At Auschwitz, A Letter To My Grandfather

The most intense day of my life just happened. Our group toured Auschwitz-Birkenau today and I’ve been dreading stepping foot on the exact platform my grandfather arrived at almost 80 years ago. We were scheduled to visit this spot in the afternoon and then severe weather set in. We were delayed and my anxiety ran high that we may get cancelled. 

As the skies cleared, we resumed and it was so very sad for me to walk the same path he took upon arriving and being sent to the gas chambers. It was a ten-minute walk down the platform. I will never forget this. At the end of the day, we gathered to reflect and this is the letter I wrote to him. I am so grateful for this experience and to be surrounded by these amazing teachers.

As I finished reading, there was a ray of sunshine that broke through the clouds behind me. A Divine presence was felt.

To my Grandfather Menachem,

On April 11, 1944, you were deported from Greece on transport No. 20 along with 1,500 Greek Jews. Out of this number, 320 men were selected for work, 113 women were selected for work and 1,067 Greek Jews were sent straight to the gas chambers upon arrival. This was your fate that April evening. Your wife, my grandmother, learned about your death from an eyewitness who made his way back to Greece and told us your story. 

This eyewitness recounted a scene of this platform showcasing your rebellious and insolent personality. Within sight of the boxcars almost immediately after the transport’s arrival, you noted the manner of selection, registered that those going to the left seemed ill, older, or more frail than those going to the right. You feigned a limp thinking you would be saved by being sent to the left. You then winked at this witness thinking you had tricked the Nazi officer. As you were directed to the left, you made the universal gesture of “f’ck you” with your flexed arm. 

This decision of yours seems so absurd knowing what I know today about the selection at Auschwitz. Nevertheless, this is the story my mother grew up with. Know that our family has spent years trying to find out even the smallest additional detail about you and your death here. Even fantasizing that somehow you escaped. We’ve looked for you in Greece, in Israel, in the German archives, in the Auschwitz collections, looking and searching for a morsel of hope that the story we heard was wrong.

But no matter how much I looked around the world for information, the truth is that it is within myself that I feel I have found you, I have felt you watching over me, at my bat mitzvah, at my wedding, with my children, talking with my mother, I have found you. I have found you through my Judaism, lighting the Shabbat candles, hosting a Passover seder, on my walks, in my quiet spaces, watching my children grow, and finding love, I have found you.  

You were here in 1944, and now almost 80 years later I am here. I am here to bear witness and remember you, remember your brother, remember your sister, and our other family. I stand here as a Greek Jew to help create a new story for our people. One that includes asking others to help us raise and educate the next generation with a moral compass that embraces all of our humanity. 

We can do better, and I pray for our descendants to look back to us, and not see the destruction of a people, but the empowerment that we did everything we could to bring more peace and justice and equality to our world and learn from your story.

Laura Zelle is the director of Holocaust Education at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She is leading a trip of educators to Europe.