In high school, I took a trip to Poland and Israel, one of the first wave of groups to do so, when Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain. I know, I’m showing my age. The emotional experience of visiting the camps, the complicated reaction I had when I saw sweet looking little old men and women, and realized that many of them were the perfect age to have been Nazi collaborators, those things I more or less expected.
But it was the beginning of summer, and the weather was unusually hot and sunny. The skies were stubbornly blue, the rolling hills and blooming fields mocked us with their loveliness. How could it be that a place that had been so full of hate and evil looked so bright, so pastoral?
Until that point, my images of Poland in the first half of the 20th century were some mixture of black and white Nazi films, Roman Vishniac photos, and the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof. So it made perfect sense that it had never occurred to me that Poland could be, well, beautiful.
A few years later, I visited Ukraine with my family, and saw the town where my grandfather had grown up. My father recalled how he had always heard that the town looked just like Switzerland, and to be honest, I had assumed that was a joke. When I woke up to a brilliantly clear and sunny day, and saw the town surrounding a huge sparkling lake with the ground sloping up in the background, it upturned everything I had envisioned about life in Europe before the war.
My understanding about the Shoah had been based largely on my day school tragedy-focused education, sprinkled with movies and TV shows, and a smattering of Holocaust novels. The stories I heard from my parents about life before the war seemed like unconnected fairy tales.
I’m aiming to teach my children a little differently, with the luxury we have of distance. For our parents’ generation, the wounds were so raw, the cuts so deep, the pain so constant, they didn’t always have the energy left to focus on anything else. The tincture of time has allowed me both to take my children to Yad Vashem, to explore literature about the war, and also to try and paint a more colorful picture of what life was like before those years that changed everything.
So this year, I want to remember all my family members who perished - not for the moment of their deaths, but for the fullness of their lives. They were fathers and mothers, aunts uncles and cousins, siblings with rivalries, couples who fought and made up, and fought again. They were doctors and business owners and factory foreman. They were Talmud scholars and Socialists and Zionists, very religious and...not. They were so much more like us than we imagine.
So, with their lives in mind, on a sun-filled spring day in New England, buds everywhere I look mustering the courage to open, full of promise and hope, I remember them.
Yekutiel Schmelke Bieler
Betka Bieler Fischer
Sabina Bieler Teichholtz
Giza Teichholtz 17
Klara Teichholtz 16
Jakob (Kuba) Teichholtz 9
Gusta Spitzer Bieler
Henya Bieler 7
Josef Bieler 5
Sosie Bieler Biloraj
Two Biloraj children ages 3 and 1.5
Chava Dvojre Bieler
..and so many more whose names have been lost to history.