Letters written on tissue thin paper, each unfolded ever so carefully, each page gently smoothed, each word hungrily read, again and again.
A little girl dispatched to the corner to buy stamps, a return letter written by her mother, then posted.
Until the letters stopped coming. And the mother stopped writing.
It is a poignant memory my mother-in-law shared, her Polish grandmother, who she never met, writing to her mother in America. And the little girl, who ran to mail the letters, now a great grandmother herself, sitting beside me and quietly recalling it.
The substance of the story was not much different from that of my own grandparents, also Eastern European immigrants who had bravely set out for the New World leaving their parents behind. Little did they know, or could they have ever imagined, the devastating destruction wrought by the Nazis and the inconceivable loss of Jewish life.
So it is, when I am asked if I have surviving family living now in Poland or Russia, or Israel, I shake my head, “No,” I respond softly, “or, not that I know of.”
There is a yawning gap in my genealogy, a family tree shorn of branches, its roots roughly pulled from the ground, its leaves scattered to the wind.
And yet we are here, their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren.
The leaves, their descendants, in our own way, survivors.
And all we have left are the stories.
And so it is, as more years pass, as those who were unlucky enough to be caught in the madness of the Shoah, yet lucky enough to have survived, tell their stories even as they age and leave them behind. And their stories become our stories.
For we who are charged to bear witness, are obliged to listen, and watch.
So it was on a late winter afternoon, I found myself in a crowded movie theater for a screening of the film Who Will Write Our History.
The movie tells the extraordinary story of stories, thousands of them, gathered by the Oyneg Shabbos, a group of Jewish resistors in the Warsaw Ghetto who had the extraordinary prescience and steely resolve to collect those stories and write them down. And then, as they saw the fate of the Jews being written, to hide them in two milk cans and ten steel boxes and bury them deep in the ground to assure that their history would live on, even as those who breathed life into it then did not.
Ingeniously conceived by Emanuel Ringelblum, a Polish historian working in the ghetto as a community organizer, the making of the archive was a heroic effort to counter the Nazi propaganda with eyes and ears, pens and paper, as they became the keepers of the precious record, guardians of its truth.
A portion of the cache was recovered after the war, preserved at Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute, where it languished for nearly another half century under the Soviets. It fell to Samuel Kassow, yet another historian, with a story connected to the larger one, the son of Holocaust survivors born in a DP camp in war torn Europe, to discover the archive and extensively analyze the documents that ultimately became the subject of his book, Who Will Write Our History? which inspired Roberta Grossman’s 2018 film by the same name.
Both are testimony to the inherent compulsion of scholars to pursue knowledge at its source, to not only find the stories but to confirm their authority and authenticity through painstaking research. So, too, the journalist, writing in a different medium, is held to similar standards of veracity and verification. Grossman’s film reinforces the critical work of both, while raising important issues of concern to all of us who care not only about preserving the past but about charting the future.
In an age of fake news, where truth seems to be constantly under siege, there is an even greater lesson to be learned, an even higher standard we must set for our storytellers, and ourselves. It is to remain ever vigilant of the preciousness of a free press and the free flow of information that is the bedrock of our Republic. And it is to exercise our responsibility, as informed citizens, to be discriminating consumers, to choose our news outlets wisely, to read, listen or click widely, and to vet our sources of information for credibility and accountability.
We memorialize those who perished in the Holocaust, even as virulent crimes of hate suggest sinister possibility. As we remember Hitler’s victims and mourn the victims in Poway, the message is the same.
Never forget, and assure that the stories, all these stories, live on as they were lived — and as they were written.
And that they will be retold.