As the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, I never heard the story of the murder of our family members directly from my grandfather – he never liked talking about it – but it was told and retold to me by my mother. She pursued graduate work in Holocaust studies, she lectured on the topic, she chaperoned hundreds of teenagers on visits to the camps and crematoria. So immersed was she in Holocaust literature that our bookshelves brimmed with the classics.
As for me, after all this exposure, I had somehow reverted to my grandfather’s silence. Not that I wasn’t willing to talk about it, but the fact was simply that the Shoah was a closed piece of my history, sealed and far away. The schools I attended did such a good job of Holocaust education, as did the summer camps – which would not let a Tisha b’Av go by without showing images of gas chambers or talking about the destruction of European Jewry – that I somehow felt saturated. I didn’t need to talk about it anymore.
Until now. My second cousin received an email from a gentleman in Israel. He had heard there were members of a Chanowitz family (my mother’s maiden name) in the United States. Since this man’s mother was a Chanowitz, he thought perhaps we were distant relatives. He knew his mother was the only survivor of her entire family, which had included nine children. But perhaps this was a cousin through his mother’s distant family.
He proceeded to tell his mother’s lineage and all the details of the family. As my mother read me the original email over the phone, I was in shock. This man’s mother, was none other than Asna Mera, who figured prominently in our family’s story, the story I had heard so many times growing up.
Asna was the second sister of my grandfather’s family. She was taken away in the first of the roundups, along with many of the leaders of the community. The story I had heard (and details are now being clarified) was that when the Jews had heard that there was danger, the entire Chanowitz family barricaded themselves in their home for protection. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. Asna insisted that they should open the door despite the danger, because it could be a Jew in need of protection. And so the other family members barricaded themselves into the back of the house while Asna opened the door. It was a German soldier, who immediately took her away. Asna was shot and buried in a mass grave in the forest, along with the rest of the group. She was just a teenager when she was murdered.
And now, we hear that Asna actually had somehow escaped and had made a life for herself in the former Soviet Union, that Asna had children and grandchildren, a family. My family.
And suddenly my family’s history, and my own, opened up again. Suddenly the tales of the Shoah were happening right here and right now. I felt the strange feeling of gaining family, of reviving the dead, of repairing a broken chain of my identity and of my family. It felt like a world reborn.
And then the realization hit: if this entire branch of my family could suddenly reappear, and could elicit such a feeling of rebirth and of hope, what of all the branches that never got to be? All the siblings who were, in fact, brutally murdered? Where are their descendants now? Where are all my dear cousins who should now be raising families of their own, as I am? And for the first time, I understood the loss. For the first time, I felt like a survivor.
The third generation is a strange place to be. It is the point where it is easy to step aside and allow the family story to be just that – a story rather than a living, breathing reality. For all these years, the Shoah was tucked away like a family heirloom. Now, it was suddenly dusted off and bequeathed to me, along with the loss and the void. It is my loss, too.
This piece originally appeared in the Canadian Jewish News, April 24, 2014.
To read more about my family’s unfolding story, see this article from the Chabad Lubavitch Headquarters. (Our connection to Asna Mera’s family was made because of my family’s roots in Chabad.) My grandfather, Yisroel, is pictured at the right.