by Zach Silberman
As we mark Yom Hashoah today, I am reminded of my own family's experience with the Holocaust and how it has impacted my life.
My grandfather, Solomon Bleiweis, is a survivor and he continues to be an important part of my life. When I was younger, my brother and I would always have a special tradition where our grandfather would pick us up from Hebrew school and take us out to lunch.
I can still see my grandfather waiting in the halls rather than in his car, just so excited to spend the afternoon with my brother and me.
However, it was not until I took a class on the Holocaust in Hebrew school that I knew the journey my grandfather had to take to survive Nazi persecution.
For nearly 35 years, from the time he immigrated to the U.S. from then-Palestine by way of Germany and Poland, my grandfather did not discuss his past.
As hard as it was for my grandfather to discuss these events in his life, I felt it brought us closer together, but also allowed me to understand the importance of my roots. While my grandfather blocked out the memories for so long, I remember him telling me that he knew when he became a grandfather there was going to be a continuation of our family, and it made him feel as a survivor that Hitler did not win.
When I was 10 years old, it was my curiosity that allowed me to begin understanding what happened to my grandfather during the Holocaust, and I am reminded of that curiosity and interest today on this Yom Hashoah. Knowing that I was interested to learn more allowed us to discuss these difficult topics.
It was never easy to talk about the Holocaust with my grandfather because of the loss that he felt and the toll it took on our family. When we talked about it over the years, there was always a sense of sadness in his voice when reliving the tragedy that his family faced. The conversations would always get me emotional because I would see this grief that I never saw in this person whom I had always known to be strong.
My grandfather's experience is an important account of a family that left all it knew behind to escape the looming threat from anti-Semitism in Europe. I'm thankful for having the opportunity to learn more about his story, which is one of tragedy, but also one of perseverance.
The story my grandfather tells about witnessing my great-grandfather, Herman, experience anti-Semitism from the Nazis firsthand, still resonates with me. Even at a young age, I could not understand how anyone could hate members of my family.
At the outset of the Third Reich's rise to power, my great-grandfather was marched around with a sign around his neck indicating that he was a Jewish merchant and no German should buy from him.
He realized the danger right away and quickly took necessary steps to leave Germany for Poland and later to Palestine before coming to the U.S.
When talking about this with my grandfather, I am reminded of the strength of my great-grandfather to do whatever it took to ensure his family's safety. It's a strength that I keep with me throughout my life; a mentality of never giving up until the goal is reached.
In addition, I am reminded of the strength of my grandfather when he first came to the U.S. My grandfather was 13 years old and it was particularly hard on him at the time to leave family behind to move to a new country. It was even harder for him when he could not speak the language and as a 13-year-old boy, was put in a first grade class in order to learn English.
However, he did not let this experience take him down and he quickly assimilated in America, eventually learning to speak English very well and going on to serve his new country as a medic in the Pacific during WWII.
While my family did escape the dangers of Nazi Germany, we also experienced great tragedy.
My great-grandmother, Netti, was the only member of her family who survived the Holocaust, losing her parents, siblings, nieces, nephews and cousins. This huge loss had a profound impact on my grandfather and his family. The sadness would force them to not discuss the fate of the family until my conversations with my grandfather.
Knowing that the four in the Bleiweis family were the only survivors of Hitler's atrocities greatly affected me, especially because there are numerous members of my family that I never got a chance to meet, particularly my grandfather's cousin, Hersh Arnold, whom I honored with my bar mitzvah.
My conversations with my grandfather impacted me emotionally, but allowed me to realize how important my Judaism is not only to myself, but to my grandfather. I gained this sense of hope and understanding of the plight of our people and that while we have faced horrific tragedy throughout our history, we still have survived and no one will take that away from us.
Even though I never met my great-grandparents, after hearing their story I realized the importance that they had not only on my grandfather's life, but mine as well. They sacrificed so much for us to have a future.
Based on my grandfather's account of his experiences and letters that his mother wrote to the family throughout the late 1930s, I have begun conducting research and collaborating with my grandfather in order to explain his story to a wider audience. It is my goal to show the effects of how so much hate can impact people.
My grandfather told me recently that he wanted to tell his story so that his grandchildren could appreciate the significance of Judaism and the ability to live free from persecution.
This Yom Hashoah, I hope that sharing my grandfather's story will inspire others to talk about their experiences in order that the next generations understand what happened to their families. By passing on this history, we can continue the promise of "Never again."
Most importantly, while it is difficult to discuss these topics with survivors, we have an obligation to learn of their sadness and hope, while there is still time to hear it in their voices.