Bearing witness and sharing memories

By Ilana Sullivan, American Family Insurance Actuarial Analyst

My godparents, Henry and Sylvia, were an important part of our close Jewish family.

My Godparents, Henry and Sylvia, participated in my baby-naming ceremony.

Before I was born, their daughter married my mom’s cousin. Henry and Sylvia lived next to my grandparents until I was five, and we saw them a lot. They owned a deli and a Jewish bakery, and when they moved to Florida, they opened another bakery. I remember eating their delicious bagels and getting Challah and Russian tea biscuits shipped from their bakery in Florida. We also saw them when they returned to Ohio for visits.

I always knew they were Holocaust survivors, but they never talked about it because it was so painful.

Even their children didn’t know their story until they were adults. Eventually, Henry and Sylvia felt an extra sense of responsibility because there aren’t many survivors left. They decided it was important to share their history.

Recently, I discovered they participated in the Holocaust Survivors Oral History Project in Tampa, Florida, and I was able to learn about their experiences. You can read the transcript of the full interviews here.

In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’d like to share a bit about them with you to carry on their memory.

Henry’s story

Henry, my godfather, had a good life in Poland where his parents had a bakery. The anti-Semitism started when he was 14, and the Germans started hanging Jews on trees. He recalls having to wake up at 4 a.m. to work in the concentration camps. Some people were “lucky” to work near a forest, able to sometimes sneak berries or mushrooms to eat, but they had to be careful because anyone who was caught, was shot. Prisoners were often marched or transported to other camps. Henry recalls his nine- week march to Buchenwald where only 600 of the 1,400 people survived. They had to bathe in streams in winter, and people died like flies and were buried in the road.

As the liberation neared, the Germans poisoned the water so the Americans had to bring water. Thousands more of the liberated prisoners died because their bodies could not take normal food after having been starved for so long.

Sylvia’s story

My godmother, Sylvia, also had a good life in Poland. Her parents had a grocery store. By the time she was 12, her parents and most of her siblings were separated from her. She, her twin brother and younger sister went to a concentration camp together. Her sister was killed shortly before Sylvia was freed.

Eventually, my godparents met, got married and had two children. Around 1949, they came to the United States. They felt it was too painful to stay in Germany after the war.

It is important that we never forget.

In some ways, we’ve made progress since the Holocaust, but unfortunately, there’s still anti-Semitism today. There have been instances of anti-Semitic activity in my hometown in Ohio, here in Madison, and only just a few days ago in San Diego.

I feel lucky to work at a company where I feel safe sharing what my religion is and can take pride bringing in traditional Jewish treats. I hope others feel proud and safe sharing their diversity and feel included here, too. I don’t always feel that safety outside of American Family and hope to someday live in a world where we can feel free to be ourselves everywhere.

We must always remember the Holocaust and understand our responsibility to protect all people and to prevent anything like this from happening again.

And in the paraphrased words of my godparents, “Get rid of the hate. There is too much hate going around. You’re a person. Why would you hate another? If you get rid of the hate, you are going to live entirely better.”

Ilana Sullivan is an actuarial analyst at American Family Insurance

The history of Holocaust Remembrance

The internationally recognized date for Holocaust Remembrance Day corresponds to the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

This year, the day was extended to a week (April 28 through May 5) to observe the days of remembrance of victims of the Holocaust and the solemn anniversary of the liberation of Nazi death camps to honor the memory of the victims and survivors of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution.

People are using #HolocaustRemembrance on Twitter to share memories and post about why this day is important to them. Even if you don’t have a personal connection to the Holocaust, this week helps us all speak out against hatred, genocide and promote human dignity around the world.


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