Day of Rememberance — A Personal Story
My grandparents were literally seconds away from joining 12 million victims perishing in the Holocaust. This is not an exaggeration, it is fact. As the Nazis were descending upon Kiev, Ukraine, my grandparents, having heard rumors of prior Nazi massacres, quickly made the split-second decision to escape Kiev. They quickly ran, with practically almost no belongings, to catch, what turned out to be, but wasn’t known at the time, the last train out of Ukraine. They were literally the last ones on. Actually, they initially almost could not board. It was too full. And then, my big, burly great-grandfather pushed, and pushed, and kept pushing, until somehow, my great-grandma, grandma, and her brother were safely inside the train. As the Nazis descended upon Kiev, the last train out, full of Jews, headed east to Kazakhstan, to safety.
Sometime upon the 2-day journey, passengers needed to use the restroom, and the train took one of its pitstops for 15 minutes, so the passengers on board could piss. As everyone was getting back on, my grandmother’s baby brother suddenly became lost, and was nowhere to be found! My poor great-grandma and grandma hysterically searched for him, to no avail. Practically all the passengers got back on board to continue the migration away from Ukraine, as the train was about to start moving again, and here there was a missing child. Then, as if by magic, just when all seemed lost, a lady suddenly came by carrying my grandma’s brother, asking, “did someone lose this child”? Crying and hysterics turned into sweet relief, as the crisis was averted, and my grandmother safely arrived by train to Kazakstan, where they spent the war years without incident.
What happened to all the other Jews remaining in Kiev? The ones who were unable to board the full train, or decided to take their chances in Kiev? Th Nazi military general, Kurt Ebarhand, ordered all remaining Jews, about 150,000 men, women, and children remaining in Kiev to gather in a central square. By asking to “bring documents”, they were tricked into showing up. In what became known as the “the largest single massacre in the history of the Holocaust” practically everyone was murdered at Babi Yar. Taken to the woods, shot in the neck, and thrown into a ditch, on top of each other. Only 29 survivors, most by playing dead.
With the women in my family safe, the men went to defend their families against the cause of the threat, the Nazis. My great-grandfather, the big burly man who ensured that my grandma and her family made it onto that train was killed in the war, during the Battle of Stalingrad (now Volgograd), in 1942, one of over a million killed. At least this is what we think. Unfortunately, like the 400,000 of his comrades, his body was never recovered. My family never received proper closure. He is memorialized, with hundreds of thousands of others, with the “burial” Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in his hometown, of Kiev. He was 42 years old.
One of my grandfathers also fought in World War II. He was a Tanker, working his way up to Lieutenant in the Soviet Army. He and his tanks were the first lines of attack in battle, providing critical cover and protection for ground troops, and saving countless lives. In one such battle, a grenade almost blew up the tank. My grandpa was injured, recovered….and went back to fight. Until his last day, he lived with a piece of grenade shrapnel lodged within his leg. Yet he continued fighting, all the way through the Siege of Berlin. He also freed concentration camps. He never talked much about what he saw, but you could tell the memories of the “human skeletons” haunted him. Post-war, he received dozens of medals for leadership and courage, including the Soviet equivalent of the Purple Heart.
After the war, my grandparents returned to live normal lives in Kiev. the Shoah (Holocaust) killed 12 million innocent civilians, 50% Jews, but yet, for my family, we were eventually triumphant, by surviving. Yet without the foresight to literally push onto the last train, without the courage to fight Nazis, where the consequence of losing meant certain death to you and your family, without the adaptations to live elsewhere my parents, nor I would be alive today. To have a future, one must first survive the present.
A major silver lining from my family’s experiences over the Shoah, is we became tougher, kinder, and more tolerant people; these values were instilled into me and reinforced at a young age. Seeing war and destruction taught us that war can only be used as a last resort, when all options for peace have been investigated and exhausted, and your survival is at stake. Seeing racism leading to outright murder and massacres taught us to be actively anti-racist, fighting bigotry with not just performances, but actions, for the remainder of our lives, decades before some of you became “woke” for the first time. The experiences of adapting and fleeing toughened us up to make the decision to move to the United States, one of the best decisions of our lives.
We say “Never Again”. What does this mean, exactly? For me, it means that we must never allow authoritarians’, bigotry, and racism to fester into something dangerous. Yet, even as I’m typing this, there are people still working in concentration camps. There are still authoritarians who scapegoat, vilify, and even violently imprison, move, or kill minorities, and even their fellow citizens. Slave still exist, whether manufacturing your Nike hoodies, building soccer stadiums for the World Cup in Qatar, tricked into becoming international domestic slaves, or being stolen from parents as children for sex trafficking. “Never Again” Has become “Again”. If we do not speak out about this, if we do not challenge this, if we do not take action against this, another Shoah will be right around the corner, rendering “Never Again” totally meaningless.