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How My Great-Grandfather’s Lost Shoah Stories Resurfaced 50 Years After His Death

Thousands of Holocaust stories have been published. Many, like ‘Sky Tinged Red,’ are rescued from oblivion by family.

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Isaia Eiger with his grandchildren, Rosanne Zaidenweber (the author’s mother) and Gary Zaidenweber in Minneapolis, c. 1958, and his manuscript. (Courtesy of the author)
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The next two decades were some of the most difficult in my grandmother’s life. In 1984 she was diagnosed with a debilitating eye disease that slowly took from her almost all of her vision. By 1995, she could no longer drive. In 2000, my grandfather began a painful battle with dementia, and she became his primary caretaker. Finding the lost section of her father’s book was furthest from her mind.

My grandfather passed away in 2005, and my grandmother regained some of her mobility. In August 2006, she went to Israel for a wedding and she remembered the copy of the typed manuscript that she had given to Yad Vashem all those years earlier. She wondered whether, perhaps, that copy was the only complete one. But when the archivist brought it up from the archives, she knew almost immediately that it was incomplete, just like the version she had at home. It seemed like the end of the road.

The following year, my mother was planning a trip to Israel. My grandmother told her that she wanted to give her the rest of her father’s documents—all of them—to donate to Yad Vashem. She was sure there was nothing more that she would find. But as she paged through the yellowing sheets of paper one last time, she noticed a thick package, wrapped in a copy of the local Jewish newspaper. She had never noticed this particular package before, or maybe she had disregarded it, thinking it was nothing but old newspapers. She unwrapped it, and inside she found thin half-sheets of paper written in her father’s beautiful Yiddish script. On the top of the first page, there was a chapter heading, and one of the words jumped out at her. She hurried to the other room, where her transliterated copy was, and realized that it was a match. This was her father’s memoir, the same part she had previously translated. But it kept going. He had carefully numbered each page in the top right corner, and the numbers reached into the 400s. She had always been looking for more typed pages. But here was the entire book, which he had never finished typing.

My grandmother, who admits she is not the most ardent believer, is convinced this was divinely inspired. “I think my hand was directed,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it on my own. A voice must have whispered in my ear, ‘look again, look again.’ ”

She was eager to start translating again—to finish the job she had started 25 years earlier. But by now, her vision mostly gone, she could see only in shadows, dark lines against light lines. To read the thin pages, she had to hold each one under a reading machine, which magnifies each letter to two inches tall, and decipher each word letter by letter until she could spell it out. It was only possible because of her father’s impeccable handwriting. Unlike the typed Hebrew font, which she had found difficult to read even decades before, once magnified, her father’s beautiful handwritten Hebrew letters were clear and coherent.

Still, it took her two hours to transliterate a single page and another two hours to translate it. She took up the same two-step approach she had used the first time, transliterating a few pages and then stopping to translate them. Her grit and determination were nothing short of heroic. She worked eight-hour days, sometimes longer, and figured it would take her more than a year to finish. She was done in 10 months.

My brother Etan was the first in our family to read the entire book, and he was the one who convinced the rest of us that it should be read by a wider audience. After that, he became the project manager. He began adding paragraph breaks, fixing typos, and standardizing the spelling of German words. My mother found an outside editor to help us. Our cousins contributed a glossary, photographs, and moral and financial support.

It took us five years to finish and publish Sky Tinged Red: A Chronicle of Two and a Half Years in Auschwitz. What’s remarkable about the book—aside from my great-grandfather’s improbable survival, his exceptional storytelling, and the surprising tale of how my grandmother found and translated it—is that if Isaia Eiger were alive today, I’m not sure he would even recognize it. As soon as my grandmother began translating his stories into English, they became hers. Though her translation is true to his original meaning, she also brought to bear her own experience. Like with any good translation, the poetry and emotion in the words are hers. Etan compiled an index of names, listing each of the people our great-grandfather encountered in Birkenau and briefly summarizing their stories. I wrote a foreword and afterword, which serve as bookends to Isaia’s experience and provide context about the lives of our family before and after the war.

The result is a book that reflects not just my great-grandfather’s experience in Birkenau but the experiences of four generations of our family and that embodies the very act of the transmission of memory that brought it into being.

Last summer, more than 65 years after he wrote it, my family published Isaia’s chronicle in English, ensuring that his story will be read and passed on to future generations. That my great-grandfather’s collected memories of Birkenau didn’t languish forever in a dusty box in a basement is a testament to the determination of three generations of his offspring to translate his story, preserve it, and transmit it. But there were many times—first and foremost when Isaia died without telling anyone about his manuscript—when it seemed like his memories had died with him. The story of how his memoir was translated and published is also the story of how the testimony of Holocaust survivors will ultimately be passed on, even after the witnesses themselves are gone.

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How My Great-Grandfather’s Lost Shoah Stories Resurfaced 50 Years After His Death

Thousands of Holocaust stories have been published. Many, like ‘Sky Tinged Red,’ are rescued from oblivion by family.

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