Retracing family history
(photo from Victoria Shoah Project)
The following remarks have been edited from a talk given at the April 15 Yom Hashoah commemoration at Victoria’s Jewish Cemetery, which was organized by the Victoria Shoah Project.
I recently saw a beautifully poignant play called We Keep Coming Back. It’s about a Jewish mother and her son who – in real life – travel to Poland, retracing the steps of her parents, who survived the Shoah. They documented their journey and now share their experience with audiences in theatres around the world. Their play triggered me on many levels.
I have yet to do my roots trip. I’ve been thinking about it, but haven’t done it yet. At the age of 30, I have done extensive traveling around the globe, yet somehow have always managed to avoid four places: Poland, Belarus, Japan and New Denver (the Slocan Valley camp where my Japanese-Canadian family was interned). After being exposed to this mother and son’s story and seeing proof that traveling to an historically hostile land can be done and that it can be a profound and life-changing experience for the better, I am finally at a point in my own life journey where I feel ready to start tracing the steps of my grandparents on both sides of my Second World War-torn family.
* * *
It was a sweltering hot summer day in Israel and I was 12 years old. I was helping my mom clean my grandparents’ gravesites in a Haifa cemetery, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, located on Mount Carmel (after which I’m named). In this cemetery, in addition to the person’s name who is laid to rest, there are also the names of grave-less victims etched into the headstone of their one surviving family member. My maternal grandparents’ headstones are no different.
Shifra Atlasovich (my savta) was born in Bialystok, Poland, in 1917. She was the daughter of a wealthy businessman who owned a cooking oil factory. Before the war, she attended the Hebrew Gymnasium High School, enjoyed traveling and skiing, and was admired for her beauty, especially her blond hair and blue eyes. She married her high school sweetheart and seemed to have a picture-perfect life.
A year before the war broke out, her mother died of cancer, which, some say, was a blessing, considering what was to follow. When the war began, her father was deported by the Russians, who occupied eastern Poland and deported all capitalists and influential people to Siberia. He suffered an unknown fate.
Shifra, her husband and her brother were also deported by the Russians, but sent to Kazakhstan, where they spent the rest of the war. When the war ended, non-Russians were given an opportunity to return to their home countries. Taking advantage of this, Shifra left with her infant son and brother, leaving behind her husband (her sweetheart), who, after being tortured and brainwashed by the KGB, chose to stay behind and become a communist – she never saw him again.
Once back in Poland, Shifra handed her son to Catholic nuns while she and her brother searched for survivors. She went to their family home, which had been taken over by their gentile nanny, who said that, if Shifra did not leave the premises immediately and cease to claim the house, she would call the neighbours, who may kill her.
When Shifra went to pick up her son, he was warm, well-fed, settled and no longer on the run – but the nuns refused to return him. Only with the help of American officers was she able to get him back.
From Bialystok, they migrated to West Berlin, where they stayed in a refugee camp and she taught Hebrew to orphaned children. While there, her brother fell ill and, tragically, died at the age of 33 in a hospital in East Berlin from an infection of the lining of his heart, which today could have been cured by penicillin, a rare commodity back then.
Berel “Dov” Gottlieb (my saba) was born in 1914 in Drahichyn near Pinsk, Poland (today, Belarus), into a working-class family. He was a skilled carpenter by trade and married when the war broke out – he had to leave his pregnant wife when he was drafted into the Polish army, which quickly lost within several weeks to the Nazis. He later escaped to Russia, joining to fight with the Jewish Partisans.
Dov’s second-oldest brother, Mordechai, fled to Israel in 1938. After the war, Dov found out that most of his family, including his parents, five other siblings, as well as his wife and newborn daughter, were all sent to Auschwitz concentration camp and gassed to death.
Dov secured a visa to the United States – he had relatives in Chicago, who had emigrated in 1905 after pogroms in Eastern Europe – and made his way to a refugee camp in West Berlin to wait for his pending departure. It was there he met my grandmother, Shifra, and, instead of going to America, they headed to Israel on the first boat to enter the newly independent country in 1948. There, he was reunited with his brother, Mordechai.
Both Dov and Shifra became active members of the Irgun, an underground resistance movement headed by Menachem Begin.
* * *
In 1950, my mother, Dalia Gottlieb, was born in Haifa, Israel. During her days at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, she fell in love with a Japanese-Canadian foreign exchange student, my father, Mineo Tanaka, and would follow him to Canada, eventually marrying him in 1976. My sister Talia was born in 1979 and I came along in 1987.
I remember spending many a summer in Israel visiting my grandparents. I didn’t know Hebrew well at the time or Yiddish or Polish, so, in the absence of a common language, I would play gin rummy – Shifra’s favourite card game – repeatedly with her. Boy, was she good at that game, and taught me to be just as ruthless. I’d give endless bear hugs to Dov and lick my plate clean at every meal to show them just how much I loved them and their matzo ball chicken soup.
Dov passed away in 1995, followed by Shifra in 2004, taking with them the chance for me to ask the questions to which I so crave answers: What was your life like before the war? What did you enjoy doing? Do I remind you of any of my relatives? What were my great-grandparents like? How did you survive? How did you find the will to live life? To start again? It’s questions like these that the child I was would not have thought to ask, but nor would I have understood the answers.
On that hot summer day visiting my grandparents’ final resting place, I noticed that the names of my grandfather’s first wife and first daughter (my half-aunt) were not written on his headstone. At this point, my grandmother was still alive and had been active in getting both his and her headstones engraved. In retrospect, I feel bad assuming my grandmother had something to do with the missing names on his headstone. When I spoke with my mother, she told me that she once asked her father about them and the sad truth was that he couldn’t remember his first wife’s name or what she looked like, and he never had the opportunity to meet his firstborn and learn her name. It was in this moment when I first learned about the impact of trauma and that there could be such a thing as repression in people who have gone through horrific loss.
* * *
Between the Holocaust survivors on my mother’s side and my interned Japanese-Canadian grandparents on my father’s side (a story for another time), I joke that there is enough post-traumatic stress disorder to go around in my family. But, pushing dark humour aside, I would like to draw attention to what has and continues to be a rather taboo topic at many Holocaust commemorations and symposiums – the topic of trauma, specifically intergenerational trauma.
When people tell me, “The Holocaust happened long ago … get over it … it’s time to move on,” I find it very hard to do so. Among other things, I have been raised and prepared my entire life for when the Nazis, or their equivalent, will return.
There are no longer survivors in my family to tell the world about what happened to them, and I am their voice now. I consider myself one of the lucky ones, as I know from my mom the survival stories of my Jewish grandparents – not everyone does. My personal post-Holocaust syndrome has thankfully, to my knowledge, not presented itself in the form of serious or debilitating mental illness or addiction; however, some of my family members have not been so fortunate. I speak candidly to break down these chains and to spread awareness within our own community and beyond – on the need for proper support for victims of trauma to ensure a brighter future.
I plan to drive to New Denver this summer and fly to Poland next year. My story is just beginning.
Carmel Tanaka is partnerships manager at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region, and former director of the University of Victoria branch of Hillel BC.