Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission Awareness - Education - Inspiration

A Grandchild of Survivors

July
22

By THGC Admin

By Melanie Weinberger, Education Intern

As a child, I didn’t realize my grandparents were different. I knew they had accents, and I knew that meant they must have been born somewhere else. But the accents didn’t just coat their voices with different inflections and pronunciations--it marked their identities as being from elsewhere; from an elsewhere where truly horrible things had happened.

Melanie's grandparents, Morris and Linda, at their wedding in 1951 | Photo courtesy of Melanie Weinberger

My grandpa, Morris, was born in 1922 in Lithuania in the town of Vilkaviskas. His family consisted of his parents, Mordechai and Zlata, and his siblings, Joseph, Refael and Rivka. In August 1940, when my grandpa was 18 years old, the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania. One year later, Germany overran Lithuania. For 3 years, my grandpa and his brother, Joseph, managed to evade capture. They lived nomadically, sometimes posing as Catholics and other times crouched in cramped hiding places, hidden by brave gentiles.

In October 1944, Soviet troops recaptured Lithuania, and my grandpa was freed. There were no official records, but out of the 4,000 Jews from Vilkaviskis, only 80 survived. Of the men, only 5 survived, including my grandpa and his brother.

My grandma, Linda, was born in 1927 in Grodno, Poland. She lived with her parents, Chaim and Riva, and her younger brother, Josef. When she was 16 years old, my grandma and her family were sent to Treblinka, a Nazi death camp. Upon arrival, my grandma and her mother were sent to the right, and her father and brother were sent to the left. My grandma and great-grandma never saw them again.

My grandma and her mother survived 10 concentration and labor camps, including Majdanek, Trawniki, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt, and somehow stayed together the entire time.

While my grandparents told their stories themselves, my grandparents’ stories told themselves throughout my life as well. When I was in sixth grade, my parents, sister and I went to visit my great-grandmother, Bobbie, as we called her, at her nursing home. She asked me if I liked school, and as many sixth graders would answer, I said, “No.” For the next 30 minutes, Bobbie lectured me about how it was imperative that I liked school. My grandma didn’t get to finish school, as she was a teenager when World War II began. That same year, Bobbie celebrated her 100th birthday at the Holocaust Museum in Houston. This was the place she chose to honor her century of living.

As I got older, I began to understand more of my family’s history. During my senior year of high school, this family history moved from a very abstract place to a very concrete one. I visited Poland for a week with my graduating class, during which we went to Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp. As I walked through the camp and in and out of the former barracks, I came across a map on the wall. The map had cities across Europe as small dots, with lines leading from each city directly into Auschwitz. I saw lines from the dots of Grodno and Bialystok, where my grandma and great-grandma were from, that led straight to the larger dot of Auschwitz. Staring at this map was the first time the reality hit me--the reality that my grandma and great-grandma had been at this place. I was furious and heartbroken. I called my mom and we cried on the phone together, me after walking out of a place so many other Jews hadn’t, and her standing in the comfort of our home, a home that only existed because my own grandparents had survived.

Melanie and her grandfather in 2009 | Photo courtesy of Melanie Weinberger

It wasn’t until college that I truly became aware of the uniqueness of my family history. It wasn’t only the uniqueness that I realized, but also the responsibility that accompanies it. Being the grandchild of Holocaust survivors was no longer a small detail about me, but had been moved to the forefront of my identity.

As I moved further into college and into my education major, being a future teacher became, more and more, something I began to think about every day. I started to ask myself: how will I be a teacher through the lens of being the grandchild of Holocaust survivors? It begins with using my classroom as a space for my students, as well as myself, to explore our identities--individual and generational. By contextualizing my own family history in my classroom, I can encourage my students to learn about their own family histories and how they play a bigger role in society and world history. Our personal histories do not stand alone, but fit into a much larger community of local and universal history. As a third generation, I have the responsibility to share my grandparents’ and great-grandmother’s stories. As a teacher, I will be able to address this responsibility every day, utilizing my role as an outlet to teach my students the Holocaust through the perspective of individual stories.

There is a power of individual stories, such as those of my grandparents. There is a power of individualizing such a massive event, as saying “survivors” is generally faceless. By sharing individual stories with those seeking to understand and grasp the Holocaust, we give the Holocaust faces with which to associate and humanize. When we speak about the Holocaust in “abstract, antiseptic” terms, we take learners further away from, rather than closer to, the events. Individualizing the Holocaust makes it more attainable to understand in the classroom, as well as in any setting. Individual stories add humanity to events, such as the Holocaust, that didn’t have any regard for humanity.

Future generations, including my future students, will not know my grandparents, and will not meet Holocaust survivors. But just because they will not meet survivors, does not mean they cannot know their stories.

Tags: auschwitz bergen-belsen education europe holocaust lithuania poland soviet union theresienstadt treblinka

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