The other night we had to explain to my 9 year-old daughter what the Holocaust was.
Not because she is learning about it in school, but because it is part of our family story. It is part of her story.
I’m a Lutheran pastor. My wife is Jewish. Her ancestors come from Poland. My wife’s grandmother, we call her Bubbie Helen, was just a teenager when World War II erupted. She lived with her mother, Ella, an accomplished portrait photographer, who owned her own studio in Warsaw, and cared for her sick mother. Her father Eser was a traveling encyclopedia salesman. When the war broke out he was in the United States and he sent them letters urging them to leave Poland before the Nazis invaded. Helen’s mother refused to leave her sick mother.
But Helen did leave. At 16 years old, she set out from Poland. Her father would send her letters leading her to the next safe house. They led her across Siberia, to China, to Japan, where she was on the last US refugee ship to California before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
She arrived in California speaking only Yiddish and with no money. She was taken in by two professors at Cal Berkeley who taught her English. She believed her father was in New York City. His last name was Goldberg. And they called every variation of that name in the New York City phone book until they found him. It took two years until they were reunited.
Later they learned that the rest of Helen’s family died at Auschwitz. My wife’s small family is all that remains.
Now my daughter knows the horrible tragedy of the Holocaust, but also that she comes from a line of strong women, like her great-grandmother Helen, her grandmother, her aunt, and her mom. She knows more now about the evil human beings can perpetrate against one another. She also knows more about strength and courage and living in hope. It is a lesson that our younger three children will also learn in time.