My grandfather, Abraham Bachner, was a Holocaust survivor. He was 85 years old when he passed away Dec. 8, 1980. At the funeral, Rabbi Fabian Schoenfeld of Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, told the mourners he felt compelled to tell us that Abraham’s final request was to be buried in his Auschwitz uniform.
The rabbi explained that initially he did not unåderstand the request and reminded Abraham that as an observant Jew he should be buried in the traditional shroud. Abraham insisted that, at his time of judgment, he wanted the Almighty to look at whatever sins he had committed and weigh them against the years of torture and starvation he had endured during the Holocaust. The striped uniform would be a reminder.
I was surprised my grandfather kept his uniform and was puzzled why he wanted to be buried with it. But unlike my aunt and uncle, who let it be known they thought the uniform should have been saved for posterity, I knew the uniform belonged with my grandfather. I did not give it much thought, as my grandfather was always a mystery to me. All I knew was that he was a survivor, spoke with an accent, never smiled and walked with a limp, an injury sustained when a New York City bus hit him in the 1950s, or so I was led to believe. I can’t remember ever having had a conversation with him. His childhood in Poland and his life in Berlin before the war were never discussed. The “H” word was never mentioned.
Since his passing, I continued to wonder about the significance of my grandfather’s request; my parents, who also survived the Holocaust, had no answers. It was clearly important enough that Holocaust scholar and educator Yaffa Eliach included it as a chapter in her book, “Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust,” and Benjamin Meed, founder of Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization, told the story at the Yom HaShoah commemoration at Temple Emanu-el in Manhattan in 1981. Despite reading the chapter many times, my grandfather’s request still puzzled me.
My trip to Poland in 2018 was the turning point in my relationship with my grandfather. I visited Chrzanow, the southern Polish where he was born and where he and his family returned in 1939 when forced out of Germany. I stood outside the house they lived in, and were later dragged out of, during the roundups to Auschwitz. I said Kaddish and left a stone at the grave of his father, Shimon Josef, who died in a fire in 1898 when my grandfather was 3 years old, and at the grave of his grandfather, Aron, who died in 1855. I felt my grandfather’s presence.
It was not until I stood outside the gates to Auschwitz, only six miles from Chrzanow, that I gained an understanding of my grandfather and his request. When the war ended in 1945, he was 50 and had spent five years in labor and concentration camps. Everything shifted for me as I came to understand and love him as the strong and brave person he had to have been to survive.
I finally understood that my grandfather’s request to be buried along with the uniform was his way of letting us know he knew he was not the best version of who he had been before the Holocaust. Although he had lived 25 miles from my childhood home, it was not until I traveled over 4,000 miles that I finally came to understand him. I made peace with my grandfather.
I thought my journey was complete, but there was more. For as long as I can remember, each time I saw photographs or footage from the Holocaust, I instinctively scoured them desperately hoping my father, who survived Auschwitz, would be in the picture and always felt let down that he was not. I never thought to look for my grandfather. I continued researching my family’s history and recently found a newly uploaded document to the archives. I never imagined it would be a picture I had never seen of my grandfather in 1945, still wearing the uniform he wore in Auschwitz.
After years of wanting to see images of my family during the Holocaust, I now wished I’d never found that picture. My grandfather was unrecognizable. His cheeks were hollow and he had a blank stare. All the life was sucked out of him and he appeared broken. I was distraught to see the grandfather I had come to love and admire in such pain. It is hard to believe the picture of him smiling at my father’s bar mitzvah in 1938 was taken only seven years earlier. My grandfather survived the unimaginable, and the contrast between the two photographs serves as reminder of the enormity of what he endured. Abraham Bachner survived the Holocaust, but so much of him had not.
Ellen Bachner Greenberg is founder and president of 2G Greater New York. She is a certified life coach and runs 2G discussion groups of children of Holocaust survivors.