I’m not ready to explain the Holocaust to my daughter

One day in 1942, my grandmother and my aunt were shopping for groceries in the city. As they walked towards home, trucks with soldiers pulled into the street. I can imagine the shouts in German and Polish. The weeping bodies, maybe shots, as uniforms pushed into homes. And, moments later, the street again empty, and my seven-year-old aunt running after the last truck that held her mother.

I’ve painted in the details, having lived a steady diet of World War 2 cinema since childhood, but the story itself is true. My grandmother was held for a night in the local jail, before the scheduled morning transport to Auschwitz. My grandfather paid off one of the German soldiers guarding her cell, and she escaped. They had four daughters at home; one died before the war ended from pneumonia and, my mother, was born 13 years later.

My own daughter is here — the version made up of this particular genetic cocktail — thanks, in part, to that soldier. I’ve often wondered if letting my grandmother go was, for him, an act of defiance. Was it that he took pity on her, or on my grandfather? He could have taken their money and, in the morning, loaded both onto that train. Did he recognize my grandfather? Were they neighbours? Did the copious drinks of that night make him throw caution to the wind, and act a hero? Or was he, like they, Christian? Did their lives matter more to him than the lives of the others? Did he consider her capture a mistake, spelled out in crosses and blond locks? Was she the only one he saved?

Today, my daughter asked me if there really were monsters in Poland in 1942. I said there were. Monsters, and good people too. Just like there are today.


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I teach, design, and research as a feminist scholar, usually located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. You can see some of my work, or find out more about me, at http://milenaradzikowska.com. I am on twitter as @candesignlove.


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