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The woman in the center of the back row is Lena. She is my great-grandmother’s great grandmother. In the 1890s, she and her family fled Prussia and immigrated to the United States. They settled in Wisconsin, not far from Green Bay. They were Jewish.
I didn’t learn of my family’s Jewish heritage until my senior year of undergrad. I was taking a comparative literature class, whose syllabus included a myriad of Jewish writers from the Americas, Germany, and Austria. As a German major, I hadn’t yet enrolled in a course that focused exclusively on Jewish writers. Of course, I had been exposed to a number of Jewish-German writers in my literature courses, but they had been sprinkled into syllabi that sought to feature and provide students a sampling of the German literary canon. The purpose of these courses was not to discuss these writers' Jewish identity, but rather their contribution to German-language literature.
It was in these previous courses that I began to develop my affinity to Jewish-German writers. Some of my favorites included names that many people may recognize, even if they have never read them: Franz Kafka, after whom the adjective Kafkaesque was named, and Stefan Zweig, who was one of the most widely-read authors in the world in the early twentieth century.
During my studies, I also discovered Ingeborg Bachmann, another of my favorite writers. She is not Jewish, but much like anyone studying the German language or German history, she could never escape the Second World War or the Holocaust. She was obsessed with it; consumed by it. Though the cause for her obsession is well-known: her father was an early member of the Austrian National Socialist Party.
The German term used to describe what Ingeborg Bachmann does in her writing–and what many post-1945 German-language writers attempt to do–is called Vergangenheitsbewältigung. The word roughly translates to the “struggle of overcoming or coping with the past.” It’s not a word to necessarily describe one’s private independent reckoning of the past, but a collective or public struggle and debate.
Nevertheless, the term encouraged me to think more critically about the past. It also led me on a journey to unveil more about my own family and heritage. What I discovered was that my family was Jewish, something neither my mother nor father had the slightest clue. My newfound discovery opened up an entirely new research interest of mine, one that was both scholarly and personal.
Fortunately, I was able to continue my journey as a graduate student at Yale University, home of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. The Fortunoff Archive’s mission is “to record and project the stories of those who were,” and it contains more than 4,400 testimonies, comprising 12,000 hours of recorded videotape of individuals providing their first-hand experience of Nazi persecutions. As part of my graduate coursework, I spent hours viewing many of these testimonies.
What it both taught and reinforced in me was the importance of remembrance and storytelling. My education was one that encouraged sharing; it encouraged many points of view. There was no fear of asking questions, and everyone was free to voice an opinion. My education was also one that discouraged censorship.
It was a brave act for the more than 4,400 individuals to share their stories. Their stories deserve to be told; they deserve to be remembered. On this International Day of Commemoration in Memory of Victims of the Holocaust, I’m taking time to listen. This year’s theme is “Home and Belonging,” and it’s intended to provide reflection for those persecuted to think about those words and what they meant to them both during the Holocaust and in its aftermath.
My great-grandmother’s great-grandmother was not persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust. But, her story is also one of persecution. She and her family fled from central- and eastern European anti-Semitism half a century before the Second World War. For that, I will always be grateful. Yet the discovery of my familial connection to Lena has instilled in me a greater appreciation of history and its teachings, one that offers–to me at least–a sense of home and belonging.
If you’re interested in learning more about the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of Victims of the Holocaust, you can visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. There you can learn more about its history and how to mark the day.