My grandmother Trude Schonwald (nee Stern) z”l was 19 years old when she was liberated from Auschwitz. She survived, somehow, together with her sister Lillian, while their parents and youngest brothers perished in the gas chambers. The little that Trude did share with her family after the war was attributed to how she managed to survive those horrors. As the story goes, a kind inmate took pity on her and showed her how to scavenge for potato peels and make a soup to abate the shivering girls’ gnawing hunger.
I remember that Trude never let me roll the windows down in the car on a hot summer day — she never wanted to be cold again.
Trude was a slight, dark haired beauty with sad eyes while Lillian was a beautiful, vivacious young woman with the preferred Aryan colouring. Another story: how Trude would try to make Lillian appear “ugly” before the selections so as to not attract any unwanted attention. They were on a death march together. They hid in a haystack one morning and the Nazis assumed they had not survived the night. After the war they were very sick and had to be rehabilitated before making their way back to Slovakia, but no one else returned. They ended up in a DP camp, married fellow survivors and waited for a ship to take them to Israel to begin again.
Trude was six months pregnant when their boat arrived at the Haifa port. The British turned the ship away — the survivors were not allowed to disembark as per the creed of the British Mandate. Defiant, Trude declared: “No baby of mine will be born in a camp”. She pretended to be in labor while the boat was still docked in the port. A British nurse took pity on her and somehow, managed to get her and my grandfather, Moshe Schonwald z”l off the boat.
My father was born in Palestine a few months later in 1947, right before the State of Israel was declared.
Another story: when I was four years old I asked my Mother if it was true that people called Nazis threw babies into fireplaces — my teacher had told me so. “It is true”, my mother answered, “and your Savta Trude was in one of those places”.
Tonight Israel commemorates Yom Hashoah, a somber 24 hour spiral peaking with a siren wailing across the country in the morning hours. We have entered a collective period of mourning where we are supposed to remember the 6 million. And never forget.
As a third generation survivor, everyday is Holocaust Remembrance day. I think about the Shoah every time I look at my children who were never supposed to be. I think about my grandfather’s sister, Miriam, and how she was not able to conceive because her reproductive organs were removed by Dr. Mengele. As a mother, I often find my mind wandering to that time and imagine the trauma of all the mothers torn brutally away from their children.
I look at my children and all I want for them is for them is to never discover these stories.
There has been much discussion recently in scientific literature around genetic inheritance, the Holocaust and the transmission of trauma and PTSD between the generations.
When I was pregnant with my first child, on the suggestion of a dear friend, I would close my eyes and envision my ancestors standing behind me. Touching my belly, I would whisper to my unborn child that “this is not your story”.
For the first time in many years I find myself in Israel on Yom Hashoah, this time as a mother of the fourth generation after Auschwitz. While I won’t be able to shield my children from our family narrative forever, I intend to relay our story responsibly and at the right time.
It is an extra quiet night in Jerusalem. Shops and restaurants closed early and there are few cars on the road. On every television and radio station there are programs about the Holocaust and there are so many stories of death and of survival. I spent extra time tonight embracing my children. This is how I will continue to re-member.