My grandfather died a few days after I was born. He was in the hospital for a minor illness and was supposed to be released in a few days. The doctors said it would be ill-advised to bring a newborn to the disease-filled hospital. So, I have never met my grandfather, missing him by a few days.
Growing up, my family did not talk about him much. I can still count on one hand the number of times he was mentioned – the one time my grandma showed me old pictures and told me about my grandad’s work as a mechanic, or the story about how my dad and grandad fought over my dad’s desire to ride a motorcycle. I did not know much about my grandfather, and so I filled in the blanks with stories of my own. I imagined my grandad as a strong and courageous man, worthy of the name “Dov”, which means ‘bear’ in Hebrew. When life was hard, I drew strength from his memory I kept hidden in my heart.
Growing up, there was a cold distance between my family and the rest of my grandfather’s family. We knew they existed, knew their names, and every few years we would be invited to a birthday or a family event. But they were not an integral part of our lives. Our relationship resembled immigrants who left their loved ones behind, and the mere dozen kilometres between our house and theirs turned into an ocean.
I did not know why my family ensured a bond of silence around my grandfather and his family, why his memory was erased from our day-to-day lives. My brother and I knew not to ask questions, not to bring him up. My grandfather was like an image seen from the corner of your eye, you know it’s there but as soon as you try to turn around it disappears.
When I was 13 years old, we went to a big family reunion with my grandfather’s family. The event was full of relatives I did not know, united by blood and not much else. In one of the rooms, someone set up a projector that showed pictures of the family, my family. I enjoyed looking at the faces, knowing we were somehow related. As the eyes gazed at me from the projector screen, I felt a part of something bigger, of a family that was erased. The faces were clues to an unknown secretive history my family wanted to leave in the past. Behind me, two older relatives stood and talked about the slideshow and its creator. As an older picture from the 30’s came up, one of them asked who the relatives in the picture were. The other replied, casually “these are some of our relatives who died in the Nazi death camps. We do not know their names, but they are our family.” The Germans killed the majority of my grandad’s relatives, and my family’s pain associated with that loss erased the rest who survived.
The new discovery of my family’s history changed the way in which I view our relationships. Small patterns of behaviour we all carry in relation to each other and the world all of a sudden made sense. Our resourcefulness, courage, and wit, as well as a sense of a loss or catastrophe forever looming in the distance, could all be traced to a time where my ancestors’ survival was in question. My life was full of clues and patterns flowing like rivers, and now I could finally walk to the origin of it all.
With the discovery also came a sense of great loss. The generation of elders who lived during this dark period was all dead. I was left with the CliffsNotes to this chapter in my family history, without any access to the full story. While I know about the existence of these relatives, I would never know their names, never know what their lives were like or whether they died in a ghetto, concentration camp or death march. I mourned the loss of this knowledge, and with the tears came acceptance. The Holocaust would forever remain a blurry picture in my family album, but a blurry picture is still better than nothing.
I would never know what my grandfather had to survive in order to meet my grandmother and father my dad. But my appreciation, gratitude and admiration for him grew with the knowledge of his story. Imagining what he had to endure in order to survive fills me with strength and courage myself. I think about my family’s story whenever I face an obstacle or a hard time, and draw strength and hope from his spirit. We are a family of survivors, and knowing our history means there is nothing we cannot face and prosper.