Goodbye, My Grandpa: Telling His Story

I must preserve my late Grandfather’s memories of the Shoah.

Dr. Margareta Ackerman,

Margareta Ackerman
Margareta Ackerman

For Yom Hashoah, Arutz Sheva is featuring two op-eds by grandchildren of survivors that put to rest fears that the magnitude and reality of the Holocaust will be not be understood by the younger generation

I was running late for a talk I was giving at the university when a message popped  up in my inbox: “Call me, it’s important,” wrote my cousin from the Netherlands. I promised to call as soon as my talk was over. “No, you need to call right away,” he wrote, “Grandpa is in the hospital. This is your chance to say goodbye.”

Tears gushed out of my eyes. Following a long battle with my cell phone, which wasn’t set up for overseas calls, I finally got through. That’s when I said goodbye to the most wonderful, strongest, and most resilient person I’ve ever met.

Grandpa was born in a small Polish village of Nowosiolki. His father was a Kosher meat salesman and his mother stayed home to care for their three boys. The Ackermans lived a simple, but comfortable life, filled with fresh food and outdoor play for the children.

The first tragedy to befall my grandfather was in itself enough to cause long term trauma. When he was only seven years old, his identical twin died a sudden death from no more than an infection on a scratched knee. But before the family had a chance to recover from their loss, the Nazis invaded Poland.

One day, when Srulik and his older brother were returning home after playing in the fields, they were confronted by an unusual sight: The entire village had been gathered in front of their house and armed men in black uniforms paced in their yard. Terrified, the children ran back to the fields. But they were soon discovered and brought back to their house along with their parents.

Then everything sped up. A bulky Nazi pushed Srulik’s father against a brick wall. Then, he did the same to his mother and brother. Srulik realized that he was next in line. At that moment, ten-year-old Srulik somehow found the courage to dash through the crowd surrounding his house and escape from the Nazis in plain sight. He then hid in the bushes by the river across from his house.

The next morning, he overheard three women washing laundry in the river. Still hiding in the bushes, he learned that the previous night his mother, father, and brother, were shot to death into a mass grave.

All alone, and with no food or shelter, Srulik spent two weeks wandering the forest, after which he was shortly reunited with his uncle. Then, one night, a Nazi came to his uncle’s apartment and ordered them to join a long procession of cars and carts that were headed for Miedzyrzec.

When they arrived, they saw that a large section of the city was surrounded by barbed wire. Within the walls of this Ghetto, my grandfather witnessed and experienced horrors that few lived to tell.

Yet, somehow, against all odds, Grandpa survived. It goes without saying that the Holocaust had profound effect on him. But, nevertheless, my grandfather wasn’t anything like I would have imagined a survivor to be.

Srulik was a warm and loving father and grandfather and a compassionate human being. But, what was amazing is that he grew up to be a profoundly happy person, by which I mean that he was happier than most. He was visibly joyful, relaxed, and loved to share jokes at every opportunity.

So when he passed away five months ago I was lost and devastated. If there was anyone who could survive anything, it was him. But no one can escape the grips of time.

It took me a while to get back to normal. I had just spent two years talking with him frequently about his life and updating him about various stages in the writing and publication of his memoir. Now, after his death, the whole endeavor seemed pointless. It took about two weeks into my grieving to regain perspective: Grandpa’s memoir wasn’t just about my family. Losing him wasn’t only a personal loss.

Holocaust survivors are dying. Today, the only remaining survivors are those who were children when the horrors of the Nazi regime took place. Since the war ended in 1945, survivors today are typically 75 to 80 years old. Saving miraculous advances in medicine, soon there will be no eyewitnesses left.

As the grandchild of a survivor, the Holocaust is a lot more than a chapter in history for me. It is the story of my family. But what will happen when I am gone? What will happen when time takes away the last person who has ever met a survivor?

Even today, many aren’t eager to hear about the Shoah. As I was putting together Grandpa’s memoir, I came across the expression “Holocaust fatigue.” There are those who are tired of hearing the stories of survivors. This got me worried: Maybe enough has already been said about the Holocaust? What is the point of writing yet another memoir?

But my desire to share Grandpa’s story was stronger than these doubts. I reassured myself that his personal story, through which one can see glimpses of his incredible personality, is worth sharing even if everyone has already read many other accounts.

Little did I know how misleading the term “Holocaust fatigue” would turn out to be. Most of my readers came back shocked by what I thought were well-known facts. They had no idea what a Ghetto was. They were astonished to learn that people were shot into mass graves. They didn’t know that Nazis hurled live babies into brick walls.

How could I blame them? I think back to the history education I received in North American schools. The Holocaust was covered as part of a unit on World War II. Most of what we learned about the Holocaust came from reading “The Diary of a Young Girl” - Anne Frank’s brilliant firsthand account. But as most of us know, Anne’s diary ended before her story did, sparing the reader the worst of Nazi atrocities.

Outside of Israel, mandatory education on this chapter in history barely scratches the surface of what actually happened, leaving many with superficial understanding of the Holocaust. Meanwhile, we are losing firsthand witnesses every day.

We must use what time we have to record the stories of all survivors who are willing to share their painful memories. The window of opportunity is closing. It is up to us to record this horrific chapter as accurately and completely as we can. Then, when the time comes when all the eyewitness of the Shoah and their children and grandchildren are gone, our descendants can preserve our history.

Dr. Margareta Ackerman is a professor, researcher and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivor Srulik Ackerman. She is the author of Running from Giants, her grandfather’s memoir.

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