Minnesota Mamaleh: Against All Odds, My Grandmother’s Story

Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah, is this Sunday. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think about the Holocaust very often.

Three Generations: Ima, Safta and Me

When I come across some literature, a news clip, a movie, obviously. I pause and take note. An extra moment to notice. To think. My heart skip a beat. My eyes tear up. And I always feel just a titch helpless. And then I move on.

But I am thinking about it now. I’m wondering as a third generation survivor, what can I do for people like my Grandparents who are survivors? And as a mom, what can I do for people like my children who are fourth generation survivors? I wonder about the connection between the two and where I fit into it?

My Grandmother, who I call Safta lives in Israel and has never met my husband or my children. But they know who she is from my mish-mash of memories and photos. They know that she’s a little old lady who loves to chit-chat. Kvetch. And Boss. That she has a great sense of humor, that she’s about 4’10 and that she speaks many languages. They know that she likes trashy TV, sweets and getting things done on her own. So basically, they know that she’s a lot like me.

What they don’t know about is the Holocaust. I can’t even begin to imagine how to teach my children about that horror and our family’s relationship to it.  But one day they’ll need to know. Want to know. And it’ll my job to tell them. So here I am today, preparing to tell my kids about something they don’t even know to ask about yet. My Safta, Sara (Sore) Voloshin is a Holocaust survivor. And this is her story.

From Diary of the Vilna Ghetto. From the top: Safta's Cousin Yitzhak, My Great Aunt, My Great Grandmother and my Safta

In 1939 when World War II started, Safta was an eleven year old girl living in Vilna, Lithuania. In 1941 Safta, her mother, father and sister, grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousin were forced into the Vilna ghetto. In 1943 the ghetto got infiltrated. Safta’s grandmother died there, and the rest of the family went into hiding in an uncle’s attic. Until they were discovered, just two weeks later.

They were led to a long line at Ponary, by a forested area. Ponary was called “the killing field” and they all knew that they were waiting to be shot. Safta’s thirteen year old cousin, Yitzhak Rudashevski had watched this scene play out for too many from that attic window and wrote about it in his diary.

They all wanted to run. Of course they did! But where-oh-where would they go? Using terrified, raw, gut instinct, Safta’s  mother grabbed her arms, looked her in the eyes and told her: You’re fast. And smart. Run. Run fast. And don’t stop until you reach the other side of the forest. And while the rest of her family stood. And died. She did exactly that. She ran.

Except she got stopped by a guard, who inexplicably turned the other way and let her go.

Except she got stopped by the Gestapo, who inexplicably believed her made-up story about forgotten papers, proof of who she was and that it was okay to be out and about, and having lost her way from her work camp.

Except she was fourteen. And alone.

Except literally against all odds, Safta got taken to a work camp where Jewish police were in charge. The best of a bad situation. These policemen gave her papers to use. Papers that had once belonged to someone else; until they died. And these same policemen organized her release, her escape into the forest.

She joined a group of partisans. And at fourteen years old, she became a Holocaust-resistance “runner,” delivering weapons, papers, whatever was needed and necessary to help save lives.

After six months or so of running, working, risking and living in the forest, Liberation Day arrived. And Safta, now fifteen, rode into her once hometown of Vilna on a big bad tank driven by Abraham Sutzkever. Her partisan commander. A soldier. A poet. A writer. I so love that image of her!

“Triumphant” in this case, meant alive. Safta was triumphant. And she wanted to see her home. Her hiding spot. Where she was last within the folds of family. Again, against all odds, she went into the hiding-spot-attic and found her cousin’s diary. She read. And cried. She reminisced. And then she cried some more.

My Grandparents on vacation in 1955. My Safta is 27 years old here. What a fabulous looking couple, right?!

At fifteen, she knew that she had more than a diary in her fingertips. She was holding a piece of history. So she gave the diary to Sutzkever. Who eventually handed the diary over to YIVO. And there, it was published as part of a compilation in honor those who died in Vilna.

Safta worked. Made money. Got a law degree. In law school she met her husband, Marik. They had a daughter, my mom. Then moved to Israel. And had a son, my uncle.

And they lived. Against all odds.

My Grandparents on vacation in The 90s. She is 60-ish here and still looking great! By the way, how cute are they?!

Safta has never used that hard earned law degree. Instead, she dedicated her whole life to Yad VaShem, The Holocaust Remembrance Museum in Israel. Translating countless numbers of documents. Artifacts. Stories. She rarely tells her own story, though. I imagine it’s too painful. Too personal. Too raw. But more than sixty years later, she still takes a bus to work to keep telling others’ stories. Because for her the Holocaust does come up every single day. At work, by choice. And in her heart, because how could it not?

Safta has recently decided that she wants, that she needs, her cousin’s diary to be close-by at Yad VaShem. Why now? Not sure. How? Also not sure. What can I do? Stumped again. All that I do know, all that I feel, is that my Safta has a big story to tell. And that I can do for her.

My Safta and me in Israel! Oh, how very 1970s we are!

So now Safta’s story has been told. And it’s written down. Yom HaShoah is just around the corner and I haven’t discussed, taught or shared any of this with my young children. I can’t even begin to wrap my brain around what that’s going to be like, feel like. For any of us. What I do know is what it’s like to be heard. And to finally hear. From my Safta’s lips to my ears. To my heart. Which is now wide open.

We don’t have control over survivors’ fears. Nightmares.  Stress. Or trauma. What we can do while survivors are with us is listen to them when they talk. Whenever that might be. And when they’re gone, we can share and pass on what we heard. Learned. Felt. That I can do.

My Grandparents. Against all odds.

Many of us have been told this for as long as we can remember. We must keep telling the stories. The words. The lives. Of our people so we never forget. And so they are never forgotten. And so some of the most horrid parts of history are never ever repeated. But this morning as I talked to Safta on the phone, I actually heard, actually felt that lesson. I could hear her smile in her voice once she heard that.

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About Galit Breen

Galit Breen was a classroom and reading teacher for ten years. She has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in human development. In 2009, she launched a career as a freelance writer entrenched in social media. Since then, her work has been featured in various online magazines including Brain, Child, The Huffington Post, TIME, and xoJane. Breen lives in Minnesota with her husband, three children, and a ridiculously spoiled miniature golden doodle. Her book, Kindness Wins, is a simple no-nonsense guide to teaching our kids how to be kind online. You can learn more about Galit by visiting TheseLittleWaves.com.
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