Shards of Memory

My wife and I are Jews. I was born in St. Louis. She was born in Haifa, though she’s lived in the United States since she was a toddler. Both of us have lived very American lives. One hundred and fifty years ago all our ancestors were living in the same arc of land from the Baltic down to the Crimean Peninsula, in some mix of Russia, sub-national Poland, Germany and Austria. But then a little more than a century ago the stories diverge.All my relatives immigrated to America between roughly 1890 and 1920. Eastern Europe to London or Amsterdam to New York and then to St. Louis or southern Illinois. They all led typically striving American immigrant lives in the vast placidness and normality of America.

All her relatives stayed in Poland, Germany, except a handful — her immediate ancestors — who immigrated to Palestine at a few different points in the 1920s (from Russia) and 1930s (from Poland). Virtually all the rest were killed in death camps or under the scythe of Nazidom that tore through Eastern Europe in the early 1940s.

Over the last decade, as I’ve made my life with someone with such a different and yet similar background, I’ve often imagined this breach like two branches of a tree verging apart and then converging again, half alien to each other. Her relatives have this Middle Eastern history, speak this guttural language I don’t understand or English in that typically Israeli accent. And mine, though most are dead now, spoke in that low to the ground midwestern American English or, with the the ones from southern Illinois, a southernish drawl.

But it’s the ones who died in Europe in the ’40s that made me write this post. A few weeks ago, my wife, for reasons that are beside the point, got focused on filling out a family tree I’d started cobbling together a couple years ago. And because she gets obsessive about things and is wildly successful at everything sets her mind to she quickly managed to build it out in every direction. But it’s only my family, beside a few shoots in her direction, since her people are newcomers to the United States and its persistent American record keeping. For her family there are few records remaining or ever made to search, at least little that is digitized and readily available online.

But a few days ago she began looking through the trove of newly-released or newly-digitized bureaucratic records of the Final Solution. According to what my wife and her mother and grandfather knew, her maternal great-grandfather was shot by the Nazis in Poland in 1940.

You didn’t always get the trappings of deportation to a labor or death camp. Some people, many people, were just shot on the spot, often by so-called Einsatzgruppen, essentially death squads. By some estimates well over a million of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust were killed by these roving groups rather than in the camps that populate historical memory.

This is the story that’s been treated as gospel shall we say for some 70 years. The man in question was a prominent man in this small town in Poland. And soon after the Nazis arrived, but well before the bulk of the inhabitants were deported, he was shot.

But in these records, now easily available online, my wife found something that didn’t fit: a 1942 deportation order to Auschwitz.

At first it didn’t seem that these records were necessarily definitive. Deportation orders can be drawn from various lists. Having your name on the list doesn’t necessarily mean you were deported under that order or at that time. But a day later she found further details about the document. It was a death record from Auschwitz, from a window of time from which the methodically kept records of killings survive. It shows as incontrovertibly as you’re likely to get that this man died at Auschwitz in October 1942, apparently immediately after arrival and two years after his family thought, until days ago, that he died.

Does it matter? One death isn’t clearly worse than the other. It’s neither a devastation nor a relief. And from the vantage point of seventy years, two years might seem like a footnote. Yet the revision of the record, the fact that the family memory and accounting had been wrong, suddenly made the whole truth of it more palpable and disturbing to me, even though, like most Jews, I’ve lived around or within the trappings and group memories of the Holocaust my whole life.

There were other details. This man’s son, my wife’s grandfather’s brother, was simply known to have been in Berlin in 1942 and then was gone. He is recorded too: deported from Berlin, March 23rd 1942 to Ravensbruck, killed June 3rd, 1942 at Bernburg.

The revelation makes me realize how little most families knew of the fates of their murdered relatives, even when they think they do. By definition, in most of these cases, there were few living witnesses. Or the living ones were the perpetrators who were not inclined to speak.

Through these discoveries we’ve tried to piece together where the 1940 story came from. There’s no way to know. But there were memorial books about particular towns compiled after the war. And it seems possible that it may have come from a terse account from someone from the town in Poland contained in one of these books. From our much calmer lives, we know that these kinds of eyewitness accounts can be rushed, misunderstood, incomplete, broken. Often simply unreliable. That seems to have been the case here.

Not only do I not know this person or share any blood relation to him, I don’t even know anyone who ever met him. But all of us are connected to people, like flesh grafted into flesh and stretched across time, that we’re strangers to. And somehow knowing the truth, or at least the bare facts, I’m not sure what the truth has to do with it, makes it new and raw. Remembered and known for the first time by those left behind.