by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)
As the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Germany, I grew up with stories of the Shoah. I was recently asked if I recalled the exact moment I learned about what happened to my family. I answered no, there was no exact moment. It was always there. The knowledge seemed to have come through my mother’s milk.
I was that curious kid who asked about the kinds of foods my parents ate in Germany, what school was like, what clothing they wore, what life was like before Hitler came to power. I also began to ask questions about what happened to our family. As I got older, the questions became more serious. I asked my father to tell me about how he and his family hid in the basement of their home during the rioting of Kristallnacht in 1938, of what it felt like to be sixteen years old and be ordered to report to Town Hall the next morning and to be arrested and sent to Dachau.
There was the night my mother and I sat at the kitchen table and she told me about the kids in her kindergarten class who backed her up against a wall at school and threw rocks at her because she refused to say “Heil Hitler.” She told me how her parents got her out to a Jewish girls’ orphanage, The Israelitisch Meijesweishaus, in Amsterdam. We talked about her father’s nine brothers and sisters, of how only he and one brother and sister survived. My father and I spoke about his family, those who survived and those who did not. His mother, father, older sister who was twenty-two and his younger brother who was eleven. They got out of Germany to Maastricht, Holland and in August 1942 were deported to Westerbork and in November 1942 to Auschwitz and murdered upon arrival.
I had so many stories inside of me and poetry became the way to tell them. After writing and writing for almost fifteen years, in 2007 my book “How to Spot One of Us” was published.
Since publication, I have been speaking in public and private schools and for various organizations. I have told my family’s stories of life before the Holocaust, of trying to escape, of failing, of succeeding, of coming to America and learning a new language, becoming American citizens and of beginning, again. In my poetry, it is my goal to give voice to the dead. In my teaching, my goal is to encourage students to remember and study about the Holocaust and our world today, a world that is still rife with genocide.
Over the last two years I have become involved in other ways to remember the Shoah. I’m working with Emmy Award-winning director Richard Kroehling on BE•HOLD, a cinematic documentary that explores poetry, written by Jews and non-Jews, about the Holocaust from the rise of Nazism to the present. Poems are showcased by poets, survivors and their descendents. I am also part of a multi-media exhibit about children of survivors with photographer Aliza Augustine showing at The Kean University Human Rights Institute Gallery, consisting of my poetry and film and her portraits and photography.
I believe that the past is not simply in the past, but rather a vital part of the present and future. Seventy years ago, WWII ended. The last survivors of the Holocaust are aging and passing away. I feel it is my responsibility to remember and continue to tell the stories of my family before, during and after the Shoah in the hopes it will never happen again to anyone.
Jewish wisdom teaches that remembrance must include action. As a child, I was taught by my parents that every human being is created in God’s image and that is the way I should treat each person I meet. Our actions, small or large can help change the world. Whether it is treating the stranger with dignity or being active in causes to stop genocide, we each can remember the Shoah in our own way thus honoring the murdered and the survivors.
Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us (2007). She is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry performance film. https://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilm. Her work has appeared in journals and on line in such publications as Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received Honorable Mention in the String Poet Prize 2014.