The Calvin family with IDF soldiers on the tracks leading to Auschwitz-Birkenau on April 15 (Photo/Shahar Azran)
The Calvin family with IDF soldiers on the tracks leading to Auschwitz-Birkenau on April 15 (Photo/Shahar Azran)

Discovering pieces of my Jewish identity, in Poland and Israel

Last month, my grandparents Allen and Dorothy Calvin took their seven grandchildren, including me, on the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) “From Holocaust to Independence” mission to Poland and Israel. It wasn’t a graduation, but it was a commencement, reconnecting me and my family to the darker side of our heritage in the camps and to the eternal light, represented by Israel.

Although not a traditional family vacation, it was not unusual for our grandparents to go on this kind of trip. Over their 50-plus years of marriage, they traveled the world. They hoped this would be an educational opportunity as well as a chance for us to spend time with our busy family.

I love my family, and I think its diversity quite beautiful, in a uniquely Bay Area kind of way. My siblings and I were all adopted into a white, Jewish family. I was born in Lima, Peru, and both my brother and sister are from South Korea. Raised Jewish, we all had b’nai mitzvah and grew up with Shabbat dinners and Jewish holidays, first outside Atlanta and then in California, where we moved almost two decades ago.

Although we were traveling with my grandparents from my mother’s side, my thoughts often turned to my father’s parents, both of whom are Holocaust survivors. Grandma Bella was born in Sosnowiec (Sosnowitz), near Krakow, and was sent to the Sosnowiec Ghetto until 1942; she was later shipped to Bergen-Belsen. Grandpa Henry was born in Lodz, and was in the Lodz Ghetto until it was liquidated in August 1944. Then he and his parents were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. My grandparents’ families suffered horrific loses during World War II, and I took that memory with me on our trip.

We arrived in Warsaw, then traveled to Krakow, where we visited the old Jewish quarter and heard firsthand stories from Holocaust survivors over dinner. We remembered the tragic fate of Tarnow’s Jews, and saw the graves of more than 800 Jewish children in the Buczyna forest. We all knew that Auschwitz was just around the corner.

On our last day in Poland, we marched with a contingent of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers into Auschwitz-Birkenau. When I passed through the gate, I felt eeriness and disbelief over how big the concentration camp was. The train tracks created a visible line, separating who lived and who died. We saw the remnants of the gas chambers that the Nazis destroyed in a futile attempt to hide their genocide, and the sleeping barracks where a Holocaust survivor described life in Auschwitz. The pain in his voice and expression on his face showed how hard it was for him, but he knew the importance of keeping his voice alive.

I wanted nothing more than to leave that evil place, but we remained to honor their memory.

I imagined my young grandparents in these camps — separated from their families, working endless hours with little to no food, seeing friends and family members put to death. You can’t help but cry for the Jewish people. I wanted nothing more than to leave that evil place, but we remained to honor their memory.

Finally, we flew to Israel as a group on a plane FIDF chartered. During the flight, one of the Holocaust survivors, Leon Shear, who now lives in Ohio, celebrated his bar mitzvah since he’d never had the chance in Poland after the war broke out. Everyone was smiling or crying, or both.

There’s something special about the Old City of Jerusalem, no matter your level of religious observance or spirituality. We came together as a group and family to celebrate Israel’s 70th Independence Day.

We had the privilege of hearing President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak about the evolving State of Israel. That night, the streets were crowded with revelers.

I had a realization about the people of Israel: They have so much pride in their country, and that’s what unites them. They’re proud of their food, their wine, their art and their new technology. There’s so much to be proud of in Israel, and so much to fight for.

With my unique background, I’d always struggled with my identity. It wasn’t until my first trip to Israel two years ago that I really began to feel part of a group of people. My dad’s father had passed away before that, and during my first visit to the Western Wall, I asked a stranger to help me say the Mourner’s Kaddish for my grandpa. He told me that I couldn’t without a minyan, and immediately went about recruiting the men and helping me through the prayer. A few days later, I returned to the Wall and wept. No one had questioned the authenticity of my Jewishness. And it was the most proud I’d ever felt to be a member of the tribe.

Now, thanks to my grandparents, and this trip with FIDF, I have the second piece of my Jewishness — the darker part of my heritage, where the Jewish flame was almost extinguished forever. And I again see Israel in a new light: keeper of a strong Jewish people, with the IDF as the force ensuring that “Never Again” holds true.

This time, as I went down to the Western Wall again to pray for grandfather, I let him know that he could be happy now that all of his grandchildren had finally come home to the land of Israel.

Leo Tovey

Leo Tovey grew up in the Bay Area and lives and works in Napa Valley.