Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Auschwitz Continued

After I wrote and emailed my essay following the final chapter of the series Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State on PBS, my sister sent me a surprise email. In it she described a brooch that had been in my mother’s family for several generations. My mother had given it to her and her daughter had recently worn it. The surprise came when my niece pointed out that the jewels in the center of the brooch formed a Star of David.

My grandmother had come to the United States from Germany at the end of the 19th Century. She had been given the brooch by her mother who had received it from her mother. No one knows who first owned it.

After my sister pointed out the Star of David in the center of the brooch, I began making connections. I had been only four years old and my sister had just been born when out maternal grandmother died. Most of what I knew came from stories told by my aunts and uncles. None of those stories, however, concerned my grandmother’s life prior to coming to the United States.

One story, however, made me wonder. In 1937 or 1938 my grandmother returned to Germany for her one and only visit. When she returned, she said that, if there were a war, she did not think any of our German relatives would survive it. Supposedly after the war, she attempted to contact her family and Germany and could not.

The question arose in my mind: did my maternal grandmother have Jewish ancestry? I called my mother and talked to her about the brooch. She said that she had long thought that there was “Jewish blood” in her mother’s family but no one ever talked about it.

I began to remember things, among them my own mother’s fears of authority and “them.” The “them/they” were never identified, but you had to avoid “them” or “they” would hurt you. From what I can determine, this was something she learned from her mother. Could it not have been a defense developed by those whose ancestors had experienced the hate and destruction of pogroms? And, personally, what about my own reaction to the books I have read, or the series Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, or films such as Schindler’s List? My unknown Jewish ancestry is confirmed.

The impetus for writing the precious article and this one was another film I saw on PBS last night, Frontline’s Memories of the Camps, made from newsreels made as Allied troops entered Hitler’s death camps. As with my watching Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, both anger and tears came to me. This time, however, as picture after picture of the dead flashed on the screen, I began to wonder if I were seeing the remains of my ancestors. And so I did what I did before: I sat done and wrote and you have just read the results.


  1. Like putting together puzzle pieces...

    That brooch sounds fabulous. I imagine precious few pieces such as that survived that era. Precious few people survived that era.

    I can't imagine thinking some of those people in the camps would have been related to me. It's hard enough knowing they were related to someone, loved and treasured by someone.

    I've never seen a depiction on what it was like during those times here in America.

  2. Again you make some excellent observations, sonson. And you have given me something to think about and perhaps write about.

    As I have read the history (most of which isn’t in history books or taught in our schools) and heard the stories, those times were difficult for immigrants in the U.S. as well as Jews, labor organizers, etc. in Nazi Germany.

    The “Great Depression” created fear among most Americans and the anxiety of that fear was often directed toward those they considered to be non-Americans. (Is there perhaps a relationship between those angst-filled days and our own since 9-11?) For example, the pastor of a congregation here in Louisville that had been founded by German immigrants in the 1880s gave a sermon in the 1930s in which he suggested that then current immigrants be sent back to their counties of origin because that they taking jobs that “rightfully belong to Americans.” Also, the political right-wing, in the form of the Ku Klux Klan began attacking immigrants, attempting to drive them out of cities.

    All of that is frightening to me—very frightening!