30 years ago today (26 February), my Oma passed away from intestinal cancer, 1 month shy of her 66th birthday and about 1 month after the diagnosis. I was nearly 13 when she passed away, just shy of that age where you start appreciating the stories and history your parents and grandparents share with you, if you’re interested in family history and that sort of thing.
A few months ago, one of my cousins asked me what Oma was like, and one thing that struck me recently was that out of all my cousins on my Dad’s side of the family, probably only my brother Brian and I remember or knew Oma the best. Read Remembering Oma 30 Years After Her Passing
Thursday night, Noel and I watched the very moving documentary called The Lion of Judah. The documentary follows Leo Zisman, a Holocaust survivor now living in New York City, and his journey with several young Jewish men and women to visit Auschwitz (including Birkenau) Poland. He uses the opportunity to explain his experiences to the group, and the filmmaker takes the chance to interview younger Polish locals, other Jewish visitors, and a Polish historian, as well as the non-Jewish videographer who accompanied the group.
To see some of the sights this group experienced is sobering, and Zisman (I feel) is very good at explaining his experiences in ways that everyone can relate to. It is a documentary I would recommend people watch because, as Noel pointed out, the last Holocaust survivors are becoming fewer and fewer; thank God we live in an age where their experiences, wisdom, and insight can be documented for all time.
One of the interviewees, a Colombian woman who recently converted to Judaism, accompanied Zisman and his group to the concentration camps and memorials, and a statement she made stuck out to me: we see pictures of these places, like the gas chambers at Auschwitz, but they really don’t impact us until we are really there. Originally, I said to Noel that pictures don’t do a place justice sometimes, but reflecting more on this now, I realise that there must be such a strong aura or presence of sorrow, dispair, and death these places hold that pictures cannot capture either: only the more sensitive of us can pick up on these things.
My great-grandmother, a Russian woman who married a German man, grew mentally-ill with (I think) was some form of schizophrenia. The Nazi regime took her to the Hadamar Clinic (now, years later, officially revealed as the Hadamar Euthanasia Centre), where she and approximately 14,000 others were killed or starved as a part of the Nazi’s T-4 Euthanasia Programme. Even typing it makes part of me very angry and another part of me extremely sad.
Watching The Lion of Judah, Noel kept asking, “How can people do this sort of thing to one another?” It’s a very good question, and the Holocaust wasn’t the first or last time humanity has seen this sort of campaign. Post-Holocaust: The Killing Fields in the late 70s after the Cambodian Civil War. The Bosnian Genocide during the Bosnian War in the 90s. The Rwandan Genocide in 1994 as a part of the Rwandan Civil War. The Darfur Genocide during the War in Darfur in the early 2000s.
So, we swing back to the lessons the Holocaust can give us today. In The Lion of Judah, the focus of Zisman and the filmmakers is predominantly on teaching younger Jewish people about what happened. Personally, I would have rather seen Zisman and the filmmakers take a diverse group of people (black, white, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, gay, straight, et cetera) from various nations to Auschwitz and Poland to speak about his experiences and encourage the diverse group of people to celebrate their differences and stand-up to violence against any group. Let them learn through living history. These people could be ambassadors of sorts, spreading the message of tolerance and acceptance to others in their communities and government, so humanity can at least try to prevent something like the Holocaust happening again.
(The big questions we need to ask ourselves as the human race right now is… Why are we not fighting harder to stop Uganda from passing this Anti-Homosexuality Bill? Why can’t we force Syria to stop the bloodshed? Why can’t we make Israel and Palestine sit down at a table and make them find a workable solution to their conflict?)
If we don’t learn from our past, it’s doomed to repeat… And one thing we should be striving towards as the human race, whether you personally like a certain group of people or not, is ensuring everyone has a good shot at having the best lives they possibly can, without fear, hate, bigotry, violence, prejudice, segregation, or intolerance.
Apologies for the breaks between my blogs. I’ve actually been unwell for most of this year, so, with work and life and other committments, my oomph to publish a blog every day is not quite there. I will get there because I am feeling better… Now on to the blog!
In the last few years, I’ve suddenly become interested in my family’s history. Maybe it’s that overwhelming question of, “Who am I?” or watching too many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? and hoping to find something utterly fantastic and romantic out about my family somewhere along the way.
My Grandma, the last living grandparent I have now, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s / dementia earlier this year, and my Mom, Dad, brothers, and sister-in-law had been working frantically to get things sorted out for her, including finding an assisted living facility. Noel and I weren’t even in Chicago for 24 hours when Noel helped my brothers and Dad move Grandma into her new home, while Mom, Grandma and I went through the paperwork to get her sorted out. Of course, we had to clean out Grandma’s old condominium and sell it too.
Last year when Noel and I were Stateside, Mom and I spoke with Grandma to find out information about her family. Grandma is the youngest of 13 children, and the only remaining living sibling out of her family. While some of her siblings died in their childhood, six of them lived until adulthood; basically, we have a really big family. So Mom knew names, but she wanted to find out some of the connections we didn’t know about. As we kinda knew Grandma’s memory was failing, we wanted pictures to prompt her, but Grandma was adamant that she didn’t have any old photos.
As she got tired, Grandma turned around to me and snapped, “Why do you want to know all this for anyway?”
The question kinda smacked me between the eyes, but I calmly replied, “Because I want to know where I come from. Gavin and Connor (my nephews) will want to know where they come from. And once you’re gone, that knowledge is too.”
She seemed to understand this answer, but Mom and I knew she was getting tired, so we left it for the day.
Back to August 2012… Mom and my brother Jeremy were cleaning out Grandma’s storage unit (down the corridor from her condo unit) while Noel and I were cleaning up odds and ends around the condo itself, when Jeremy came in with boxes and boxes of old photos, slides and home movies! Mom and I were excited (Mom a little more perturbed than I was, since her mother had told her she had no old photos and here was box upon box full of treasures) and couldn’t wait to get our hands on them.
Mom and I spent many hours combing through the photos and slides. There were quite a few duds amongst them (a picture of someone 30 feet away in front of a fountain. Great. Who are they?) but we got a few gems in there. Of course, there were also mysteries; who were the young boy and girl at the Berlin Zoo? We had first names but few ideas why there would be a handful of photos of them and other people.
There were pictures of another brother and sister, John and Susan, who lived in Canada. Mom remembers them visiting and she also remembers visiting them, but how they were related was sketchy.
So here we are, faced with all these mysteries that we hopefully will unravel. My cousin Jackie came up with the idea of gathering those of us related Dittrichs all in a Facebook group to keep in touch a little bit easier, but a side consequence of this is Mom and I have been able to upload a few old family photos to share. What has been great is that these old photos seem to spark intrigue and interest in my cousins too.
One of the conclusions I’ve come to is that, even though I didn’t get to meet some of my great-grandparents or any of my great-great-grandparents in real life, they are the reason I am here. They are why I am who I am. My ancestors took the gamble that coming to the USA, the land of opportunities, would help their family thrive and provide chances they wouldn’t normally get in their home countries; the gamble paid off.
And I often wonder what I would do if I was able to go back in time and thank them. Maybe on one of the less exciting days of their lives, as they worked their guts out to make ends meet and provide for their families, to show up and say, “I’m your great grandchild. By you working hard, you provided a wonderful life for me. Thank you.”
I’d get to tell them all the exciting places I’d been. Australia. New Caledonia. Vanuatu. Indonesia. New Zealand. I’d get to show them pictures of those who walked in their shoes after they left this earth. Hopefully, it would give them peace of mind to know they would live on through us.
I guess the moral of the story is that we should try to record this information for our ancestors’ sakes, so they don’t have to ask the same questions we have because we’ll be able to provide them some answers. That’s the exciting thing about living in the 21st century; we have computers, we have back-ups, we have all this technology available to us that they will be able to access to find out more and more about where they come from.
So, who are you? Don’t wait until tomorrow to find out. Good luck!