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! 😛 ) Herman. Yenta was born in Kowel, too, whereas Shmuel was born in Włodawa, 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.
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.
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. 😛
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.↩