Why Holocaust Descendants Fill Their Homes with Things That Are Hard to Look At
Every spring around Yom Hashoah — a day of remembrance for the estimated 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust — Israeli art entrepreneur Sarah Peguine turns to social media to share a photograph from her late grandfather’s childhood in Belgium that hangs prominently on her wall year-round. It’s a portrait of her grandfather with his parents and two sisters at his bar mitzvah — a celebration of his coming of age at 13, per Jewish tradition. And it’s the year before World War II began.
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Of the five family members pictured, her grandfather, Léon Peguine, was the only one to survive the Holocaust. In 1942, when Léon was 17 years old, Nazis took him to a forced labor camp in Northern France to build Axis fortifications on the beach. Two months later, Léon and the rest of the prisoners in the labor camp were forced onto a train to Auschwitz, the largest Nazi concentration camp and death center. While Léon’s sisters and parents would take their last breaths at Auschwitz, Léon was among a group of prisoners who jumped from the train and escaped.
Peguine’s grandfather, who passed away in 2009, didn’t speak a lot about the Holocaust or what it was like to endure unthinkable pain and tragedy. Today, his granddaughter looks at the photograph on the wall — a sort of time capsule into Léon’s pre-war life — and feels struck more with perspective and pride than the inherent sadness. “I think, ‘Wow, these are my roots.’ It’s more like honoring them, keeping them close, and being grateful that I am where I am,” Peguine says.
As a descendant of a Holocaust survivor, Peguine is not alone in finding meaning and power in family heirlooms and mementos simultaneously entangled in extraordinary trauma and pain. We’re entering a new era in terms of how Holocaust experiences are remembered, according to Nancy Isserman, PhD, co-director of the Council for Relationships’s Transcending Trauma Project, which conducted hundreds of interviews with Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren. Seventy-seven years after the Holocaust ended, the majority of survivors have passed away. By 2030, there could be fewer than 16,000 alive in the U.S. Most firsthand experiences and testimonies are no longer retained through living recollections, but through books and museums, recorded oral histories, and, in some cases, in the form of objects and imagery that descendants display in their homes.
The significance of those memorials and items can’t be overstated, because we’re also entering an era in which Holocaust experiences are not remembered and antisemitism is on the rise. In a 2020 survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, 12 percent of U.S. millennials and Gen Zers didn’t think they’d ever heard the word “Holocaust,” and 11 percent of respondents believed Jews caused the Holocaust.
One family Isserman knows proudly showcases a framed marriage certificate from their German-Jewish survivor grandparents. Issued pre-war by Hitler’s Nazi party, the document is marked with a swastika — a symbol of Nazism that Jews don’t often associate with something they want on their walls. “These objects might be difficult to look at. Though on the other hand, it’s all they had. In that respect it becomes important,” Isserman says.
As chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History, Josh Perelman, PhD, has also seen certain descendants of Holocaust survivors feel “powerfully connected” to loved ones through particular objects. “They actually feel very strongly about displaying that kind of material culture in their home — not only because they feel lucky. It’s also a way of symbolizing ‘never forget.’ It’s a powerful reminder of the depths that humanity can fall to,” Perelman says.
“Never forget” is exactly what Aviva Kempner, a documentary filmmaker and second generation survivor, thinks when she looks at the colorful folk art box that sits on her desk. She bought the box on a visit to Auschwitz, now the memorial site of the death camp where her maternal grandparents and aunt perished and uncle survived during World War II. Kempner’s late mother, Helen Ciesla, was a Polish Jew who survived the war passing as a Catholic in a German labor camp. Kempner considers Auschwitz her family’s graveyard.
That she could visit a place associated with so much horror and buy a souvenir painted with local folk art reminds Kempner of how perilously easy it can be to forget Auschwitz’s more difficult history. (It’s also why she’s working on a film about her family’s connection to the memorial site.)
“Looking at the box, no one else knows. It just looks like another part of my folk art collection. But I know where I got it. I know what the memory is,” Kempner says.
Nearby, she keeps a photo of her mother and uncle reuniting in Germany after the liberation.
Journalist Jessica Shaw grew up in New Jersey in the 1970s and ’80s with a Holocaust-era yellow star occupying its own shelf in her parents’ living room. The Star of David-shaped badge, which has “Juif” (“Jew” in French) written across it, is among those that the Third Reich legally required Europe’s Jews to wear so they could be easily identified and oppressed.
As a kid, Shaw vaguely understood that her father had escaped from France as a 5-year-old Jewish boy by trekking across the Pyrenees. She remembers seeing prisoner numbers tattooed on the forearms of many of her father’s relatives from their time in concentration camps. But she didn’t know many details, nor did she ask questions about the yellow star held to a frame with pins that said “zachor” (“remember” in Hebrew).
“It was the same room where we gathered and had parties and listened to show tunes, and then there was this symbol of the attempted annihilation of European Jewry. I think if you grew up with the survivor mentality woven into the fabric of your family, you would not be fazed by seeing that. If you didn’t, I can understand that it would be jarring,” Shaw says. “It was just always there, always a part of the air in our home.”
Shaw’s mother still displays the star, and Shaw has since been told that it originally belonged to a relative of her paternal grandmother. Thinking about the star now, as an adult and a mother herself, Shaw hopes the artifact will be valued and carried in her family for generations. “I am certainly a proponent of living with history, good and bad, and not hiding things away,” she says.
From Perelman’s curatorial perspective, the importance of these objects in descendants’ lives can grow as time passes and future generations seek connections to relatives’ experiences. “When we lose people in our lives, the material culture that is closely connected with that person in some ways becomes a totem, it becomes a vessel of memory,” Perelman says.
For food entrepreneur Atara Bernstein, displaying heirlooms from her late grandfather helps her feel more connected to her family history, and Jewish history more generally. Styled among Bernstein’s favorite cookbooks and pottery in her upstate New York home are several items that remind her of her grandfather Henry, who passed away last year, at 96. While several of his relatives in Poland died in the Holocaust — Bernstein’s great-great-grandfather was murdered in Auschwitz — Henry was born to Polish immigrants in the U.S. and raised in Baltimore. His granddaughter displays a photo of him in his U.S. Army uniform taken in 1945, when, as a Jewish American Army soldier, he helped liberate Mauthausen Concentration Camp. Near the photograph, there’s a “yizkor” book memorializing the Jewish community in Poland that Bernstein’s ancestors came from, which was destroyed in the Holocaust.
The items remind her of her privilege and her heritage, along with the tremendous challenges her ancestors and so many others have faced “in finding refuge and safety,” she says. “The erasure of our past is a very Jewish experience, and I feel very lucky to have at least some proof of where this side of the family came from.”
The ability to represent her family’s story in her home, on her wall, is also something Peguine values. She considers her grandfather’s bar mitzvah photograph emblematic of a joyous memory from just before the Holocaust. It’s also a timeless reminder of her late loved one’s strength — of how, after his family was murdered, he found ways to keep going. In Léon’s case, he became a cook, fell in love with Peguine’s grandmother, and built a family he cherished. “It’s just amazing to think about how he clenched onto life. He was loving and strong,” Peguine says.
Once again this Yom Hashoah, Peguine will share her grandfather’s bar mitzvah photograph on social media. And this year, she’s pregnant with her first child, which adds another layer of emotion: “My daughter-to-be wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t jumped off the train,” she says.
Yom Hashoah is a national day of remembrance in Israel for the estimated 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The day is also recognized around the world, including in the U.S. Yom Hashoah falls on the 27th day of the month of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar, which means it’s observed on a different day each year in the U.S.; in 2022, it falls on April 28.