Holocaust Remembrance Day. One day to honor all of those murdered by nazi-ism. 6 million Jews and 5 million others.
A few years ago, I was thinking about identity. It’s something I’ve always struggled with. I’ve always just said I was Italian. It’s easy. Dark features, olive skin, easily identifiable surname, and I knew my paternal grandmother immigrated after WWII to be with my grandfather.
Even then, it didn’t feel right. I didn’t have the typical Italian grandma who was always in the kitchen, making myriad dishes or baked goods, the large family dinners, or anything close to an anchor in Catholicism. Sure, I was baptized as a baby, but that was the extent of my church experience.
This also ignores an entire half of my family. When I was young, I knew my mother’s maiden name was Johnson and she would say she was a ‘mutt’ and that was the end of the conversation.
It wasn’t until I was 18 or 19 and my grandmother was dying of lung cancer that a little bit of history started to seep out. My great grandparents were Polish/Russian immigrants that came over in the early 1900s and they were Jewish. I learned my grandmother spoke 5 languages, including Yiddish and Hebrew. I’ve recently learned my mother celebrated both Jewish and Christian holidays.
This new wrinkle in the “Who am I?” question didn’t resonate immediately. It just kinda sat in my brain for a good many more years. The ties to my Italian heritage were tangible. Though not far removed, my new found Jewish roots were not.
Fast forward to a random trip to the Tampa Bay Holocaust Museum. The weight of the atrocities were bearing down, when I arrived at the end of the self guided tour: a box car from a train. One that served to carry Jews to their deaths at camp from Poland. When I read Poland, a million things fired inside my head. My family is from Poland. They were Jews. A long-forgotten story my mother mentioned about meeting family and friends that had numbers tattooed on their arms surfaced in my brain. I had to sit.
I later called my mom and she didn’t have anything new to reveal. Most of it forgotten. So, I bought a membership to Ancestry.com to see what I could find. Not much. Turns out Moskowitz is the Polish Jew equivalent of Smith. I did learn that my great grandfather immigrated from Łódź, as well as a few of his siblings names, and then the trail went cold.
Which brings us to today. Holocaust Remembrance Day. I’m still not any closer to having an answer to my lingering identity question. I’m not any closer to learning about my ancestors. The thing that changed, though, was I stopped asking, “Who am I?” and started asking, “Who were they?” What happened to the family that didn’t get to come to America? How much of my story died in those camps? Why has my family forgotten?
My quest to learn their names and write their stories continues. I can think of no better way to honor a tiny fraction of the 6 million Jews that were murdered than to pass their names through this family.