What does the Shoah mean to you? Maybe it means the murder of six million innocent people. Maybe it means that humans are capable of far more cruelty than you had previous thought. Or, maybe it means that an entire branch of your family tree has been chopped off. Maybe the Shoah is the story of your family, too.
My grandfather, Srulik Ackerman, who had survived the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Poland, passed away five months ago. Needless to say, I was devastated. But then it dawned on me that his was more than a personal loss.
Holocaust survivors are dying. Those who had managed to survive what most of us can hardly imagine are now dying of old age. Keeping the memory of what has happened to them is being turned over to us - their children, their grandchildren, and anyone who has ever met a survivor or read their stories.
We must cherish every single story. This one is about a little boy with wild curly black hair and sparkly brown eyes. He and his identical twin, Joeye, were born in the Polish village of Nowosiolki. Their father, a Kosher meat salesman by the name of Leo Ackerman, and his wife, Masha, led a simple but comfortable life in the village.
Many years later, Srulik recalled the simple joys of every day life with great delight. He carefully described the food he ate during his early years: Matzah balls in his soup, fresh challah just out of the oven, berries that he picked with his brothers in the forest. Day after day, he would run around the fields, play in the forest, and enjoy bathing in a nearby lake.
It is now our turn to carry the torch of this horrific chapter in our history.
As anti-Semitism of unprecedented proportions was brewing in Germany, his family remained oblivious to the impending danger. Yet the first tragedy to befall the Ackermans had come before the Nazi regime reached Poland. One day, Srulik and twin brother, Joeye, were playing in the forest when Joeye fell and scratched his knee. It was a scratch like any other, which was hardly rare with so much outdoor play. No one thought much of it at first. But the wound soon became infected. The doctors could not help in time. This is how Srulik lost his identical brother at the age of seven to a simple scratch.
Before the Ackermans had time to recover from their loss, yet another tragedy loomed on the horizon. It began when their only mode of transportation, their horse, was taken away by the Nazis. Without the horse, Papa’s business suffered. Suddenly, putting food on the Shabbat table became a struggle. But the Ackermans did their best to make ends meet, and continued to pray and celebrate the holidays as they had always done.
One morning, as Srulik and his brother Simone returned home from playing in the rye field, they noticed a black car parked in front of their house. They saw uniformed, armed men pacing in their front yard. With their hearts racing, the boys ran full speed back to the fields and hid in the thick rye. As they sat there, Srulik and Simone began to wonder. Is anyone searching for them? Where are Mama and Papa? The children decided to have a look around and Srulik climbed onto Simone’s shoulders to get a better view. That’s when he saw his Mama and Papa. But they were not alone. Next to them was an armed man in a black uniform. Srulik hopped off his brother’s shoulders as fast as he could. But it was too late. The armed man had already spotted them.
At their home the entire village was gathered. The crowd turned quiet as the family, led by the Nazi, approached the Ackermans home. Everyone stood silent as a bulky Nazi pushed Papa against the brick wall of the house. Then, he did the same to Mama, pushing her hard against the wall. Hundreds of people stood silent, too afraid to make a sound, as the Nazi pushed Simone against the wall, just as he had done to his parents. Srulik knew that he was next.
Without another thought, the ten-year-old boy ran like never before. The crowd parted before him like strands of rye. Srulik knew that he had to run if was to live another day. In an instant, he jumped over a neighbor’s fence, and hid in the thick bushes behind the river across from his house.
His Mama, Papa and older brother were shot to death and their bodies thrown into a mass grave.
The next morning, still hiding in the bushes, Srulik overheard a conversation among three women washing laundry in the river. That’s when he learned that the previous night, his Mama, Papa and older brother were shot to death and their bodies thrown into a mass grave.
Devastated and utterly alone, Srulik spent two weeks wandering the forest. He received a glimmer of hope when he was reunited with his uncle. Little did he know that the worst of it was yet to come.
There was a loud knock in the middle of the night. The Nazis stormed into the small apartment where Srulik now lived with his uncle’s family. They took the family, along with thousands of other Jews, to the city of Miedzyrzec, a large part of which was surrounded by barbed wire. There Srulik witnessed horrors of unimaginable proportions.
On the city streets, in broad daylight, he saw the Nazis hurl infants against brick walls. He watched as a mother begged a Nazi to spare her daughter's life, only to join her in a pool of blood a moment later. He heard a Nazi ask a little boy if he would like to touch his gun. The boy’s face lit up, and as his small hand reached out, the Nazi shot the child with that very gun.
Months later, after witnessing many horrors within the ghetto, Srulik was overjoyed when he discovered that a wide hole had been made in the barbed wire. Fire rising from fields just beyond the ghetto’s walls lit the night sky and people rushed into the fiery fields. After over a year of wandering the forests, the war had finally ended and Srulik joined a Russian battalion, bringing Srulik’s nightmare to an end.
Through relentless determination, the kindness of strangers, and a dose of good fortune, my grandfather had managed to survive the horrors of the Nazi atrocities. But will his story survive? Will the memories of those who went through this horrific chapter in history survive the test of time? It is our duty to make sure that they do. It is now our turn to carry the torch of our history.