Jason Steinhauer
22 min readSep 3, 2018


My grandmother never wanted to talk about the Holocaust. After her death, we vowed to do just that.

Undated photograph of Holocaust survivor Bronia Szapiro.

My grandmother once told her neighbor the following story: She was on a train during the war, and a woman was seated across from her. After staring her down for a few minutes, the woman said, “I know you! You’re a Jew. When the Germans come, I’m going to tell them you are Jewish.” My grandmother arose from her seat, walked the length of the train, and found German soldiers checking IDs. “There’s a Jewish girl in my car,” she told them, referring to the seat mate who had just threatened to turn her in. My grandmother described the woman, told the Germans where to find her, and exited the train at the next stop.

It’s an amazing story — if it was true. My grandmother survived the war working on a farm and, later, in the woods with the partisans. It’s not clear when she would have been on a train alone interacting with German soldiers. She once told us that after the war she had an incident on a train with Russian soldiers, whereby she pretended to be Russian so they would leave her alone. Did she conflate the two stories? Did the German incident happen to someone else? Or were there entire chapters to my grandmother’s story that we knew nothing about? We never found out.

My grandmother died in June having never told anyone how she survived. We had asked for an oral history and spent many nights at her kitchen table trying to extract details of her past. But she never relented. “It’s too painful,” she would say, waving her hand across her face. Every now and then a story would leak out. But never the entirety. Fourteen years old when the Nazis invaded, they would eventually murder her entire family. She would live to the age of 93. The Nazis could not kill her, but to a fall, a broken hip, an infection and a low white blood cell count she eventually succumbed. After she died our family decided to do what she would never agree to: tell her story, as best we could piece it together.

Bronia Szapiro was born in Gorzkow, Poland, in 1925. Her father, Josef Szapiro, owned a lumberyard and a granary. Her mother, Esther Dychtwald, was a homemaker. The couple had four children: Bronia, my grandmother, the eldest, followed by two daughters and a son: Mirele, Rivkeh, and Shloime.

The Dychtwalds were a wealthy family that had lived in Gorzkow for generations. It was they who owned the lumberyard and granary and passed it onto Josef Szapiro upon his marriage into the family. The Szapiros were from that same region of Poland, which is approximately 45 miles from the Ukraine border. Josef Szapiro’s father had been a rabbi.

My grandmother fondly recalled a life in Gorzkow that revolved around Judaism. Her life was, in many ways, archetypal of the pre-war shtetl, intimately guided by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar. During the weeks she went to school at the local yeshiva, Beis Yaacov, as did her sisters. They went to synagogue on the Sabbath. Friday nights revolved around the Sabbath meal. There were beggars in Gorzkow, and Jewish families would host them for Shabbos dinners as a form of tsedaka. The family spoke Yiddish at home. For Shavuot, the Jewish holiday that commemorates receiving the Ten Commandments and is traditionally celebrated with dairy foods, the Jewish families would buy milk from their non-Jewish neighbors and make their own cheeses. The Szapiros had a maid who made theirs. She was Jewish, and her name was Sarah. She was a peasant from Gorzkow whose father had passed away and whose mother had left her with my grandmother’s family. Sarah would leave with the Russians in 1939.

Gorzkow was a tiny village, and its Jewish community accordingly small, aligning well with the shtetl stereotype. Founded in the mid-1600s, Gorzkow had by the time my grandmother was born in 1925 approximately 700 inhabitants. It peaked in 1939 at 1,100 individuals. More than half the village was Jewish during my grandmother’s time there, which lends credence to her memories that everyone had known everyone else for decades. As was typical of Polish villages during the period, Jewish families lived near the marketplace. As a well-to-do family, the Szapiros lived in the center of the market square, which featured stores and merchants. My grandmother’s aunt lived on the corner. The goyim lived on the outskirts, their cemetery on the road leading out of town. Jews were buried in a cemetery on the other side of the village.

Gorzkow was situated within a beautiful, lush region of Poland. The countryside had rolling hills, fields of wildflowers, bending trees, and melancholy skies. The region had fertile soil with a multitude of orchards. There was such a surplus they used to feed their extra food to the pigs. The family’s lumberyard was in the dense, rich forests near Krasnobrod, 45 miles south. The winters were harsh, cold, and snowy. The Szapiros heated their home with a coal stove. My grandmother recalled that she and Sarah, the maid, brought in wood and coal from the shed.

Of course, my grandmother’s memories, much like the myths of the prewar shtetl, conceal as much as they reveal. Her understanding of Gorzkow was that of a child, largely ignorant of the conflicts and tensions surrounding her. Indeed, for Jews in Gorzkow as in much of the Pale of Settlement, anti-Semitism was prevalent and growing worse during the period of my grandmother’s childhood. During WWI, the invading Russian army had burned the Gorzkow synagogue to the ground. Between the wars, according to the Gorzkow Yizkor book, many Jews moved to other villages due to increasing anti-Semitism. Catholic villagers boycotted Jewish merchants and attacked Jewish peddlers. Even within the Jewish community there were tensions. There were class discrepancies between well-off families such as my grandmother’s and orphaned servants such as Sarah. There were disagreements about which strains of Judaism were most pious, and between Zionists longing for Aliyah to the State of Israel and those who thought the Jewish future lay in Europe. Mass immigration separated families across oceans. Like millions of other Polish Jews, my grandmother had relatives who had emigrated to America, Russia, and Palestine. Her future husband’s family had cousins who emigrated to Montreal. That is where my grandmother would wind up after the war.

A contemporary black & white photograph of the village of Gorzkow, Poland. Photo by the author.

Everything changed in September 1939. When Russia and Germany announced a non-aggression pact that had been brokered in secret, the consequences included Russian troops, who had advanced into eastern Poland, retreating after only a few weeks, paving the way for the German advance. A number of Gorzkow’s Jews left with the Russians as they fell back into Soviet territory, including Sarah, the maid. My grandmother’s family stayed behind. In later years my grandmother would tell her neighbors that her father had said he’d rather die with k’lal Yisrael, the Jewish people, than be saved alone. The rabbi repeated this at my grandmother’s funeral.

At this time my grandmother was 14-years-old. Gorzkow’s residents were well aware of the vicious anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime that was now free to advance on Poland undeterred. But my grandmother knew little of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact or the swirling geopolitics that were engulfing Europe and paving the way for global war. She only knew that life had changed, and not for the better. In September 1939, according to the Yizkor book, the Germans began to round up Gorzkow’s Jews for slave labor: cleaning streets, clearing rubble, and carrying out various tasks for the German army. My grandmother once recalled being forced to break bricks. That may have been done during this early period of German occupation.

In early 1940, a Judenrat was established in Gorzkow with offices in the school. This Jewish local council reported to German authorities and executed their commands. Its head was Israel Edelstein, and the deputy was Chaim Kajzman. According to the Yizkor book, the Germans initially allowed the Jews to continue their professions and maintain freedom of movement, provided they supplied a certain number of slave workers. However, in the spring of 1940 the Germans ordered the Judenrat to send a number of Jews to the Belzec labor camp in southeast Poland, near L’viv. Belzec would eventually become a death camp where more than 600,000 Jews, Roma and Poles were murdered.

Around the beginning of the war, the Szapiros decided to leave Gorzkow. Josef Szapiro believed that if he brought his family to a secluded area near the lumberyard in Krasnobrod, the Nazis might leave them alone. The family that had lived in Gorzkow for generations abandoned its home on the village square and fled to the forest. What happened next, we can only speculate. Perhaps the speed of the German advance — the Germans conquered Poland in less than a month — and the establishment of German control as far east as the Poland-Ukraine border, convinced the Szapiros that being alone in the woods was less safe than being in a city among other Jews. Or perhaps the Szapiros were resigned to their fate and sought to uphold their oath to die among fellow Jews rather than survive alone. Or perhaps they were deported. The Germans rounded up Jews from across southern Poland, in addition to tens of thousands of Jews from Austria, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany and the Netherlands, and deported them to Polish cities. From there Jews were sent to labor and death camps. Whatever the reason, the family was uprooted again, relocating 75 miles north to the bustling city of Lublin.

When my grandmother did reveal information about her past, she almost always divulged stories from before 1940. We know practically nothing about the time from when her family moved to Lublin until the arrival of the Russians in 1944. This was her most painful period. Already having lost her home, her possessions, and her freedom, in this period my grandmother lost what she loved most: her family.

Lublin had approximately 40,000 Jews ca. 1940–1941. Many had been rounded-up from other places and deported there; others remained from the prewar population (though some of Lublin’s prewar Jews had fled to Russia). Lublin had been a bustling Jewish center between the wars, replete with synagogues, Jewish schools, Jewish shops and a variety of religious practice. There had been a Jewish quarter, and when the Germans arrived they established it firmly as the Jewish section of town, forcibly removing Jews from their apartments in other parts of the city as well as forbidding Jews to walk on certain city streets. This area would become the Jewish ghetto in 1941. Its main boundary was Lubartowska Street; this is where my grandmother and her family lived.

My grandmother was 15-years-old, and a high school student. She once told us she attended a secular high school in Lublin, though it’s not clear how long she could have done so. In Lublin, Jews were forced to wear Star of David armbands and access to educational institutions was denied, in addition to religious practice being forbidden. Yet my grandmother told us this when she was in her 80s, when her memory was still quite accurate. (It was in her 90s that it began to fail.) So it’s probable that she did attend school for some period of time while the family lived in the Jewish ghetto. Much else about their life in Lublin we do not know.

We do know that my grandmother’s father and brother were murdered in Lublin. We do not know the circumstances or the year. But she once let it slip that Josef Szapiro, her father, and his son, her brother, Shloime Yitzhak Zruel, were shot in the ghetto, presumably by German SS or police. It’s not clear if she or any other family members witnessed the execution. Perhaps it occurred in March 1942, when German and Ukrainian SS shot elderly and sick Jews on the spot. Or perhaps it occurred earlier. But her father had fulfilled his pledge: he had died among the Jewish people.

My grandmother also once mentioned a deportation to Treblinka. The Germans began deporting Jews from the Generalgouvernement, an administrative area of central Poland that included Lublin, in 1941. The deportations would become known as Operation Reinhard and resulted in the deaths of 1.7 million people. The majority of Jews were deported from ghettos such as Lublin to killing centers at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. It’s possible that after her father and brother were shot, my grandmother’s mother and sisters were sent to a death camp for slaughter as part of the 1942 deportations. Or they may have been executed in April 1942, when 2,500 Jews, mostly women and children, were taken to the Krepiec Forest and shot.

We do not know how my grandmother escaped this swirling chaos of death and evil. But somehow, she did. Perhaps her parents told her to run away? Perhaps, as a teenager, she had entry into some of the resistance movements and smugglers going in and out of the ghetto and escaped through those networks? All we know is that she made it out. It is estimated by the Holocaust Research Project that out of approximately 42,000 Jews in Lublin only 200–300 survived the Holocaust either by hiding or surviving various camps. My grandmother was one of them.

Undated studio portrait of my grandmother, taken after she emigrated from Europe.

My grandmother was a beautiful woman with Aryan features: tall, dirty blonde hair, gray-blue eyes. She inherited those traits from her mother, Esther Dychtwald, who had auburn hair, was reputed to be quite beautiful and had many suitors. The fact that my grandmother could pass herself off as Aryan or Polish almost certainly helped her survive.

At some point my grandmother slipped out of the Lublin ghetto. She traveled to the countryside, and, if the story about the Nazis on the train is true, this could have been when it occurred. Somehow, she wound up on the farm of a Polish Catholic family, working as a farm hand and pretending not to be Jewish. She stayed there for an unknown period of time. She slept in the barn and survived on potatoes.

My grandmother told us once why she left the farm. She had been out working in the fields when one of the other people on the farm — an owner or, perhaps, another worker — came to meet her. This person told her that she had been betrayed. Someone had identified her as Jewish and reported her to the authorities. If she returned to the farmhouse, she would be taken into custody. She dropped everything and fled into the forests.

In the forests my grandmother met up with the partisans. We do not know how this happened, where, or which partisan group. Jewish fighters were heavily active in that part of Poland during 1942–1944, resisting the German invasion as best they could. The leaders had often served in the Polish Army prior to the war and had escaped the ghettos by heading east toward the Russian border. Operating in units of a few hundred people and armed with small weapons, these groups attempted to engage Nazi soldiers, liberate ghettos, and disrupt German operations. They used the code word amcha, which literally translates to “your people” in Hebrew and had been used by the Jewish Maccabees in the 2nd century as a means to identify fellow Jews. My grandmother once mentioned that she used this code to identify herself and to know whom she could trust. We know nothing about my grandmother’s time with the partisans, save one story. At some point near the end of the war, the partisans were hiding in the forests as a German convoy approached. She was given two grenades and was told to pull the pins if the convoy got close. Fortunately, it passed.

By this time the Germans were losing the war. The Russians had broken through on the eastern front and had begun to repel the German occupation in Poland. In 1944, the Russian Army had crossed into eastern Poland and some Jews began to come out of hiding. My grandmother emerged from the forests one of the few lucky survivors. She had lost everything except her life.

While in hiding, my grandmother had heard rumors that Jews had been spotted in the city of Tomaszow Lubelski, near the Ukrainian border and 50 miles south of Gorzkow. She didn’t know anyone there, but people in the city had known her father through his lumber business. She stayed in Tomaszow Lubelski for an unknown period of time until she heard a rumor that people from Gorzkow had surfaced in Lublin. She left for Lublin soon after.

By the summer of 1944, the Russians had replaced the Germans as administrative heads in cities such as Lublin. This time in Lublin my grandmother lived in a gated complex shielded from the street. A woman and a Jewish man named Moshe Bernstein, who had been a dentist prior to the war, lived with her. My grandmother set out to repossess her family’s land, house, and business. In doing so, she caught the attention of an underground Polish army that was murdering Jews returning from hiding. One evening, while my grandmother was attending a play at local theater, three Poles came to her home planning to kill her for attempting to reclaim her family’s assets. Luckily, Russian officers arrived at the home that night as well to return her roommate’s birth certificate, and led the Poles away. Moshe Bernstein ran to the theater and met my grandmother after the show, telling her it was not safe to return to the apartment. She went home with another family and slept in the girl’s room. She cried the entire night, thinking she had survived the war only to be killed. The next night she left for Chelm by train.

My grandmother stayed in Chelm for only two days. She attempted to stay with a Lithuanian widow who had been raped and left with a venereal disease, but the woman directed my grandmother to a Jewish man with a large house who was waiting and hoping for his wife to return from the Holocaust. While she stayed with him, she met a group planning to travel across the country to the city of Sosnowiec. She agreed to leave with them the next night. The man she was staying with discouraged her, but, according to my grandmother, she had no reason to stay. Everything had been taken from her, and she was curious to see what lay beyond eastern Poland. She was 20 years old, and the war had awoken a sense of adventure in her. She left Chelm in a group of five people — three men and two women. When she arrived in Sosnowiec, she found that someone had slipped a bundle of money into her bag. It was either Moshe, the dentist from Lublin, or the Jewish man from Chelm.

Photograph of an unidentified female resistance fighter, ca. 1944–1945. The photograph was found among my grandmother’s possessions after her death.

The men with whom she traveled sold clothes in exchange for pork; the train conductors would hide the clothes and pork in exchange for bribes. As the granddaughter of a rabbi, my grandmother was appalled at having to handle pork. It was on these trips that the story about the Russians on the train occurred: Russian soldiers would kidnap beautiful women, so my grandmother would always sit with men, her head on their shoulders, and answer “da” to whatever she was asked.

My grandmother convinced her fellow salespeople to sell their pork at four times its worth. She also snuck into a market in the city and made friends with a German woman, who sold her clothes and German Deutschmarks. My grandmother peddled merchandise back and forth across Poland for an unknown period of time, accumulating money and making connections. When the merchandise dried up and the train rides became too dangerous, my grandmother traveled onward to Gliwice.

It was in Gliwice that my grandmother would meet the man who would become my grandfather, Izak Schiffmann. Schiffmann had survived the war in hiding with his two sisters. Afterwards, he had found his way to Katowice, Poland, and came to Gliwice to sell merchandise. When my grandmother was introduced to Schiffmann, he almost immediately asked her to marry him. She refused him over and over until he threatened to drown himself or shoot her if she didn’t say yes. She agreed on the condition that he would divorce her when they reached U.S.-occupied German territory.

From Gliwice my grandmother and grandfather crossed into Austria. My grandmother kept the German Deutschmarks she’d acquired in Sosnowiec sewn into the lining of her leather travel bag. In Austria she sold the large notes for two American $20 bills. My grandparents continued into Germany, eventually arriving in the city of Ulm in either late 1946 or early 1947, at a Displaced Persons camp housed within former German military barracks called Ulm Boelcke-Kaserne. The plan had been for my grandfather to divorce my grandmother once they reached Germany, but he refused. As my grandmother recalled it, she did not wish to make a scandal and so accepted her fate.

Boelcke-Kaserne had been built in 1935 by the Germans and established as a DP camp in the summer of 1945 by the Americans. Listed as DP camp #678, it sat within the U.S. zone of Germany and accommodated some 2,000 Jewish refugees. It was administered first by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and later by that organization’s successor, the International Refugee Organization (IRO). My grandmother’s recollections of the camp align with contemporaneous U.S. government reports: crowded living conditions and a diet that was, as she put it, “too little to live on but too much to die.” My grandparents lived three couples to a room and registered for Kosher meals. As the IRO began to resettle refugees, my grandparents had to decide where they would emigrate. My grandmother wanted to go to Israel, which had become a state in 1948. My grandfather did not wish to go. He feared it would be too hot and too hard of a life in the newly independent nation. My grandfather had an uncle in New York, but U.S. immigration laws required a direct relative. So, they looked to Montreal, where my grandfather had relatives who had immigrated prior to the war. In March 1949 they sailed from Bremen, Germany, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, aboard the steam liner Samaria. My grandmother had traveled 5,000 miles — nearly 1,000 across Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Austria into Germany, then 4,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. She had spent ten years on the move, leaving Gorzkow in 1939 and arriving in Canada in 1949. And along the way she had added an extra passenger: my mother, Esther Schiffmann, conceived in the DP camp and born in 1948 in Ulm city hospital. She was named after Esther Dychtwald, my grandmother’s mother.

Postcard photograph of the S.S. Samaria, upon which my grandmother, grandfather and mother sailed from Germany to Canada. Date unknown.

As survivors and refugees my grandparents built a new life in Montreal. My grandfather worked as a furrier; my grandmother became a landlord, owning multiple properties. They had another daughter, my aunt Ruth, and sent their children to Hebrew school. They lived in an apartment building among other survivors until eventually moving to a house in the western part of the city, in a predominantly Hasidic neighborhood. Half a world away, my grandmother sought to recreate the Jewish life she had lost. She surrounded herself with Jewish neighbors, attended synagogue every Saturday, kept the Sabbath and the holidays, and did as her father had — lived a life devoted to the Jewish people.

But life would not be easy for my grandmother, even with the war behind her. My grandfather, whom she did not love, had terrible nightmares from the war. He would wake up screaming and in cold sweats. He would eventually develop stomach cancer and die before my younger sister or I was born. My aunt also had health problems and died of cancer at a young age. The loss devastated my grandmother. She told her neighbors that losing my aunt was worse than the Holocaust.

As for my grandmother, she had her own scars. She never trusted anyone after the war. She kept money hidden all over the house, including under seat cushions and inside aluminum foil rolls. She set up multiple bank accounts in multiple countries. She hid valuable items and refused to give anyone the keys to her home, not even us. When my sister told my grandmother she was pregnant, my grandmother’s response was, “Don’t tell anyone.” She knew how easily the most precious things in life could be taken away. My grandmother lived the remainder of her life preparing for the Nazis to come again. She never understood why the Nazis acted as they did. On rare occasions when she would talk about her past, about the Germans she would scream, “Why did they do this? We never did anything to them!” Up until the end of her life she never understood the hatred, cruelty, and evil of the Nazi regime. She was a little girl in a remote Polish village. She did nothing to the Germans. She was absolutely no threat to them. They murdered her family anyway.

Despite all the pain, my grandmother did have moments of joy. She lost a family but gained another one, with two daughters and three grandchildren whom she loved very much. Her eldest daughter, my mom, went on to become a scientist and an attorney, earn multiple degrees, and do things that a woman from rural Poland in 1925 could never have dreamed possible. And my grandmother did finally visit Israel and witness the dream of k’lal Yisrael. That the Jewish people had a home where they could be safe from the tyranny of those such as Hitler meant the world to her. She loved Israel with all her heart, and every time we told her we were taking a vacation, she asked us why we weren’t going to Israel. Israel was always where she always wanted to wind up. When she died, we shipped her body to Jerusalem to be buried on Mount Scopus, next to my aunt’s.

My grandmother and grandfather (center) during their first visit to Israel in the 1970s. The woman on the left is my grandfather’s sister, who survived the Holocaust with him and emigrated to Israel after the war.

The afternoon of grandmother’s funeral, we sat in her living room surrounded by photographs. Pots and pans were in the refrigerator; newspapers were scattered through the dining room. My grandmother clearly expected to return to the house. She wasn’t ready for death. She had survived everything else; she expected to survive this, too.

During the shiva, neighbors came to pay their respects. It was there that we first heard the story about the Nazis on the train. We heard several stories that day that we had not previously heard. It reminded us that there was still so much about my grandmother’s life that we did not know. She took with her much about that period that is likely now lost forever. As we began to sort through her belongings, we found a few notable items: immigration papers from Germany, a postcard of the ship, and a photo album. The album mostly contained images from Canada, but also a few from Europe. There were pictures of the Displaced Persons camp, my mother in a stroller. There was an image of an unidentified female resistance fighter, a rifle in her hand. And a few headshots of my grandmother, a devious-looking 20-year-old who appears brash, brazen, and fiercely alive. That ferocity never left her.

In my adult years I went back to Gorzkow to see it for myself. Much of the village seems the same as it did 90 years ago: the goyische cemetery, the central square, the church, and the scenery. It really is a stunningly beautiful part of the world, reminiscent of Napa Valley with its hills, orchards and vistas. Yet any evidence of Jewish presence is almost entirely erased. A small sign mentions that a synagogue existed, but nothing more is said about it. In fact, the sign, which identifies historic sites in Gorzkow, has all the bearings of the dangerous nationalism that infects Poland today. It celebrates a Polish king who repelled Muslims, saved Christendom, and reigned as part of the Polish Kingdom’s glory years in the 17th century. A roadside chapel from 1900 is a designated landmark on the sign. I showed a photograph of the chapel to my grandmother and she didn’t recognize it. It’s as though it wasn’t the same town. Her Gorzkow was Jewish; the goyim were ancillary characters, there to make cheese or be buried on the road outside of town. In Gorzkow today, the Jews are the ancillary characters. The town imagines itself as part of a glorious Polish Catholic past that just happened to have a synagogue that’s now better used as a school for Polish youth. A plaque in the town square honors the Poles who died in the fight against fascism; there is no mention of the Jews who were deported or murdered. This tension between Gorzkow as a Polish Catholic town built around Christian martyrdom, and my grandmother’s memories of a Jewish shtetl reflects what historian Samuel Kassow has called the “profound inner truth of alienation from the countryside outside the town” that shtetl Jews had. Though exactly the same location, the Gorzkow of my grandmother’s memories is a place long gone. My grandmother did bring one piece of Gorzkow with her to Montreal, however: her garden. She loved to work in her garden, and she had an intimate knowledge of soil, crops, planting times, and how to grow the lushest tomatoes or the crispest cucumbers. That connection to the soil never left her, even in a metropolis half a world away.

My grandmother, my mother, and my oldest sister, ca. 1977–1978.

Hearing the neighbors speak about my grandmother made me wonder if we had not tried hard enough to get her story. It seemed clear, in hindsight, that towards the end of her life my grandmother was seeking to tell people things. The problem was that she, in many aspects of her life, was not a nice person. She was mean. She was critical. She held grudges. She broke off contact with family members over petty disputes. She complained about everyone, including us. She criticized our life choices, our clothing, our attitudes, our politics. My friend the historian Jonathan Zimmerman once said, “We do a disservice to survivors when we make them into angels.” Indeed, my grandmother was no angel. She was difficult, and over the years her relationship with my mother and with us frayed. We stopped visiting as often. We would go to Montreal once per year for a weekend. She would cook for us, we would sit around the table, and we would talk past each other. If we would complement someone as smart, she would retort, “You don’t have to be smart, you have to have mazel.” When we told her about our activities she would ask, “How about a nice Jewish girlfriend? You don’t belong to any Jewish organization?” Our grandmother was trying to tell us what was really important. She had known lots of smart people; they didn’t make it. Only the lucky ones did. And experiences were cheap. What mattered was community, religion, and devotion to something bigger — k’lal Yisrael. We wanted to talk about pets, and vacations, and roommates. She wanted to talk about God. Community. Being strong and healthy. We didn’t listen. We were too busy fending off her criticisms. There were opportunities to ask more questions. We didn’t take them.

History is the profession I have devoted my career to, and there is no doubt of its tremendous value. But history falls short in many areas because it is based on evidence, and evidence so often does not exist for the most intimate moments of our lives. As I tried to write this history of my grandmother’s life, with each read I was reminded of how woefully incomplete it was, how little evidence we have of my grandmother’s incredible and terrible journey. If she could ever come back and read this, she would no doubt wave her hand dismissively and criticize it. “You missed the whole point,” I’m sure she’d say.


1. Fighting Back: A Memoir of Jewish Resistance in World War II.

2. “Remembering the Jewish Partisans in Poland’s Lublin District.”

3. “Hersh Zimmerman’s Holocaust Resistance.”

4. JewishGen Cemeteries.

5. The Shtetl — New Evaluations, ed. Steven T. Katz, Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University.

6. “Gorzkow” — Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Poland, Volume VII.

7. “With Sanctity and Valour,” Yad Vashem.

8. “The Anguish of Liberation,” Yad Vashem.

9. Guide to the Records of the Displaced Person Camps and Centers in Germany, 1945–1952, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

10. “Concerned not only with relief’: UNRRA’s work rehabilitating the Displaced Persons in the American zone of occupation in Germany, 1945–1947," Laura Megan Greaves, doctoral thesis, University of Waterloo.



Jason Steinhauer

Writing a book about history on the Internet. Host of the History Club on Clubhouse.