Writing about the kin of survivors, I finally looked in the mirror

I have written stories about musicians, policemen, teachers, race car drivers, hairstylists, priests, rabbis, artists, mechanics, librarians, surgeons, drug addicts and even child molesters. Yet I am none of these things. For some reason, that has always made me feel more comfortable asking difficult questions of my sources.

How easy it is to observe from the sidelines. This week, for the first time, I stepped onto the field, writing a cover story for which I could have interviewed myself.

I, too, am the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor.

Never have I worked on a story that has forced me to so closely examine myself.

What does it mean to me that I am the grandchild of a survivor? What kind of responsibility do I feel to keep my grandmother’s history alive? These are questions with no easy answers.

My grandmother, Sandra Klein, never spoke to me about the Holocaust. She died in 2002, before I ever found the courage to ask her about it.

So this week I called my mom. I had so many questions. To which she responded, “Why don’t you ask Aunt Charlotte?”

Charlotte is my grandmother’s sister. She is 92 and still lives independently in a San Diego apartment. I haven’t seen her in five years. Still, she was happy to field my questions, to fill in the gaps in my knowledge.

Charlotte was one year older than my grandmother. They had three brothers and another sister, and grew up in Nagybereg, a small town that was at the time in Czechoslovakia but that’s now a part of Hungary.

In late 1943, the Nazis forced the family from their beautiful home into the Beregszász ghetto. After a month, they were sent to Auschwitz. Charlotte recalled being separated immediately from their parents and their older sister, who was killed because she refused to leave her 6-year-old son.

“When we got there, they shaved our heads,” Charlotte said. “At first I didn’t know which one was your grandmother, we looked so different.”

Somehow, Sandra and Charlotte remained together, full of sorrow though not without hope. The pair found their brother Lou in Prague shortly after the war ended. In 1948, the siblings moved to New York and a year later settled in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Survivors’ stories are always amazing. But this column, like this week’s cover story, isn’t really about them.

It’s about us, the Third Generation, about how our grandparents influenced us and how their legacy defines our own.

What surprised me most during the time I worked on this story is how much we have in common.

Johanna Silver told me how at times she’s felt the whole world’s pain. Todd Jason described his grandparents’ experience as an occasional “reality check” when he’s feeling low. Julie Bernstein believes the best way to make something from her grandparents’ suffering is to maintain high expectations and work hard.

After each interview, I thought: Me too. And like many of them, I hadn’t necessarily associated any of these characteristics with my grandmother. But the dots connect.

Sandra and Charlotte spent one year in Auschwitz. My grandma was a worn, wary and hungry 27-year-old when the camp was liberated.

I turned 27 last month: To celebrate I went to dinner with my girlfriends and drank a lot of wine.

When I realized this somewhat eerie parallel (after my birthday, while conducting research for this column), I felt incredibly blessed to have a grandmother so determined to survive. She would have loved that I marked my birthday with good food and friends.

Writing this story gave me a new perspective, but I haven’t yet concluded what it means to be my grandmother’s granddaughter.

Will I figure it out? Maybe.

Or maybe not. Perhaps living — fully, wildly, happily — to honor her spirit and strength is enough.

Stacey Palevsky lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected].

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.