The Holocaust of 1933 to 1945 were the darkest years in the history of the world. More than 6 million innocent Jewish lives were lost in the concentration camps in occupied Europe. In addition, another 6 million lives were lost due to their religion, race or beliefs contrary to the Nazi doctrine. They included Jehovah’s Witness, Gypsies, Homosexuals, criminals, and political enemies of the state.
My family is included in those tragic statistics. My 3 brothers and I are grandsons of our paternal grandparents who were slaughtered by the Nazis. In 1948 our Father received a letter from Latvia, (then part of the USSR) from his surviving brother. It was a miracle the letter ever reached his hands.
The letter was sent to a friend of my Father from Latvia inquiring if he knew of his whereabouts. Believe it or not, we lived next door to each other. Imagine post war Europe, a letter sent to a friend hoping he would know our Father. With those odds you possibly could win a lottery.
I can still hear the banging on the door. As my mother opened it, the neighbor shouted he had a letter from Latvia for our Father. He was not home at the time so our Mother sent my younger brother and I to wait at the corner where he usually came off the bus. When he arrived he asked “Boys why aren’t you at home eating supper”? “Mama sent us to tell you there is a letter from Russia for you”.
He took off like the road runner to read the letter. After all, World War 2 had ended in 1945 and there was no way of telling the whereabouts of his family. The letter was written in Yiddish and as he read it out loud, he began to cry. He couldn’t finish the letter so our Mother began to read it, also out loud.
Our parents were childhood sweethearts in Russia and Mother knew all his family. They learned his brother Boris survived the Holocaust while his parents, brothers, cousins, and their families were wiped out by the Nazis. This event has been emblazoned in my mind all these years.
Without realizing it I began to study as much as I could about the Holocaust. At that point in time we didn’t have the access to as much related material that was to become available as time and technology improved. The problem in 1948 was that the general public could not yet accept the enormity of the crime against humanity the Nazis perpetrated.
Many years later my wife and I went on a Jewish Heritage tour of Eastern Europe. Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary along with the concentration camps to witness the horror of the Holocaust. My wife was also a grandchild of Holocaust victims. Her maternal grandparents, born and raised in Berlin, Germany lost their lives along with one of her aunts. Her Father left Germany for America during the rise of the mortal storm facing Germany and Europe.
What we saw in Auschwitz, Birkenau and Terezinstadt will be the subject of future articles about the Holocaust. It changed our lives forever. My wife and I put together an Experiential Approach to the Holocaust as an educational program designed to help students and adults understand the Holocaust.
Once we presented our program in a High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin after an SS Waffen officer denied the existence of the Holocaust.
To review, the letter written in 1948 disappeared over the years until my parents death in 1978. During the difficult and emotional job of clearing out their home, we found many personal letters that we stored in a container. Many years later we decided to read the contents of the container and lo and behold there it was, the letter from Russia that began our journey into the history of the Holocaust.
Written in Yiddish I had it translated and indeed it read in part “Hitler killed our entire family and all of our cousins”. Reliving the moment our Father read the letter we understood those words caused his breaking down in tears. This is one of many articles I plan to write about this part of history and to share with you some of the comments made by nearly 50,000 students and adults we have lectured to.
It is said we must never forget but now we say this generation you must remember.
This was not only Chicago Then but the World Then.
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