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January 16, 2012 • News

The Importance Of Documenting Family History [NSFW-C for Disturbing Images]

A few years ago, Sarah and I had lunch with my grandma, and she started pulling out photo albums to show us family pictures. Among her pictures were photos from her life before she came to America, everything from photos of her and her brothers to her life in the displaced persons camp where she met my grandfather after the war. We realized she was sitting on an incredible amount of history, and while it has taken a long time to get around to coordinating it, we finally got together with my aunt and started documenting her photos today. What we discovered went beyond just my family into a piece of much bigger history.

First, a bit of background on my grandmother’s story. She grew up in Poland, and when she was 15 the Germans invaded. My great-grandmother gathered her four children, and she somehow managed to hide my grandmother and her three brothers in fields and farmhouses, relying on the courage and kindness of non-Jews to hide them, feed them, and not turn them into the Germans. After the Russians liberated them, my great-grandmother then got her family to a displaced persons camp run by Americans, and that’s where my grandmother met my grandfather. Even though I know the story, and have heard it in various forms since I was a kid, every time I look at photos and see how young she was, it blows my mind. When I was 15 I worried about high school; when my grandmother was 15 she worried about the safety of her younger brothers and whether they’d be arrested or killed, or whether they were safe for the night. Unfortunately, in the last few years two of my grandmother’s brothers have passed away, and it has spurred us to work harder to digitize my family’s photos so we can preserve this history.

Today we started going through the albums, and in between pictures of my grandparents’ grandparents, my grandfather’s kindergarten photo (!), and pictures of my dad I plan to squirrel away and use when I can really embarrass him, we came to some photos she had of their time in the displaced persons camp. We were flipping through, taking pictures of the pictures and hearing stories, and suddenly two photos caught my eye. I looked at them and thought, “this can’t be what I think it is”. But Grandma confirmed it. Apparently, my grandfather met someone at the displaced persons camp (I think-Grandma was a bit vague on this) who had obtained photos from inside a concentration camp and smuggled them out . So my grandfather ended up with copies of two photos, one of a body being prepped for cremation, and the other of the poisons used for mass killing of Jews and others in the concentration camps. He wanted to make sure these photos would be saved and recorded, and so he kept them and eventually they found their way into my grandma’s albums.

No one in my family knew my grandparents had these photos stashed away, and it makes me wonder what else we’ll find as we dig through my grandmother’s records. We know there’s probably more pieces of history crammed in those albums, and we want to make sure we get as much of it as possible in my grandmother’s own words! I’m still shocked at what we found, and as much as it makes me sick to my stomach, I know how important it is to preserve. We may not know the story of the man who somehow got ahold of these photos, smuggled them out of a concentration camp, and gave them to my grandfather, but these photos were saved so we could remember the terrible events of the holocaust, and not let them fade into history. With digital cameras, video, iPhoto, and a few afternoons of talking with grandma, we’re doing our best to make sure no one forgets any of it, whether it’s my personal family history or the broader one of the Holocaust and jewish life in Eastern Europe.

Have you recorded your family history? Did you discover anything interesting or amazing? Share your experiences (and tips) in the comments!

5 Responses to " The Importance Of Documenting Family History [NSFW-C for Disturbing Images] "

  1. Anonymous says:

    I doubt your grandfather could ever have imagined the world becoming as small as the internet has made it today.  What amazing courage your grandparents had!  Thanks for sharing such an important piece of history with us.

    • Carly Z says:

      Exactly! Especially in the immediate aftermath of the war, no one knew what information would be uncovered or that anyone would believe the horrors. That’s why whoever smuggled those pictures out did it and why my grandfather kept them. Hopefully we can donate them to a museum, since preserving them for the world is what the person who smuggled them out initially intended.

  2. When I first read through this earlier today, I was so stunned and amazed. And reading it again this evening, I still am. Thank you for sharing, and I can’t help but think that it would be worth hearing more of your grandmother’s history; she sounds like an amazing woman. 

    • Carly Z says:

      My grandma is a very cool lady! I am so excited to continue with this, there are so many photos to document. She has pictures going back to the early 1900s! It still amazes me that they managed to save them through it all.

  3. Pauline Ratzker says:

    Carly iThis is your cousin   Pauline. Your aunt mentioned she had pictures posted on facebook of our family and I should take a look. I was surprised to see pictures I never saw before and when I went to this site to hear what you and Sara are doing I am so proud of the both of you. I never knew these pictures exisited. There are alot closer holocaust museums that may be interested too. I have video that needs to be preserved and transferred of your grandfather, my mom and great aunt Lillian talking about their life in Poland from about 25 years ago. Keep up the good work.

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