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Shades of the Shoah

Shades of the Shoah

As a Jew-in-the-making, I am heartened and intimidated by my obligation to those who perished in the Holocaust.

by

A genealogy magazine hired me to write a story about Evelyne Haendel, a Belgian woman who had been one of the "hidden children" of World War II. To escape deportation to the concentration camps, thousands of these Jewish children were hidden with Christian families in Europe, forced to forget their religion and even their names, just to survive. Many never saw any blood-relatives again.

I planned to talk with Evelyne for approximately 40 minutes about her search for surviving family members. That one interview stretched into a two-hour conversation that shook me -- a journalist and soon-to-be Jewish convert -- to my core.

In light of her life experience, Evelyne's spirit and optimism are even more striking. As she opened up and shared the most personal details of her story, her voice at times was strong and full of laughter; other times, it was small and quiet. All the while, I kept typing. Otherwise, I would have lost it.

I thanked God for my computer keyboard when she described her Aunt Sasha's return from Auschwitz. How stark and frail her appearance had been, how shaken Sasha was by the loss of her own daughter in the camps that she left Evelyne with her adoptive, non-Jewish family while she fled to Australia to build a new life.

I kept my fingers busy as Evelyne described her visit to Auschwitz as an adult with a Star of David memorial wreath -- because this camp was the only cemetery she had to visit in memory of her parents. How she wandered the site, trying to find an appropriate resting place for the wreath, until she at last floated it on the surface of a small pond near one of the crematoria, knowing ashes of the slain had sometimes been dumped into these waters.

 

Evelyne was my age when she started therapy, and started to reclaim her identity as a Jew.

 

I put off transcribing that conversation for several weeks.

I am 39 years old -- close to the same age Evelyne was when she reached a breaking point, realizing she couldn't move forward while continuing to deny her past. She was my age when she started therapy, and started to reclaim her identity as a Jew.

I'm in the process of converting to Judaism myself.

My grandmother's grandmother was Jewish, though she married a Huguenot, and we've been WASPs ever since. Generations earlier, her family -- Baruch Judah and his brothers -- came out of Poland in the early 1700s.

Poland. Home to extermination camps Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor and Chelmno. How many Jews were left in Poland in 1945? Are there any descendants of Judah Leib, Baruch's father, still there? Only tens of thousands survived out of the 3.5 million Jews in pre-war Poland. Distant though the relation might be, there's no doubt I lost family in the Shoah.

But it wasn't my mother or my father. It wasn't my uncle, or my aunt or my grandparents. It wasn't my neighbors or my friends from school. The Holocaust isn't part of my immediate identity. I can put the whole thing aside, forget about it, watch TV, go to the gym, have dinner with friends. But I've been haunted by shades of the Shoah since childhood. I don't know why I've always taken this genocide so personally. Is it my inherent Jewishness, or just my humanity?

I kept working on the article; I wanted to do justice to this amazing woman and her story, but I also wanted to get through it and move on to something else.

Several times each day I had to put my notes aside, rest my head in my hands and cry.

It's one thing to read Anne Frank's diary when you're a kid, and to come across horrific photos in coffee table books about the "final solution." Even the moving images of Holocaust documentaries and movies like "Schindler's List" and "The Pianist" offer a safe boundary of detachment.

Nothing could have prepared me for talking one-on-one with someone who had experienced the Holocaust first-hand. True, Evelyne had escaped the ghettos and the camps. Just a small child at the beginning of the war, she was moved from house to house to keep her safe, while her family members were arrested and deported to Auschwitz. She didn't see those atrocities with her little girl eyes, but she has lived the aftermath every day since.

I thought I had problems? Try growing up as a Jewish orphan in post-World War II Europe.

But Evelyne has been successful in her quest. After years of searching, she has found cousins. She has family again. And she's using her newly acquired genealogical research skills to help other Hidden Children find their lost family members.

 

Each year there are fewer Holocaust survivors left to tell their stories. The admonition to "Never forget" has never been more important.

 

At the end of our conversation, Evelyne tried to comfort me, a stranger thousands of miles away. She'd heard in my voice the anguish I'd tried to hide.

"You should not feel bad because you don't know at all what it is," she explained in accented English. "You have roots. I did not know at all what it was to have a family. You never know what it is, what you have never experienced. Maybe it will help you in your thinking."

It's now 70 years since the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews in Europe. Each year there are fewer Holocaust survivors left to tell their stories. The admonition to "Never forget" has never been more important.

I had been second-guessing my decision to convert to Judaism, and interviewing Evelyne has given me some much-needed perspective. As a Jew-in-the-making, I am heartened and intimidated by my obligation to those who were lost. Out of 6.7 billion people on the planet, there are today about 13 million Jews -- many fewer than the estimated 18 million before World War II. Every Jew really does count. So as I meet with my rabbi and push forward with my conversion, I will step for the first time into the mikvah waters not only for myself, but for my ancestors -- and for Evelyne.

Published: May 16, 2009


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Visitor Comments: 10

(9) Jack, June 29, 2009 2:07 PM

phrasing

"Poland. Home to extermination camps Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor and Chelmno." I am the descendent of Polish Jews and am only alive because of Polish gentile resistance against the German nazis. Poland is not 'home' to these camps, these camps were never welcome in Poland. Poland had these camps inflicted on it. The phrasing you used sometimes leads to people making the mistake of assuming Poland or Poles were generally complicit in the Holocaust. Please be more careful and precise when writing on this subject.

Anonymous, May 5, 2011 4:44 AM

Revisionism is not an option

The Polish effort at revisionism to deny culpability in the all too easy access given the German army will not wash - the survivors stories of the anti-Semitism suffered even prior the Shoah, the folding like a cheap camera before the Germans even though the Polish army had weapons, tanks - belies the construed narrative that it was the Poles who were the victims and Jews as Poles suffered too. Without complicity and collaboration the creation of more death camps/concentration camps than any other country in Europe would not have come into place. Denying the truth, as well as survivors their property and compensation for the thefts of everything they owned by the Polish Government - now making $millions in tourism from Jews visiting the graveyards of murdered relatives - is an irony I for one find hard to fathom. Poland's economy has come to depend upon it. May my father, all my cousins, aunts, uncles their relatives - and both sets of grandparents rest in peace - their souls and spirits no longer in the Poland where their unspeakable, immeasurable sufferings are known only to God.

(8) AKoenig, May 21, 2009 9:29 PM

Knowing Evelyne

I am one of Evelyne's "missing relatives" that Evelyne, through her incredible optimism and persistence, managed to find. In the short time that I have known Evelyne, she is as wonderful a human being as Jennifer Willis has described. I wanted to write this because Evelyne appears to have a positive affect on everyone, whether she meets you in person or over a telephone, as she did with Jennifer. Thank you for this article, it is both well written and completely accurate in its assessment of Evelyne's positive spirit. All the best with your conversion, too, Jennifer.

(7) Consuelo Endara, May 18, 2009 1:03 PM

Another anusim

I also descend from Spanish ancestors that holded sepharadic last names, specially from my mom´s side. I made my conversion to Judaism in Israel some months ago, after being studying and preparing for 3 years in my country. I never had doubts about my decision of converting, even it was a very difficult process. But Baruj Hash-m I made it! And feel I have recovered something that was taken away from my family a long time ago and being myself a Jew it´s like I´m giving them back what was stolen from them. As Jennifer I always felt so affected about the Shoah, that I made myself the same questions she did. That feeling haven´t changed because I made the conversion, the difference is that now I can remember and grieve not alone, but as part of the people who suffered it. I feel that now I am where I belong and I can´t explain with words the happiness and peace I experience in my life every day as I try to deserve the blessing that Hash-m gave when He let me go back to Him.

(6) Rachel Garber, May 17, 2009 9:09 PM

I was you once upon a time

No, I do not have Jewish ancestors, although because my mother was Puerto Rican, I may have descended from conversos, but I do not know for sure. However, like you I am a convert. It has been 40 yrs since my conversion, and I can tell you from my own experience that somehow, almost like slipping on a new coat, pulling it over your shoulders, looking in the mirror to make sure it fits properly, buttoning it up, your identity as a Jew absorbs the Shoah. I never interviewed any survivors. I read many stories, both factual and novels about the Shoah, I watched movies, and like putting on that new coat, the Shoah became a part of my history as much as if I had been born Jewish. Back in the '70s there was a TV program about the Holocaust, and I remember my late husband saying why are you watching that you know the story (he, a born Jew, whose mother lost family in the Holocaust) I replied, "I'm watching it because it is my duty to remember." May you be blessed as you move toward your conversion, and remember your ancestors.

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