On this day (3 Av) 80 years ago, my late father and most of his family were deported to Auschwitz. My father and one brother were ‘selected‘ for slave labour, while my grandmother and her three younger children were all sent directly to their deaths in the gas chamber. This became one of the days on which my father would observe yahrzeit, and each year I light a candle and say kaddish to continue his practice.
Being a milestone anniversary gave me pause to reflect on what the day means. After my father’s passing, I learned how to deal with his loss and what that meant to me personally and to our family. But how to grieve the loss of grandparents, uncles and an aunty whom I never knew? Tragically, all we have are a couple of photos and some slivers of stories that my father conveyed. We don’t know what we don’t know about them and their lives. It’s hard to grasp what exactly we have lost. Relationships that we never had the opportunity to experience. Grief for what we might have had or for what could have happened.
In terms of its impact on the family at the time, that day might be thought of as the ultimate “sliding doors” moment. Does it make sense to consider what might have been if they had been able to escape, or if some had been selected to work rather than for immediate death? In truth, the journey of any Holocaust survivor would have had so many of such moments that were the difference between life and death. Any single one could have led to a totally different outcome. This makes it very difficult to think about what exactly we have lost, and how our lives – so many years later – might have been different. Perhaps that form of grief is a futile pursuit? Perhaps it would be better to think in terms of legacy rather than grief?
On that day, their legacy was dramatically interrupted. Whatever the future held for the family, it would be radically different to life in Poland. Only my uncle and father survived, and they became the torchbearers of the family legacy. One ended up in Boro Park, the other in Melbourne. Despite such devastating loss, my grandparents’ descendants now number in the hundreds, spread across the world. Many of them carry the names of those lost.
Family legacy interrupted in such a way by necessity must find new form, often in a new place, and so it was with my family. The tangible memories of that past and our ability to grieve for it are limited. Instead we can focus on building a new legacy – one inspired by the past and informed by our new lives in a new country. In that way, we can do our part to honour their legacy in our own way.
In memory of Devora Werdyger and her children Yehuda, Yosef Matisyahu and Chaya Malka. May their memory be a blessing.