Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Funny to think that there are people who need to be reminded to think about the Holocaust; frankly, when your parents are survivors, every day is Holocaust Remembrance Day.
This morning, I went to hear my friend’s mother speak at my kids’ school. She’s striking, a petite blond woman with high, perfect cheekbones, startling blue eyes, always elegantly dressed. Even now, she has the regal bearing of an Old World aristocrat.
She suffered through the worst of what World-War-II-era Poland had to throw at the Jews. I heard her describe German fighter planes flying so low she could see the pilots’ faces as they fired at fleeing refugees. In a low, pained voice, she spoke of the loss of her home, her imprisonment in the Lodz ghetto, the cruel, sad death of her mother. She explained what starving felt like, she described the ice that formed on the walls of their unheated apartment, and on her little brother’s face. She described the cattle car that took her to Auschwitz. The strange ghostly men in striped clothing who hissed at her father that he should kill himself rather than get off the train.
I thought about my mother’s stories. Heroic Polish farmers, Partizans, Nazi protectors. They’re almost thrilling. And everyone survived.
My father’s story isn’t like that.
Dad is from Podbuzh, or maybe it’s Pydbych, I don’t know, it doesn’t seem to exist anymore, at least, I can’t find any pictures of it, a small town on the eastern Polish border. When it became clear which way the wind was blowing, his family slipped away into the dense forest. They hid in bunkers dug into hillsides, in holes excavated under houses. Along the way, heartbreaking and heroic sacrifices were made. Hiding in the shadows with three of his children, my grandfather watched helplessly as his wife, my grandmother, was kicked to the ground and dragged away. When there was no room him in the bunker’s latrine trench, my seventeen-year-old uncle shoveled earth over his father and brothers and gave himself up to the Nazis waiting outside. When the SS trained their guns on my great uncle Aron, engineer and master builder of underground bunkers, he made a break for it, counting on them to shoot him. If he was taken alive, he knew, they would have tortured him until he gave up the locations of every hiding place he’d built. And there are stories so shattering that even I, one generation removed, cannot get them past my lips.
After the assembly, one of the teachers got up and spoke. Ninety-five percent of Poland’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust, he said. Though the survivors were marked forever by the war, he continued, they went on with their lives, raised normal children, had normal grandchildren.
Normal? I thought. Is that what we are? What a strange word.
I think it was then that I cried