Day 9: A Personal Herstory

Today wasn’t overly adventurous since majority of the day was spent on the road driving from Plaidt to Berlin. We stopped once to change the Munchkin and grab some food but mostly just drove all day. We did make it into Berlin for 6pm and dropped off the other 2 Moozes at a botanical garden to kill some time while the 2.5 of us went to visit a relative of mine.

I’m not going to go into the fine details, just share a few stories since we’ve had some interest for the historical aspect of this trip from readers. Long story short, I don’t have many relatives, in fact, my entire extended living family can be counted within both hands with the war and all; and coincidentally, one of them lives in Berlin. We absolutely adore her, as she is one of the sweetest and nicest people. She was my grandma’s first cousin and they grew up so close, having had to endure what they did together throughout the war.

She was so excited to meet the Munchkin and for us to come visit since it’s been about 2 decades since the last time I saw her. She had photos of me on her wall, and even a portrait I drew of her when I was 6 or so, as included in the photo. I won't post any of the amazing photos we grabbed of her gushing over the baby, but we did grab a shot of the portrait!


She spent a few days making quite the spread to greet us including black caviar sandwiches, a classic dish my mom makes which I didn’t realize came from here, my favourite homemade pickles, pastries, and a bunch of other stuff. While we were catching up and stuffing our face, I asked how she ended up in Berlin and how long she’s lived here, not realizing the path this will take us down in our conversation.

The short version: their uncle was in Berlin and ended up with cancer but no family to take care of him since most were wiped out in the Holocaust. He saved her and my grandmother when the war started so she had a close bond to him and didn’t think twice before moving to help him, staying there ever since.

The long version: my family is from Smolensk. Smolensk was one of the first places to be taken by the Germans on their way into the Soviet Union and it was occupied pretty damn quick resulting in rubble by the third day. She vividly recalled being 4 years old (and my grandmother just over 10), the city being engulfed in flames, and their uncle finding a horse with a wagon onto which they shoved the kids in order to get out of town. She recalls them huddling close within the wagon walls while the adults (including her mother) walked beside. This is where the story got darker and actually put together a few things I’ve heard growing up from my grandmother, but for which I never knew the actual story. While they were getting away, avoiding mines and being rained upon with bombs and debris, they were put on a train in between where the wagons connected, trying to balance, survive, and watching the wagon floors drip with blood as they were all completely drenched in it. My grandmother’s father had to stay behind to help others. The story they later received from survivors who knew him was that he ended up living on the streets eating out of garbage cans trying to hide his identity, but was turned in by someone he knew. He was rounded up along with the others and was part of the executions where they dug their own grave, a large pit that held thousands, and were thrown in alive. I never knew him, but dinner got heavy and there were definitely tears. Watching my relative tell this story with her gaze so far gone, it was unbelievably heavy. I’ve been to the Holocaust museum in DC, I’ve been to a number of museums, studied the Holocaust, seen movies, the whole shindig, but hearing it first hand, from your own relative, it was a whole something else altogether that no words could describe. Even writing this, there is no shortage of heavy breathing as it gets caught in my chest, or dampness in my eyes.

She continued telling me about a few friends, neighbours, acquaintances - some who made it and some who didn’t. One story was of a a bunch of people who were huddled in a cemetery for an execution, but the edge of the cemetery was a bit of a hill and there was a potato garden at the bottom. The mother ended up shoving her son off the hill where he landed into the garden and was hidden enough to survive and get away. Another of a neighbour who spent the war wandering along the roads in hopes of finding her husband, miraculously, she survived. As did another friend who made it through 2 execution line ups.  Others were not so lucky. We ended in the living room where she pulled out a black and white photo of a group of people, about 15-20 people. I'm pretty sure I've seen this photo before, from my grandmother. It was our whole extended family at the time, her parents, their siblings, cousins, etc etc. My relative held this photo and just stared at it for a moment before saying when they ran, they grabbed nothing but this photo and a couple of other photos. It's all they had to hold on to.

This was my introduction to Berlin.

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  • David McCrossan on

    So sad and such a tragic period of history but I’m glad you go to share this with one who obviously means so much to you. Hugz!

  • Brian on

    Beautiful sad Historical rendition of family life in tragic times.
    Are you also going east to Poland.
    I visited my place of birth for the first time a few years ago, not far from Berlin. Altenstadt o/b
    Berlin is beautiful, enjoy😊

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