By Tasha Ackerman for The Together Plan
“My parents’ tragedies, losses, and suffering are woven into the fabric of our family,” Susan Abrams Bach shares as she introduces her presentation “Against All Odds,” a virtual talk she gave this past May in collaboration with The Together Plan. In tiny Zoom squares, faces of listeners from around the world appeared as Susan began to tell her story from her home in the Eastern United States. Susan’s parents, Ester Grinberg Abramowicz and Joseph Abramowicz, were both survivors of the Holocaust. Over the years, Susan has shared her family’s history and her own journey to uncover it. While Susan tailors each presentation to the audience she speaks to, the core sentiment remains that the story is woven into the fabric of her family.
Growing up, Susan was aware that her family was different. She noticed the absence of grandparents and extended family. She longed to know where she came from. She wondered if her grandparents would look like the other elderly people she saw walking around her neighbourhood. She noticed her parents’ accented English, long before she received any education about the traumatic experiences they had endured in their homeland, which is now considered Belarus. At that time, Susan was unaware that her grandparents and most of her extended family had perished in the Holocaust. At the time, her parents were not ready to tell their story. It was too painful to share photographs of family members or recount the horrors they had survived. When Susan was taught about World War II in public school, she remembers learning about Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor, but not about the Holocaust. She did not have a full understanding of the significance of the history that was woven into her household. Through Hebrew school and as she progressed in her studies, she began learning about the Holocaust. Susan pursued her education, obtaining a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degree. Education both served as a path to independence and a way to honour her parents’ expectations. It was not until her son showed interest in their family history during a family heritage unit being taught in school that her father, his grandfather, was finally ready to answer questions. To share the story.
Joseph Abramowicz was born in Novogrudok in 1920 and raised in a nearby shtetl. He took pride in his Jewish heritage, despite being harassed by classmates. He refused to continue his education at a young age due to the harassment and began working with his father. Life changed for everyone under Communist rule when the Soviets invaded in 1939. Life changed again when the Nazis invaded in 1941, especially for the Jews. Jewish schools and businesses were shut down. Community leaders, including rabbis and intellectuals, were executed. Jews were rounded up and either brought to a nearby ghetto or executed in pre-dug pits. Joseph was eventually transferred to the Novogrudok Ghetto, where he faced many horrors, including the loss of his father and where he learned of the murder of his sister and her children who had been caught hiding. During his work assignment cleaning the barracks, he stumbled upon a rifle left behind by the retreating Soviet army, which fled during the Nazi invasion. He managed to escape the ghetto and used the rifle as leverage to join the Bielski Partisans, becoming a resistance fighter for the remainder of the war.
Susan’s mother, Ester, also eventually began opening up about her experiences during the war. She was born in 1921 into a well-off family who owned a kosher salami factory in Novogrudok. Her family had not initially feared the German invasion, since her father had a business relationship selling salami to the Germans during World War I. Stories told by the Jews fleeing from the West seemed unimaginable. However, when German tanks invaded in 1941, mass executions began and their lives changed forever. While in a work detail in the Novogrudok Ghetto, Ester was warned by a former Polish classmate about impending executions and knew she must escape. When her mother and brother would not join her, despite her pleas, she escaped by herself finding temporary refuge with farmers before eventually joining the Bielski Partisans.
Through the late 1980s and into the 90s, Susan began recording interviews with her parents. Slowly, over the years, she collected their stories. After her parents passed away, Susan listened back to the recordings and transcribed them. It felt important for the stories to be told. By sharing her stories, she has connected with people around the world, helping her string together pieces of her story. She formed a connection with Tamara Vershitskaya, who was the founding curator of The Museum of Jewish Resistance in Novogrudok, which is located in the former ghetto where both of her parents were confined and from which they escaped. Tamara uncovered a Medal of Valor awarded by the Soviet Union to both Susan’s father and uncle for their participation in the resistance against Fascist invaders. Susan’s brother found a poster of their father as a Bielski Partisan in the Florida Holocaust Museum. She connected with the man in Italy who holds the keys to the abandoned monastery that served as the displaced persons camp where her parents resided after the war and where she was born. And by sharing her story, Susan also made her world also feel smaller. Shortly after her presentation, people from around the world reached out to Debra Brunner, founder of The Together Plan, who hoped to be connected with Susan and shared their own connections from her story to their own. They shared about family members who had also lived in the Novogrudok Ghetto and later with the Bielski Partisans. Susan is flattered and appreciative of those who connected after she shared her story, and knows that her story can inspire people to dig deeper and ask more questions about their own family heritage.
On a sunny May afternoon, while sitting on my patio in Minneapolis, I first listened to Susan’s captivating story in “Against All Odds.” Immersed in her story, it sparked a deep contemplation of my own family history. I reflected on my Yiddish-speaking great-grandparents who migrated to the United States before World War I, settling just a few miles from where I sat and listened to Susan’s story. During her presentation, I was struck by the concept that once her parents were liberated, they did not have the freedom of a home to return to. How her parents made a firm decision not to resettle in Germany after the war had ended. How her family, like so many others, walked over the Alps seeking safety and freedom. How the Jewish agencies and the US army planned to resettle refugees who feared and distrusted train travel. How much of history one may never consider. Susan’s story humanized for me how history lives beyond the chapters of textbooks. How we collectively create history through our testimony and artefacts, which are uncovered by those who choose to be vulnerable enough to share their story. How history weaves far beyond the wars that have start and end dates and binds generations of people beyond the military commanders we are taught about in school. How the stories that are woven into each of our families form the tapestry of the Jewish community. I thought of my great-grandparents and grieved about questions never asked and stories untold.
A few weeks later, buzzing with questions and reflections from the “Against All Odds” talk, I met with Susan over Zoom from my home in Minneapolis. I was curious about her process and the vulnerability of sharing her story. I wondered how it feels to finally share a story her parents had been unable to share for the majority of their lives, carrying the inherent responsibility of preserving their legacy. Susan shared that vulnerability is a way to open up and establish trust. Each time Susan presents the story, she honours her parents. It is restorative in that it provides her with the hindsight to understand her family’s dynamic. Understanding their stories forms a deeper appreciation for them. Currently, Susan is editing the transcripts to go into a book. “I know in the depth of my heart I want the people in my family to know these stories.” These stories are interwoven into their lives and will endure for generations to come. She advocates for the art of storytelling, embracing both oral traditions and the written word. She recognises the profound impact of experiencing a story in the authentic voice of its teller, transcending the limitations of written records. Simultaneously, she recognizes the importance of capturing and preserving these narratives in written form, safeguarding our stories for future generations. The second and third-generation survivors who carry these stories are touched by not only the ripple of trauma, but also by the qualities of faith, ingenuity, and the determination to survive.
“I am 100% certain that a big part of who I am is a reflection of my parents and their experiences,” Susan reflected. By sharing our stories from generation to generation, we bring awareness and understanding. On this journey towards awareness, there is still so much that Susan will never know. With each discovery, comes more unanswerable questions. “I feel compelled to share what my family suffered and lost because I know there are so many stories that have been lost forever,” Susan expressed as she concluded her presentation “Against All Odds.” Most of these stories will vanish if they are not shared and documented. These stories are rarely written in textbooks. Many of these stories are not even shared within a family. Not only are the untold stories a loss for the family, they also become a loss to society. As her presentation came to an end, Susan planted a seed for reflection: “Have you thought about your family stories? I encourage you to do so.”
What are your stories? The Together Plan’s mission is to weave a tapestry where every narrative finds its place.
To watch the recording of Susan Abrams Bach’s presentation of ‘Against All Odds’ on May 21st 2023 click here