This past weekend, a traveling exhibit from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “State of Deception: the Power of Nazi Propaganda,” depicting propaganda designed to lead to Jewish genocide, closed its run at the National Archives here.
I was one of many docents taking school groups and others through the collection of artifacts and information panels. It explained how German civilians were gradually and eventually persuaded to believe that there was a “Jewish problem,” and that the only way to eliminate it was to murder Europe’s Jews.
I had volunteered twice for traveling U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum exhibits — once in 2006 for “Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936,” shown at the American Jazz Museum, about the Olympics held under Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship. The other was in 2011, at the Wyandotte County museum, called “Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings.”
These opportunities appeal to my obligation to pass on a personal story. My husband is the son of a World War II survivor. She was a child when she and her parents were forced from their home into the Lodz ghetto.
They worked in a factory there until they were sent to a series of camps. My mother-in-law, at the time a child of not yet 10, was hidden in a hole in the ground when trucks were sent around to collect children.
Her mother didn’t know what was happening to the others who had disappeared. She only knew they hadn’t been heard from since they were taken away.
My husband is called second generation, which makes our children third generation. The fact that there is a generation at all after Hitler’s powerful attempt at eliminating the entire existing generation of Jewish children alive in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s marks the importance of this designation. One of the teachers accompanying her class to the exhibit last week asked a question which inspired this column.
“How many generations of future families do you think were killed under the Nazis?” she asked.
I thought about how to answer, and simply couldn’t. How do you describe the “end of a family”?
Is it when the last person doesn’t have children, and then dies of old age? Is it when an entire city’s child population is rounded up and taken away, never to be heard from again?
Many parents survived the rest of the war, even after their children were killed. The generation those children represented was gone. Even after the war, if parents who’d lost children gave birth to more, those murdered and their eventual parenthood was already gone.
I wrote recently about our family’s trip to Israel this summer to workshop the book our daughter wrote about her grandmother’s survival. It wasn’t until after we returned to the United States that we realized that though Israel is the refuge of and for Jews anywhere in the world, many Israelis, except for those working with Yad Vashem, the world Holocaust Authority in Jerusalem, feel that the Holocaust and its survivors are old news, and therefore, don’t engender as much discussion as they once did.
Ever since our children were toddlers, they’ve known about their grandmother’s life before, during and after the war. As in any family, they wondered about details that would enlighten them when they began to wonder who they were and about the families they belonged to.
It’s what we all go through when we come face to face with our family tree. Every elementary school teaches some version of looking back as far past grandparents as possible.
It’s not easy to find without help, and some parents have a handful of stories and perhaps artifacts of proof. In my children’s case, their grandmother did her best to pass on information she could find.
The National Archives turns out to be not a random spot for learning about something like atrocities committed by the Nazis. Aside from the records one can access to find your own family history there, traveling exhibits draw together volunteers who, like me, have a personal connection to this exhibition — parents or other relatives who were survivors and/or victims, and the recognition that their story has to be told.
No matter how many years have passed, it still matters.
Freelance columnist Ellen Murphy writes in this space once a month.