The Holocaust Is in My Blood: Bearing the Scars and Stories of Survivor Grandparents

My Zayde told us about his childhood in Kazimierz, and about burying half-alive bodies in Buchenwald. What it means to be the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, and to lose them

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My last photo with my Zayde
My last photo with my ZaydeCredit: Gabrielle Briner
Gabrielle Briner
Gabrielle Briner

It took me a few hours to process the news when my mother called me from Australia at 9 P.M. Israel time to tell me my Zayde had passed away. As the messages flooded in from family and friends extending their condolences, I immediately realized this was not going to be an ordinary grief.

Not only was I mourning my beloved grandfather, who was known and loved by many for his sweet and gentle ways, I felt I also was grieving his haunting, history-laden past, now no longer living memories. 

Growing up one hour’s drive away in Brisbane, I would see my Zayde every weekend and on every high holiday without fail. If you'd have met him, he would have charmed you too, with his welcoming smile, and his adorable accent; you could never have guessed the horrors he’d lived through. This is his story.

My Zayde, Zelig Berkhut, is a Holocaust survivor from Krakow, Poland, and his is a remarkable story of survival. Growing up in Kazimierz, the city’s vibrant Jewish quarter, his parents owned a local restaurant serving up warm, stodgy Ashkenazi classics. He told us stories of his simple, happy childhood: Getting up to mischief in secular school in the morning, and playing poker for buttons in his Cheder class in the afternoon.

One year after, he first saw the well-dressed German soldiers in town (thanks, Hugo Boss), the atmosphere had changed; his bar mitzvah in 1940 was a hurried and rushed ceremony.

During one of the many liquidations of the Krakow Ghetto, in 1942, his mother hid him and told him to wait until his father would collect him after work. She kissed him with an urgency he didn’t want to understand, and that was the last time he saw her and his two younger siblings, Chana and Jacob.

He and his father were imprisoned in Plaszow concentration camp, where he said every day brought a new tragedy. He would tell us, in unadorned language, that he saw young boys being hanged for stealing bread, and that’s when he learned you say the Shema prayer before you die. He piled earth over bodies, after they were shot dead, and was haunted by watching the soil shiver – the victims were still alive, and slowly suffocating.

They were eventually transported to Buchenwald, where they labored in unliveable conditions for the rest of the war. He was sustained by watery soup and old hard bread, one daily meal, but survived by eating potato skins dumped outside the kitchen where the staff meals were cooked. One day before the camp was liberated, the Nazis shot tens of thousands of inmates – including my Zayde’s father.

After the war, he was sent to a rehabilitation centre for young orphaned boys in Lyon, France. A couple of years later, knowing he wanted to be as far from Europe as possible, he boarded the S.S. Derna, a crowded ship bound for Brisbane, Australia.

My Zayde in his early post-war years in AustraliaCredit: Gabrielle Briner

My mother Peta, and her siblings Susie and Andrew, grew up knowing he survived the Holocaust and lost his mother and siblings in the gas chambers in Majdanek, but were cautious not to ask too much.

It wasn’t until us grandchildren came along, innocently, nonchalantly asking the tough questions. I remember enthusiastically asking my Zayde about his "camp experiences," keen to equate his experiences to my summer camp fun, riding water slides under the scorching Aussie sun. He told me when he was at camp, he built roads made out of the headstones from a Jewish cemetery for 14 hours a day; he taught me that’s why the roads were built in a curved, rainbow-like shape.

Despite that enthusiasm for hearing his stories, I still feel guilty that, when he was alive, I didn’t share his story enough. Though my Zayde’s story of loss played a role in my decision to move to Israel, it’s not something that comes up in casual conversation; and bringing it up takes preparation, and strength.

My Zayde on his wedding day in 1958Credit: Gabrielle Briner

Stories like mine are common among third generation survivors across the world: As we slowly lose our grandparents, as the world population of Holocaust survivors contracts, we are left alone to bear their distinctive memories, whilst still grappling with our own traumas and guilt.

Research shows that I’m not alone in feeling the way I feel. Looking at the academic literature of how intergenerational trauma is passed down to descendants of Holocaust survivors presents some shocking findings. Undergoing trauma can change your biology, and your children’s biology too, according to a study which examined how the descendants of traumatized mice showed behavioral changes for up to five generations.

These changes were both molecular and behavioral: for instance, the mice took more risks on an elevated maze. Intergenerational trauma can also mess with cortisol levels, the hormone associated with stress, as well as producing heightened vulnerability in stressful situations. If you have two Holocaust survivor parents or grandparents, you’re more likely to have mental health problems, the same study found.

The Jewish world has done a wonderful job at establishing frameworks that honor the memory of our surviving ancestors, such as Zikaron BaSalon, Never Ever Again! in the UK and Courage to Care in Australia. And years ago, survivors themselves found solace in sharing memories in social groups. I remember my Zayde was deeply connected to his community of survivors, or the ‘Buchenwalder Boys,’ living throughout Australia.

All Zayde's grandchildren with him on his birthday, many years agoCredit: Gabrielle Briner

All this considered, how is it that there are so few forums for third generation survivors to share our feelings and our memories? How can we be expected to keep alive the memory of our grandparents if we don’t have a platform to share our experiences with each other and the world?

Perhaps this is just how history works; tragic large-scale atrocities have always happened in history, and are still happening today. Maybe we just need to suck it up and move on, and let Yad Vashem take care of Holocaust education from now on. This is just how the world works, right?

Wrong. Holocaust denial and historical revisionists are emerging from the shadows, less than a century since the Holocaust took place. Two thirds of Gen Z-ers in the U.S. don’t know what Auschwitz is. With fewer and fewer survivors living to see each Holocaust Remembrance Day, we, their descendants, are key living evidence that the Holocaust even happened.

I’m not equating my experience to survivors, or comparing my lived experiences to the hardships they faced in their postwar lives. Nor do I think third generation survivors should be put on any kind of pedestal. 

But if Israel and the Jewish world continues to say "never forget" and really mean it, we third generation survivors need to come together, formally, and assume responsibility for our ancestors’ memories. We need the help of existing institutions to help us do so, and we need not keep quiet like our grandparents did for so many years. 

I rewatched my Zayde’s Steven Spielberg testimony, filmed in my family home in 1995. He didn’t cry, except for right at the end, when his grandchildren entered the frame. When asked how he wanted them to remember him, he just said he wanted us never to forget. 

Well Zayde, I’m here to make sure of it. This year, the first Holocaust Remembrance Day you aren’t here, and every year. We won’t forget, and I’ll do all I can to make sure all of us survivor grandchildren don’t forget to keep telling your story either. 

Gabrielle Briner is an editor at Haaretz. Previously, she worked as a producer and content creator at i24NEWS and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). She is studying for a Master's in environmental science at Tel Aviv University

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