What do I do with this knowledge?
January 31, 2014 10:33 PM   Subscribe

I always vaguely knew that my late grandfather had lost his entire family in the Holocaust, but I didn't know any details. A few days ago I found out their names, where they lived and the circumstances of their deaths. I don't know how to process this information.

My grandfather left Poland in the 1930s, but his parents and siblings remained behind and were killed by the Nazis. Until a few days ago I didn't know any of their names or even how many siblings he had had. Then I decided to search for his surname in the Yad Vashem online archives. I found the entire family: his parents, two sisters and a brother, lots of aunts and uncles, even one pair of grandparents. I found out where in Poland they had lived. I found out that when the Nazis took the town, most of the Jewish men were taken out and shot, but that his mother and one sister and brother survived in the ghetto for another year until it was liquidated and the same thing happened to them.

I don't know what to do with this knowledge. This happened seventy years ago, and the same or even worse things happened to millions of other people, and I always knew about it in the abstract, but somehow knowing the details it now hits home in a way that it didn't before. I've been pretty depressed the last few days, to the point where I actually called in sick one day. I think of my grandfather (who I didn't know very well) and how he never seemed to laugh, and I try and fail to imagine what it must have been like for him and I feel angry and powerless. I haven't talked to anyone about this; the only person on that side of the family is my dad, but he lives far away and I'm not close to him, and I don't have any close friends who I feel would understand. I'm not sure what my question is. I feel alone with this terrible knowledge that I can't do a thing about, and I don't know how to process it or if "processing" even means anything. What do I do?
posted by zeri to Human Relations (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
This is super big. I'd start with journaling because that helps let things out in a contained way.
posted by spunweb at 10:39 PM on January 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

Oh, oh I'm so sorry. It's entirely understandable that you would feel this way.

This is what I would do if I were in your situation - I'd go buy yahrzeit candles for each of the family members, light them, and use the 26 hours to just mourn. Let yourself be angry, let yourself be sad, let yourself feel whatever emotion you need to.

Then I would make a tribute donation to the United States Holocaust Museum. If this would be a financial hardship for you, please feel free to MeMail their names and I will do so on your behalf.

Also, if you need to just vent to someone, you can MeMail me for that, too.

On preview: Yes, journaling will be good. This is heavy stuff.
posted by Ruki at 10:47 PM on January 31, 2014 [40 favorites]

My immediate thought is to connect with others who have similar family histories. How exactly to do that I am not quite sure without researching it, but I would start with Jewish centers, online genealogy groups for sure, Holocaust memorials, etc. It will probably make you feel much better to share your story and grief with others.
posted by quincunx at 10:47 PM on January 31, 2014

There are a lot of accounts, starting about the late 70s but really flourishing in the 80s and 90s, by adult children of Holocaust survivors attempting to process the same experience and how it affected their relationships with and understanding of their parents, especially as children who didn't know why their parents were always sad or whatever. I'm on my phone so I can't look up a title but there's a lot out there, and it would be a good place to start.

What you're feeling is normal. You could call your local synagogue and the rabbi might have resources for you, even if you're not Jewish.

I will try to memail you a couple resources in the morning.

There is no right or easy way to process this knowledge, and it takes time. Be patient with yourself and let yourself mourn as much as you need to.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:54 PM on January 31, 2014

Be careful telling people why you are distressed. It is a huge piece of family history and shatteringly sad, and you are grieving and adjusting, but people can be dismissive and/or assholes about grief they can't fit into a category easily and you don't need the additional stress of an idiot telling you this is history or trying to dismiss the Holocaust while you're coming to terms with this.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:07 PM on January 31, 2014 [11 favorites]

I don't have any close friends who I feel would understand.

zeri, my father was a Holocaust survivor; most of his family were not as fortunate. I'd be happy to talk/text/mail/chat to share or just listen. Send me a MeMail any time.
posted by Room 641-A at 11:16 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

To find people your age with similar experiences about their grandparents, check out a 3G group.
posted by nonane at 11:16 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

You should watch the film CLOUD ATLAS .

I guess you could read the novel, Cloud Atlas, but it's not as good.

Also, sit with your grief. Feel it.

If it helps, you are normal and lovely - not weird.

I have a friend that is a forensic anthropologist. For little money and a lot of personal risk, she goes to sites of genocides, helps recover bodies of the dead, and reunites them with family via identification.

This is a vocation (calling) that should not have to exist. My friend should not have to do this job. Your family should not have been aggressed against in such a violent, heartless, and inhuman manner.

When you feel better, maybe look into some activism work? I hear Guatemala is a hotspot (again ) for genocide.

All my best. You're not alone.
posted by jbenben at 11:29 PM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am so sorry that you are going through this; of course it is wrenching and painful. There is no way to avoid a tumult of feelings but that is grief and, as you perceive, the frustration of helplessness and injustice. You are not the only one to go through this and you could reach out to others who have experienced this. I, too, would recommend journaling, both for the processing of emotions and the recording of all you have learned. I really agree about the lighting of candles and giving yourself a formal time to mourn and pay respect to those who were taken from your family. Many good suggestions here. I join all who offer empathy and support for you. When you are ready, perhaps you will be able to tell their story or work in some other way to ensure that the world never forgets. May you find a measure of peace in time. My best to you.
posted by Anitanola at 12:16 AM on February 1, 2014

You're not alone, many families have histories similar to yours (including mine). It's also common to have only patchy knowledge of the past and nothing to see or touch to connect with it through; the destruction was nearly absolute. Feel free to memail me -- I don't know how much help I can be, but I can always lend an ear.

You might want to look into:

The Holocaust Memorial Museum. Helping people who are feeling and thinking exactly what you're feeling and thinking is central to their mission. If you explore their website a bit, they have lists of resources, events, and have an office dedicated to survivors and their families. If you're anywhere near DC, I recommend a visit (if you do visit, it can be an emotionally difficult experience, but one that is ultimately likely to leave you feeling more connected and empowered -- it's worth it).

Saying the Kaddish. Unless it's antithetical to your own beliefs, I would talk to a rabbi at a synagog near you about what you're going through (s/he will very likely have dealt with something like this this before). I would specifically request to have your grandfather's family's names added to the list for Kaddish to be said for them at the end of the next service (if that synagog says Kaddish at the end of each service, but most do). If you aren't religious or aren't Jewish, saying it wouldn't have to be about religious belief for you -- it's a funeral rite, and I would guess it would help you to be able to honor your relatives with some kind of funeral or memorial. If you think it would be helpful to you, you could also ask the rabbi to mention why they're only now having the Kaddish said for them -- I promise you that the congregation will not take it lightly, and will be extremely supportive.

Night, by Elie Wiesel. To be honest, I avoid most books and movies about the Holocaust or WWII. This one is worth reading, though, even if you don't read very many books about this subject again. I think it might also be personally relevant to you, in terms of relating to your grandfather.

The classic advice against feeling powerless and hopeless is "Never Again," meaning that you can and should do what you can to stop another atrocity from happening. You're probably not at a stage where that's your priority, but in the long term, it's an issue to consider. You aren't powerless, you do have a voice. Even if some people were monstrous, *you* aren't a monster (or a victim). In that vein, I recommend The Courage of Their Convictions by Peter Irons. The book is a series of accounts of people who took cases to the Supreme Court, so not directly relevant, but stories about respect and justice can mean a lot when you're starting to wonder if those ideals really exist.

As strange as it might sound, I recommend very strongly *not* going to historical sites connected with your family or with the Holocaust (or any other campaigns against Jewish people, especially if you're Jewish or your grandfather's family was Jewish). Maybe other people have had good experiences going to places like that, but I never have felt anything other than horror when I've gone. In my opinion, there is no reason for you to subject yourself to anything like that, and I would definitely to hold off, at least as long as you're grieving.

Your grief is entirely normal and appropriate, by the way. This knowledge might very well be life-changing for you, and that's normal and appropriate, too. You might never come to terms with it, you might never understand how your grandfather felt or what his family went through. You'll find your own ways of honoring your relatives' memory and strength over time, though. Right now, just remind yourself that not everyone is a monster at heart, there were people who tried to save others, and survivors who did go on to (re-)build meaningful lives. There are good people and ideas in the world, and you aren't alone.
posted by rue72 at 12:26 AM on February 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

When you are ready, maybe get in touch with the Holocaust Museum (Mefi's arco is a librarian or archivist there) and see if they can use any family information or documents, perhaps? They also may have other information that your family would like to have.
posted by thelonius at 2:27 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry. Your post brought tears to my eyes just reading it.

I agree with all the suggestions for saying the Kaddish, lighting candles, reaching out to a local synagogue, or whatever ritual/recognition you feel would appropriate to express your grief. You are entering into a mourning process that's absolutely real and absolutely legitimate, and you are honoring your family's memories (and your grandfather's survival, and your own existence) by going through this.

In addition to the folks in this thread who have offered to connect with you, let me know if you would like some additional contact info for others with similar family histories -- I have two friends in particular who I think would be more than willing to lend an ear as you process this.

My best to you.
posted by scody at 10:07 AM on February 1, 2014

My maternal grandfather (born in Danzig) survived Auschwitz, his wife and son were not so lucky. I never met any of them (my grandfather died weeks after I was born), so my situation is not the same as yours, but similar, I guess. If you ever feel like talking, please concact me any time.

Do you have any family members who you can talk with about this?
posted by LoonyLovegood at 1:42 PM on February 1, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you for the replies, everyone. Strangely, just posting this question has been hugely helpful to me and made this burden feel a lot lighter. And thanks to all those who've offered to get in touch by MeMail or otherwise. I may take some of you up on that, sometime down the road; this process seems to have its own pace.
posted by zeri at 4:44 PM on February 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

You might try reading Man's Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl.
posted by BlueHorse at 2:51 PM on February 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

When (and if) you feel ready, one possible way to process this and to use tragedy for good is to look into giving talks in schools. As there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors able to go into schools and talk about their experience, children and grandchildren are increasingly taking the role of sharing their family's experience. This is something a Holocaust museum may be able to help you with. I work for a Holocaust/anti-prejudice education charity, and the impact of these testimonies on young people's understanding is amazing.
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 4:38 PM on February 2, 2014

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