all in the family

When the Guardian of Family History Is Gone, What Then?

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos courtesy of the subject.

When my great-uncle Henry Orenstein died of COVID-19 in December at the age of 98, it was the end of an era for my family. We didn’t just lose him — we also lost our last living connection to the Holocaust.

Henry was a teenager in Poland when the war broke out, and he survived five concentration camps alongside two of his brothers, including my grandfather. Their parents, sister, and other brother were killed. Visiting my great-uncle at his home in New Jersey felt like traveling back in time: His history was evident in his thick accent, in the framed photographs of relatives who were slaughtered, in the stories he’d tell about prisoners and guards, and in his 1987 memoir, I Shall Live, which details the atrocities he survived thanks to a combination of grit, wit, and sheer luck.

Although I was born nearly 50 years after the war ended, that era has always felt vivid to me because of my relationship with my great-uncle. With his passing, I worry the next generation of my family won’t have the same meaningful connection to our history.

There has never been a more important time to understand the legacy Holocaust survivors are leaving behind. Anti-Semitism continues to rise in this country: 39 percent of Jews reported changing their behavior due to fear of persecution in 2020, and, even more disturbing, some anti-vaxxers are now co-opting Holocaust imagery, comparing themselves to victims and health officials to Nazis. At the same time, the youngest Holocaust survivors turn 77 this year. It won’t be long before we live in a world without them.

I talked to three women about what it means to be a descendant of Holocaust survivors in an increasingly anti-Semitic cultural climate.

Adrianna C. Freedman, 26, Cedarhurst, N.Y. 

After the war, my grandparents emigrated from Hungary and Romania to Brazil and later Canada, so they weren’t physically close to my family on Long Island, but it was not an abnormal thing to talk to them three times a day. My grandmother Zipora would talk a little bit about the Holocaust, but my grandfather Nicolas was silent. He would get very agitated if someone mentioned it.

When I went on Birthright at 19, I visited the Yad Vashem museum, which is the Holocaust memorial. It was jarring. They took part of the road from one of the concentration camps and put it in the museum, and you see a pile of shoes that are encased in glass to preserve them, and you walk on the glass as if you are these children. My roommate and I were in tears. My great-uncle put names in the memorial, and my mom sent over a list and wanted me to go look it up. I discovered a lot of my family history from looking through the records.

I think American Jewry, as a whole, we forget this part of our culture existed. Most Jewish Americans were already here, so they didn’t necessarily feel the ramifications. My father is a perfect example: When my mother starts talking about the Holocaust, he tries to compare it to my paternal grandparents going through the Depression, which I get very upset about. He goes, “No, no, no, they didn’t have food,” and my mother will say to him, “Your family didn’t die.” She wishes she had more cousins, and got to know her aunts and uncles, and got to know the woman she was named for. I think, for those who are descended, you will never forget it. Half my family was wiped out. I will tell my children that my grandparents were part of it. They will tell their children that we have family who went through it.

I sometimes wear a Star of David ring, and I get concerned going on the subway, actually. Depending on how I feel that day, I turn the ring around so no one sees it. The fear of being targeted is always there.

Lux Alptraum, 39, Brooklyn, N.Y.

My paternal grandma, Ida, was terrifying when I was a kid. I wouldn’t say that I was close to her, or that I had a loving relationship with her, because she was somebody who had lived through unspeakable horrors and was very traumatized and did not necessarily come through it as someone inspiring or lovable. That’s the hardest part to talk about, right? You’re supposed to love your survivor relatives in this very uncomplicated way, and it feels like a very shameful thing to say, “Yeah, my grandma was a fucking monster.” I mean, of course I have love and empathy for her, but she was not a grandmother to me in the way my mother’s mother was.

In my liberal, suburban Philadelphia middle school, we learned about the Holocaust, and there was this weird tension for me because my friends who had no connection to it would be like, “Oh, this is so sad. I cried reading this book.” They had this emotional distance that allowed them to consume it as a sad thing that happened in history that we should learn from.

I had this very fraught relationship with it because it’s my family history. I had a comfortable life in the suburbs; I was not in camps, I was not experiencing the trauma, and so I was aware how distant my life was from it, but, also, this knowledge affected me. What I have come to terms with as an adult is that there’s this trauma of what was taken from you, and this trauma of not having this family history, this trauma of your grandma being terrifying, but also this sadness. Would your grandma be someone else if she hadn’t gone through it?

I have no memory of someone sitting me down and telling me about the Holocaust, which I think about a lot now because my sister has two kids, ages 7 and 3. I’m very curious about how she plans to talk to them about the Holocaust because they’ll never know our grandparents. I don’t know what it’s going to mean for them when it becomes more abstract. At the same time, their grandmother on their dad’s side has relatives who are experiencing a genocide right now in Tigray. It feels like there’s so much emphasis on how do they learn about the Holocaust, but, also, how do they learn about what’s going on in Tigray — right now?

Alison Berg, 29, Brooklyn, N.Y.

When my grandmother Anna passed, the rabbi said, “This is a moment of grief for your family, but it is a moment of grief for the world because of what she represents.” That moved me. We’re losing a story and a witness. There is this grief you have from losing a family member that’s compounded by this loss of connection to the Holocaust that has been so integral to my life and who I am. I used her shiva to sit down with my great-aunt Masha, who is my family’s last remaining Holocaust survivor. She’s 91. I recorded her story and took notes. She even dug up an old letter from her mother.

During the pandemic, I went to visit Masha on her porch several times, and we talked a lot about current events. She was extremely engaged with the events around racial injustice and was eager to support the Black Lives Matter movement. She knew when local protests were happening, and I sternly told her she couldn’t go; she was too at risk of COVID. She was very upset by the idea of history repeating itself.

I got involved with 3GNY, a nonprofit founded by grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, after my grandma passed away and I felt the finality of survivors themselves — and what the world is going to look like without them. Knowing and hearing directly from survivors is a privilege. There is so much Holocaust denial, yet there are still people alive who can bear witness. Putting faces, names, and stories to history is really important for us to humanize something that doesn’t always feel tangible.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

When the Guardian of Family History Is Gone, What Then?