Don’t trip over the skeltons coming from the closet

Looking into the past of relatives living in Europe during World War II can become unnerving. No one really knows what will be uncovered once they start poking around and asking questions.

I am starting to piece together my family’s escape from the Soviet Union and immigration through Europe. I haven’t found Nazi collaboration but I have so many questions that will never be answered. I had several relatives who lived in Litzmannstadt, Prussia, in 1943.

You need to know about the history of Prussia during the war to understand the significance of this. The Nazis renamed Lodz, Prussia (now Poland) to Litzmannstadt. The Nazis murdered 420,000 residents of Lodz- 300,000 Polish Jews and 120,000 Poles. The town gained residents who were Germans living abroad called Volksdeutsch and looking to relocate to Germany, according to Wikipedia’s article on Lodz.

I only learned my mother’s family lived in Lodz from a professional photo taken of an aunt. The photo was stamped by a Litzmannstadt photographer. I had problems finding information on Litzmannstadt so I called an 84-year-old cousin born in Prussia. She said the city was called Lodz before the Germans renamed the city. I put the pieces together when my cousin said her family escaped the Russians in Bialystok (once Russia and now Poland), then applied for German citizenship and was transported to Litzmannstadt.

I really couldn’t press her for more information or ask abrasive questions. She was dying of cancer. She was 16 years old when she moved to Litzmannstadt.  On top of it all, her brother died in Russia while serving in the German army even before he turned 21. Her big brother was her only sibling. I wish I could have asked her “Did you know what was going on around you?;” “Did anyone try to stop the city’s extermination?”

My mother was one years old when she lived in Litzmannstadt. I wonder what my grandfather, a former POW of the Germans, thought about the situation he managed to get into by escaping the Soviet Union. My grandmother was probably living in a fog. She had hardly anything to eat as a child, walked to school as bodies laid in the street and probably wondered if life would ever be enjoyable. My grandfather saved my grandmother a few times from the Nazis occupying Kiev before they could take her to a camp.

My family’s connection to Litzmannstadt became more personal when I watched “Sarah’s Key” with my mother last weekend. The movie is based on a novel about an American journalist who writes an article about the Paris round up of Jews in 1942. The journalist’s parents bought a Paris apartment that was occupied by a Jewish family taken by the Nazis to a concentration camp.

The movie makes me wonder about the families who lived in the apartments where my family stayed before they moved to Germany. I hope one day to learn about what happened to those families. It creeps me out that my family lived in apartments probably owned by Jewish families who were killed in concentration camps.

It is easy to say “my family is not Jewish or German” to avoid thinking about the atrocities of the war. I did not know about my German ancestry until I was in college. I never imagined my family would have a connection to such a terrible part of the war. Anyone researching their family during the war and searching for family who went missing during the war has to be open to finding uncomfortable facts about the family.