From past to present

Years ago, I mentioned to a Jewish friend that I felt compelled to visit Auschwitz as an act of memorial for my grandmother Else Weissenberg; we believe she was killed there, probably in summer 1942.

My father had always kept a photograph of Else on our mantelpiece, though he seldom spoke of her or the rest of his family, who also died in the holocaust.

He said with pride, from time to time, that I reminded him of her – a memory I carry with me to this day, with love and with my own sense of pride.

I told my friend that I had always wanted to lay flowers for my grandmother at the site of her death – there being no other memorial.

I did not want her death to go unmarked, as family deaths shouldn’t.

My friend listened to my ramblings and said that she understood.

But she later suggested that when I had undertaken my pilgrimage to see that place where Jewish people died, I should visit Israel, to see where Jewish people live.

When I began this project, I had still not been to Auschwitz, nor have I visited Israel, but I have retained a deep sense of responsibility to perform some act of remembrance for the half of my family that I have never known.

For my great grandmother, my grandmother, for my grandfather, for my father’s aunts, uncles, and cousins.

However, despite this sense of responsibility, I had always struggled to find a mode of remembrance that felt appropriate.

Perhaps this is because of my academic training – perhaps because I have read so many injunctions against creating ‘art’ from these terrible events.

Thus, while I have always wanted to speak to and about this story, I have never felt it was mine to be told.

Why now?

My father died many years ago now, and my mother died last year, so perhaps I have simply found myself free enough to take up this challenge that is at once self-induced, and yet feels like an imperative.

I have the time and the space now to create an act of remembrance for things – and for people – past.

Survivors down the generations

Survivors and their families are diverse in terms of country of origin and country of postwar residence, as well as in terms of our cultural and political views.

My father left his religion and culture behind him, as far as I can tell, soon after he left Germany.

And while I think I can understand this, it left us with few connections – truly a part neither of my father’s new country (a German name in England in the 1970s was an uncomfortable fit) nor of the culture he had left behind.

I know we have German/Jewish-origin family somewhere – a cousin also survived and lived in New York until her relatively recent death. She had a daughter, but we don’t know her current name, nor where she lives, beyond the fact that we believe she and her family live in Israel – or they did 20 years ago, when last we heard some news.

So, this is both my act of remembrance and a site for present generations to come together.

Ultimately, I intend to provide advice here for other survivor families and friends who may wish to find people lost in the holocaust.

So, instead of simply seeing where one life (or, as was so often the case, many lives) ended, we can also see where a family continues, if we are fortunate.

We may even find family we never knew we had.

Have all our stories been told?

When I went to look up my grandmother in the Yad Vashem database in 2014, my first thought was that it would be so good to see her life acknowledged – very good indeed.

But as soon as I started searching among the many names there, I realised that what I would see acknowledged would be her death, not her life.

I wouldn’t be able to see how she was connected to her husband, or to my father, or to her own mother, deported with her to Auschwitz, or how she is connected to her brothers or sister, or to her parents, or how my father is connected to his single surviving cousin and her children, and grandchildren.

And they cannot see us. Do they even know we exist?

In the end, however, her name wasn’t even there …

To life: to the present

A family tree, then, brings us to the present – to the living.

And while we thus create an act of remembrance for those who died, we also create a place of togetherness for those who have survived.

From our grief for loss in the past may we find new togetherness in the present.

From numbers to names.