Growing up in my house in Seattle I got two types of stories going to bed. One were stories about Israel, the wars where Israel had to defend herself from the neighboring countries with the heroism of soldiers and average every day Israeli. The other stories I heard right before I lay my young head down to sleep…were Holocaust stories. Both my grandparents on my dad’s side were Holocaust survivors and growing up I heard not only of the horror but of the bravery of my grandparents and family members.
In this post, because today/yesterday is/was Yom Hashoa (Holocaust remembrance day) I would like to share two stories about my family that I grew up hearing. These stories remind me that my family and my people are strong and that even in the darkest of times some humanity can shine through.
The first story is of my Zedi (grandfather in Yidish) who was drafted (forced) into the Polish Army. The beginning of his time in the Holocaust he was a fighter in the Polish army, barley surviving every day. His regiment was captured by the Nazi army one day during a battle and they were brought them back to the prisoner of war camps. The Nazis lined them up and said, all Commisars, step forward. The Catholics stepped forward and were shot and pushed into a mass grave. The Nazis said all Pols step forward, the Pols stepped forward and were shot and pushed into a mass grave. Then the Nazis said all Jews step forward. My grandfather had given up, at this point he was starving and aware he was going to die no matter what. As he was taking the step forward a rather large Polish man next to him grabbed his arm and held him back. He said “no, don’t go,” when my grandfather responded that the had nothing else to live for, the Pol gave him what was considered gold in the camps. He gave him a sugar cube. My grandfather, astounded by the act of generosity and warmth did not go forward. As he watched his Jewish brothers were slaughtered but he stayed strong and stayed alive.
Later that night the overly large Pol and my grandfather, joined by another Pol decided it was time to escape. They escaped the prisoner of war camp and slept that night in the woods. In the morning the Nazis realized that they had escaped and went hunting for them. My grandfather and the other men running away stumbled into an orchard that belonged to a friend of my great-grandfather. The owner of the orchard came out and told them to wait, he would come back with food for them. While the two Pols waited in the orchard my grandfather waited by the house. The Nazis spotted the two Pols and shot them both on sight. My grandfather was scared but kept his cool and hid behind a large tree. As he was hiding the owner of the orchard had a daughter, a beautiful girl, who pretended to faint. The Nazi soldiers ran to her side in order to help and completely forgot about my grandfather (the third escapee). They left and my grandfather was able to escape after being fed by the women and her father who had just saved his life. After that he stole the clothes off of a scarecrow so that he could get out of his Polish uniform and began his journey.
His journey did not end there. He ended up being one of 60 survivors from Trenblinka where almost 1,000,000 died. He was a part of the uprising, survived more near death experiences then I can count, and is the bravest man I have ever met. He passed away 9 years ago when he was on the plane with my dad to move to Seattle, they were over Indianapolis when he had a heart attack and passed away.
My grandmother has many stories as well. She was in the hospital when the Nazis rounded up her town, including her entire family. They took them to the woods, had them dig a mass grave, and shot them. My grandmother survived by luck of being in the hospital but after the Nazis murdered everything she knew. For the entire war, she lived in the woods. She spent years in the woods eating food where she could find it, including dog food, and depending on the kindness of strangers.
When I was 17 I went on the March of the Living, a trip that changed my life. It is a trip for high school students to go on that takes you to Poland and Israel. It tours the death camps and shows the land that is now there to make sure those terrible things never happen again. I got to see the piles of wood that represent where they burned the bodies at Treblinka where they killed Jews so fast, they did not even bother to put a tattoo on them. I got to walk the “death march” into the gates of Aushwitz, the gates of hell in my mind. I experienced all this with an incredible group of people who I still consider my friends.
Now is the important part. The part where I say what I have been able to learn through hearing my families stories (trust me there are more stories than I can tell) and through experiencing this. I am the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I have heard stories about the horrors of humanity and about its triumphs. The ideology of surviving antisemitism is still in my family. My dad eats faster than any human I have ever seen. When asked why he responds “I want to finish before the pogroms (in the old days groups would ride into Jewish towns and steal food and kill everyone) get here.” The people who took my grandparents in and fed them, the large Pol who gave my grandfather the sugar cube, the daughter of the orchard owner, all these people give me the tiniest bit of faith when I think about the terrible atrocities committed by humanity during this time. Some people claim we do not have to worry about this ever happening again, I would say that while it may not, lets not get complacent.
I thank God every day that there is a land of Israel to keep the Jewish people safe and allow them to have an army to protect them. Men and women in IDF are my heroes. I wanted to join the IDF but being the only male left of my Goldberg family name (I know, there are a lot of Goldbergs…but my dad was the only boy from his father who was the only one left…and I am the only boy). It is crucial that I carry my name on. But just as crucial it is important that the Israeli army continues to defend its people and remember the Holocaustt. In Israel, there is a siren that goes off during the day. Everyone stops. You stop working. You stop driving. You stop doing what ever you are doing and you stand at attention, to honor those who we have lost. Lost for no reason other than because they were Jewish. This is what it looks like (on right).
It is crucial in a time like this, when rocket fire in the south of Israel interrupts the remembrance of those who passed in the Holocaust (see the video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpWYoeA7jUw) . When the leaders of a country like Iran not only deny the Holocaust ever existed but want to finish what Hitler started. It is important to remember the past in a time when there is growing unrest in the world and as all signs point to destruction. But I have faith.
I have faith that my grandfather was not the only brave Jewish man. I have faith that my grandmother was not the only women who was a true survivor at heart. I have faith that we, as a nation, have the ability to whether any storm.
Today, let us remember those who perished in the fires of the Holocaust, not only the Jews but also the Pols, gays, commissars, blacks, gypsys, handicapped, and Russians.
Today let us remember the defenseless who perished in the fires of those hells.
Let us remember them and together swear we will never forget them. Let us swear never again.