For many of us the history of the Holocaust is just that, history. If you have visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum you may have a somewhat deeper appreciation for its continuing resonance in our lives. If you have also traveled to those regions where the concentration and labor camps existed, you may have a still greater understanding as well as that overwhelming desire to see these lessons learned live on through us and unite us against these evils.
What we worry about at Artifcts is that as those of the generation who survived the horrors of the Holocaust dwindle in number, will enough of us take up the imperative to preserve those stories that exist within our own family histories? Today, on the International Remembrance Day, Arti Community member @Dr_Dani_Q shares her own family's stories of surviving the Holocaust in hopes of encouraging other families to look back in their family and community histories to ask the questions, document the answers, and share with others so it will not be lost. It will become a part of our living history.
My Grandfather’s Story: A Marriage of Survival, Pride, and Service
It was evening. My great grandmother approached and drew closed the curtains at the window where my then 12-year-old grandfather sat, sparing him from the sight of the SS soldiers lining up and summarily executing his Jewish neighbors who had lived across the street.
This was Kaunus, Lithuania. The year was 1942. SS soldiers occupied homes across Lithuania, including the farmhouse where my grandfather lived. Having already suffered months of servitude to the SS soldiers they were forced to house, my great uncle secured secret passage for his brother’s family that same night as their neighbors were executed via the railroad he worked on. They traveled through Europe and eventually onward to safety in Brooklyn, New York, in 1949. The uncle stayed behind, working in secret to secure passage for all who he could.
The ship my grandfather and his family took to the United States.
Many do not realize that millions of non-Jews, even those blonde-haired blue-eyed Lithuanians like my grandfather, were forced to serve in non-disclosed labor camps and executed by the Nazis during WWII. Unlike some who survived, as you will read about next, my grandfather spent his life telling his personal story from his youth during WWII in eastern Europe, lest we forget. He also traveled back to Lithuania, always returning to us with presents like amber and carved eggs, urging us to remember and embrace our cultural heritage. And he served for freedom and democracy, working as a translator in 10 languages for the US Army.
Homemade necklace of amber from Lithuania
My Grandmother’s Story: Twin Pillars of Survival and Trauma
My grandfather met my grandmother in New York in 1957 at a Belarusian cultural center. You know the type, even if only from movies: native food, dances, and all other aspects of community. The community center was the only place my grandmother would be among her own for the rest of her life.
Unlike my grandfather, my grandmother's experience in 1943 as an 11-year-old Russian Orthodox Catholic child in a Nazi labor camp turned her away from her Belarusian homeland and the whole of Eastern Europe forever.
Scanned copy of a ship passenger manifest validating when my grandmother,
parents, and siblings arrived in NYC, NY, in May 1951... under Polish papers!
I have always been interested in my family history and genealogy. But it wasn’t until a year ago that I asked my uncle to tell me more about my grandmother’s experiences during WWII. All I knew was that as a child she was in a labor camp in Nazi-occupied Europe, and that one day, while bending down to pick up a piece of laundry she dropped while folding in the officers’ barracks, bullets were sprayed across the building by American troops who arrived to liberate the camp. The fallen laundry saved her life. “You still believe that story,” exclaimed my shocked and disbelieving uncle.
He then told the me, the 32-year-old adult me, at last, the true story.
My grandmother was lined up in an execution ditch. She watched as the SS officers executed one person after another. She was number 10. They were on number seven when American troops stormed into the camp, saving her (and her entire family).
Let me tell you, my grandmother, she was 5 feet tall and really fierce. The eldest of four siblings, survivor of a Nazi labor camp, ... you can understand why! I just wish I had known her story when she was alive, because knowing it made me understand and respect her that much more. I would have understood better the generational trauma I witnessed through her decisions and behaviors. I would have understood why she was so tough and closed-off, refusing to speak of her past. And why she chose to assimilate to her new life in the United States to such a degree that she never spoke her native languages again; never visited her homeland again. I just wish I had known.
Today my family honors and preserves our heritage through food, certainly—cold borscht, balandelai, and koldunai/kolduny!—as well as travel, sharing of the trinkets my grandfather first bought for us with our own children, and of course by sharing our stories.
You’ll see if you read the Artifcts I have shared that Artifcts has become our outlet to secure this history. I get to keep so many things that I wish I had from my mom and grandparents. It relieves a weird amount of stress from the “What if” category, and what I would leave behind in the terrible event that something happens to me. That’s why I am sharing my family’s story today. To urge you all, how ever, where ever you feel comfortable – capture your history so it can live on.
- Dr. Dani Q
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