The last time I spoke with my Bubbe, it was via cell phone while I was shopping at Costco. In between the aisles of bulk Frosted Flakes and buckets of refrigerated sour cream, we spoke for about five minutes or so. She hadn’t been feeling well lately, so I kept the call short and sweet—just a quick check in to see how she was feeling and to remind her how much we loved her. She also spoke with my son—her great grandson—who regaled her with stories of end of the school year shenanigans.
I could hear her joy through the phone. Roughly 80 years separated them, but they had shared so much in his 10 years. Looking back now, only a few weeks after her death, I realize just how lucky he was to have had that. Because, not only did we lose Esther Sal that week—my Bubbe, his great grandmother, and my mother’s own mother—but the world lost yet one more Holocaust survivor, and her living history, as well.
When my son was 8 years old, we flew down to Florida to spend time with Esther. My grandfather had died a few years before and I wanted my son to get in as much quality time with her as possible. I had also been hoping that she would share her story… the one that took her on an incredulous journey throughout Poland during her young teenage years, living in Jewish ghettos, homemade underground bunkers in the woods, and in the barn of a kind neighbor.
My son may have been a bit young to truly embark on a study of the Holocaust, but he was old enough to sit and listen to his grandma’s stories of what it was like for her growing up during World War II as a Jew in Eastern Europe.
There was only a slight hesitation on her part; was it okay to share these stories, ones that included a lot of death, with her cherished great grandson? I encouraged her, knowing the power her story would hold when told with her own words. It’s that last part that sits heavy with me as I mourn her death today. There are so many things to miss—the way she loved unconditionally, her amazing and inspiring cooking, how she accomplished so much but asked for so little recognition, her easy breezy beauty and style that inspired me growing up.
But for those who didn’t know my Bubbe, who didn’t know Esther, the fact that we have lost the ability to hear her story from her ever again not only impacts me, but it will impact generations to come.
There are roughly 100,000 Holocaust survivors left living in the U.S and in the next few years, that number will dwindle significantly. Yes, we can watch recordings and read diaries to learn what Jews went through during the Holocaust, what led up to a world power attempting to wipe out an entire group of people, what it was like to live through it and eventually survive. And these testimonies are important and necessary.
But there is also something visceral, something powerful, and something completely irreplaceable about hearing these stories in person, being able to follow up with questions, and getting to know the people who lived through these atrocities. In no more than a couple decades, those people will be gone.
Some of the details my Bubbe shared with us were difficult and hard to process. But if she could live through the horror of the Holocaust, that meant my son was certainly able to listen to bits and pieces of it. And we certainly processed it all together, giving space for delicate questions or need for clarification.
A year later, my son brought a condensed version of the story to his third grade class to share for a family project. He was able to share it with some authority and with a lot of connection.This wasn’t simply something he had heard about. He had heard about it directly from his great grandmother. It was his family’s story.
Since that day she shared her story a few years ago, my son and I have talked many times about Esther’s story. Sometimes he’ll broach the subject, asking a clarifying questions or wanting to review a detail or two. Sometimes I’ll bring it up, because of something that sparked a memory or thought.
But of course, none of us can live forever, so the passage of time and the loss of survivors is inevitable. What that means is that we need to find the time now. If you have a survivor in your family, don’t only go and visit them and spend time with them, see if they’re open and willing to sharing their own story. If you have kids—yes, even young ones—have them hear it directly from the source.