In the latest of our guest blogs for Holocaust Memorial Day 2017, the Trust's Regional Ambassador Jack Nicholls reflects on his own family's story.
My family’s life after the Holocaust has probably been very different to those of most of my fellow ambassadors. My maternal grandfather, and many of his close relatives, fled across the English Channel from the Netherlands in May 1940, thereby avoiding the myriad Nazi atrocities which were subsequently perpetrated all over Europe.
The most widely-held interpretation of the Holocaust is very linear; it regards facts and figures and the odd personal story or two, all of which concern the years up to 1945. Yet when one thinks about those ghastly events they seldom consider what happened after the Holocaust. Indeed, this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day centres on post-war Jewish life, and how the survivors reconstructed their lives. The topic is unsurprisingly extremely pertinent to my own family, given my grandfather’s lucky escape. We invest immense amounts of worthwhile time and energy into remembering the victims of the Holocaust, but how did the survivors rebuild their lives and carry on?
I have heard much about what has been termed ‘survivor’s guilt’, and the extent to which it pertained to those who lived on after the Holocaust. Unfortunately, I do not know whether or not my grandfather suffered from it. According to my mother, he never talked about the Second World War as she grew up. Perhaps it was too painful, in which case it touches upon a feeling shared by many who were affected by the Holocaust. Or, since his close family escaped – only their distant relatives could not flee from the Nazis – one could perhaps deduce that the impact of their deaths was not extremely significant upon him. But this leads us down a path of pure conjecture, which easily disfigures the past. He only started to talk about it in his later years, when the strength of his memory had undoubtedly weakened. It is conceivable that the passage of time had allowed some pain to heal.
As a result I knew very little about his relatives, around 150 of whom died in the Holocaust. Therefore, just before my participation in the Ambassadorial Study Visit to Israel, back in August of last year, I decided to try and learn as much as I could about them. My research was assisted by a very useful fillip in the form of a website, which detailed all of their names, ages, familial connections and, in a few cases, professions. Alongside these was the rather disheartening constant – the location of their deaths: everyone had one, even if information vis-à-vis their jobs or places of birth were not known. It was a hugely helpful resource, and has allowed my family to pinpoint where the vast majority of my grandfather’s relatives died. But the minutiae of their ordinary lives remain obscure. Reconstructing the lives of so many people with few details to go on is understandably quite a challenge.
For so many Jewish people, both within my extended family and elsewhere, life ended abruptly. So many individuals were murdered and whole families were wiped out. Indeed, when I looked through the long list of my relatives, I noticed that many of the families had been decimated, if not completely destroyed. In many cases it became abundantly clear that my grandfather’s family were often the closest, if not the only surviving relatives to these victims.
In my own family’s experience a number of factors have combined to explain our view of the Holocaust, and how we have lived our lives in the decades thereafter. Our lost relatives were from my grandfather’s extended family, and so were already quite distant. As mentioned above, my grandfather did not talk about the subject, for reasons I will never fully know.
I certainly participated in the Lessons from Auschwitz Project in part due to my lost relatives. I wanted to learn more about them, or at least remember them properly, as our family has been unable to do so. There was a large gap in the ancestral timeline that needed to be filled. This familial connection notwithstanding, I already held a strong interest in the Holocaust. Yet it would be remiss of me not to admit that I am involved with the HET for a number of reasons, personal and otherwise.