Family History About the Holocaust

Sorry for the lack of updates, folks. There’s really only one reason for it, which is that it feels so difficult to talk about anything other than Judaism; I’m having adventures, I’m going places, I’m making plans, I’m making friends, but these all feel increasingly like B-plots. Being a Jew living in Europe – the difficulty, the discomfort, the pride, the grief – feels like it underlies everything else.

It also feels, paradoxically, increasingly difficult to write about. I don’t know if I’m capable of analyzing it in the way it deserves right now. What I can do is talk about something that happened on Wednesday – visiting a Nazi historical site with one of my classes – and relate some family history that I learned.

The Topography of Terrors is a site not far from my dorm in Berlin, right by some of the remnants of the western side of the Wall. From the inside, you can see not only the Wall, but headquarters from Soviet and Nazi times.

The Topography of Terrors itself was a major center for SS bureaucracy. The curators have built a museum dedicated to documenting the history of the SS. As our guide said, it’s difficult and strange to tell a story not about victims, but about perpetrators – not asking Who were these people and what was done to them, but what did these people do to others, and how could they?

I don’t think any Berliner has gone a month without asking How could they? Especially after the AfD massive wins in the German elections – the AfD are a far-right-wing party whose leader has advocated for shooting migrants at the border – How could they? seems like a question whose answer is vital to the survival of open and tolerant societies.

Our guide took us through the museum backwards. He didn’t want, he said, for us to see it as a story; this happened, then this happened, now it’s over, here’s the aftermath. He wanted us to know what happened to the SS officers who committed atrocities first, then move on to what they did.

This is because, in most cases, the answer is “nothing”. Many of their names were known; many of their addresses were known. Out of the one hundred or so who were trackable, six or so were charged with crimes for their actions from 1933 to 1945. Three were found guilty. None spent longer than eight years in prison.

Then we moved on to the end of the war, and then to the Soviet Union, and here I was jerked out of the narrative – because this had stopped being a story about the perpetrators, and started being a story about my family.

My great-grandmother and great-grandfather, Anna and Sidney, came to the United States during the Russian Revolution. They lived in a town called Proskurov – later renamed Khmelnytski by the Soviets – which is in western Ukraine, which was then Russia. They left because there had been a massive pogrom in Proskurov, and some of their family members had been killed – Anna’s father the rabbi, a sister-in-law, a child. Other family members were still alive, and some stayed in Russia.

I’ve always been told that we stopped getting letters in 1941. I’ve always assumed it could have been a number of things – Stalin, the Nazis, starvation from the famines.

But it was just one thing, which I know now, because I saw a picture of the Nazis shooting people in a neighboring town.

Proskurov is in a historic region of Eastern Europe called Podolia. I always thought it was very Ukrainian; later I found out that since 1362 it’s been part of Lithuania, Poland, the Ottoman Empire, Poland again, and finally Russia after the second partition of Poland in the late 1700s. Its original name is actually Ploskyriv, or Ploskirow. Most Jews in Podolia came in the mid-1500s, so it’s likely that when my family’s ancestors came, it was Polish (and then Ottoman, and then Polish again).

The largest town in Podolia is Vinnytsia, which is where the picture that I saw was taken. It shows an SS officer with his gun to the head of a kneeling man; behind him is a large crowd of German soldiers, looking at the camera. They’re posing. In front of the kneeling man is a large pit, filled with bodies.

So I did research, and this is what happened to the Jews of Podolia, and the Jews of Proskurov. Four Einsatzgruppen dedicated specifically to the purpose of killing Soviet Jews occupied Proskurov in July of 1941. This is when they killed over five thousand Jews and put their bodies in mass graves. They also created a ghetto in December, where the roughly 9500 remaining Jews were forced to settle and subjected to forced labor over the next few months before being killed in the fall of 1942.

So now I know exactly what happened to the family that my family left behind.

The other thing I found in my research was the names of some of the Righteous Among the Nations of Proskurov. Most of them don’t have any more information than their names, but I did find the Shershun family – Dariya, Aleksander, and Vladimir – who helped a fifteen-year-old Jewish orphan girl, Etya Tsalevich.

I said that I don’t have the capacity to do analysis right now, and I don’t. I do have a link to the picture I saw. Here it is.


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