As a child growing up in the small English town that offered refuge for my parents in their flight from the Nazis, I was acutely aware of many differences between my own family and those of my friends. My parent’s preoccupation with events on “the Continent”; the energy spent recreating a semblance of the Jewish life they had left behind; the effort to try to assimilate into the strange ways of British Jewry; the amount of time spent dealing with the emotional scars of younger siblings; the struggle to get rid of accents on the outside and the relief of falling back into German at home and with friends all added up to that classic Jewish rootlessness and the feeling of being tossed about on the waves of history.

But none of these held as much significance for me as the one structural deficiency in our family: the complete absence of grandparents.

There were few stories of my grandparents. All I knew of them were the large, sepia-brown 3-D photos of two dignified elderly people that took pride of place on our mantelpiece until sometime in the early 1970s when, brittle with age, the photo of my grandmother finally peeled away from its backing, leaving only a wooden silhouette of her form.

The fate of my paternal grandparents was sealed in 1942 when the Nazis took over the Jewish retirement home where they lived in Beuthen and sent its residents to Treblinka.

My mother and father each dealt in their own way with the task of passing on to us pieces of information about their parents. When pressed to talk about the war, my father preferred to joke about his stint as a private in the British Home Guard rather than tell us much about his experiences in Buchenwald between 1938 and 1939.

But my father was first and foremost a yekke (a German Jew) and had the foresight (or the yekkishe urge for fastidious preservation of artifacts) to take with him as he fled all kinds of papers, membership cards and memorabilia that provide a glimpse into the world he left behind.

Since he knew with certainty what had befallen his parents and when, it was as if he could pinpoint that particular date and recount their past up to that time. I knew all about my grandfather’s kosher butcher shop and his quiet generosity to the poor. My grandmother’s business acumen and her ability to mediate tensions among the large extended family were legendary.

New lives in England

Tales of their life were usually recounted quite willingly by my father and with humor. Perhaps it was because they had already reached a relatively old age when they were killed or maybe it was precisely to avenge the meaninglessness of their deaths that he forced himself to focus with joy on the minutiae of their lives. Certainly, I don’t ever remember any expressions of sadness or sorrow from my father about the loss of his parents.

For my mother, it was quite another story. After arranging the escape of her fiancé from Buchenwald, [1] a hurried Jewish wedding took place in Leipzig and then, under separate steerage, my parents left to begin new lives in England in the spring of 1939.

My mother’s parents, Polish Jews who had lived in Leipzig as stateless persons since the early 1920s, were in their late 40s at the outbreak of World War II. Their two youngest children had already been sent to England on the Kindertransport. Despite their rigorously Orthodox Jewish upbringing, the two boys were boarded with a Christian family in the rural west of England.

My mother and her two sisters were able to gain entry into England by agreeing to work as “domestics” or maids; and my mother was lucky enough to be employed by a Jewish family in the north of England. London was the only place my father could find a job, so they spent their first year of married life apart.

The complete inability of Jews to obtain entry visas to any Western country meant enforced separation for many Jewish families, and for many of those fortunate or creative enough to get visas it took years to shake off the guilt for those they left behind.

Unlike the United States of the 1950s and 60s, British society and Anglo-Jewry did reflect on the Holocaust during those years. Television documentaries dealing with the destruction of European Jewry and the annual Martyr’s Memorial Service became ordeals in our household.

Through the blur of tears, I accepted with incredulity the piece of paper handed across the desk.

Sometimes, my mother would try to steel herself to sit down and try to watch whatever horrors unfolded on the screen. Perhaps, if she could witness the terrible events filtered through the calm voice of a British TV commentator, some of the terror that caused her to scream out in fear during her frequent nightmares would be vanquished. Of course, she was never able to do it. Usually, as the opening credits were rolling and the somber music filled the room, tears would well up, and she would mumble something about how “they” needed to see this, but she knew more than she ever wanted to know.

At the time, from my child-like perspective, all the events of World War II and the Holocaust seemed to have happened in ancient history. Now, of course, I realize how raw it must have been for my parents. My brother was born just nine years after my parents saw their parents for the last time. My entry into the world came only seven years after my mother received the impersonal postcard from the International Red Cross informing her of the fact that her parents had “most likely” perished in Auschwitz after having fled to Belgium and France just ahead of the Nazis.

For me, events that happened seven or nine years ago are still etched quite clearly in my mind. Even mundane events, let alone traumatic events such as my parents went through.

I sometimes think that if it had been my parents who disappeared into the gaping black hole of unfathomable atrocities that I would have done everything possible to unearth all the details, but perhaps that part of my character so obsessed with exposing the truth developed precisely because of the experiences of my grandparents. In any event, to the best of my knowledge, my mother let the Red Cross news sink in and never pursued the search for any definitive facts about the final months of her parent’s lives.

The combination of this attitude and her emotional reaction to any reminders of the terrible events of the Holocaust made me feel that she really hadn’t been able to process the sequence of events in order to allow her to go on with her life and ours.

Harsh reminders of mass murder

My research at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Hall of Names reinforced that feeling. I made my first visit to Israel in 1968. On several occasions since then, I have made a point of ascending the stairs up to the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem. There, in the early 1990s, under the matter-of-fact tutelage of a bespectacled and aging gentleman volunteer of obvious European ancestry, I perused the names of some of the more than 2 million victims of the Holocaust then recorded on an aging microfiche system.

Like any database, the Hall of Names is only as good as its input. Beginning shortly after Yad Vashem was created in the 1950s, a call went out via Jewish newspapers and landsmanschaften throughout the world for survivors to complete questionnaires with as much information as possible about their murdered relatives.

I actually remember watching my father filling out his questionnaires in the 1960s. The yekke in him made him complete data not only on his parents, but for his aunts, uncles and cousins. lt was always reassuring in an odd kind of way to make the pilgrimage up to the Hall of Names, just to touch the pieces of paper that along with photographs were the only tangible evidence I had of the fact that I did actually have grandparents.

“It can’t be … they were all killed, we never heard anything from them!”

Just to pronounce their names out loud as I asked for the forms was somehow an affirmation of their existence. In all those years, it never once occurred to me to ask the clerk to search for my mother’s parents since I knew instinctively that she could never have brought herself to fill out the forms for her relatives.

For some reason, my visit to Israel in 1991 was different. Perhaps it was the group I was with—and my role in the group. I was the leader of a cadre of 10 people from Seattle who were part of a larger contingent of young, single, American Jews many of whom were experiencing Israel for the first time. Surprisingly, there were two other children of survivors in the Seattle group, each dealing with their own demons.

As the group, which up until this point in the trip had distinguished itself by having the loudest bus parties, made its subdued way through the extensive halls of the exhibits at Yad Vashem, I once again found myself drawn to the Hall of Names.

Waiting patiently in line, I experienced again the sense of completion that had always eluded me as I was growing up. Yes, once again I would be “reunited” with my grandparents.

I listened to the requests of the people in line and heard the microfiche whir for minutes through common Jewish family names; the inevitable questions about birthplace and first name followed in an attempt to narrow down the search. I watched the reactions of the searchers; some shook their heads in disbelief, some went back to the volunteer behind the desk to try to elicit more information, and one woman quietly folded up the form, placed it carefully in her handbag and left without even a glance at it.

The room began to reel; my breath was taken away.

Almost automatically, I wrote down the Leschziner name, my father’s parents, on the little piece of paper to present to the archivist. Being a relatively uncommon name, the search was brief. I accepted the copy of my father’s handwritten form and read the familiar information over again.

I still don’t know what compelled me to ask if anyone had filled out forms for the Ehrenreich family. As the clerk scrolled through the hundreds of entries under that name, I found that, just like my mother, I could not hold back my emotions as I blurted out the first name of my grandmother, Yehudit, for whom I am named.

Through the blur of tears, I accepted with incredulity the piece of paper handed across the desk. I didn’t know which part to read first; I desperately wanted to take it all in at once; the date and place of birth, maiden name, profession, where she had spent the war years, and then my eyes fell on the final section: Makom Hamet: Place of death: There in Hebrew and Polish letters were the words: Auschwitz 1942.

The room began to reel; my breath was literally taken away. I don’t think I have ever experienced such intensity of emotion. I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach, and yet the sweetness of finally possessing the knowledge was overwhelming. I knew that l would never be quite the same again; part of the deep abyss had been filled. I stood there for ages with the paper in my hand. I didn’t know what to do with my body. Part of me wanted to run as fast and as far as possible, out into the glare of the sunlight, away from this repository of the harsh reminders of mass murder. Another part of me longed to be comforted by someone close, just held tight so that I could collapse and let the emotions out. My intellect told me to keep on studying the paper for any clues I might have missed, and the intellect won out.

The shock of family recognition

At the bottom of the form was the name and city of residence of the person who filled out the form, along with the date. My grandmother’s memorial page had been filled out by a Yitzhak Ehrenreich of Holon in 1956, who wrote that he was a “relative” of my grandmother. From my mother’s scant recounting of her family’s history, this name was totally unfamiliar to me.

Although she had told us that both her parents came from large families, my mother assumed that she knew the only survivors of that generation; two of my grandmother’s brothers who had made it to New York. I couldn’t wait to get to a telephone to call my mother in England and maybe help her fill a small part of her void, as well as to grill her for information about Yitzhak.

When I reached her, I just blurted out the whole thing in the flood of my excitement and incredulity. I pictured her sitting alone in her small, tidy house in London receiving the news, 50 years late, of her mother’s fate.

She actually didn’t say anything coherent, but I could sense her silent withdrawal. I asked about Yitzhak, and she tried to recall the names of her uncles whom she presumed had perished along with her parents. Perhaps Yitzhak was one of these Ehrenreichs?

What were the chances of finding someone after almost 40 years? I was almost resigned to the futility of my search until I went to the Holon telephone book. There were six or seven Ehrenreichs listed there, including Yitzhak. I started dialing, grateful for my high school and ulpan Hebrew classes. An older woman answered and immediately asked who I was when I asked to speak to Yitzhak. “Yitzhak died six years ago,” she told me after I identified myself as Lotte Ehrenreich’s daughter. “My name is Luba, and we were married after the war,” she said, “so I don’t know much about his relatives. But my sister in-law, Dora, will remember everything,” she added, giving me Dora’s telephone number. I figured that Dora must be one of my grandmother’s sisters and had to be at least 85 years old, even if she were one of the younger siblings. As I started to explain myself to her over the telephone, she shrieked out, breaking into Polish. “It can’t be … they were all killed, we never heard anything from them!” exclaimed Dora.

She insisted that I tell her everything about my mother and the Ehrenreich relatives I knew. Despite my scant knowledge, we both realized very quickly that we were talking about the same Ehrenreich family. I struggled to put my newfound knowledge into perspective, but mostly felt sadness and frustration that during all of the trips that my mother and I had made to Israel, secrets of our precious past had gone undiscovered. Would our lives have been different in some meaningful way if my mother would have not had to bear her burden alone? Could she have lived a life more open to emotions if she would have known for certain the ultimate fate of her parents?

I was anxious to meet Dora and found myself thirsting for details; place names, relationships. Where were the Ehrenreichs of my generation? Again, the deep-seated feeling of rootlessness: If my mother had taken the same route as the other Ehrenreichs, who would I have become?

Only a few days remained of my stay in Israel and I began a frantic quest to meet as many of the remaining relatives as possible. I went to see Berta, Dora’s younger sister. By the time I called her, the word had got around already, yet when she opened the door to her Ramat Gan apartment, there was the shock of instant family recognition. Berta was only a year or two younger than my mother, and like her, she had inherited the pale skin, freckles and reddish hair of the Ehrenreichs, whose silhouettes sat on the mantelpiece in London.

I knew that l would never be quite the same again; part of the deep abyss had been filled.

We fell into easy conversation as David, her second husband, a fellow Polish refugee who married her and helped raise the child who was born after her first husband was murdered by the Nazis, fussed with tea and cakes. I pumped Berta for stories about my grandparents, snippets of information that would help bring them into focus. Had they sent their five children out of harm’s way in England, only to stay behind themselves? Didn’t anyone have any of their personal effects? Pictures, letters, anything?

Berta was gracious and tried to humor my persistent questioning, but preferred to show me pictures of her sabra grandchildren. Nevertheless, the precious link with our past had been made. I would no longer have to answer queries about my grandparents with a one-sentence reply, mumbling something about “the camps … not sure which one, when … ,” trailing off into silence. This deprival of family continuity that has impacted two generations of survivors and their families is perhaps one of the most enduring crimes of the Nazis.

Every child deserves the love and care of grandparents; or, if they are taken by natural causes, the loving memories and recollections of those people by their own children. All I have is Auschwitz 1942—those two flat words that form such an unnatural memorial for those I should have loved.

[1] See Time of My Life by Wim Leer. Carta/Jerusalem Post Books, 1984. Pages 169-179.

Support Jewish Journalism
with 2020 Vision

JNS is more than just another news website and syndication service. It is an organization devoted to nonstop reporting, and telling the truth about Israel and Jewish issues unburdened by the biases and institutional blinders that distort so much of what we read, hear and see about these topics elsewhere in the secular and even Jewish press.

At JNS, you get the facts about Israel and Jewish issues without the bias that so often tilts the argument against the Jewish state. JNS articles and columns are republished every week by digital outlets and print newspapers across the globe. But in the age of round-the-clock news coverage, advertising and syndication revenues are not enough to support our continued growth. We need your financial help to keep JNS on target as we continue our fair and accurate reporting.

Please help us take JNS to the next level with a tax-deductible sponsorship, either on a recurring monthly basis. Jewish News Syndicate is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization.