Talking through what’s taboo: how I uncovered my family history

By Alexandra Levine

I was physically and mentally exhausted. We had walked much of Kraków that day, and we were off to Auschwitz the next. I sank into the red sofa in the hotel lobby and as soon as I got back on Wi-Fi, I found a jarring text message from my Mom.

“You do know that Bubby’s entire family was killed, right?”

I didn’t. Growing up, I knew that my great grandparents’ families had been affected by the Holocaust, but the most I had been told was that “Bubby’s family had been wiped out.” That meant virtually nothing to me. No name of the town, no year of deportation, not even a sure spelling of a first or last name that had been translated, presumably, from Yiddish to Polish to English and then twisted even further as the lucky few came through Ellis Island.

Although I consider myself partially responsible—I could have asked more questions, I could have pressed the issue—the subject has always felt taboo. A deep divide runs through my extended family because of arguments over God knows what from before I was born, and that has made it almost unheard of for one side to speak to the other. So I never had the complete picture of what happened at the top of my family tree in World War II, which is very much part of how and why I’m on this FASPE trip. Perhaps my grandfather would have been the biggest source of information, since his mother—my Bubby—had definitively lived in Poland in the years immediately leading up to the war, but once he passed away in 2013, that door closed.

This became a personal and a journalistic struggle as I sat there in the hotel lobby on the shoddy Wi-Fi. Reporting and investigating, by profession, are what I do. And now, two thirds of the way through the trip, and just 24 hours before I would set foot in Auschwitz, I felt an urgency to know what happened, so I could bear witness to a story hardwired into my DNA.

I called my mom, who was immediately saddened by my frustration and uneasy about the questions I posed. No info. I called my widowed grandma, who had just stumbled into her apartment with groceries, to inquire. Nothing. Then my aunts; no luck. So I texted my estranged cousin to see if any of her family could fill in some missing pieces. There was something unnerving about texting someone with whom I have had no relationship and zero contact—and texting!—to ask, gently, Do you know which of our family members were murdered in the Holocaust?

She opened a door. Bubby had been in Bialystok, Poland, a town close to the Treblinka and Sobibór death camps. Bubby, her father, and one brother had come to the U.S. just in time; the rest had remained and were killed in Poland. Histories of Bialystok report that in 1941 Nazis rounded up several thousand Jews in the town’s one synagogue, locked them inside and then set the building on fire until it became little more than rubble and ash. Bubby’s relatives—my relatives—may have been among those burned alive. If they were not, they likely were confined in a ghetto, and then sent to a death camp. My cousin gave me a couple of names (and possible translations of those names) to get started with.

All it had taken to reach out to that cousin was my realization that understanding my family history was far more important than the family mishigas that had kept everything quiet.

When I went to Auschwitz the following day, I discovered the Book of Names in Block 27. Thousands of pages of names, birth and death dates, and origin towns and countries of murdered Holocaust victims hung vertically on white, parchment-like paper. I parted the pages—as if opening curtains—and found two full pages of Levines murdered, and two full pages of Sorins murdered. I can’t say I recognized any of the names (though I have some more digging to do), but I do know that these Levines and Sorins, somehow, share my blood. And that shook me.

Book of Names from YadV copy

The Book of Names lists the names of 4.2 victims of the Holocaust; it is more than 8,000 pages long. (Niv Moshe Ben David and Pawel Sawicki/Yad Vashem)

When I returned to the States, I found myself preaching to everyone around me the importance of knowing, documenting and sharing one’s family history. I said it to every single friend and family member who asked me how my trip was: People listened and agreed, but I’m still not sure they got it, because nothing can or will ever replace physically being there. What’s more, though, is that it shouldn’t matter our religion, ethnicity, gender, age, whatever—we should all know, even those of us who think we have the most cookie-cutter, monotonous family history, Holocaust or no Holocaust, what happened to our people. Because somewhere, someday, there is going to be a child, grandchild, great grandchild or descendant asking the same kinds of questions I found myself asking from the red sofa in the lobby.

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