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Because We Have a Duty to Know

3.2 Document showing Hershel’s old Auschwitz number, his new Buchenwald number, and his personal details – including the fact that he had three children

Israel's Holocaust commemoration day, Yom Hashoah, falls on April 28 this year, and a host of solemn official events will take place around the country to mark the day. But here we take a look at what ordinary individuals can do to preserve their families' stories.

Sometimes we think we know enough about our families and the Holocaust. With the increased emphasis in recent decades on encouraging survivors to tell their stories, and with increased interest among younger generations in hearing them, it is likely that most of us know something about what our families went through in the war. We may even think that, while we may not know every detail, at least we know the most important things.

And then, all of a sudden, we realize we don't. A child, studying the Holocaust at school, asks us questions: What exactly happened to great-granddad's brother who stayed behind while our family made it out? Who was grandma's cousin who was shot in a forest? Which forest? And we find ourselves stumped for answers. 

Uncle Hershel in his prisoners’ uniform in a photo taken after the war

It turns out that now, almost 70 years after the end of the war, and with no older relatives left to ask, we can sometimes still learn new things about our families– things our parents and grandparents may not even have known. Since the fall of communism and with the rise of the Internet, a multitude of European – and, even more pertinently, Eastern European – archives and museums have opened up, and troves of once-inaccessible documents and records have become available to anyone interested, with more becoming available all the time. Some archives only provide information in response to written inquiries; others have searchable databases, some even with scanned copies of original documents. With persistence and a little luck, working comfortably from our computers, we may be able to discover something about a relative that no one in our families knew: a lost name; a date of birth or death; a place they lived or worked. Details that enable us to say, "Ah, so that's who they were and what happened to them …"

Some time ago, I realized that while I knew a great deal about my relatives who had been killed in the Holocaust, I knew too little about one who had survived: old Uncle Hershel, a brother of my murdered great-grandmother, a man who was already elderly when I was a child. I knew that after the war Uncle Hershel moved to Israel and was married, but never had any children. He died in the 1980s, well into old age, the only one of six siblings to live long enough to be photographed in color.

Decades after Uncle Hershel's death, I began trawling Holocaust-related websites to try to learn something about where he had been in the war – and was startled to find a clue in JewishGen, the main world Jewish genealogy website: his name on a list of several thousand prisoners sent from Auschwitz to Buchenwald in January 1945.

There was no further information, but those infamous camp names spurred me to search further, and I found the website of the International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen, Germany – the repository for the Nazi documents captured by the Allies toward the end of the war. It offered an online search request form, so, hoping but not expecting, I filled it out.

Two months later, I was overwhelmed to receive a fat brown envelope in the mail. Inside was a stack of papers, topped by a polite English letter informing me that enclosed were copies of documents that had been found about my uncle.

The documents were mostly in German, of course, an assortment of yellowing cards and fading pages, partly printed in heavy German typefaces and partly filled out in careful, old-fashioned handwriting. As I am neither a historian nor a German speaker, I worked my way slowly through them, stopping frequently to look up the unfamiliar words, places and concepts online or, later, in books I borrowed from the local library.

Those documents gave me part of my uncle's story, and I spent the next few months obsessively seeking the rest, searching other websites, writing to the ITS again, writing to other museums, reading frantically to try to understand.

In the end, I was able to put together the story of my uncle's five-year journey through hell: Taken in May 1940 from his native city of Lodz, Poland, to work as a forced laborer, he was initially sent to several camps in the Posen (now Poznan) area, first building roads and later manufacturing weapons for the Germans – yes, the irony of Jews having to make the weapons that were killing them. From there he was sent to Auschwitz, spending 17 unimaginable months in "Auschwitz III," Buna-Monowitz, the same camp where future authors Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi were also prisoners. Then, as the Russians closed in and Auschwitz was evacuated, Uncle Hershel and thousands of others were sent on a death march 550 kilometers west to Buchenwald; he was there only a few weeks before being sent on again, to a small hellhole of a camp in southwestern Germany called Spaichingen. Six weeks later, another death march, this time east into the Bavarian mountains. Of the camp's 400 prisoners, 200 died along the way; the rest were finally liberated, at the end of April 1945, by American troops. My uncle and the others must have been near death themselves, and spent the next few months in an American-run hospital in the area.

All that was bad enough. But it was a single word on Uncle Hershel's Buchenwald registration card that made it even worse. Under his name and details was the word "kinder", German for "children". And written next to it was: "3, 6-16 j".

I blinked at the card, uncomprehending. Uncle Hershel had never had children. Or, I realized, to be more accurate, my family had simply never mentioned any children. The meaning of the numbers came to me with a jolt: three children, 6 to 16 years ("jahr" in German). I felt, quite literally, ill.

Only then did I notice Uncle Hershel's wife's name on the card: Edia, short for Esther. I remembered that the wife he had when I was young had been called Frieda.

Heavily, I began seeking out more information, hoping to find that maybe, just maybe, there was a mistake somewhere and that Uncle Hershel, tormented for five years in concentration camps, hadn't really lost his first wife and three children in the war. 

Uncle Hershel with his wife Frieda (left) and his niece Ida – the writer’s grandmother – in Israel a few years before his death

But there was no mistake. From Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial and museum, I obtained documents that told the story. When Uncle Hershel was taken away for forced labor in May 1940, his wife Esther was left behind in the Lodz Ghetto along with their two daughters, Feiga, 12, and Reisel, 8. But Esther must have been expecting: A month later she had another little girl, Baila, born inside the awfulness of the ghetto. Esther and the three girls all died in "unknown circumstances". Most likely they were killed at the Chelmno death camp between January and September 1942 when 70,000 Lodz Jews were sent to that camp in batches to be gassed to death.

I found then that Uncle Hershel, using his Hebrew name Tzvi, had actually written Pages of Testimony in Yad Vashem commemorating his wife and two eldest daughters. He never wrote one for Baila. I realized, painfully, that he must never have seen his youngest child, probably never even knew her gender or her name.

And that is why we, the generations who were lucky enough to be born after the war, can and should take advantage of the newly available resources to learn whatever we can about what our relatives went through then. Because we may be able to learn things that our elders couldn't. Because no one will do it for us. Because we have a duty to know and understand, to "never forget". Because by doing so we honor those whose names were unknown and whose passing was unmarked, those who never had a chance. Because this is the only thing we can do to remember a baby like Baila.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom English, Jan. 27, 2014. 



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