Dear Mandy Patinkin,

You don’t know me but we are family. We share roots and history. We have risen from the ashes.

I watched your Finding Your Roots episode with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I loved the way you described growing up, hearing the ancient Hebrew prayers in your synagogue; “the sound of the prayers, the singing, the crying, got into my bones”. Echoes of our past remain within our mind, whisper to our soul.

The moment that captivates me was watching you learn for the very first time that you had family rounded up from the ghetto in Bransk, and sent to the Treblinka concentration camp.

You are given a paper to read, not knowing what comes next. You utter the words as they are printed. “The gendarmes appear when it is time to light the Shabbos candles and report that on Shabbos morning at seven o’clock, everyone must report as families at the entrance of the ghetto. They can bring only bread and water. There is terrible crying in the ghetto. November 2, 1942, Germans and their collaborators surround the ghetto. More than 2,000 packed into trains bound for Treblinka. On the 10th everyone is already in Treblinka. According to the evidence…all the Bransk Jews, men and women separately breathed their last in the Treblinka gas chambers. On November 10 at four o’clock in the afternoon their bodies were burned in the crematoria.”

It is difficult to watch you break down and cry out loud. You say you never knew, that you've told interviewers you don’t think any of your relatives died in the Holocaust. Your father never told you about his cousins, his aunts and uncles. More than 20 family members burned, murdered. And somehow no one said a word to you. Your tears are raw.

“This is insanity!” you say.

This is not just your story, it is our story. The story of our people.

You say that you will imagine having your relatives in your life. Mandy, I grew up imagining.

I would dream about what it would be like to have been hugged and kissed by my mother’s Bubby and Zaidy. I hear stories about their home which was my mother’s favorite place in the world to visit. There were always delicious Hungarian cakes baking in the oven. The scent would fill the house from the moment she would arrive with her parents and siblings. My Zaidy would study his holy books, filling the room with his sweet voice as my mother sat contently on his lap. They would share sugar cubes together and hot tea.

My mother’s final time together with her Zaidy, the room was filled with the sound of his broken sobs. He knew that heavy darkness was coming. “Why is my Zaidy crying?” she asked in fright.

Her father explained that Zaidy’s tears are creating footsteps. “Whenever you fall you will stand right back up and keep walking in Zaidy’s path.” My mother never forgot that conversation. The words strengthened her throughout her life. While shivering at roll call, in the freezing cold of Bergen Belsen, she remembered her Zaidy’s tears. Time and time again my mother picked herself up and followed those footsteps. She gave us her faith so that we may keep walking in Zaidy’s footsteps, no matter the challenge.

The author's father, third from left, is standing with his brothers

My mother never saw her grandparents again. They were last seen carrying their youngest infant grandchild in their arms as they walked into the gas chambers.

I wonder what my life would be like having my father’s family surround me. Instead I touch their photos. I memorize their names and faces. Their images hover over me, give me no rest. I cannot wrap my head around the loss and pain. As a little girl we would have family get-togethers and an entire side went missing. Classmates would speak about cousins and grandparents but all I had was a shattered memory that I tried hard to cling onto. I know my Bubby and Zaidy would have showered me with their love.

My father came to this country as an orphan, suffered indescribably, but he loved me perfectly. He carried their legacy across the ocean. Even hell on earth could not snuff out the love and kindness he had grown up with.

Every time I have carried life I’ve asked whose name will be revived and remembered. I cradle not only my infant. I am holding the past and future, praying that we live and do right for those who could not. When my son became a bar mitzvah he dedicated his day to his cousin. The bar mitzvah boy whose name he carries was taken away the day after he turned 13. The tefillin is shared between heaven and earth.

Mandy, I am writing this letter to you because this cannot be the end of the story. It’s not simply hearing about the past, closing the album and saying goodbye. You yourself said it so beautifully. “As long as there’s one person on earth who remembers you, it isn’t over.”

Our story isn’t over. We have a mission, you and I. We are the torch bearers. We must bear witness. There are too many who insist on forgetting, even denying the murder of our family. We cannot allow this to happen. Your cry is the cry that God gave when He confronted Cain after murdering his brother Abel. “What have you done? Do you hear the voices? These are the drops of your brother’s spilled blood! They cry out to Me from the ground.”

Dark clouds are again rolling in. There are threats to destroy us, this time with a nuclear final solution, God forbid. Terrorists launching rockets over our land. Tik Tok filled with scenes of Jews being slapped and beaten ‘just because’. Hatred and anti-Semitism fill the air.

We are a family of Jews. Keeping our traditions alive, standing strong for our land and for our people, are our greatest responses. We dare not be silent. Together we can bring light into a very dark world. Those who came before us and those who will come after us are counting on our courage.

Sincerely,
Slovie Jungreis Wolff