blog/.

Happy St. Jordi’s Day… and a meaningful Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Love,

Daniella

Screenshot from the movie "Denial"

Responding to Antisemites: Was the Holocaust a Uniquely Jewish Catastrophe?

Dear Josep,

Now that I’m back from my trip and have more or less adjusted to being home, we shall hopefully return to¬†our regularly scheduled program. ūüėČ

On my flight from Denver to Orlando about two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch a movie I’d been really wanting to see. (This is quite¬†a rarity, as I hardly ever watch movies these days. Who has time?!) The movie is called Denial, and it’s a dramatization of the book¬†History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier¬†by Deborah Lipstadt. Here’s the trailer:

The truth is, I was¬†fairly disappointed with the movie. I found Rachel Weisz’s performance as Deborah Lipstadt unconvincing, the script clumsy and stilted, and the drama somewhat forced. And I felt that its exploration of the very complex questions it raised¬†was too superficial.

Still, I’m glad I saw it, and had the opportunity to think those¬†questions:

  • How do we strike a balance between free speech and our responsibility to stop the spread of hateful and dangerous lies?
  • Is it better not to dignify the opinions of Holocaust deniers and antisemites with a response? Or should we¬†engage with them openly, to keep the public informed and inoculated against the lies?
  • Should this kind of¬†discussion be allowed to take place in a court of law?
  • What if making it a discussion at all gives the impression that the¬†existence of the Holocaust is a “two-sided issue” and not¬†indisputable historical fact?
  • Should Holocaust survivors be given the chance to testify in a trial like this, even if they might be re-traumatized by the prosecution and ultimately harm the defense?

All very good questions, and the answers aren’t simple.

One of them came up again last week when I discovered the following comment (on my previous post) awaiting my moderation:


Tell me something.

Nazis killed over 10 million people.
 
Why is it that only the Jewish are remembered?
 
What makes you so special?
 
How are you better than say, Polish people?
 
I’m not a Polish, not a nazi, not a holocaust denier. But I am an European, and Im pretty tired of Jewish bankers controlling the world. Do you understand, that without the banker mafia there would not have been the 2008, and without 2008, there wouldnt be Trump?
 
The world domination of the “chosen people” is crumbling the whole world.

Well. That escalated quickly.

Nothing good is ever going to follow the words, “I’m not a Nazi, but…”

When I informed¬†you about the comment, I considered asking you whether you think, in your vast experience :-/ it’s worth engaging with such people. Can they be reasoned with? Is this kind of antisemitic drivel the result of ignorance, and if so, can it be corrected with information? But I decided that there is no way to reason someone out of the belief that Jewish bankers control the world. It’s like trying to tell an anti-vaxxer that vaccines don’t cause autism, a climate change denier that global warming exists, or a flat-earther that the world is round. No amount of evidence will sway these people from their opinion.

You agreed with my unspoken conclusion in your e-mail the next day: “As someone said long ago: Do not argue with fools. They’ll drag you to their turf and beat you with experience.”

So then I asked myself: if it’s not worth engaging this particular person, maybe it’s worth discussing the comment publicly and responding to some of the points.

Which brings me back to Denial. Ignore, or engage?

Each option has costs.

The cost of ignoring comments like these is that we (the targets) feel silenced and helpless, and the perpetrators get away with doing or saying whatever they want. It feels unjust, a betrayal of the truth. And there’s always the risk that your remaining silent will empower them, making them think you’re not responding because you can’t.

The cost of engaging with antisemites, however, is that in so doing, we grant them a platform. Treating their ideas as something worth discussing may seem to legitimize them in a way. At very least, it shows that their words had an impact. This can empower them, too.

…Well &$#^.

So,¬†the last part of the comment is not worth discussing. It’s just pure, classic antisemitic myth, and I already elaborated on that¬†in my Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies.

The first part, though, I decided to address, because in isolation, it’s a pretty fair question.

Why Is the Holocaust Considered a Uniquely Jewish Catastrophe when Millions of Non-Jews Were Also Killed by the Nazis?

I think this question stems from a basic lack of knowledge regarding the Nazi regime and its ideology.

Yes, the Nazis were racists. Yes, they believed that homosexuals, Romanies, Slavs, and blacks were inferior to them and therefore unworthy of any rights.

Jews, on the other hand, were not just believed to be inferior. We were believed to be evil.

This was a central tenet of Nazi ideology. Jews–not gays, Gypsies, or Poles–were held uniquely¬†responsible for all the world’s ills.¬†Therefore, “solving the Jewish problem” meant annihilating¬†every last Jew.

They did not believe this about other groups. According to their beliefs, their¬†purpose in the world as a “supreme race” was¬†to dominate¬†other races, not¬†destroy¬†them. They saw “lesser” races and other “defective” humans as undesirable, and killed them when they were a nuisance. There was never any organized plan to seek out people from those groups and exterminate them.

The Poles and Ukrainians, for example, were sitting on fertile land that the Nazis wanted, so they killed them to get them out of the way. Their plan was to enslave the rest. Individuals who caused trouble were sent to the death camps–but those camps were built with the express purpose of¬†exterminating Jews.

In other words: the Nazis were horrible, inhumane, and murderous towards all other people who they defined as being inferior to them. But the genocide, the efforts and resources poured into the systematic and complete¬†annihilation of every man, woman, and child–that was specifically directed towards Jews. We were, by an order of magnitude, their primary and most important target.

Look; this isn’t the Victimhood Olympics. No one wins a gold medal for having suffered the most. The fact that Jews were the primary target of the Nazi genocide does not and should not minimize or marginalize the¬†devastating losses sustained by other groups. But when you claim that there is no difference between the treatment of the Jews and that of the Poles, you are denying history.

And as Deborah Lipstadt’s lawyers ultimately showed in court, when you deliberately deny history with the intention of glossing over Jewish suffering… you are an antisemite.

…Which our friend here promptly proved at the end of his comment.

Here’s hoping¬†I will be able to go back to writing about things OTHER than Nazis and antisemites soon.¬†*grumblegrumble*

Love,

Daniella

In the Empty Synagogues of Poland

Dear Josep,

Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed in Israel starting this evening, on the 27th of Nisan, which is the day the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. The date was also selected for its proximity to Memorial Day (for the fallen soldiers and terror victims) and Independence Day next week. We see all these events as part of the same story.

We observe this day with ceremonies and stories, lowered flags and sad music on the radio; and one thing that is unique to Israel: a siren sounds throughout the country at 10 a.m., and everyone stops whatever they are doing, stands up, and observes two minutes of silence in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. The entire country comes to a literal halt.

As you can imagine, remembering and teaching about the Holocaust (the Shoah in Hebrew) is a big deal in the world’s only Jewish country, and given that Israel was founded out of the ashes of the Holocaust and on the backs of its survivors, it is a major part of our national identity. Educating future generations about it is of utmost importance to us. To this end, many high schools arrange educational tours¬†to the death camps in Poland.

There is some controversy about those trips; about the moral integrity of funding Poland’s “death camp tourism” industry, about whether those rowdy teenagers actually get anything meaningful out of the trip, and about whether the Holocaust should be something so deeply focused upon and ingrained into our national identity¬†when we have 3,000 years of rich and diverse history to draw upon.¬†After all, half of the country’s Jewish population is comprised of non-Ashkenazim–Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, India, and Ethiopia.¬†They have other¬†important stories to tell,¬†stories that are not told as thoroughly¬†and as publicly as the stories of the Ashkenazim. Furthermore, some¬†argue, is it really so healthy for such a major part of our national identity to be built upon a sense of victimhood?

Well,¬†I traveled to Poland with my fellow 11th graders in March 2004, and it was one of the most powerful and meaningful experiences of my life. The kind of experience in which the depth of its impact is completely impossible to convey to those who weren’t there. But let me try.

We visited three camps–Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, and Treblinka–as well as the neighboring cities, Krakow and Warsaw, and a number of small towns where Jews once flourished, such as Lodz, home of the famous Hassidic sect, and the charming town of Tykocin… and the mass grave in the nearby ŇĀopuchowo Forest where its entire Jewish community was murdered by the Nazis.

My friends walking to the mass grave and memorial site in the ŇĀopuchowo Forest.
My friends walking to the mass grave and memorial site in the ŇĀopuchowo Forest.

We had several guides, including an Israeli guide, a Polish guide, and a “witness”: a man who survived the camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz and whose family was murdered at Treblinka. We are especially lucky to have been the last generation that could travel with a witness¬†and hear his personal story as we stood at¬†the very places¬†where the events¬†happened.¬†Our witness, Avraham, was a remarkable man with a vibrant spirit and a great sense of humor, and his contribution to the trip was immeasurable. Our teachers accompanied¬†us and¬†ran discussion groups. Our principal had brought his guitar¬†and he played along with¬†our singing.

And we sang everywhere.¬†We filled every empty synagogue with song and dancing; we sang “Am Yisrael Chai”, “The Nation of Israel Lives”, and brought life and music to all these places where our ancestors had been silenced.

My classmates, teachers and I dancing and singing in the beautifully restored synagogue where the Jewish community of Lancut, Poland, once prayed.
My classmates, teachers and I dancing and singing in the beautifully restored synagogue where the Jewish community of Lancut, Poland, once prayed. (I’m the one with the dull pink coat, the white scarf and the hair all over the place. ūüėõ )

In the gas chambers of Majdanek, we sat on the floor and sang about faith and yearning for redemption through our tears. It may sound strange to do anything but observe a reverent silence in such a place; but for us, raising our voices in song is our way of honoring those who died there, giving them a voice, calling out to God from the depths of our despair.

We walked, grandchildren of survivors, free citizens of a sovereign Jewish state, and sisters of the Jewish soldiers protecting it, down the infamous train tracks, into the forests, and through the remnants of the ghettos. We carried our Israeli flags in heartbroken pride; our unspoken message to those who died there that their deaths were not in vain. My friend Menucha, whose grandmother survived Auschwitz, says: “I remember walking in Auschwitz¬†with an Israeli flag on my back and thinking of how my grandmother had come in with nothing. I think it’s one of the proudest moments of my life.”

Walking to the barracks at Auschwitz.
Walking to the barracks at Auschwitz.

One evening in our hotel in Krakow, a woman came to speak to us and tell us¬†how she and her family sheltered Jews during the Holocaust. After her talk, we got¬†up, one by one, to thank her and hug and kiss her.¬†That wordless exchange–the glowing warmth and gratitude, the firmness of her grip on my arms, the softness of her white cheeks against my lips–is burned forever into my memory.

There is no way to replace this kind of learning. As Menucha says, being there with a witness to share his story was like the difference between learning about the Shoah and being in Poland; the difference between knowing and feeling.

So did my trip, and the focus on the Shoah in my education, result in building my national identity on a sense of victimhood?

The answer is: absolutely not.

It built my national identity on a deep sense of purpose and triumph. Triumph, because we are the answer to the Holocaust. Every Jewish baby born, every Israeli soldier sworn in, every mitzvah observed, every holiday celebrated, every song, every laugh, every smile is another slap in the face of Hitler and all he stood for. Ultimately, we won; not with guns or bombs, but with our spirit, our faith, and our dedication to our identity and purpose.

“The Eternal Nation is not afraid of a long journey”, I sang with my friends in the empty synagogues of Poland. ¬†The Jewish people is¬†here to stay. We have something invaluable to give the world. We have been oppressed, persecuted, and massacred for carrying that message for thousands of years.¬†But we’re still here, still carrying¬†it. Learning the terrible extent of the sacrifice my brethren made¬†to keep their identity and hold on to that message makes me all the more determined to do the same, and to pass it forward into what will hopefully be a brighter future for all of us.

Love,

Daniella