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Grandchildren of Survivors Find New Ways to Tell Their Family Holocaust Stories
Will the Holocaust’s crimes and lessons be forgotten? Who will speak for survivors when they can no longer speak for themselves? Historians and academics have asked those questions for years and the answer is becoming clear. The so-called 3Gs — the third-generation grandchildren of survivors — are now old enough to share the responsibility for carrying on their families’ histories. And many of them are doing so by wielding technological tools that not only preserve those stories, but disseminate them to people around the world.
Sara Greenberg, 26, created a short film, B2247: A Granddaughter’s Understanding, to document her grandparents’ lives before, during and after the Holocaust. Like Greenberg, Aaron Biterman, 31, is the grandchild of two survivors. Wanting not only to honor his grandparents and share their story but also connect with other, like-minded 3Gers, he created an international forum via Facebook. Grandchildren Of Holocaust Survivors (facebook.com/3GsWorldwide) has close to 11,000 “friends” from around the globe. Other 3Gs, like 16-year-old David Gordon, are taking a more direct route. Gordon, the grandson of a survivor, is involved with a student-led Holocaust education group at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr.
Of course, 3Gs active in Holocaust awareness are following in the footsteps of their parents, the second-generation children of the survivors. But when it comes to learning of their families’ connections to the Holocaust, 3Gs have had very different experiences from their parents. First and foremost is that the passage of time gave many survivors perspective on how to speak about the Holocaust — something they may not have been able to do for decades, when their minds were filled with fresh memories of inhumane treatment and, in too many cases, the deaths of family members.
Time has also allowed for different iterations of age-appropriate Holocaust education, the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and, of course, the Internet — all tools for survivors and 2Gs to educate their 3Gs. “When I was young, all that we had were the horrible movies and pictures about the Holocaust, and I would feel sick and have to leave the classroom when they were shown,” says Jodi Gordon, David’s mother and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. “Now, we have ways to gently introduce the topic and discuss the lessons we can learn from the Holocaust without focusing only on the atrocities.”
This different approach seems to inspire, rather than horrify, 3Gs. Gordon, Biterman and Greenberg each use the word “hero” to describe their respective grandparents. Survivors don’t use that word to describe themselves, seeing only that they were somehow able to withstand what was done to them.
Gordon, Biterman and Greenberg say they aren’t sure how knowledge of their grandparents’ strength — and their enslavement — has shaped or at least tinged their own personalities. Questions and issues like those make 3Gs unique, Biterman says, and binds them to one another.
There are other commonalities. Their grandparents were refugees who came to the United States in the 1940s and ’50s with little to no money. And all of their grandparents immigrated to the United States at about the same time and lived in Europe at about the same time, creating a collective memory of not just the Holocaust but of life before the Nazi regime came to power.
“My grandfather talks about his love of, or at least warm memories of, Poland,” says Greenberg. “I think many of us feel a connection to those homelands via the stories our grandparents told us about their childhoods.”
Just as there is affection for the countries of their childhood, there is a fierce loyalty to Israel among the generations of survivors’ families. “We are not bendable or breakable on the issue of supporting Israel,” Biterman avers. “It is the one place where our families could go after the war and it is still the place where all Jews who are being oppressed can go.”
Gordon expresses another issue. “I know a lot, but I don’t know everything about my grandfather’s life during the Holocaust,” he says, “so I have turned into something of a Holocaust researcher.”
Biterman voices the same sentiment. “It’s a constant quest to understand something that is impossible to fully comprehend,” he says. “I scour the Internet all the time and I’ve read a ton of books. And I still have the same questions: How? Why?”
From Dachau to Facebook
This is what Aaron Biterman knows about his grandfather, Edward. Before the Nazi occupation of Poland, he worked in sales and lived in Hrubieszow, Poland, with his wife and two children. They were killed in either Sobibor or Belzec; Aaron Biterman’s grandfather was kept in Hrubieszow to loot the Jewish houses and turn over the valuables to the SS. He was a good worker, so much so that he was sent to 10 to 12 labor camps, including Budzyn, Flossenbürg and Dachau, where he did both factory work and hard labor. At one of those camps, his forearm was tattooed with “KL,” which stood for Konzentrationslager, the German word for concentration camp. Biterman never saw that tattoo or met his grandfather; he died before Biterman was born. Even if he had lived longer, it’s not likely that Biterman would know more about his Holocaust years; Biterman has been told that his grandfather wasn’t generally forthcoming with details.
Biterman knows much more about his grandmother, Tauba, because she is still alive and is a big presence in his life. She was born in Zamosh, Poland, and had a nice childhood until the Nazi threat neared. With her family, she fled east toward Russia. In Dubno, Ukraine, she fell in love and married. But when the Soviet Union entered World War II, her husband was drafted into the Red Army; he was later killed in action. Meanwhile, the SS overtook Dubno and Jews were confined to a ghetto. Biterman’s grandmother spoke Polish, German, Yiddish and enough Ukrainian to get by, and with help from Gentiles she knew in Dubno, she escaped from the ghetto, got false identification papers and traveled from town to town, passing as a Christian. “She did such a good job passing that when she ended up in a DP camp after the war, the Americans didn’t believe that she was Jewish,” Biterman says. “She had to go before a rabbi and convince him.”
His grandmother’s fluency in European languages saved her life; Biterman’s fluency in the digital language of social media is preserving her story. Biterman was one of Facebook’s early adopters; he heard about the website when it spread to the campus of American University where he was a student in 2004. In 2006, Biterman created Grandchildren Of Holocaust Survivors to connect with other 3Gers. Not all of the “friends” are related to survivors; some just support those who are. But the page has become a forum for news related to the Holocaust, present-day anti-Semitism and Israeli topics. It also serves to connect people with this shared family history, uniting them in a digital show of power.
The Nation of Israel Dubner
“Hear O Israel” are the words that saved Israel Dubner’s life, and HEAR is how his grandchildren are honoring it. The Holocaust Education And Reflection Club at Barrack Hebrew Academy was founded by Arielle Belfer, Dubner’s granddaughter, and is now manned by her brother, Joel, and their cousins Michael Slotnick, David Gordon and Simon Gordon — all of them Dubner’s grandchildren. “That I do this with members of my family to continue our grandfather’s legacy makes it very special,” David Gordon says.
That legacy began in Lodz, Poland, in 1925 when Israel Dubner was born as the second son of an Orthodox couple. They lived comfortably in a nice apartment and enjoyed a family-centric life filled with Jewish observance and Zionistic activities. After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the Dubners were forced into the Lodz ghetto. Israel Dubner’s father and brother died in the ghetto; he and his mother survived it. When Lodz ghetto was liquidated in 1944, Dubner and his mother were transported to Auschwitz. Dubner was 19 when he stepped off the train and into his first Auschwitz selection. Someone told him to make it known that he had a skill so that he would be chosen for work instead of death, and he was. But his mother was not, and she disappeared into the gas chambers.
Dubner’s skill was no guarantee of survival. The camps underwent constant selections and random killings. “They were lined up one day and the officers were shooting people all around my father,” says Jodi Gordon, Dubner’s daughter and David’s mother. “He started singing the ‘Shema.’ The SS said that he had a voice like an angel and spared his life.”
Dubner made it to the end of the war, staying alive in Auschwitz until he was transferred to Kaufering, a subcamp of Dachau. As the Allies closed in, the Germans transported prisoners to yet another camp. Dubner was on one of those trains when he jumped off, hid in nearby woods and waited there until American soldiers arrived, his daughter says.
Following the war, Dubner went to Italy, then Israel, where he fought in the War of Independence. In 1952, he immigrated to the United States, eventually graduating from Yeshiva University and becoming a cantor at a synagogue in Scranton, Pa., a post he filled for 30 years.
Jodi Gordon says that her parents did the best they could to educate her and her sisters about the Holocaust. One transformative experience was the trip that Gordon took with Dubner in 1993 to Poland — but not to any concentration camps. Instead, they focused on Dubner’s life before the war. “We flew into Warsaw, then went to Lodz and its cemetery, then even went to the home in which he was raised, which was still standing,” Gordon remembers. “It was an opportunity for me to appreciate the people, communities and culture that were lost in the Holocaust.”
When Gordon and her sisters had their children, this became part of their approach in educating them about the Holocaust and their connection to it. “It’s not just hitting them over the head with the horrors of the camps, but putting it into historical context that is also age-appropriate,” she says. “But, listen, there is no manual on how to teach this to the descendants of Holocaust survivors, so I’m not saying that my way is the right way. Everyone does what they think is best.”
Gordon began with simple things, like turning off the lights in the house on Yom Hashoah and explaining that it was to remember the family members who had died. When her sons were in third grade, she took them through the child-appropriate “Daniel’s Story” exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Gordon herself spoke to her sons’ classes. When they were 10 or 11, she spoke at Barrack about the Jewish community in Lodz and her family’s life in the city. How did she describe it? “That each family had a story and they were all beautiful,” she says. “They would celebrate Shabbat like we do and make chicken soup and light the candles. But not all of them survived. Many of them were killed, including my grandparents and uncle.”
Gordon’s sons and nephews are following in her footsteps through HEAR. Working with other HEAR members, they create a calendar of educational activities that are open to all Barrack students and sometimes expand into schoolwide assemblies.
Although the USC Shoah Foundation video testimonies and Centropa’s online archive on Jewish Eastern Europe are tremendous resources, David Gordon says that the live testimony of survivors is still the most effective approach. “But not just any speaker,” he clarifies. “We learn the most from survivors who were old enough at the time of their experiences to talk about them but are vibrant enough to be energetic when speaking and healthy enough to speak clearly. Finding them is getting more and more challenging.”
David Kovacs, a speaker who came to Barrack in December 2013, got Gordon thinking. “He was very compelling and refreshing because he had a lot of energy and made us relate to the story — and the story he told was his father’s,” Gordon says. “He was a second-generation survivor, and we hadn’t had that before. He was so great that after the event, I thought that if he could do it, my mom could definitely get up there and talk to the school in front of everyone. She could tell my zayde’s story — speak for him. That’s definitely one way to keep his legacy alive.”
Schindler’s List was a motion picture epic that brought the Holocaust to new audiences, and B2247: A Granddaughter’s Understanding is a 13-minute, zero-budget documentary that is doing the same. B2247 has been shown at the United Nations and at international film festivals; it is also being added to the Anti-Defamation League’s Bearing Witness educational program. Gladwyne’s Sara Greenberg, who has, like the rest of her generation, grown up with easy access to picture-taking and filmmaking, made the film. She put that technology to work to tell the stories of her maternal grandparents, both of whom are survivors.
“My grandmother was from Czechoslovakia and was a hidden child,” Greenberg says. “She was taken into the mountains when she was a baby. Her immediate family went with her, but her mother — my great-grandmother — died before the end of the war. My grandmother’s uncles and aunts adopted and raised her.”
Greenberg’s grandfather, Joseph Gringlas, had a different journey. Born in Poland, he was imprisoned in several concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald. B2247 are the numbers tattooed on his forearm.
Not until a 2005 family trip to her grandparents’ hometowns did Greenberg fully understand their Holocaust experiences. “The point was not to make a film,” she says, “but I brought along a camera to document what we were doing, because I felt that it was a unique experience that we should record.”
The footage stayed with the family until 2009, when Greenberg was a senior at Yale University. She was enrolled in a class titled Family and Jewish Tradition, taught by Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who escaped the Nazis via a Kindertransport. For her final class project, Greenberg took the footage of her family’s trip and created B2247.
Something that makes the film unique is its 3G perspective. “It is not just ‘This happened,’ but also, ‘And here’s what we think about it today,’ ” Greenberg says. “That keeps the legacy of survivors alive in a way that modern audiences can relate to it.”
By 2012, B2247 had reached Israel. Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yitzhak Gershon, the national director of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), was so moved by Gringlas’ story that he invited him to join an FIDF delegation traveling to Auschwitz. “My grandfather believes that Israel’s strong military defends not just that country but Jews around the world and that because of it, the Holocaust will never happen again,” Greenberg says. “So of course he agreed.”
Greenberg and her mother, Marcy Gringlas, joined Gringlas, documenting it on film and in writing (“Witnesses In Uniform,” Jewish Exponent, April 2013). Gringlas marched through the gates of Auschwitz in a dramatic fashion: holding the hand of an IDF soldier who, in his other hand, held an enormous Israeli flag. From Poland, the group traveled to Israel, where Gringlas got a hero’s welcome: He was hoisted onto the shoulders of an IDF soldier while Israelis danced around them. Greenberg then added it to B2247.
“It was a triumph for my grandfather and for all survivors,” she says. “And it shows that the story is never over and will never, ever be forgotten.”
Melissa Jacobs is a nationally published journalist and author. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.
Prominent leaders and supporters of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) from the United States and Panama will join 50 IDF officers as they experience a 10-day “From Holocaust to Independence” journey spanning Jewish history from Poland to Israel this spring. The trip, from April 28 to May 9, will celebrate FIDF’s support for the courageous soldiers of the IDF and for the State of Israel. For more information, call 1-888-318-3433 or go to: www.fidf.org/AprilDelegation2014.