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‘Some People, in Spite of Everything, Still Believe’

Even after their deaths, two Holocaust survivors of Bergen-Belsen continue to shape the life of their granddaughter

Stephanie Butnick
April 16, 2015
The author and her paternal grandparents in 1988. (Photo courtesy of the author)

The author and her paternal grandparents in 1988. (Photo courtesy of the author)

When I was 17, I visited Germany with my family for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The trip was sponsored by the local German government and included a large number of survivors of the camp and several of their families. I remember meal after meal of smoked salmon at the hotel in Hanover, solemn performances by German orchestral groups of great importance, and wondering exactly what one wore to tour a former concentration camp. It was a heavy trip, especially for a self-absorbed teenager (I probably went with muted tones for my outfits). All I could think about was how badly I wished my grandparents were still alive, and all the things I would ask them.

That trip was 10 years ago this week, which is kind of astonishing to me. I remember when I realized that 10 years had passed since my bat mitzvah, and feeling awed by the fact that I was old enough to start measuring things in tens. How young I was! But the 10 years since that trip to Germany have been, in large part, shaped by the experience—a fact I only realized very recently, when I was asked to contribute to a book of essays called God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors.

A few months after returning from Germany I headed to college and discovered the study of religion, an academic discipline that allowed me to explore what it is that draws people to faith, how religion impacts our choices and decision-making, and why it is that some people, in spite of everything, still believe. After that, there was graduate school in religious studies, where I continued to try to answer those questions, and unending new ones. I’ve been at Tablet for the four years since then, a place where seemingly insurmountable questions of all sorts are unpacked on a daily basis.

Tonight I’ll be speaking at the Temple Emanuel Skirball Center in Manhattan as part of a Yom HaShoah program, along with several other contributors to the book. I’ll probably talk about that trip in 2005, and all the questions I’ve had since then, and the places they’ve taken me. I’ll maybe describe growing up in the shadow of the shadow of the Holocaust, being reminded by a college professor that the “s” in “Holocaust survivor” isn’t capitalized, and piecing together my family’s wartime stories as I got older.

What I definitely will say is how I wish my grandparents could be there.

Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.