Navigate to Community section

The Holocaust History My Family Never Learned

My grandfather lost all his relatives in the Holocaust—and then hid those memories for the rest of his life

Rachel Sharansky Danziger
January 06, 2017
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

“On the Tenth of Tevet we will remember the millions we lost in the Holocaust,” my third-grade teacher told us, her voice low and grave. “And we will say kaddish for those whose date of death is unknown.” She raised her eyes, looking from one girl to the next. “Did you have relatives who died in the Holocaust?”

I didn’t know it at the time, but this question would become an annual ritual. Every year at my all-girls Religious-Zionist school in Jerusalem, as soon as we’d come back from our Hanukkah vacation, tales of victorious Maccabees would be abruptly displaced by stories about ghettos and death camps. The testimonies would become more and more vivid over time. But every year, the lessons ended with the same question: “Did you have relatives who died in the Holocaust?”

That first year, I listened to my friends’ accounts of their grandparents or second cousins or third-aunts-once-removed. But when my turn came around, I answered, “No.”

“Your grandfather, Simon Stieglitz, barely escaped the Nazi invasion,” my mother told me later that year. “He and his father joined the Red Army, but his father died almost immediately. Simon was left all alone in the world.”

I lay in bed, listening to the story, and tried to imagine my grandfather as he might have been at 16. Why did he choose to lie about his age and join the army? What was it like to leave behind everything he knew?

What I didn’t ponder was who it was, exactly, that my grandfather left behind. Neither did I ask myself what the words “only he and his father escaped” implied, or why Stieglitz was “all alone in the world” after his father died. Everything but the young soldier with the brown eyes and the Polish accent faded into the background. I focused on my grandfather’s wartime heroics and ignored everything else.

A year later, when my fourth-grade teacher asked if we lost any relatives in the Holocaust, I once again said “no.”

“I didn’t know I was Jewish until I was 14,” my mother told me one evening, her fingers stroking my hair. “But I knew that there was a secret in our lives, that something was unsaid.” One day, she and her older brother were exploring their home in Siberia, and opened a locked closet door. They found a large leather portfolio, full of letters addressed to their father and signed by official-sounding entities like the Red Cross. The letters contained lists of people who shared their last name, and alien phrases like “Jew,” “Holocaust,” and “fate unknown.”

“We put the letters back and went to play elsewhere,” my mother said. “My father must have inquired after the people in the lists, but he never spoke about them. He buried it all within himself.”

I barely listened to that part of story. I was too caught up in my mother and uncle’s adventure, and the exciting suggestion that their childhood was shrouded in secrets. I conjured a detailed picture of the two of them in my mind. I imagined their faces, young and curious, as they faced that closed door. I could practically taste their excitement as they opened the portfolio, and then as the letters—their first real clue—spilled onto their laps. I was so lost in this real-life detective story that the meaning of the lists and names completely slipped my mind. Once again, my mother’s story didn’t stop me from saying “no” in class.

I continued saying “no” for years, well into high school. But then, one day, everything changed. I was thinking about the old stories, idly gliding through their twists and turns, when the words “escaped alone” brought me to a screeching halt. I straightened in my chair and terrible questions flooded my mind, questions I never considered before: Who didn’t escape? Simon’s mother, his brothers, sisters? How many did he even have?

I looked back at the family narrative, and felt oddly adrift. Loss overshadowed my grandfather’s wartime adventures and my mother’s childhood explorations. I could no longer hear the exciting stories of my grandfather’s escape without thinking of death.

That year, when my teacher asked, “Did you have relatives who died in the Holocaust?” I said “yes” for the very first time.

I sat there in class, my short “yes” still hanging in the air, and realized that I had nothing more to add. My friends filled the gloomy silence with stories about their deceased relatives. They mentioned this-great-grandma’s legendary cooking or that-great-uncle’s town of birth. But I had nothing to say.

“I think my father couldn’t handle the memories,” my mother explained when I came home that afternoon. “The annihilation of everything and everyone he knew broke him. He didn’t want to have anything to do with the past anymore. He wasn’t alone, you know—many people who survived the Holocaust couldn’t bring themselves to speak about it.”

My mother and uncle pieced together the contours of their father’s history from little facts they uncovered here and there. They knew that Simon Stieglitz came from a yeshiva background, and that his Polish-Jewish family made it as far as Ukraine, probably all the way to Dnepropetrovsk. Sometime after Simon and his father joined the war effort, the invading Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators slaughtered the Jews in the city. But we never found out what exactly happened to our relatives. We never even discovered who they were.

That night I lay awake in bed and thought about my relatives. Did I look like them? What sort of people were they? What did they love and hate, what did they value? Did any of those lost Stieglitzes share my mother’s smile or my late uncle’s sense of humor? The more I wondered, the angrier I became. How could my grandfather steal these memories from us? What gave him the right?

In 1948, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate defined the Tenth of Tevet—a fast day originally commemorating the siege of Jerusalem by Babylonia’s King Nebuchadnezzar more than 2,600 years ago—as a day to commemorate the Holocaust in general, and those victims whose date of death is unknown in particular. In the case of my grandfather’s family, the date of their deaths was only one of many things that remained unknown.

Time passed, and my resentment festered. I could no longer think of my grandfather as a heroic soldier, or as a courageous boy striving to survive. The broken man who closed that closet door took their place in my imagination. I pitied him. I grieved for him. But I couldn’t think of him without remembering my mother’s hopeful attempts to learn more about her roots. I thought of that day she told me about, long ago in her childhood, when her father sang a lullaby in Yiddish but left the room as soon as she asked him how he knew the words. I thought of her sadness when she described to me her father’s refusal to support her application for an immigration visa to Israel and mentioned his absence from my parents’ illegal Jewish wedding ceremony in Moscow. I thought of the wistful look in her eyes when she came back from a trip to Dnepropetrovsk a few years back. She hoped to learn more about her family, but because of my grandfather’s silence, she didn’t even have names to look for in the local archives. I thought of her disappointment every time, and remembered my grandfather with anger and, at best, with slightly disdainful compassion. But I never remembered him with pride.

Over the years I reconstructed our family story in my mind, and relegated Simon Stieglitz to a supporting role. He was the man who set the stage for my mother and uncle’s journey of discovery, by hiding their roots. When they discovered that they were Jews in their teens, he was also the man who urged them to hide that truth and live a lie. But from that point on, Michael and Natasha Stieglitz’s journey took central stage, as they pursued their heritage through research and learning, and immigrated to the Jewish State. Simon’s disapproval and attempts to stop them didn’t even earn him the villain’s role in the story: What were one man’s paltry efforts compared with the Iron Curtain itself?

My mother walked off the plane into Israel’s sunlight and felt instantly at home. She learned more about Jewish history and customs and became religious. But while the distant Jewish past was easy enough to explore, she never learned more about her family’s recent history. Her father continued to withhold information to his dying day. He refused to share any details or names, anything that could be used to search through databases. We never stopped trying: My parents recently commissioned a researcher to look for clues in my grandfather’s military papers. We are waiting to hear from him, hoping against hope that this time, finally, we will learn more.

When my children were born here in Israel, I felt like they were yet another victory in our ongoing family journey. So many forces tried to keep us away from our roots and our identity. The pogroms, the Holocaust, the Soviet regime, my own grandfather—all tried their best, and all ultimately failed.

But when I held my sleeping infants in my arms, I also thought of everything we lost along the way. My children are our family’s future, but they will never know their whole past. Were there ever little Stieglitzes with my daughter’s curls? Did any of them have dimples like my son’s? One day, I knew, my children’s teachers will ask them if they lost any relatives in the Holocaust. And my children will have nothing to say but a short, barren “yes.”

At first, these thoughts resurrected my old resentment in all its bitterness. But as my babies grew into toddlers, I learned what it meant to love one’s children. And one day I looked back at my grandfather’s choices, and understood what I was too blind to see before.

Yes, Simon Stieglitz buried the boy he used to be—the 16-year-old boy with the payos—deep within the loyal Soviet citizen he wanted to become. And yes, he buried all his memories, too. But he didn’t merely do so as a son and brother choosing to forget his family, or as a broken individual, too weak to face the past. He did it also as a protective father, who had his children’s best interests at heart.

My grandfather raised children in Stalin’s Russia, where anti-Semitism was widespread and annihilation was an ever-present threat. His Jewish roots marked his parents and siblings for slaughter. They doomed him to live his life forever haunted by lingering questions, and memories of bitter loss. Is it truly so surprising that Simon Stieglitz wanted to protect his children from the same threats and burdens? Was it so unreasonable of him to try and give them a clean slate?

When my grandfather closed that closet door, he doomed his past family to oblivion, and his future family to ignorance. But first and foremost, he doomed himself to years of carrying his memories alone. He was willing to suffer if it meant that his children could live under the sun, happy and relatively safe. I’m not sure I would have had the courage, or the fortitude, to do the same.

When the Tenth of Tevet comes—this year, it falls on Jan. 8—I can’t tell my children about the relatives we lost in the Holocaust. But I can and will tell them about their great-grandfather. I will tell them that he was both a war hero and a haunted victim, a son who chose silence and a father who wanted his children to lie. But even though I think his decisions were wrong, and even though I regret their consequences, I can’t ignore one salient fact: Simon Stieglitz was a man who sacrificed his own needs for his children’s well-being. Such a man, such an ancestor, deserves our respect and our pride.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Rachel Sharansky Danziger is a Boston-based writer and educator who blogs about Judaism, storytelling and daily life. Her work can be found on The Times of Israel, Project 929 and other online venues.