Today (Friday) is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Here in Israel, our main Holocaust memorial day is Yom Hashoa, after Passover. But for the rest of the world, at least UN member nations, the date of January 27 was chosen in 2005 as the day of the year to commemorate and honor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, as well as to encourage the development of educational programs, thereby helping to prevent future acts of genocide (paraphrasing U.N. Resolution 60/7). Whether or not this is being done effectively is a discussion in and of itself, and for another blog. But for right now, I am thinking about the survivors. Those who escaped; were hidden; were enslaved and tortured in concentration camps; the partisans who hid in the forest; those who survived the ghettos and raids, and those who did whatever they had to do just to keep on living. Each one has a story and each story is more astounding and terrible than the one before.
But there is also a different type of survivor, from which many Ashkenazi Jews like myself are descended. They are the ones who left before. During the mass emigrations of Jews from the Pale of Settlement; before World War I to seek out a better life in the “Goldene Medina”; or who managed to leave Europe “between the wars”, to escape poverty and horrific antisemitic attacks. Those lucky ones who were able to get a visa to a country across the great Atlantic Ocean, who had a family member who could sponsor them- pay for their passage and vouch for them that they would not be a burden on the “system”, that they would be a hard-working member of society. That they had something to offer and contribute. That they weren’t bringing any diseases with them from the Old Country. These were the “lucky ones”, weren’t they?
Yes, they were lucky. They left Europe “just in time”. No one knew what was going to happen a few years later. No one could have imagined. And neither did these brave souls who often came alone, with one bag and very little money, if any at all. Even when they had somewhere to go, they were still leaving behind their lives and their history, which for most Jews in Europe, went back 1000 years. They were saying goodbye to their language (Yiddish, in most cases), and most traumatically, they were saying goodbye to their loved ones. It was a leap of faith. Without even an inkling of the horrors of what was to happen in the Holocaust, these emigrants likely knew that they were saying farewell to their families forever. It was hard enough for one or two members of the family to have all the required documents and the means to leave in search of a better life, so those that were so fortunate enough left their homes knowing that this was the last time. It was a bittersweet farewell.
One such person was my maternal grandmother, Mickey Drazin. Michle, as she was known in Yiddish, was born and grew up in the shtetl of Horodishtz, in modern-day Belarus, though in 1910 it was still part of the Russian Empire. By the time she took the voyage to Canada, however, arriving in 1929, her hometown was actually under Polish rule (hence, her immigration papers state her country of origin as Poland). Mickey was able to emigrate to Canada because she had an aunt and uncle who were living in Montreal and were Canadian citizens. They had originally planned to sponsor her older brother Feitel, but he was married with a child already and was unable to leave. So Mickey went instead. She moved in with her cousins and became part of their family. Her aunt and uncle, Aaron and Mollie (Malka) Drazin, who had seven biological children of their own, had adopted Myer, a young Ukrainian orphan years prior. Within a few years Mickey and Myer were married, and set up their home in Ottawa, Ontario. They had three children (my mother being the middle child and only daughter) and were very active and important members of the Ottawa Jewish community, and the Canadian Jewish community at large. Myer worked tirelessly for the Jewish National Fund and he and Mickey hosted many Officials and diplomats who visited Canada from the new State of Israel in their home. They were well-respected by all, and they appreciated greatly the home and refuge that Canada had given them.
Yet….(there’s always a “yet” or a “but”, isn’t there?), they never forgot their roots or their families left behind in Europe. My grandfather Myer had arrived as child from Ukraine in 1921, an orphan after the 1919 Ukraine pogroms and the turbulence that followed. He came to Canada with his two brothers, who were each adopted by different families across Canada. His older sister was left behind in Ukraine, and he never saw her again. Mickey too never saw her parents or 4 siblings again. They would write letters to each other and send pictures when possible. When her cousin in Montreal traveled to Europe to visit the Mir Yeshiva, which was close to Horodishtz, he brought her back a picture of her family, who he had visited. But that was it.
My mother Tybie was born in Ottawa in 1938, right before the outbreak of World War II. She tells me that as a child her mother rarely talked about her family back in Europe. And she knew better than to ask questions. Most Jews in North America didn’t know what was really going on. They just knew that communication had stopped, and heard bits and pieces of stories that were coming through the wire. But no one wanted to believe the worst. All they could do was pray for the end of the war and that their families had survived. Unfortunately, this was not to be for Mickey Drazin. It wasn’t until after WWII had ended did she find out any information about her family left behind. And it was heartbreaking. In June 1941, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, and by October they had entered her town of Horodishtz. They rounded up all the Jews- at least 1440 people, and took them to the nearby forest. There they shot them all and hastily dumped them into three mass graves. This forest became the graveyard for most of the Jews in the surrounding shtetls and towns (and through extensive research I subsequently found out that these three mass graves hold an estimated 10-12,000 bodies). This was the ONLY information that Mickey received. Nothing else. And there was no one to ask. She never again met anyone from her hometown who could confirm anything. From that point on, Mickey observed October 21, 1941 as the yahrtzeit of her whole family.
Mickey was at this point a wife and a mother, a prominent member of the Jewish community, raising her children in Canada, far far away from Byelorussia (as Belarus was then called). Whatever she may have felt, she did not express it. No one wanted to hear about it. There were many refugees who were arriving in Canada who had witnessed and experienced the horrors first-hand. They had stories to tell but even they too for the most part kept quiet. This was the culture of the times. When I would ask my grandmother why she didn’t talk about it, she would say, “What was the point? There was no one to talk to and no one wanted to hear it anyway”.
How sad. She wasn’t a “survivor” as we know it, but she was the only one left in her family, the last one standing. She didn’t see it first-hand, but she too experienced the loss. She suffered the trauma of losing everyone, but had to keep it bottled up inside. On this day, I commemorate and honor those who survived the murderous Nazis. But I also cannot forget the other victims, who left behind their families, never to see them again. The pain and the guilt they felt, even while knowing that others saw them as the “lucky” ones. The ones who had to put on a smile and hide their pain, for the rest of their lives.
Grandma Mickey passed away in 1999. She was fortunate to see her children and grandchildren marry and have kids of their own. But I know that she never ever, not even for an instant, forgot about her original family she had left behind.
On this day I remember you, Grandma.
L’ilui nishmat Michle bat Chaim Dov (Ber) v’Leeba, z”l.