Some days I feel that perhaps everything that could have been said about the Holocaust has already been said. Why keep rehashing the past? Then, I meet yet another person who knows next to nothing about the Shoah, or, worse, I see yet another article on Holocaust deniers. This is when I am reminded how much is still left to be done.
My grandfather, a child survivor of the Nazi atrocities, passed away six months ago. It saddens me to no end that no one will ever hear his story the way that he used to tell it. No one will see the pain in his eyes, or hear the pauses he took to choke back the tears. No one will see his smiles as he tried to find bits of humour in his infinitely painful past.
It is impossible to doubt the Holocaust when your grandfather was a survivor, or if you have ever met a survivor in the flesh and blood. But one day, too soon, there will be no more survivors with us. I fear the day when the last person to have ever met a survivor leaves this earth.
This leaves us with some difficult questions. What are we to do? How do we protect the stories of those who suffered the worst atrocities to ever visit humankind? How do we make sure that the Holocaust remains a historical fact in the face of those who would rather have it erased?
In this day and age, we have a rare opportunity to do an essential part of preserving our history. We, the children and grandchildren of the survivors, have upon us the duty to preserve the stories of our ancestors and share them with the world. While we are here, we must do everything in our power to make this dark chapter in history available and accessible to the world.
Many survivors have written their own memoirs, laying the foundation for preserving this dark spot in our history. But, for different reasons, many other survivors chose not to do so. In some cases, we, the family members of the survivors, can help fill in the gaps. Whenever possible, we should do our part to help survivors preserve their stories for generations to come.
I will not trivialize the challenge before us. Writing my grandfather’s memoir was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done – yet, it might also be the most important. I spent countless hours with him on the phone learning as much as I could about his past. Through these conversations, I learned much more about his life than I thought there was to know. But, when it was time to write, I found myself full of self-doubt. Who was I to convey a tragedy this big?
In the middle of the book, when it was time to write about Grandpa’s imprisonment in the ghetto of Miedzyrzec, I could not continue writing. It was too painful. I found myself staring at a blank screen, unable to type as much as a single word.
I took a break to revisit the memoirs of other survivors. Among many other memoirs, I re-read Maus, a brilliant comic detailing the survival story of Art Spiegelman’s father. There, I found Art sharing the same worries that I’d been having. He, too, worried about how he would relay his father’s story. He, too, was concerned about the heavy responsibility of doing it right. He, too, felt so overwhelmed by all the horror that he was unable to write for months.
Knowing that I wasn’t alone was precisely the push that I needed. For a while, I wrote no more than a paragraph a day. Then, suddenly, I realized that the memoir was complete. But the work wasn’t done yet. Then came the illustrations – through a serendipitous sequence of events, I found a most talented illustrator, Vivien Mildenberger, who created extraordinary art to go with the book. After that, I had to find editors, and figure out how to navigate the publishing process.
But, in the end of it all, after three years of work, people are now reading Grandpa’s story. My Grandfather survived, and now, so does his story.
So, if your parent or grandparent survived this horrific chapter in history, I urge you to help their story survive as well. I will not tell you that it will be easy, but I will tell you that it will be worth every word.
Choose whatever medium you see fit. Convey it through prose. Convey it through poetry. Do it through art. Find some way to tell their stories so that others will listen. Show it so that others will see. Because the world needs to remember their stories. Whatever you do, do not let their story die with them. Let’s do our part to preserve our history.
Read an excerpt from Running from Giants, Margareta Ackerman’s book about her grandfather’s life as a child survivor of the Holocaust.