Holocaust Remembrance Day shows similarities from 80 years ago

Nearly 80 years ago the world watched in horror after discovering millions of Jews, supporters and other groups standing against the genocide were marched to their deaths; among them was my family. Last week, I spoke before my son’s sixth grade class regarding the Holocaust and how we survived – but also how we face many of the same and similar trials, tribulations roughly 80 years later.

My father’s side fled modern day Israel in the late 1400s to Spain and Ireland. At the end of the 1700s, my family trekked across the Atlantic to the United States of America as the Irish religious wars intensified.

My father’s side moved from places like Massachusetts and Florida to Arizona before statehood in the early 1900s and since immigrating to the U.S. have served in the various military branches.

My mother’s father’s family traveled around Spain and Portugal before being forced to leave for the Americas in the early 1800s. Eventually, they settled in Puerto Rico before moving to the U.S. in the 1820s. As the growing racial divide and gang wars on the East Coast began to rise, my grandfather’s family traveled west; eventually finding their way in Wyoming.

However, my mother’s mother’s side – had a tragically different life story. They shuffled around Europe for generations, convinced one day they would return to Israel. They spent time in Spain, Ireland, Britain and Poland. Near the turn of the century, they settled in Germany; a decision which would eventually prove deadly.

Growing up, I heard stories from various family members about the Holocaust, but none broke my heart more than that of my grandmother’s first-hand account.

My grandmother’s family stayed fairly hidden with the help of friends – until one fateful night in late June 1944. They were stopped a few miles from the German-French border attempting to flee Germany. It was from there they were sent to Auschwitz.

Born in 1921, my grandmother was just 23 years old in 1944; her first husband owned a print shop, but he would later be killed at Auschwitz along with her two oldest children, ages 4 and 2 years old.

My grandmother’s first husband was selected to be a laborer, from how she told us, they told them it was for an infrastructure project; later it became clear they were digging their own mass graves. Once the project was completed, he was among the first to be shot and buried in the mass graves.

It’s unclear if she had become pregnant before going to Auschwitz or while in the camp, none-the-less, a miracle growing inside her would save her life.

Roughly eight months later, Jan. 27, 1945, the Russian Soviet Army liberated a little more than 7,000 Jewish prisoners. Those left at Auschwitz were thought to be too ill to travel; they were left to die by German Nazi SS officers.

As my grandmother recalls, she was near death and had severe stomach pains, so she laid down in the mud, but in walked an U.S. Army Medic and Jewish Chaplain. Soon after, the U.S. began helping with liberation efforts. The orders given to the chaplains and medics were to simply triage only those who had the highest chance for survival; my grandfather was one of those medics.

Other camps were liberated thereafter across Europe and the Holocaust officially came to an end – four months before the war ended – on May 8, 1945.

My pawpaw said he took one look at my grandmother and thought she was already dead, so he kept walking. As fate would have it, she mustered up enough strength to roll over to grab his boot and said, “save my baby.”

Looking down, my grandfather could see her tiny baby bump and quickly took her to a triage center. Within hours, my bubbe (grandma) had my oldest uncle. My pawpaw visited bubbe daily in recovery, however, said he never had the nerve to ask if she was a single woman who guards assaulted or if she was a widow – but he felt drawn to her. Likewise, my bubbe felt drawn to him and shortly before she was released told him she was a widow.

Long story short, my pawpaw ended up marrying my bubbe while in Germany and bringing her and her newborn back to the U.S. Eventually, they had three children together, the youngest was my mother.

Today, my bubbe is 103 years old and she has worn her scars on the outside her entire life. I never truly understood her sometimes irrational fears – until I first experienced Jew hate myself in college. I also never thought I’d see the day, some 80 years after the Holocaust, where my own children would face schoolyard attacks for being Jewish, but here we are.

As we look back at the Holocaust and the events leading to the extermination of more than six million Jews and five million others, there are glaring signs some things never change.

Today, I proudly wear my Magen David, star or shield of David, as an act of solidarity with my family who perished and as an act of defiance to show we are still here. It costs us nothing to show kindness, respect and grace to those who are different from us and that would be my challenge to our community on this solemn day of remembrance.