I have long regretted that my inclination to ask questions didn’t surface at an earlier age. And never more so than on our trip last month to the countries of my grandparents, Lithuania and Poland, where I was reminded of how little I know about my own heritage. Somewhere, maybe just miles from where we traveled, my grandparents on both sides were born and raised.
My father’s parents, whom I never knew, left Lithuania around 1890. We’re Litvaks,” my father used to say.
Back then, my father’s family name was “Pollack.” None of their three living grandchildren, of which I am one, knows the name of their town. How embarrassing.
I did know my Firestone grandparents, who lived in Claremont when I was growing up. They were from villages called Derecin and Bobrovich, which, if they existed today, would be in Belarus. A display at the Holocaust Museum in Washington includes them among the many towns destroyed by the Nazis.
They spoke Polish, even though that part of Eastern Europe was Russia and didn’t become Poland until after they left, which they had good reason to do. It was a time of anti-Jewish “pogroms” (rioting against Jews), so it wasn’t a safe place to live. Besides, my grandfather had no interest in serving in the Tsar’s army.
I have nothing but gratitude for the decision of my Pollack and Firestone grandparents to leave. If they hadn’t, chances are I wouldn’t be here, writing this column. This recent trip deepened my understanding of what happened to those whose parents or grandparents stayed behind. My grandmother Firestone put it simply. “All gone.”
Walking through Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Pianist and I saw thousands of shoes, eyeglasses, and other personal possessions. Most unforgettable were the large bins filled with human hair. Did some of the relatives I never knew spend their last days here? Did I see something that once belonged to or was actually part of one of them? Probably not, and it doesn’t matter. All of these victims, over one million human beings killed at Auschwitz, were members of someone’s family.
World War II ended a long time ago, but the German and Russian occupations have left scars that will never go away. In all of these countries we met people who are dedicated to being sure they do not. One example is a 92 year-old woman named Irina, whom we met at an outdoor museum in Rumsiskes, Lithuania. When she was a teenager, the Soviet government deported her entire family to Siberia, where she lived for 17 years before returning to her home country. She picked up her life, married a “wonderful man,” and set out to create a living history of what she had experienced.
The “museum” includes a train car like the one that took them away, and also a replica of the hut in which they had been forced to live. We went inside, and she patiently explained what it was like to live in such conditions. She was one of the lucky ones. Many, including her parents, never came back.
We met others whose parents or grandparents lived under the Nazis and who themselves lived under Soviet occupation. I asked whether they dreamed back then about becoming free. One of them said, “It never occurred to me. We thought that is how things were.”
Trips are full of surprises, as I was reminded at our last stop before entering Latvia, the “Hill of Crosses” in northern Lithuania. The Soviet government repeatedly bulldozed the hill, but the crosses kept coming back. At the top of the hill, amidst over half a million crosses, I discovered a combined cross and Star of David with an inscribed apology “from Germany to the Jewish people,” written in German.