It’s Holocaust Memorial Day. And I’m Glad my Family’s Story still Survives.
I can’t remember a time in my life when the Holocaust didn’t figure prominently. All 4 of my grandparents survived attempts on their lives in Europe during WWII. Though they lived to see their liberation, and the birth of their children and grandchildren, they were nonetheless profoundly scarred by their experience. When my family again became refugees from communism and fled to Canada in the 1960s, they experienced that sense of displacement (minus the death) once again.
I was the oldest child in my generation, and the only Hungarian speaker. My dad’s parents were my primary caregivers as my parents worked. I spent every day with them, eating, talking, watching TV. I was a sensitive and mature kid, and my grandparents doted on me with absolute love and affection.
But the horrors of their past were never far from the surface. Something would trigger a memory — a word, a picture, a sound, and they’d become tearful, quiet. This is always frightening for a child, but I eventually became used to it.
We’d be sitting at their compact kitchen table, covered in a vinyl tablecloth printed with grecian urns. My grandmother would have just sat down after cooking or baking — and the house smelled like pure love and tasty food. I’d be eating whatever she had put in front of me, and it would begin.
“Before we got deported, my mother used to cook so much food for us,” she’d say, wistfully, watching me eat. “When I was 12, I had to start helping around the house because my parents had 8 children. I loved to cook, so I took over from my mom.”
I knew already where this story was going. My grandmother only had 2 surviving siblings, both of whom were in Israel. I had heard about them. Even though I was only 5 or 6, I understood the math well enough to know that everyone else was dead. I knew the tears would start soon. I kept eating because I knew she wanted me to.
She’d continue, “My eldest brother went away to fight for the Romanian army. The rest of the village liked us, we had a little general store.”
The story seemed still happy, like a pleasant memory. I remember thinking the village she grew up in must have been green and beautiful, with rolling hills and livestock. She’d sometimes talk about animals that lived with them — the cow, the chickens, the dogs. She loved the animals, even though she couldn’t bear to have any in her apartment in Toronto. I imagined her and her neighbors laughing and smiling at one another, trading eggs and gossiping about boys.
“My mom got sick, and she couldn’t do much around the house. So I had to do even more, and I stopped going to school,” she’d continue. “It was a hard life, Gabika, and I worked all day every day.”
She never stopped working. When they moved to Canada she went to work for a shirt making factory with my grandfather — the only place that would employ recent Romanian immigrants without education. Once she retired from there — the backbreaking, sweaty factory had overwhelmed my grandfather’s strength — she brought that same work ethic home with her. She’d clean the apartment from top to bottom and cook and/or bake something 6 days a week (never on Sabbath). And she took care of her grandkids, sent food home to her children, and stayed active in her community.
I think staying in constant motion kept her from the sadness. But whenever she’d stop — even for a second — it was right there, just below the surface.
“Then they came for us, Gabika. We didn’t know what had happened.” Her eyes welled up with tears. “The government tried to protect us, not like the Hungarians that sent everyone to the gas chambers. But they couldn’t, and soon they rounded us up. Made us leave everything. Even the dogs and the chickens. And they put us on a train.”
I always loved trains. My grandfathers used to take me on long, aimless subway rides so I could enjoy the clack-clack of the wheels and the announcements. We’d make a big production of getting off the train at the last stop and walking in a circle before getting back on. I wonder if seeing their grandson, so filled with wonder and happiness riding a machine that once led their families to their death, was somehow comforting. Like we had overcome.
“When we got to the camp, we were put in a line. And they marched us up to Dr. Mengele. He sent my mom and older sisters one way, and me the other. He was so scary, I didn’t dare to look at him right in the eye. I never saw them again.”
Her life had been spared, perhaps because she was young and pretty, or they thought she could do some work at Auschwitz.
“We saw the smokestacks. We knew what was happening there. I miss my family,” and by now she was sobbing.
The tears always came when she talked about others — not herself. She almost never made reference to what she experienced directly, but rather discussed her concern for — or the discomfort of — others in her family or friends that wound up in the camps.
Unlike many of the first-person accounts and documentaries I have seen, she never discussed the conditions she was kept in or the hardships of day to day life. Only the loss of people she once knew and loved, and the cruelty of the whole experience. I’ve pieced together her experience through a combination of her narrative and what I’ve learned from others.
My grandmother never forgave the monsters that murdered her family. She worked hard to keep the memories of those people alive. And though I sometimes question the strategy behind involving a young child in these kinds of difficult memories, I am grateful she did it. It allowed me to really understand her pain, and the depths of depravity that led to that dark chapter in my family’s history.
Anytime I think of her, I think of her empathy and pain, the hurt and extreme sorrow of her life. I am grateful to not have to experience it directly, though I am very conscious of how it’s affected me. Sometimes, I’m overcome by sadness — especially during a Holocaust documentary, etc. — because it makes me think of my grandparents and their lives.
A couple of years ago, the Amazon show Transparent had an episode where they regressed back to pre-Holocaust Berlin, and showed the lives of their ancestors in the time before the atrocities began. I remember watching that episode to the end and just crying until my eyes were red and there were no more tears.
What I realized was that my grandparents — and indeed their murdered families — had lives before the Holocaust. They had loves and losses, days and nights, innocence and cynicism that would exist independently of their trauma. But after it happened, after the camps and the torture and the pain of death and separation — the time before was never real again. It seemed like a dream, nothing more than a catalyst for a story about horror and loss. Impossible to imagine, incredible to consider that my grandparents were once young like me. Before all this happened.
I believe this kind of extreme trauma and horror changes you permanently. I am not the same person I would have been had the Holocaust never happened, and no one in my family has escaped its narrative or epigenetic impact. We are all damaged by it — even now — to varying degrees.
My grandparents bore witness to what happened, even as they shied away from the attention. They shared their stories with me, their eldest grandchild, so that I would remember and share them with others. I can never see them independent of the struggles they lived through. But I’m forever grateful for their love and honesty, and this unflinching consideration of truth.
I hope wherever they are is a place free of sorrow. Where every day is just filled with their favorite TV shows and watching their grandkids eat and grow up in freedom. I know they would be so proud of us now, examples of their perseverance and ability to still create.
I still have so many questions that will never be fully answered. But one thing is for sure: their stories will always live in me.