O Auschwitz Dead, What’s In A Name?

Jude for BlogTo know changes nothing. And yet I have an aching desire to know.
As I believe is true of most Jews, I have always had a visceral intense, rocking back-and-forth, mute horror about the Holocaust. But only a few years ago did I learn that three of my mother’s family members were detained at Auschwitz, one of them a child who died there, and either two or three of her other family members were lost in the Shoah.
I know that Holocaust survivors were often very reluctant to talk about their experiences. When I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, Holocaust survivors were not frequently invited into public school classrooms to share their experiences, and many were probably not ready yet to break their silence.
I grew into adulthood knowing nothing about my family’s experience of the Holocaust. My grandmother, Jennie, immigrated to America years before World War II. I felt very close to her and often asked her about her childhood and her family, but she would change the subject or tell me the one (to me) boring story of her youth, force-feeding the geese. Grandma Jennie and her daughter, my Aunt Dena, showered me with unconditional love. When Jennie, despite intractable pain from arthritis, pulled herself up to my third floor apartment, where I made a limp Kraft’s Macaroni and Cheese (which she had never heard of before), she proclaimed me a real “balabusta” who would be a great chef. (That didn’t quite pan out, but I never forgot her misplaced enthusiasm!) Even through her death, Grandma Jennie helped me. I was just beginning to date Joel, an intern who practically had to beg to get away from the hospital unit for a cafeteria cup of coffee. When he heard of my grandmother’s death, he told me he was coming to the funeral. We bury our dead very quickly, and I couldn’t imagine how he could leave work so precipitously, but he did it. And as I watched him in the cold rain, helping to dig open the ground for her coffin, I had a profound premonition that this was the man who would help me bury my dead and raise my young. (And how fully and gently and fiercely lovingly he has.)
Only a few years ago, I learned that I had a family member in California, Esther, whom I had never met or heard of. Aunt Dena told me that Esther’s mother, Margaret (whom I later learned was Jennie’s favorite sister) had been in Auschwitz with her two young daughters, the younger of whom did not survive. I was aghast. My two young adult children were then visiting California, and I wrote to Esther, asking if Ben and Rachel might have a short visit with her. My children were overwhelmed with her kindness and hospitality (and with how strangely intimate it was to be visiting someone who looked so much like us!) But I failed to maintain a relationship with her, partly out of my shyness and partly out of dread.
A few years later, Aunt Dena shared with me that other siblings of Jennie had died in the Shoah—either two or three, she wasn’t sure. She had no idea of their names. She had no idea of the name of Esther’s little sister. I kept badgering Dena to be sure Jennie had never mentioned their names, but she felt sure Jennie had not.
As I become 65 next month, I am haunted by the fact that the names of these dead family members are unknown. Would it make any rational difference if I knew their names? Yet I long to know, to at least have their names to honor. My sweet daughter, empathizing with my distress, spent hours researching these questions. We learned the maiden name of my grandmother, Gutter, but the country of origin is unclear : Jennie used to tell me it was Hungary, a 1930 census shows she listed country of origin as Austria, and a 1940 census lists Czechoslovakia. Rachel found through the website of Israel’s Yad Vashem dozens of Gutters murdered from a combination of those three countries. If we find no specific names, she consoled me, we will create a special little ceremony where we pray for all of those Gutters. That does comfort me.
I know to not talk about one’s own experiences in the Holocaust is very common, and that is wholly understandable to me. But is it also a widespread phenomenon for family who were in America to never speak of the dead, either? Does anybody know of databases besides Yad Vashem and Ancestry.com that could be helpful?
Am I unconsciously afraid that I will not be remembered after my death? I am almost smug about the extent of my self-awareness, but I honestly don’t know. I do know that there is a tradition in some cultures of the Wise Old Women –the Grandmothers (whether biological grandmothers or not) – “talking story,” keeping alive the tales and histories of those gone ahead while sitting around a ceremonial fire or a kitchen table. I do know that I want to do my best to be that kind of a Wise Older Woman…

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