I can’t sleep. And it’s not because my 7-month-old baby is keeping me awake. In less than 48 hours time, an image of my oldest child with her great-grandfather– my grandfather–has been seen by 9,000 people and counting. This photograph, which for five years has been tucked away in my desk drawer, still in its original plastic from the photographer, out of sight and out of mind, has suddenly touched so many.
When I first posted the photo on my personal Facebook page to commemorate Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, I could never have imagined that it would reach an audience of this proportion. And by now I am sure that most, if not all of you, know the story behind how the photograph came to be. But there is so much more. And where to begin? That this mark of evil, which my grandfather has had etched into his skin since he was barely a teenager and which he reluctantly agreed to display for a photograph also radiates the very essence of survival?
My grandfather was the sole survivor of his immediate family. He spent the war in multiple concentration camps, including Auschwitz, until he was eventually liberated from Ebensee. In addition to his parents and brother, virtually his entire extended family was murdered during the war. Years later, after much persuasion, he gave his testimony for the Shoah Foundation, as did my grandmother, also the sole survivor of her immediate family, who spent the war in hiding under extremely precarious conditions. Although I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the DVD copies of their testimonies, I do know some of the stories.
Such as the time that my grandfather volunteered for a transport with the promise of better working and living conditions. While on the transport line, he was overcome with an enigmatic intuition that he needed to get off and, at the risk of being shot, he snuck back into his former line, only finding out later that those in the new line were taken into the forest and shot to death. Or the time when, on a cruel whim, the family hiding my grandmother threw her out of the house in the middle of the night. She spent the next harrowing hours hiding in the bushes from Nazi soldiers patrolling the streets only a few yards away, willing herself not to move a muscle and praying that she would not be discovered.
There is simply no explanation for the inexplicable. Yet they survived. And these two incredible individuals, my grandparents, Max and Anna Durst, not only survived but they have flourished. They have three children, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. To this day they live life to the fullest. They travel the world together, even making an unlikely trip back to Poland after discovering that my grandmother’s first cousin, whom she searched for long after the war had ended, was actually alive and well. Janka was taken in as an infant by her nanny for safekeeping during the war and was raised as a Catholic after the Nazis murdered her parents. She only learned of her Jewish roots and history as an adult and spent years searching for any living blood relative before she finally managed to track down my grandmother.
My grandparents continue the traditions of their pasts through holiday celebrations, remembered recipes, and treasured times spent with family and friends. Their hearts are filled, quite remarkably, with love and not hate. Perhaps that is the only way to carry on after such unspeakable atrocity.
Sometimes it feels almost unbearable to know that this is my family’s history. For us, the horrors of the Holocaust will never be erased. But some days, like today, it is reassuring to know that, as their granddaughter, I am born of such strength and resolve, as are my three children. One day, when she is old enough, the baby girl in this photograph, now a vibrant 5-year-old, will look at the photo and understand all that it represents. As will my sweet younger daughter and baby son. But with each passing year, the survivor population is getting smaller and smaller, and I would be lying if I said that it does not frighten me to think of the day when there will be no survivors left to tell their stories in the first person.
Just a few short days ago, I said that I did not know where or how to display this photograph. But, as fate would have it, it seems like it’s found the perfect home after all. Right here, for all to see, in perpetuity. It is beautiful. It is painful. It is my history and my future inextricably linked. L’dor V’dor. Always remember.