My own ‘Holocaust experience’

Last week, the Cornerstone Church in downtown Fresno presented a ‘Holocaust experience’, to try to convey the horror of the almost incomprehensible evil of that time to the uninformed.

I didn’t go, but some of those who did said it was effective, accurate and very disturbing.

It made me think a little about my own personal relationship to the Holocaust. Born in America in 1942, I was kept safe by several thousand miles and the armed forces of the USA. But there is a connection.

Here is a photo of my maternal grandmother, Milke (Mollie) Bondermann, with her siblings in Nemyriv, Ukraine around 1912, the year she emigrated to America.

Bondermann siblings, 1912

Bondermann siblings, 1912. Mollie is second from right.

Mollie was aged 16 or 17 in this picture. She already had a profession, listed as ‘dressmaker’ on the manifest of the SS Laconia which brought her to New York on November 4, 1912. One of her sisters also emigrated, settling in Canada. She looks remarkably like my daughter who is named after her, and the handsome elder brother standing next to her looks a bit like my son.

Now imagine that it is 1946. My family – with the exception of my father, who is still on his way home from naval service in the Pacific – is gathered around the radio (we will not have a TV for several years), listening to some kind of news program. I don’t understand what they are talking about, but even as a 4 year old, I know to keep my mouth shut at times like these. I hear the word “Nazis” a lot (my grandmother pronounces it “nat-sees”). The radio announcer says something, and she says, quietly, “mein Gott, mein Gott.”

The darkness of this memory is palpable more than 60 years later.

Although there is still a town of Nemyriv, the Jewish population of less than 10,000 was wiped out. Jews were hunted down and shot by German soldiers, Ukrainian paramilitaries and police. Less well-known than the gas chambers of Auschwitz, this has been called the “Holocaust by bullets”. Of the family in the photograph, only the two sisters who escaped to North America survived.

Nemyriv was already no stranger to murderous antisemitism. In 1649, Chmielnicki’s Cossacks are said to have killed 6000 Jews there in one day. My grandfather, who met and married Mollie in America, came from a tiny shtetl in the same region which – to borrow a phrase from Mr. Ahmadinejad – was simply wiped off the map by the Germans.

Today Mollie Bondermann’s  great-grandchildren and their children live in Israel, where Jews can be responsible for their own destiny.

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