My family parted ways with me almost three weeks ago after a powerful and moving tour of our family history in Odessa. I’ve been immersed in research at the Odessa archives since, digging through birth records over a hundred years old to find the names of great and great-great-grandparents and the places they moved to Odessa from.
In the process, as I skim through hundreds of names of people born before WWII, who would have been in their thirties during the war and the Holocaust, I wonder how many of these people died at the hands of the Nazis. There were death camps in Ukraine. There were death camps in the Odessa region. Massacres of Jews in Odessa. Only about half of the city’s Jewish population (the third largest Jewish population in the world at the time, after New York and Warsaw) made it out before the Nazis occupied.
I thank Creator that my grandparents were among the ones who made it out, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. My two grandfathers fought in the war, one just in the defense of Odessa (until it fell to the Nazis), and the other throughout the whole war. They survived. My grandmothers struggled through starvation in the refugee camps. We know we had some relatives from my mother’s side who died in the Holocaust. Much of my father’s side of the family tree is still a mystery, but I found reports of Berchenko’s from the same region as my great-grandfather Mendel Berchenko, who were killed by Nazi firing squads. Two of my grand-uncles, as well as more distant relatives, died in the war fighting the Nazis. One of my great-grandparents died from starvation during the war.
This was a side of my ancestors’ stories I had already known something about and knew I was going to face head on in this journey. Being here at the Holocaust memorials and war memorials, reading the horrific history of what happened here, and standing on the soil of where it happened, I feel the weight of this side of history more than ever. I feel my whole body welling up with tears and wanting to scream. I feel the need for some deep processing.
So I’m taking a break from my archival research in Odessa and heading to Krakow, Poland for the 2016 Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat, which begins on Monday. During the retreat, we will have a service in which we’ll light Yahrzeit (Memorial) Candles on the grounds of Auschwitz and read aloud the names of loved ones who perished. If you would like a candle to be lit for one of your ancestors, you can order a candle through the website below (go to the section titled “Memorial (Yahrzeit) Candles”). The money goes to the retreat scholarship fund, which is what is allowing me to participate. Please let me know if you order a candle. It would be a humbling honor to bear witness to your ancestors as well.