I had an interesting genealogy experience yesterday. I did some transcription work for a Jewish man whose recent ancestors were on Schindler’s List. I’ve been thinking about this question ever since – what is the correct response to learning this?
Obviously, you can’t say, “That’s awesome.” It isn’t. The fact that Oskar Schindler saved ~1,200 Jewish people from terror and death in concentration camps during the Holocaust is still very messed up. This should not have happened, period. Someone involved in a terrible famous historical event that should not have happened is not awesome.
You can’t say, “That’s terrible!” It also isn’t. His ancestors were rescued. They did not perish. So, it is good they were “Schindlerjuden.”
I didn’t want to say nothing, because that also does not seem like the correct response. This horrible thing happened, and saying nothing might be interpreted as ignoring it. We should not ignore the Holocaust. We should learn everything we can about it, and do everything we can to ensure it never happens again, to any people.
I finally settled on, “I can’t imagine what it would have been like to live through some of the things your family has gone through.” Others in his family lived in the town of Oswiecim – in German, Auschwitz. I’m still not entirely sure if that really was the correct response.
I have been to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel. It was an experience will never forget. I have no known Jewish ancestors whatsoever, but that didn’t matter. It was still extremely horrific. You don’t need the human context to find a way to connect to the Holocaust; the magnitude of the evil is just mind blowing.
My first experience of learning anything about the Holocaust was to read, “The Devil’s Arithmetic” by Jane Yolen. I remember that my mom would not allow me to read this book in 3rd grade. She said I had to wait until I was in 5th or possibly 6th grade. I read it, and found it horrific. I then read Anne Frank’s diary, “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry, and several other books that I don’t remember right now. Then, by 7th grade, we starting seeing some of the terrifying clips of bulldozers shoveling Jewish corpses into huge piles. I remember having to leave the room, it was so horrific to me. Just now, when I typed the Polish word for Auschwitz, I did a search on google maps. Seeing the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial’s aerial view is chilling. Really scary.
The most recent book I read about the Holocaust was about a year ago. It was the diary of Rutka Laskier, the “Polish Anne Frank.” The diary was hidden for over 60 years, only uncovered a few years ago, in 2007.
Anyway, I would really love to hear what others think about this. What do you think is the correct response to learning that someone had an ancestor on Schindler’s list? Or is there one? I realize that all people are different; some people might choose not to talk about it. I think we should. But, I also want to be respectful of people who feel otherwise.
Hmm. I just don’t know.
1 thought on “How should I respond when I find out someone’s ancestors were on Schindler’s list?”
When I was 14, I visited Auschwitz as part of a school exchange program with Poland. I already knew about the Holocaust of course, but being there really hit me. I remember rooms filled with baby shoes, tooth brushes and photos and seeing the signs how the pile was less than 1% of all the shoes that were collected. I still get goosebumps when I remember. I also remember how the guide told us they would be forced to sleep with 12 people in a single bed, and I noticed that the bottom consisted of 12 wooden boards of 3" a piece so they had just 3" per person. And then we walked across the Himmelweg, into the 'showers' and came out on the other side where the ovens were. I felt that I could still smell the stench. I lost some of my innocence that day.
To answer your question: I don't think there is a correct way to talk about these things. For families directly affected, there are so many things that hurt that it's hard to know what to say. I think the most important thing is to do what you're doing: show respect and don't keep quiet just because it's difficult to talk about.
From working with survivors of Nazi persecution or relatives of victims I also know how important it is to avoid the euphemisms. People did not 'pass away' in concentration camps or 'did not return,' they were murdered.
I had a client who asked me to look into her Dutch family, whom she knows nothing about. I quickly found out that her family was Jewish and several of her father's half siblings were murdered. Before I shared that with my client, I first asked her if she was aware that the name was Jewish, and that there might be some tragic stories ahead. She told me she knew and wanted to finally know the truth, and that that is why she hired me. It was hard to find the words to tell her that her grandmother and three of her aunts and uncles were murdered but at least she now has some closure.