When my grandmother shared with me letters smuggled out of Poland, she said, “These are my paper children. They are all I have left of my family.” She handed me letters written on blue onionskin paper with their oppressors’ insignia stamped on the front of the envelopes. I had the chills. They reminded me that their precious lives were not saved, even though they had lived in their country since the 1500s, served in the army, paid taxes and contributed to the culture. Most were written in Polish, Yiddish and High German, a language used by the educated and affluent, especially Meyer, my great-grandfather who traveled for his textile business to Austria, Germany and the Alsace region of France.
My great-grandmother, Miriam, spoke to me from the grave she shared with millions. I was privileged to read letters she wrote from Warsaw to my grandmother from the days leading up to the German’s march into Poland on September 1, 1939. I learned she was a caring, meticulous woman who cared deeply for her family. Itzak, her son with sleeping sickness, kept her from making a decision to seek refuge. She refused to leave him. A worrier who wrote in three languages, she shared stories of her other grandchildren and questioned the unraveling of their secure lives at 21 Bielanska Street. I began to dream of her, pieces of my mother’s memories shopping at the kosher butcher or having portraits taken by a photographer invaded my thoughts. I would never know her except through her own loving self-expression, family stories and photos.
My great-grandmother, Miriam, spoke to me from the grave she shared with millions.
Who were Miriam and Meyer Kupferstein of Warsaw, Poland? They were my grandmother’s parents, who were murdered at Auschwitz with their adult married children, their grandchildren, numerous aunts and uncles and cousins. It is a total that reaches almost 100 relatives. I was named after Miriam when my mother, who was pregnant with me during WWII, received the traumatic news from the Red Cross that everyone was lost. My grandparents and parents felt the unraveling of Jewish history in New York City, helpless to change the fate of anyone.
Were they liquidated from the Warsaw ghetto that was immortalized by John Hersey in his novel, The Wall (1950)? I have their panicked letters as they sensed their entrapment. Were they in the nicer ghetto like in “The Pianist” where they heard music and drank wine?
If the word Nazis was uttered, they changed the subject.
With my interest in epigenetics (ELI Talk: “Against the Traumatic Tide”) and how trauma can echo through families, I realize my grandmother and mother were deeply touched by these worldwide events. And I was too. I was too young to observe their initial grieving; however, they never dealt with it. I grew up in a home of silence. There was little on television in the 1950s about the Shoah. If the word Nazis was uttered, they changed the subject.
If not for a decision by my grandmother to come to America in 1929 with her children, I wouldn’t be here and neither would my children and grandchildren. Needless to say, that was a year with a massive stock market failure that affected everyone, worldwide, including my family. Plans to visit Poland were scrapped. In fact, three times tickets were bought and plans were cancelled due to money, pregnancy and a measles quarantine.
It is a fact that children who know their family history are more secure and better able to face challenges (as evidenced in The New York Times article by Bruce Feiler, “The Stories That Bind Us”). It matters even when there are terrible stories as well as ones of hope and survival. It all belongs to us.
It is a fact that children who know their family history are more secure and better able to face challenges.
Take some time today to think of those who came before you and what they had to do so you could be here. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents have an influence in our lives, even if you never met them. We have made a home in the United States, and our history on this continent cannot be forgotten. It is more important than ever since the people with the accents have disappeared. Early in the 19th century many forged their way into society with pushcarts. Later others came from Europe or Russia before the war, while a fragment of lost souls found their way here afterward. What does it mean to be stateless? How did they begin again without any resources? My research on Displaced Persons camps taught me about brave people who wanted to start over, even though some in Bergen-Belsen wore their oppressor’s uniforms to stay warm. How does one create a new identity from horror?
It would be remiss of me not to mention our Sephardic brethren who traveled the farthest from Rhodes during the Holocaust, riding on boats and cattle cars for more than a week. As a researcher of the Inquisition, a turning point in Jewish history, I often wonder if my Polish family knew about it. If only they had heeded the warnings of the centuries, maybe I could have met them.
Marcia Fine is the author of PAPER CHILDREN—An Immigrant’s Legacy, a post-Holocaust story and six other novels. She speaks widely about “Why Your Family History Matters” and the Sephardic culture.
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