My Father and the Holocaust

Posted on: May 23rd, 2018 by

This is my first post in awhile, for I was still grieving the loss of my beloved aunt, when my dad died of Parkinson’s in March. And I found myself sunk even deeper in the quicksand of depression. Writing is therapeutic, but I was so locked in grief that I couldn’t write.

Grief and depression are a bitch.

But now, finally and shakily, I write.

Saying the past few years have been hell is an understatement. My poor dad suffered, and it was understandably excruciating for me, my brother, and my mom to watch. But long before Parkinson’s, suffering was no stranger to my father. In fact, suffering was the hallmark of my dad’s life.

I will write a different tribute to my dad on another day, but today I need to divulge a family secret: my dad and his family survived-did-not-survive the Holocaust.

My family history is shrouded in mystery, so much so, that the concept of creating a family tree is foreign to us.

My dad was born in 1937 in Poland — Vishkov to be exact, a small village not far from Warsaw. In 1939, Germany invaded Poland and most of my family perished. The lucky ones fled. Understandably, my family knows nothing about what happened to specific family members or even who they were.

My dad’s father died in 1939 in Poland.

Family stories say he “drowned,” but no one ever found his body.

My brother and I suspect he was murdered, but we have no proof. My dad’s baby sister died, too. The stories surrounding her death are also unclear: either she starved or froze to death during my dad’s family’s escape from Poland. The trek was filled with hunger and extreme discomfort. Desperate for food, he and his family ate grass. The rare occasion they ate bread, my dad said it was so delicious, it tasted just like chocolate to him and his family.

For years, my dad, his mom, and the rest of his surviving family lived like nomads, moving from country to country — even surviving a Russian labor camp — until they immigrated to the US when he was about 12 years old.

He inherited a legacy of pain from the Nazis. Like our family members who survived this horror, my dad almost never talked about his experiences in Europe, nor did he watch films about the Holocaust.

No need to. He lived it.

He came to this country with nothing but the curse of memory. But he worked hard his entire life, often working two jobs to keep my mom, me, and my brother fed.

My dad was an exceedingly generous person. No matter how little money we had, he made sure my family’s needs were met. If my brother and I wanted ice-cream or to go to a movie, my dad never said, “I can’t afford it.” Instead, he reached into his pocket and found the money. His life of deprivation made him determined not to deprive his children of the good things in life.

We always had an abundance of food available, and my dad was an expert host: he offered food to relatives and friends constantly — to our embarrassment when my brother and I were growing up — and he couldn’t bear to see anyone go hungry. One time, at some sort of banquet, he gave his dinner to a woman who walked in from the street, claiming she had nothing to eat.

He and my mom eventually saved up for a house. And we lived the American Dream.

But all was not well in our household. My dad suffered from constant nightmares and emotional stress that plagued his entire life. So much so, that he received reparations from Germany until he died. Of course, reparations can never make up for his suffering.

My family history is filled with confusion and gaps. It always will be. And I grieve the relatives I never met.

My dad wanted what was best for his family. He was a devoted son, husband, and father. He died an American citizen in the country that embraced him, the country that he loved. I, my brother, and our children are my dad’s legacy. And we are honored.

The survivors: My dad as a boy (front row, left), next to his mom and grandmother

The survivors: My dad as a boy (front row, left), next to his mom and grandmother

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10 Responses to My Father and the Holocaust

  1. Kathi had this to say about that:

    Beth, I have known a number of folks who lived through the Holocaust, as well as their adult children. I still cannot imagine enduring such horror and heartbreak, never mind how anyone could commit such horror.

    I also can only guess what this past year or two has been like for you. But I do believe that your dad must have been so proud of you. Sending you lots of love and peace. xoxo, Kathi

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Kathi,

      Thank you for your comment. I know — it’s unfathomable how anyone could commit such atrocities. These last few years have been horrible, indeed.

      I appreciate your comforting words. Thank you so much.

  2. Nancy Stordahl had this to say about that:

    Thank you for sharing about your dad. It’s heartbreaking to realize how your family suffered and suffers still due to horrible actions taken by Nazis – how countless families suffered and still suffer. It’s mind boggling how cruel people can be to other human beings.

    I always find it interesting how many who experienced those atrocities (and other things) never speak/spoke of them. It makes it even more sad, although of course, it’s understandable too.

    I am sorry for all you’ve been through of late. Grief is brutal. You, your brother and your children are your dad’s legacy, for sure. And your aunt’s. I just know they were both very proud of you, Beth.

    With love and friendship, N. xo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Nancy,

      Thank you for your supportive comment. In a way, I wish my dad told us more, but so little was known of the family perishing that it was impossible to get the information. This post literally has all the information I know.

      What’s interesting is how much families of survivors suffer. The Nazis’ cruelty has trickled down to the the next generation.


  3. Eileen had this to say about that:

    This breaks my heart, Beth. I’ll never get used to Holocaust stories and I feel this one a little bit more because I know you. xoxo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      I know what you mean regarding Holocaust stories. The more I hear, the less I am used to it.

      I appreciate your kind comment. xo

  4. Lyn Balfour had this to say about that:

    Thank you for sharing what you know.
    Whilst my family was not impacted in this way, I feel it is so important that these histories continue to be told, so that it is never forgotten, nor allowed to happen again

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      It’s amazing that all I know is contained in this one post.

      You are spot-on regarding sharing these stories. It is so important to share them.

      Thank you for your comment.

  5. Scott Johnson had this to say about that:

    Half the neighbors on our street were Jewish and that lost history was plainly hurtful. The trauma from WW 11 damaged a couple of generations from all over Europe and my mother who grew up in Scotland before coming to the US never talked of it.
    Sorry about your Dad’s suffering and the weight he must have carried. Agree with Lyn though that talking about it is important to this generation’s duty to never forgetting that such a terrible event can happen. Those who went through it don’t need to relive the pain.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Scott,

      I agree it is so important to tell these stories and share our histories. It’s a real tragedy that so much history has been lost through genocide and other crimes.

      Thank you for your comment.

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