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Finding My Grandmother Again, Decades After Auschwitz

“I think I found her,” a colleague texted me. She was referring to my maternal grandmother, Hasia Schiff. Goosebumps sprouted all over my arms. For as long as I could remember, there was very little known about the years my grandmother suffered through the Holocaust. She was long gone and never spoke of it when alive. I kept looking over my shoulder in disbelief, searching for a witness.

I was alone in the apartment and the only radiating sound was from NY1—sometimes I turned to the local NYC channel for company—reporting on the anti-Semitic hate crime that occurred in Times Square that Thursday night. A 29 year old Jewish man was knocked down and violently attacked. 

Trying to regain my bearings, I clicked on the Yad Vashem link. There, staring right back at the screen for the first time in my life, my grandmother revealed herself to me. Her name spelled in a way I had never seen before—Hascha Schif—was found on a list of Jews from the Bialystok Ghetto deported to the Stutthof Nazi concentration camp on the 18th of November in 1943. This discovery made sense: I knew she had been in the Bialystok Ghetto at some point. Stutthof was located in the Free City of Danzig. The word “free” plagued me. 

I found it impossible to read through the entire record calmly. I oscillated between the Yad Vashem page and the memo I was drafting for work. I kept returning to the page, terrified that it would disappear. The revelation was the closest I had ever come to understanding my grandmother and her past. I was petrified to lose it. 

On January 10, 1944, “Savta Hasia” as I called her was transferred to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. I found myself catching my breath: this was only 34 years and two days before I was born in Israel. She was 30 years old at the time. I naively always assumed that she was younger; somewhere in her late teens or early 20s, because I knew she and my grandfather were forced to hide in the Polish forests before being caught. I envisioned the both of them young and vibrant, tricking the Nazis of their whereabouts. I needed them to be younger, to be strong, courageous and determined to ensure their survival. I thought if they were younger they would have suffered less somehow. That thought comforted me.

I completed the memo for work, a writing assignment that should have required 10 minutes at most had taken 30 minutes. I couldn’t rally and return to the Yad Vashem site. I was still reeling from learning the fact that my grandparents were married in Poland in 1940. She and I both became brides at the age of twenty-six. I went on a honeymoon while she hid in nearby forests fighting for her life.

NY1 continued to blare in the background when I visited Facebook to clear my mind for a moment before tackling my next work assignment. Amidst a spate of anti-Semitic hate crimes, what appeared to be missing were expressions of support from Facebook friends who recorded every minutiae of their lives. It seemed so trivial that they didn’t “like” my post condemning anti-Semitism, but our “friendship” was defined by these actions. Without the likes or heart or thumbs up emojis to bridge the connection between us, was the friendship over? Their silence hurt.

As I prepared for a team work meeting, I stole another glance at the Yad Vashem site. My grandmother was listed as a camp inmate, part of a list of persecuted persons. Persecuted did not differentiate between dead or alive. After being liberated from Auschwtiz,  she courageously made her way to Israel (via a Cyprus displaced persons camp) where she was reunited with my grandfather. It’s unclear when they discovered that they were both alive, but that my grandmother’s entire family was obliterated. My grandmother left Eastern Europe as a daughter, sister, a bride and even a mother, although she was forced to bury her murdered young child. She was now all these things with a tattooed number on her arm. 

The Yad Vashem profile of the woman who would become my grandmother continued to confront me as if encouraging me to keep looking; that there was more to uncover. I clicked on the “source” to reveal the document archives. Searching under “Schif”, I came face-to-face with the testimony of Chasia (Trzynagiel) Szyf, born in Wysokie Mazowieckie, Poland, 1917. My grandmother. She had always been there, under a different name.

There was a family rumor that she provided a testimony to Yad Vashem, but years of searching had led nowhere. I had been misspelling her name this entire time. How many other misunderstandings, gaps and missing links have followed from the devastation of the Shoah? Life is full of silences–from people we think are friends, from families. But the pounding in my heart upon discovering the truth about my beloved grandmother was loud and clear, and full of life.