Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Known and the Unknown

We live in the information age--never before have so many known about so much. And yet, for those Jews who are descendants of Holocaust survivors, there is so much that we don't know. A whole lot of those who were the survivors of the chorbon in Europe did not talk about 1)their experiences during the war and 2)about life as it was lived before the war. For some families, there are huge gaps in their personal mesorah.

For many, the pain of what they had lost was simply too great, and talking about any of it, even the parts that were good before the war, exacerbated that pain. They were trying to forget, not remember. Many of the children of these survivors have minimal knowledge about what their parents' lives were like, if even a minimum. Clearly their grandchildren and great grandchildren may have even less knowledge. My in laws for the most part fell in this camp. As my husband mentioned recently, if it weren't for the fact that he knows that he was named for his parents' fathers, he wouldn't have known their names. His parents didn't give the kids a full genealogy of all the family, beyond the members who survived and were around. Any info about his parents' growing up years was really hit or miss. I remember one Pesach after dinner when my mil and my mom were at the table and my mom began asking my mil questions about what life was like for her growing up. Somehow that question and answer session lasted for hours, and my mil admitted that it was the first time that she had ever mentioned some of the things she was talking about.

And then there were those who did talk about life in Europe. Even here there were two camps: those who spoke of life only pre-War and those who would also share their war experiences. As we were growing up, my mom and her sister told us all myriad stories about their growing up years. They shared memories of what life was like day to day. They talked about what Shabbos and yom tov were like. They told us about the neighbors, about the friends, about communal life in their town. They told us about school. In short, they tried as best they could to give us some connection to a time and place that we would never experience ourselves. They were particularly good at making the family members come alive.

They did not, however, talk about their camp experiences during the war, beyond perhaps mentioning the names of camps that they were interred in and when. It was only when I was much older that my mom opened up to me about those experiences. I have some 12 hours of tapes of my mom speaking about all the particulars. My dad, on the other hand, would gladly talk about his life before the war and never once mentioned anything about his war-time experiences.

That Holocaust generation has become a tiny one now. So many of the personal experiences of that generation are going to remain unknown to us, their descendants, unless we act quickly, and act now. Don't wait to be told--ask now! Distance has given some of these survivors the ability to speak in a freer fashion than was the case many decades ago, but someone has to be willing to listen. You want to know about where you came from? It's not just a matter of genetics but also one of upbringing, of experiences. Jewish history is not just what is written about in a textbook somewhere. Each of us, and those who came before us, are part of that fabric. If we want to keep that fabric strong and resilient, we need to have all the threads woven in. And for those who are lucky enough to have had family members who were willing to talk to them, don't count on your memories alone to pass down your family mesorah--put it in writing, so that future generations will have the knowledge of who they are descended from, and not just the names.

In English we have the statement "The saddest words are 'It might have been.'" Don't let that apply to you. If you still have family members living with knowledge of that long ago Europe and the events of the times, both personal and historical, NOW is the time to gather together and find out all about where you came from.


Lion of Zion said...

one of my treasured possessions are the many hours of oral histories that i recorded with my father's parents (not survivors).

a lot of people say they don't know where to start. i would recommend sitting down with old photographs and go through each one and ask the interviewee to identify all the people. guaranteed that they will tell you a lot more than just the name, and often they will veer off into tangents not at all connected to the person. from this you can get an idea of what they are interested in talking about and what you are interested in hearing about. then move on from there without the photos. (in any case this is important to do because after they are gone, who will tell you who is in the pictures?)

my wife's grandmother on the other hand (lived through the battle of stalingrad and stalin) has no interest in talking about the past.

as far as the survivors, last summer ago i saw a woman upstate with tatooed numbers. i can't even remember the last time i saw it before then.

Lion of Zion said...

also, if you want your parents'/grandparents' photographs (or other mementos) take them while they are still alive and well otherwise you may never see them again.

JS said...

Good post.

My father's parents were both in WW2. My grandmother was in the camps and my grandfather was conscripted into the Russian army. My grandfather never spoke about his experiences beyond a few words here or there. I only know a little about his family (all perished except one sister who was in Israel during the war) such as jobs, if they were married, number of kids. My grandmother told us a lot of stories, but unfortunately succumbed to Alzheimer's before I was really old enough to appreciate what was being conveyed to me and able to ask appropriate questions to fill in the story of her and her family's lives. Supposedly she made some recordings which this post has reminded me to try to track down.

I would note in terms of recordings and photographs that efforts should be undertaken to digitize them. Already a VCR or cassette player is hard to find and it's not hard to imagine that in, say, 10 years the technology may be completely obsolete rendering these recordings nearly impossible to play back. Also, God forbid anything happen to the fragile media of cassettes and aged photographs.

Tovah said...

One of the biggest regrets in my life that we didn't do what you are suggesting. When my grandmother died she had a whole ton of pictures that we only knew who a few of the people were. She also had a few obviously very old pieces of silver and a beautiful lachter and we didn't know the stories there either. You're right that a lot of the pieces of our family history are now missing and we have no way to get them anymore.

Lion of Zion said...


"efforts should be undertaken to digitize them."

yes and no. (i was actually going to post about this recently.)

my father recently digitzed old reel-to-reel tapes of his father teaching people to be a shali'ach tzibbur for the yom tovim. luckily he's handy and he was able to fix up an old machine and repair the tapes everytime they split. i think a lot of people wouldn't even know where to start with old technology like this and in this context it's important to digitize media to keep it current and stable.

but on the other hand, a lot of people exaggerate the long-term value of digitization

first of all, digital files can be deleted, corrupted, degraded (like those old 5.25 floppies) or lost very easily and you need to be careful to have numerous back ups (and stored in multiple locations). but even assuming the digital media is secure, it is no more immune to the technoligical vagaries of time than conventinal media. there are plenty of file formats, software applications, operating systems and hardware equipment that are no longer usable with current computer systems. (i have a refernce book coming to press soon and the publisher now wants to issue it as an electronic database instead, which i am objecting to for this reason.)

given a choice, i'll take my chances with tapes, paper, etc. over zeros and ones. (obviously the best is to have both.)

frum single female said...

great post and so true. i visited a great aunt of mine a few months before she passed away . during that visit we looked at old photos and she told me who was who and i wrote it down. when it turned out that she passed away not long after our visit i was so glad i had visited when i had.

Lion of Zion said...


"unfortunately succumbed to Alzheimer's"

the interviews with my grandfather when he had alzheimer's are of varying quality depending on how he was doing that day. one interesting thing though is that with alzheimer's he was less inhibited about talking about certain things that he would not have spoken about when healthier.

carry on said...

It's also interesting to hear about how different life was in Europe.

I don't mean that they took chickens from the yard to the shochet; I mean things like my step-grandmother just told me, like the fact that girls were allowed to carry on Shabbos till they were 12, without an eruv in the town. Try doing that today!

Anonymous said...

Well posted, but in fact one can go much further; whilst it is true that the generation which survived the Shoah is shrinking steadily, the places where communities lived are still there.
It is particularly important to visit and see them, not just from the War but from the centuries of Jewish life which preceded it.
Shabbat shalom