Today, 11 April, my family marks my father’s liberation from Buchenwald concentration camp on this day in 1945. We gather each year for a celebratory meal – something of a birthday celebration – where my father reflects on some aspect of his life as a Holocaust survivor.
The renewal of the post-Holocaust generations has been nothing short of astounding. Only my father and his late brother survived their family, but our combined families number well in excess of two hundred KA”H spanning four generations.
On days like this, we juxtapose the sadness of immense loss with the gratitude for what we now have, and try to understand how much things have changed.
When my father spoke, in previous years, about his experiences through the war time, it was surreal and unimaginable. When we visited Poland on a family roots trip some years ago, he walked around saying “I can’t believed I survived a day!” How could we get a grasp on what it must have been like for him?
This year he spoke about his early life in Melbourne as he sought to “rebuild” the family he lost. For someone who has lost so much and experienced such trauma, it would have been easy to fall into depression and maintain a bleak outlook on the future. Instead, he took an active decision to rebuild.
But even as he did that, he continued to feel the loss. As his children were born and the family grew, he was not only denied the ability to share those wonderful moments with his own parents, but his children missed out on a grandparent relationship.
Growing up in Melbourne in the 1970s, grandparents were either dead or very old. I was fortunate to have both grandparents on my mother’s side, but most of my school friends – many of them also children of Holocaust survivor post-WW2 immigrants – did not.
This is in stark contrast to the role my parents were able to play as grandparents, and more recently that of my own siblings and many close friends, who are now experiencing the joys of grandparent-hood.
This gives rise to an interesting contrast: the Holocaust survivor who may themselves have grown up with grandparents before the war, but who had to fill that void for their own children, and the second generation who did not grow up with grandparents, but who then discover it either through their parents’ or their own experience.
Grandparents (and these days many people have great-grandparents) are a link to the past, and can enjoy a special relationship. As Sam Levenson famously said, “The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy”. Closer to home, an elderly family member would have a two-sided sign for when the grandchildren visited. For when they arrived, it would say “baruch ha’baah” (welcome), and for when they left, it would say “baruch Hashem” (thank God).
Grandparents have all the benefits and none of the downside of parents, and despite a larger age (and generation) gap, can forge a strong bond with their grandchildren.
Our family’s liberation celebration always comes at around Pesach time, which is appropriate with the themes of Jewish continuity epitomised by the verse so central to the Hagaddah: “and you shall tell your children” (Exodus 13:8). So when you sit down to the seder this year, and you are fortunate enough to either have grandparents or grandchildren with you, take a moment to reflect, and be truly thankful.