A budding genealogist, I had just put aside my parents’ family tree and had turned to my husband’s family, hoping to re-create the few branches I knew with a degree of certainty. This, I was finding, was an exercise in futility. The once- flourishing family had lost so many branches during the Holocaust and I could not find any traces of their existence. My mother-in-law Elzbieta and her brother Marian, both survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, would never speak about their lives before, during, or immediately after the war. My husband, who had grown up knowing his mother’s experiences during the war to be a forbidden topic for conversation or inquiry, knew very little about the family lost. What he did know was that they had lived in Warsaw and died at the hands of the Nazis. I had experienced the consequences of asking questions when a distant member of the family, curious and desperate for answers about her own immediate family’s history, doggedly questioned Marian, unleashing his explosive anger and pain with very few answers to speak of.
With my mother-in-law’s passing, Uncle Marian was the only one left to share his story and, along with it, his family’s history, their legacies. Nevertheless, I could not bring myself to confront Marian, even when Ella was born and named after Elzbieta, so I sat with my sadness and resignation.
It was Ella’s digging that inspired me to find so much more than the answers to my questions. She was sitting in my yard digging in the dirt, alongside our puppy LJ and a curious earthworm. As I watched the three of them, each engaged in their own kind of digging, their activities gave me the insight I desperately needed: there are many ways to dig for answers. In that instant, I understood that if I was careful and sensitive, my own digging could be fruitful and undamaging, if not beneficial.
The captivating scene prompted memories, ideas, and compelling meanings that challenged my sense of who I was and what I should be doing – what I needed to do with my thoughts and imaginings. It did not suffice for me to paint a picture or research the particulars of events or ideas, as I was accustomed to doing. It was necessary to write the story of our family’s survival; it was important to uncover, to know, to remember, and to share. It would give Ella a sense of her place within our family, a family that endured hardships and made her life possible.
In my early efforts to encourage Marian to talk about the family lost in the war, I recounted the stories Marian slowly and painfully retrieved and shared. At first careful to circle around the difficult recollections, Marian cautiously dug deep into the buried stories of his family and his rescuers. Re-living events of his life, memories formed when he was still a child, Marian described how he was able to survive once he escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto. With my written stories -- testimonies to the heroism of the people who risked their lives for Marian, Elzbieta, and their friends – Marian and I worked tirelessly to have his rescuers acknowledged as being Righteous Among the Nations, the title Yad Vashem bestows upon non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during WWII.
Thus the desire to re-create a family’s legacy for Ella – the need to put stories into words instead of painted images -- evolved into a story about Love, Family, Friendship, Sacrifice, Survival, Caring, and Laughter.