What the Holocaust Tried to Take from Me (Guest Post)

Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) – April 19, 2012

Which parts of the story are true and which parts of the story are false?

This much I know: My grandfather, Zaidie, was a spry happy man with a wondrous smile that lit up the room. His brilliant blue eyes dazzled with every smile.

My mother told me that my grandfather never smiled until we, his grandchildren, were born. Grandchildren transformed Zadie from the stern, serious man my mother knew, into the fun loving, energetic grandfather I knew and loved. Zaidie played catch with me and watched me dance and sing – all with encouraging smiles and joyous laughter. He took me, and his four grandsons (I was the only granddaughter) to parks, beaches, on car trips and for ice cream. He couldn’t get enough of us and, likewise, we couldn’t get enough of him.

I thought I knew Zaide, but I realize I know very little about Zaidie. I know nothing about his childhood, nothing about where he lived, nor how he grew up. I know nothing about his parents, his siblings, aunts, uncles, or cousins. I don’t even know how he met my grandmother.

I know that Zaidie was born in Poland, in a small town (shtetl) called Boger. From there, the story gets fuzzy.

Was it that…

In 1920 (give or take a year) my grandfather confiscated his dead brother’s visa and escaped to America, the land of freedom and opportunity. Since his brother was killed in the coalmines of Poland, either due to a job-related accident or at the hands of malicious mine workers, my grandfather grabbed that visa and turned his brother’s death into the opportunity of a lifetime.

Or was it the following…

Zaidie went to Canada, using his (older or younger) brother Myer’s visa. Myer,  somehow, was already living in America. From Canada, my grandfather smuggled across the border and entered the U.S.

Or maybe it happened this way…

In or about 1920, my grandfather joined the Polish (or Russian) Army, but instead of serving, he ran away (AWOL). Zaidie said he could not fight for a country that was killing Jews in the Pogroms, and escaped to the United States.

Which is true? I don’t know. I’m sure some variation is true. I have bits and pieces of stories handed down to me, but none of them are documented.

I do know that Zaidie eventually stowed away on a ship sailing to Canada. From there, he walked across the border into the U.S. telling the border guards: “Of course I’ll return to Canada, I’m just going to visit my brother, Myer.  My grandfather never returned to Canada. Instead, he sent money back to Poland, to my grandmother (Bubby), so she could join him and start a new life together in Chicago. But that’s all I have; it’s all I know about how my grandfather came to the United States. There is no one left to ask. My grandparents and the few relatives who survived the Holocaust are no longer alive.

I have tried to do the research and to put the pieces of the puzzle together. However, because of the Holocaust, all documentation, even the name of the town (Boger) in which my grandfather was born and grew-up, have all been expunged, purged from history. My family is left only to speculate about what actually happened.

I would dearly love to see a video of my grandfather and to hear him talk about his life and to hear his stories. But sadly, I cannot.

I have made it my job to tell my children what I do know about our ancestors.   I can tell them that their great-grandfather grew up in Poland, made his way to America around 1920, when he was about 18 years old, and because of Zaidie’s efforts; I was born in Chicago sixty-three years ago. My children will know that their grandfather had a large family, but sadly, they were all killed during Pogroms and in the Holocaust. My children and grandchildren will know of all the wonderful memories I have of my grandfather. They will hear about all the holidays we spent together, of the joy, love and a sense of family I received from Zaidie and Bubby. My children and my grandchildren will know because I am telling them and will continue to tell them.

Will your children and grandchildren know about your family? What are you doing to ensure that future generations don’t have to puzzle over mysteries they may never be able to solve?

As we commemorate Yom HaShoah today, let’s remember our ancestors and their struggles. But let’s not forget what we can do for the future. We owe it to Zaidie and Bubby to make sure our family’s stories are never forgotten.


Susan Harrison is an author who resides in San Diego, CA, where she works as an educator and a facilitator for GAB (Guided Autobiographer) and The Braille Institute. She has been published in various e-zines.  Susan is a modern grandmother and her favorite ‘job’ is reading books to her granddaughter via Skype.