By Raquel Leifer, Features Editor
Like the strands of DNA twisted inside each and every one of us, we are inextricably connected by invisible threads to our ancestors. Through learning our history, we can learn so much about ourselves.
During my year in Israel, I had the opportunity to visit Poland. Walking through the gates of Auschwitz, a quite powerful sense of dread and despair threatened to overwhelm me as I contemplated the horrors that my great grandparents endured. A phone call home unearthed the shocking revelation that my great grandfather’s first wife, Rozi, and 13 year old son, Imre, were murdered by the Nazis. In that moment, I became resolute to discover more about my family’s roots before their history died along with the individuals who came before. And so began my quest to uncover any information, photos, and sources connected to my ancestry.
I began with an informal interview with my grandparents on my mother’s side. Armed with specific names and dates, I inputted the data acquired into an ancestry database and began building a family tree dating back to the late 1800s. As my family tree expanded, so too did my fascination with all the tidbits of information gathered. Discoveries such as my great-great grandfather being a twin, and last name changes as a result of Ellis Island directives were barely recognizable from their origin. Eagerly, I asked more questions about the mysterious individuals who graced my family tree, determined to find out anything I could about the past. Unfortunately, there were many holes in the data since the family members who perished in the Holocaust were from Eastern European countries that did not maintain accurate records.
At the end of my research, I presented my grandparents with framed posters of our family tree that I had meticulously assembled. Not only did I feel a sense of pride at what I had done, I felt a stronger connection to the past, and a better understanding of the lives and motives of all those who came before me. The most salient impact that this experience had on me was the astonishing fact that through a history of violence and persecution across Eastern Europe where my ancestors originated, their emunah [faith] in HaShem propelled them forward, and they remained steadfast, never wavering.
Standing before Har Sinai, Rashi described Am Yisroel as k’ish echad b’lev echad [like a single person with one heart]. Rav Kook explains that the Jewish people share a singular soul that is individually divided among every single member of Klal Yisroel. The ties that bind us to family run deep, and the souls of all those who came before us continue to live on inside of us, constantly inspiring us, urging us forward, even as the past looms large in the distant but glowing horizon.