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Mom, How Did Our 5-Year-Old Cousin Really Die?

This week marks ‘Yom HaShoah’ or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Is it finally time to tell my children about their heritage?

Families, no matter the culture or heritage, pass stories down to their children. It’s the way we teach them about their traditions, their culture, and their forbearers.

My children learn a bit about their father’s side of the family each time we travel to see them in France. A bit of the language has started to seep in, and my 5-year-old daughter has become quite the fan of foie gras and pungent Roquefort cheese. My 9-year-old son was completely enraptured hearing the story of his great-grandfather who fought for the French Resistance in World War II.

And so I’ve wondered, When will it be time for him to find out the horrible truth of what happened during wartime to my side of the family?

My paternal grandparents were Jews who came from Lodz, Poland. Both of them had large, extended families—parents, several brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. But after 1945 the only family members left alive in Europe were my grandmother and her brother, my grandfather and his three siblings, and a cousin here or there. The rest had been murdered by the Nazis.

I’ve grown up with a very strong knowledge of the Holocaust. My father was born in 1945 in what is now Israel; he was given the name ‘Victor’ to mark the defeat of the Germans. From his naming on forward, almost everything in his life was tied to the way he identifies as being a second-generation survivor. After sailing to the United States in 1951, his parents changed the family name from Bornstein to Borden, a reflection of how frightened they were to connect with their Jewishness, for fear it could ever happen again.

Their rejection of Jewishness became his defiant claim to that birthright. He looks at my children as the triumph over the Nazis, thrilling in the continuation of what they tried to extinguish, but couldn’t. He still lives in the United States but calls Israel “home.”

My son, more so than my daughter, has been exposed to a bit of the history that gets taught in public school and Hebrew school about World War II. He recently learned that millions perished during those years, and knew that Israel had been established as a homeland for the Jews after the war.

He also remembered hearing that his younger cousin had been named in remembrance—as is Jewish custom—for a young relative that had died, and he knew it was a 5-year-old boy who didn’t survive the war.

So as is typical of the way parents and children communicate these days, my son asked me as we were driving in the car, one early morning on the way to school:

“Mom, how did that 5-year-old cousin really die?”

Wow, with school drop-off just a minute or two off, I knew there wasn’t enough time to really talk about it right then and there. But I did ask, “Have you been talking about what happened to the Jews during WWII in Hebrew school?”

And in his momentary waver, when he tentatively looked up at me, swallowed and said, “Yes,” I knew the time had come, that somehow he had put two and two together.

We’ve slowly started talking about it since. He now knows there were six million Jews. He wondered aloud, “But what’s a gas chamber?” Reading this column before publication was the first time he saw the word murdered.

The topic had been too much to take in up until now, and in some way it will always be too much. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be told. I’ve always been taught the phrase, “Never forget.” as part of any lesson on the Holocaust. It’s so that the world forever remembers those taken from us, and it’s so that the injustice is never allowed to happen again.

I imagine that’s what a child hangs on to when he learns about the atrocities of kristallnacht, cattle cars and Auschwitz. Never again. Because I know what else my son is asking, and what other children are asking their parents: If they were herded up and imprisoned and killed because they were Jews, and I am a Jew…could it happen to me?

Never again.

The questions will only get more complicated and the answers harder to explain as he is able to understand and withstand hearing more as he gets older.   

Teaching it will always include sadness, horror and fear. But I will also always try to infuse it with a sense of perseverance, survival and triumph.

As in almost every culture, or country, there something you say when you toast over wine, either with a prayer or good will. My children will learn “Santé” for their French heritage—it means “Health!”

But they will also learn the Hebrew, “L’chayim!”

“To life!”

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