If I had to cite one thing that has shaped my life, I would likely tell you that I am the child of older parents. My father was nearly 50 and my mother approaching 40 when my parents married and I have often kiddingly said that “I was a surprise and my brother (18 months younger) was a miracle.” In truth, I am not certain that was not their reaction. How do I think it has had an impact? In any number of ways from my career to my life choices and, perhaps most tangibly, in the fact that I have been without them from the time I reached early adulthood.
In recent weeks, I have been trying to reconstruct some family history for my mother and, at the same time, began to wonder about my father’s story. I knew that he was born in Poland, I even knew the name of the shtetl. I knew the story of his family coming to America; that his father came first to earn the money to send for his wife and five children; that before that day could finally arrive, my father’s oldest brother received a draft notice for the Polish army and my grandmother moved swiftly and decisively to get papers for her brood and load them on a ship bound for Philadelphia.
Curious about whether there was more to know, I began to do some Internet searching, to try and figure out what happened to my father’s family, what happened to the people who are enshrined and unnamed in old family photos that are clearly from “the old country.” The town, Kolo, where my father was born was an active center of Jewish life. I found weekly schedules of activities from musical programs to meetings that created an image of a bustling, active town. And I found lists of names of the residents of the town, surprised to see that the surname my father’s family had before coming to the United States, was listed over and over in the annals of the town.
Searching a little deeper (although by no means exhaustively), I learned that Kolo’s Jewish population was destroyed in two major ways—through a collection of men that took place first and then the rounding up of the remaining Jews into a ghetto that was then liquidated. For all of that long list of matching surnames, no searches turned up any indication of survivors.
I have never thought of my family as personally touched by the Holocaust in the way of so many others that I know. They left Poland well before the Nazi regime, they built a new life far from the horrors that others endured. Yet I sat and stared for a long moment at that list of names, names with no information, names on a list without hope or future. While I have long believed that our obligation as Jews is to understand and teach about the Shoah, that we must ensure that there is meaning to the words “never forget,” I realize now that this is far closer to me and I would suspect to many of us. We owe it to ourselves to learn our own histories, to share those histories with our families and to preserve them for future generations.