Shoes of people deported to Auschwitz
Shoes of people deported to AuschwitziStock

I'm a third-generation child of Holocaust survivors. Almost all of my family from my father's side was gassed to death in the Auschwitz gas chambers.

Nearly 20 years ago, I visited the death camps where my family perished. There, at the gas chambers in Auschwitz, I recited their names out loud to 'elevate their souls' (L'iluy Neshama). As we believe in Judaism, the soul never dies, and we can help elevate a soul to a higher place in its journey to the afterlife, with good deeds, prayers, and remembrance.

Tzlil's grandfather, Nachman Berko circa 1950, Israel.

As I called out my family members' names in the devil's 'death factory,' it suddenly hit me hard that right where I was standing, millions of Jews, my family included, had been reduced to only a number tattooed on their cold flesh, as well as God's arm. They were stripped of their identity and former selves and transformed into a combination of 'digits' – living 'codes' to humanity's locked heart. There I was, saying their names. Who they really were. What they were before true evil took them away.

Tzlil, age 4, with her grandfather Nachman Berko circa 1993.

My grandparents survived the Holocaust and immigrated to Israel. As a child, I used to sleep over at my grandparents' little house on their farm. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to my beloved grandfather screaming in Hungarian; he was haunted by the nightmare of his 4-year-old sister burning alive and turning into black ashes. To his very last day, he couldn't sleep without night terrors of what had happened to his family at the hands of the Nazis and their many helpers.

I remember myself just standing there. A little girl, frozen at the entrance of his room, looking at him and crying silently as my grandfather shouted, sweated, and writhed from real horror dreams. Flashbacks of the Holocaust, which he survived but never escaped.

The Holocaust runs in my blood. It's a significant part of the very essence of who I am. It's intertwined with my soul, at the very core of my being.

I promised my grandfather that we will DEFEND what he and all of our beloved Holocaust survivors fought for. We will NEVER GIVE UP, and we will NEVER LET GO. We are proud Jews with a strong moral army and we will keep my promise to him. Am Yisrael Chai (the nation of Israel lives).

I wrote the poem below (translated from Hebrew) for my brave grandfather, Nachman Berko, may his memory be a blessing, and to my extended family that left our world through a chimney as the blue sky turned black.

That Is What I Am
By Tzlil Berko

I am childhood lost
I am wrenched away
I am rupture
I am a flower black as coal from the inferno

I am a nameless number
I am years without time
I am rattling bones sent to be inventoried

I am the dawn that never rises
Indeed, that is what I am
I am beyond my end

I am the blackness of night
I am the utter collapse of the naked sky
I am a bottomless pit from which there is no return

I am an empty shell
I am silence
I am also a wail
I am the dust of the earth
I am the ashes of cremation

I am the dawn that never rises
Indeed, that is what I am
I am beyond my end

That is what I am
Me, not you
That is I who looks to the sky through a chimney
That is I whose four year old sister screams to him
To save her from the flames
That is I who lives in a nightmare even after waking

That is what I am
Me, not you
A man who's no longer a man
He is a ghost
Just a mere reflection
Stripped of flesh and form
An alien shadow that does not know
Its very own self in the mirror

That is what I am
An empty shell
The fragile wrapper of a tattooed broken soul

And you?
You are the man I once was
A man from before
Before the Holocaust.

Tzlil Berko is an experienced security consultant and entrepreneur. She is also an avid writer of poetry, song lyrics, short stories, scripts, and more. Tzlil has played a major role in conceiving and writing with her parents, Dr. Anat and Dr. Reuven Berko, a TV psychological thriller and a family melodrama that draws on Dr. Anat Berko's books and the family's remarkable personal story. Follow Tzlil on LinkedIn

From the Investigative Project on Terorrism.