I didn’t start to get to know my grandmother until after she died. When she was alive, I visited her multiple times, but we could never have a conversation. While she spoke Yiddish, Polish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Romanian, and Hebrew, I only knew one language, English.
I knew she was a Holocaust survivor. But like many children growing up in America, I didn’t really understand what that meant. Of course, I knew about the Holocaust – I had read Anne Frank’s diary and had been to the Museum of Tolerance – but I didn’t really understand it. How could I? I grew up in an upper middle-class suburb where half the students in my public school were Jewish. I didn’t even know Jews were a minority in the world.
Now, so many years later, I have become an advocate for Holocaust survivors and recently published a novel called My Family’s Survival that tells the story of how my grandmother – Rachel Shwartz – and her family escaped the Nazis. How did I get here?
My journey began in 2005. My family decided to take a trip to Poland and the Ukraine to visit the village where my grandmother had grown up and reenact the first leg of her escape. We met relatives from Israel, Los Angeles, and even New Zealand, in Poland to travel this journey together. Our trip started in the small village of Butla. Butla was about two and half square kilometers and had about 1,000 residents at the time my grandmother lived there. Back then, about 40 percent of the region’s population was Jewish. Today, the Jewish population there is nonexistent.
The village seemed frozen in time, like it hadn’t changed since my grandmother grew up there in the 1930s. The houses, made of wood and straw, were crumbling. Outhouses leaned in the middle of overgrown grass where horses – the mode of transportation – grazed. My family showed up in a bus, likely the first bus to travel down the dirt roads. We were greeted by women in traditional Polish dresses and scarves on their heads and by children, eager to see who these strangers were and find out if we would play soccer with them.
In our group were two people who been to Butla before: my grandmother’s two nephews who were only eight and three years old when their family fled. Abi, the elder one, had memories of where their house had been, while the younger, Yossi, looked around the village as a stranger would.
Butla sat on the edge of a large forest that quilted a mountain range. My family’s purpose while there was to hike through that forest, up a mountain and down the other side, reenacting how my grandmother, her brother, his wife, and their three children, escaped when the Nazis came. It was just a ten kilometer hike, that at the time, led into Hungary. The hike took them six days. We did it in a couple hours. During our reenactment, I started to think about my grandmother’s journey, but like her travails during the Holocaust, this hike for me was just the beginning.
A few years later, I became involved in a charity called The Blue Card that helps Holocaust survivors in the US who live below the poverty line. I ran the New York Marathon three times and the Jerusalem Marathon twice for the charity, raising money and speaking at events about how my grandmother’s journey inspired my advocacy. But still, I didn’t really know that much about what my grandmother went through.
Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away in 2012 – still years before I was ready or able to ask the questions about her experience. Even if I had wanted to ask, we still didn’t speak a common language.
But then, in 2013 I decided to move to Israel. Something drew me to this country, maybe not the same thing that drew my grandmother to move to Israel in 1950, but something similar. A shared feeling of Zionism, of wanting to be close to others like me, of wanting to be a part of something, to build something. Living in Israel, I learned Hebrew and became immersed in the culture where the Holocaust is not as distant of a memory as it is in the suburb where I grew up. And that is when the questions came. What was my grandmother like before the Holocaust? What happened to her after that hike through the forest? How had it changed her?
Thankfully, she had her testimony recorded as part of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation visual history project, which strove to record the testimonies of all living survivors. In fact, between 1994 and 1999, the foundation conducted nearly 52,000 interviews in 56 countries in 32 different languages. My grandmother’s testimony was in Hebrew, and once I was fluent enough in the language, I sat down to watch it.
The two-hour video recording showed my grandmother – about 75 years old—talking about life in Butla before the war and providing detailed accounts of her journey from Butla through Hungary, Romania, and eventually ending up in Israel. She smiled nostalgically as she spoke about going out to a dance club or singing in a choir after school. Then her tone became more severe as she discussed running away from an SS officer through a wheat field or hiding under a cot as policemen in white gloves and feathers in their hats arrested her brother and his wife. The amount of details she remembered astounded me. As did her emotionless demeanor during the entire interview.
After watching the video, I decided I had to tell her story to others. If her story was left just on that old DVD, I knew I would probably be the last person to hear it. So I started on my project and found the testimonies of my grandmother’s brother and her nephew Abi. Unfortunately, by this time, Abi had also passed away, and the only living survivor in my family was the younger nephew, Yossi. While Yossi did not remember much from his experience during the Holocaust, he was able to tell me about his family members – what they were like, their personalities and their relationships with each other.
It was then that I realized the story wasn’t just my grandmother’s. It also was her brother’s and his wife’s and their children’s. So I decided that the book would highlight each of the different family members, each one telling parts of the story from their own perspective. While they all lived through the same journey, they all experienced it differently. My grandmother experienced it as a beautiful teenager whose carefree years were cut short, while her brother David, experienced it as the patriarch who felt responsible for everyone’s survival. David’s sensitive wife Hinda experienced it as a mother who had to stay strong for her children, who for their own part, had been forced to mature to deal with their new reality.
Their testimonies, woven together, tell a miraculous story, where the hike through the forest is just the beginning. The story includes multiple hiding places, several close encounters with Nazis, jails, bombings, and a string of miracles. The story also includes good Samaritans who risk their lives to help the family, as well as evil people – Jews even – who easily sell them out. In the story, the line between good and evil is blurred, as the family members realize that people are much more complex than those two categories.
Writing also required significant fact checking. The testimonies included dates, times and places of different events. This constantly had me wondering: how do they remember that this walk took an hour, or that this town was bombed on that date? To answer these questions, I researched old maps of the area and documentations of all the bombings during the war. And everything checked out.
It made me think about the memory of survivors. How something so traumatic stuck so deeply into their heads that 50 years later, they could recall details such as the color of someone’s glove or the exact time they arrived at a new village. However, survivors can only keep their memories vivid for so long. As the number of survivors is dwindling, it is our responsibility to carry on their memories for posterity.
My hope for my novel, My Family’s Survival, is to preserve the memory of my grandmother and her family, so that it is never forgotten. So that my children, and their children, as well as anyone interested in the topic, can read their story and remember what happened not so long ago. ■
My Family’s Survival
375 pages; $12.80
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