In photos and videos, Papa fades into the background. Sometimes half of his face sits outside the frame or only the back of his head appears. More than likely, he’s behind the camera, recording a birthday party or Hanukkah celebration to be kept in the archives of his children’s basements.
Papa’s life intertwined with mine for only a short five years making it hard for me to distinguish my own memories of him from the memories my parents have shared. A family historian by nature, I relish in the images we have of Papa, my maternal grandfather, looking for clues to his past.
The clearest photo of Papa is a headshot from the period of his life he talked about the least, World War II. On the back of the photo he wrote in cursive, “1945, Hof, Germany.” Papa entered the war at the tender age of 18. We know that he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and lost his two best friends while there. Papa was one of the lucky ones who made it home alive. He would never again return to Germany.
This past October, I was offered the chance to travel to Germany for my job. Germany had never been on my bucket list, but my curiosity about Papa’s history drew me there. I spent three weeks working, before taking a week of vacation to travel through Germany and Austria with my dad.
Leading up to the trip, a few family members and friends made offhand remarks. Some said they would never go to Germany. As Jews, they just couldn’t. With these comments lingering, I made it a priority to visit Holocaust museums and memorials.
In Dusseldorf, I heard stories of how Kristallnacht unfolded on the very ground I stood. In Cologne, I walked through a preserved Gestapo prison where cries for help were still etched into the prison walls. In Munich, I followed the golden bricks memorializing those killed for refusing to salute the Nazis. In Vienna’s Judenplatz, amidst cozy cafes, stood a concrete bookshelf. The spine of each book faced inwards representing the stories of Austrian Jews never told.
While visiting Munich, my dad and I took a short train and bus ride to Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp. In my mind, we would’ve arrived in a deserted area in the middle of nowhere. Instead, we arrived at a shopping center in a suburban neighborhood not all too different from the one I grew up in. I had seen the barbed-wire fences in history books, but I never realized that residential homes lined the other side of those fences. Windows overlooked the most atrocious display of systematic inhumanity our world has ever seen. Residents must have heard something, smelled something. There’s an odor to death. Yet, the majority chose not to look.
I held tight to a paper copy of Papa’s war photo as we entered through the gates. For some reason, holding that photograph made me feel closer to Papa’s history, which by blood is my history too. I looked up and around at the vast expanse of land, at the rows of reconstructed barracks, at the guard towers where SS soldiers would earn bonuses for shooting prisoners who attempted to reclaim their freedom.
With each autumn breeze, leaves fell gently onto the gravel ground. In Judaism, we put stones on the graves of our loved ones who have passed because the soul like the stone never dies. The colorful leaves mixed with the gravel stones, reflecting the beauty and the burden of remembrance.
Today, as anti-Semitism persists, I wonder if our world only recognizes the burden. Recently, Lithuania—the country many of my ancestors came from—followed Poland’s example declaring that neither Lithuania nor its leaders participated in the Holocaust, choosing to actively forget the 95 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish population that was wiped out during the Holocaust. When we choose to actively forget, we let ignorance and intolerance flourish.
In my travels, I felt overwhelmingly thankful for my education. Thankful that I went to schools that taught me to bear witness to our world’s dark history. Thankful that I had teachers who reminded the next generations to never forget what human beings are capable of when fear prevails. Without a doubt, the history weighed heavier on me than I could’ve ever imagined. But I refused to look away.
When I returned home, my cousin shared an interview she had done with Papa dated 1995, the year I was born. Papa tells of his experience serving in General Patton’s third army in a matter-of-fact type way. But then he offers a subtle glimpse behind his armor.
“When I came back, I was not a teenager,” Papa said. “I experienced a lot of things...I experienced things not natural for an 18-year-old to experience.”
I now understand that image I have of Papa in my mind—the silent observer, the man who’s always only half in a picture or completely hidden behind a camera. In his youth, he took mental images of the worst human beings are capable of. And so during his post-war life, he took a seat on the sidelines, recording the happy, the funny, the celebratory—the good side of humanity.
Papa bore witness through the countless stacks of video taped memories that live on though he is no longer with us. The brave prisoners in Cologne bore witness by carving their pleas into cold, concrete walls. I bear witness by putting pen to paper to awaken the 22% of my own generation in the United States who say they have not heard of the Holocaust.
We are a generation that had the privilege of hearing stories from firsthand witnesses. As survivors pass on, we cannot let their stories pass with them. I believe, more strongly now than ever, that it is our duty as the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of survivors and veterans to ask questions, to listen and to share the stories of those who experienced the unimaginable.
“For whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness,” Elie Wiesel said.
As the next generation, we must bear witness.
Mia Kweskin is an executive communications manager at Bayer. She earned her bachelor of arts in international studies with a minor in writing from Washington University.