Recording Existence
By Max Matza
Jerusalem, Israel


 

The Breitstein family’s shabbat dinner was ending at my grandparents’ house in their Monticello, New York, bungalow community. Both of my grandparents _ who are, thank God, still with us _ are Polish Holocaust survivors.

Fred Breitstein, my 86-year-old Zayde, having pushed away his meal was reconnecting himself to his portable oxygen tank. Outside the evening air was warm so we moved to the porch. It was there we did something my grandfather wanted desperately to do in the time he has left: register deceased members of his family in the “Victims of the Shoah” database at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel.

I had the forms and I helped him.

Listening to my grandfather give testimonies, I filled in the information for countless Breitsteins. It was his entire family. His parents, his grandparents, his brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles had all perished in the war and now I took down their names and important identifying information: What had they done in life? How had they died?
I had heard that of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, Yad Vashem had identified three million by name. Now I was helping to memorialize some of the rest so they could continue to be remembered.
But not everybody’s memories were complete. My grandmother was much younger than my grandfather during the Holocaust so it was much more difficult for her to remember the first names and maiden names of her family members. I saw how much it hurt her that she couldn’t recall her grandfather’s name. She wanted so badly for him to be remembered by others but didn’t know how to record his existence without a name.

Listening to their stories and recording the descriptions of each of their family members’ deaths I was amazed but mostly depressed and disturbed by their words. I couldn’t understand why, for any reason, they would want to recall those painful memories. It seemed to me like such a terrible thing to try so hard to remember. I would never have said that around them but pretty soon the sentiment was being voiced.

By filling in the forms outdoors, in the public community space, we opened ourselves up to comments by passersby who gathered around the porch to watch what was happening and reflect on their own experiences during the Holocaust. I offered to draft a “Victims of the Shoah” form for one of the onlookers, a good friend of my grandparents, and a man I respect, Morris Grumberg, who had survived the Holocaust in Poland and had afterwards emigrated to Israel, and eventually ended up in the United
States. But he declined my offer, saying, “Why do this? It won’t bring any of them back!”

I watched Morris and saw the angry frustration on his face. My documents had intruded and made him feel uncomfortable. I felt sorry for doing this and understood how it disturbed him. He, his wife Maala, and my Bubbe and Zayde all began to argue in Yiddish, which I cannot understand, and English about the necessity to pass on the memories of the victims of the Shoah. Morris was upset that a new generation had to be exposed to the horrors of the Holocaust.

“When I was this boy’s age,” he said pointing to me, “I had no one left in
the world.”

My grandparents response was that the purpose of the Yad Vashem database was not just to record all the horrible deaths, but most significantly to record the peoples’ names and lives and identities.

“My name is 174517,” the Italian author and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote years after his liberation from Auschwitz (1). “We will carry the tattoo on our left arm until we die… It seems that this is the real, true initiation into the camp.”

In another context, which I viewed when I visited Yad Vashem, Levi added: “Nothing belongs to us anymore, they have taken our clothes, our shoes. They will even take away our name.”

My grandparent’s opinion is that even though their families have died, who they were and what they meant to others has not been erased. Their existence is recorded in the memories of their family members and friends that survived the killings.

But the ones that knew them and hold these memories will not be around much longer. This is why they feel the urgency to have the history of their generation remembered by future generations. But a large part of their generation was killed. So the burden is on the survivors to record their existence and to tell their stories for them so the lessons of the Holocaust can be remembered forever and never forgotten due to ignorance and prejudice.

Holocaust survivor and commentator Elie Wiesel (2) wrote that “The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference.” To combat prejudice we cannot allow ourselves to remain indifferent or ignorant of others.
I share my room at boarding school with Mohey El-Din, a Sunni Muslim from Egypt, and Mohammed Murtaza, a Shi’ite Muslim from Pakistan. I am an American Jew. We have lived together for almost a year, frequently discussing each other’s religion, culture, and history. The topic of the Holocaust, of course, has come up when I discuss my family’s history.

The best way that I could portray my Bubbe’s experience 60 years ago in Poland was to show Murtaza and Mohey the concise testimony she wrote to honor a Polish Catholic woman named Christine Budinska, who brought my grandmother food while she was hiding from the Nazis. Bubbe nominated her as a “Righteous Gentile,” to have her name recorded in another of Yad Vashem’s database. Reading what my Bubbe wrote, made the Holocaust real for these two 18-year-old Muslims.

As I think back on that night recording names in Monticello I remember something Maala told me. She showed me her left arm which had only three numbers tattooed on it from her imprisonment in Auschwitz. I was surprised that there were only three but she explained to me why. Later in life, long after the Holocaust, she decided to get the tattoos removed. She had half of them taken off when she realized that for her erasing the numbers just didn’t feel right. Those tattoos had become part of who she is. Those numbers can be the most awful reminder of her horrible past but that past is still true and very much a part of her identity.

“Let us remember,” wrote Wiesel. “They fought alone, they suffered alone, they lived alone, but they did not die alone for something in all of us died with them.”

I am lucky not to have numbers on my arm. But with the knowledge I have gained from talking to these survivors I feel the need to carry their stories forward as if I do.

 

***

(1) “If This Is a Man,” 1947, by Primo Levi (published in the United States as “A Survivor in Auschwitz.”

(2) Exhibition notes on Elie Wiesel, the new exhibit hall at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.

Personal research and interviews, the victims’ database, Yad Vashem.
 

 


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