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The Loss of the Beloved Man Who was Supposed to be My Uncle

Last night, a few minutes after midnight, just after I finished watching the moving documentary about the life of Oliver Sachs, I received a short text from Israel, from the daughter of my parents’ last remaining Holocaust survivor friends: “I am sorry to share the sad news with you, my father departed from this world yesterday in the morning.”

Her father, Yoske, as my father called him, was the high school sweetheart of my father’s younger sister. They had been together for four years, it was clear they were going to get married, and Yoske was part of the Felsen family. My aunt did not survive the Holocaust, and Yoske went on to marry and have a family. But he was very open about the fact that my aunt was the love of his life, and how much he loved the Felsen family, my grandparents, my other aunts, and my father. When I heard of Yoske’s death, I was struck by the enormity and the finality of the loss. He was the last person alive who still carried the images of the grandparents and aunts I never knew, the home life that he was part of, the town, the life they shared, all of that which was lost before we, the second generation, were born. My Mediterranean sun-baked childhood in Israel bore no resemblance to my parents’ childhood in Poland, to the physical and the interpersonal environment in which they grew up.

Access to Poland was barred for Israelis for many years, so growing up, it was this unreal place to me, a place that ceased to exist. Indeed, even when I finally could go there, as an adult, it was even more obvious that the Poland of my parents’ lives was an unreal place, as all that was supposed to have been there was gone. There were no people left, no relatives, no friends, no homes, the synagogue was turned into a public library without any mention of its past, and the Hebrew letters at the entrance to the Jewish Orphanage were still visible in their absence, after someone tried to chisel them out.

Hearing of the loss of Yoske, the sense of fragmented knowledge of the past, accessible only through the accumulation of small details, small stories that re-capture episodic moments that somehow got to be remembered, got to be re-told, the sense that the final opportunity to hear some more was gone, overwhelmed me. This is it. There is no more coming; what I know now is all that I will ever know. I will no longer be able to look at the face of someone who, while speaking to me of my grandparents, could see their faces glowing in his memory.

The commandment to remember is a fundamental element in Jewish tradition. Every Passover we say, “you should tell your sons” the story of the Exodos from Egypt, and the statement from the Hagada, should our fathers not have been delivered from slavery, we, too, would have been enslaved, has a very real, personally near quality for the children of survivors of the Holocaust.  The philosopher Emil Fakenheim posited that a 614th commandment, not to forget, should be added to the 613 in Jewish faith, so as not to hand Hitler another posthumous victory.  The need to remember and to preserve the connection to our families, to the way they lived, to know as much as we can about who they were as real, individual people, is an important link to our own identity. As the last of our parents’ generations passes away, it is like a continent that sinks into the sea. Knowing who our families were, before the Holocaust annihilated their world, is an act of resistance to the destruction, a way to carry forward their legacy, and a meaningful effort to re-establish a generational continuity.

                      Irit Felsen


  1. Ruth Ronen says

    A wonderful piece Irit! Thank you

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

      I am very grateful for your comment. There are experiences that only children of survivors can fully share, and only the words of other children of survivors feel fully comforting. Thank you.


  2. Deborah Less says

    I am very sorry. This is incredibly sad . Your words have touched my heart.

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

      Thank you. It is in these times that one feels that there are certain things that only other children of survivors can resonate with truly and fully. Not because others don’t care, but because there are certain experiences that connect the children of survivors in unique ways. Your comment is very comforting to me.

      • Evy Eisenberg says

        I’m so sorry for your loss! May your parents friend memory be a blessing for you! We lost by only Uncle this past April, the last link to my father’s family. It was good that he left a memory of his experiences with my father during the holocaust. My parents never spoke or spoke very little. So I feel so badly for your loss!

      • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

        Thank you, Evy, for your heartfelt words! I do feel a loss of something that is no longer attainable. We must now do our best to leave what we want our children to know because, despite the ‘holes’ and the missing parts, since we are the ones who knew our parents in the closest way.

  3. Tammy Newman Forstater says

    So beautifully said Dr Felsen. Thank you. Looking forward to the webinar tonight.

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

      Thank you, Tammy, I am so appreciative of thefact that you took the time to send your comment! It really does feel like being supported by my community of children of survivors!

      Looking forward to this evening’s webinar!

  4. Risa Raizy Katz says

    Hello Irit-
    I so connect to your words and emotions in this touching article. I too am a child of a Polish survivor. But my father was the sole survivor of his family, and knew of no living relatives. Furthermore, he made no attempt to connect to other survivors- which only made it that much harder for himself and his family. As a result, there were so many holes, and never ending questions- that will forever remain unanswered. That is our difficult legacy- as second generation
    survivors. Thanks for sharing yours!
    PS. My father, a great Rabbi, taught us that it is, in fact, a biblical commandment to remember and never forget our history. In Sefer Devarim- there is a commandment “Zechor yemot olam-
    Binu Shnot dor va’dor! So just as we are commanded to never forget our enslavement in Egypt- we are commanded to never forget our recent Holocaust.
    Raizy Katz Tessler

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

      Thank you so much! I just got off the phone with my sister, and we both stated “Nistam Hagolal”; in Hebrew, this means “the boulder has been rolled on top of the cavern”, there is no exploration possible ever

  5. Ruth Hoffman-Felsen says

    Thank you for sharing with me.T
    here is no-one anymore to carry the images of our gradnparents and family. Yoske was lucky to have you as a precious reminder of his love and life before the Holocaust.
    May he rest in peace.

  6. Thank-you, Irit, you have touched on a very personal memory which has ignited in me a personal memory of my own, and a more holistic view of “remembering”. When my father the survivor was in his last year of life- nearing age 95 and cognitively impaired, I remember feeling the need to ask his permission to go say Kaddish for him in the synagogue on the yahrtzeit of the massacre in his shtetl and the murder of all his family members, except one sister who was not there. It felt so totally strange to me: “How can I say Kaddish over people who were his parents and siblings, when I did not know them and he did- but he is not longer able to do it…” I went and did it (and I am not an observant Jew who attends synagogue on a regular basis).

    I tell this because I was overwhelmed by a sense that we must remember, not just the terrible end, but the vivacious,”lived life” of people, families, communities and civilizations that were decimated. I knew that day would come when, as you write, “there will be no more coming.”

    The need to remember is so important, but the question of no less importance in my mind: What is it that we need to remember? What is it that we can remember?

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

      Thank you, Ronnie, for these thoughtful comments, this is exactly what my focus is on, especially in the meetings in which we discuss the possibilities that open for us in middle age, and the legacy we want to promote, which includes a lot of beauty and vitality from the times before the Holocaust and even in the postwar years.

  7. Dear Irit,
    That was so beautifully written and such a loving tribute to your almost-uncle.
    Sorry for your loss and may the knowledge of his love stay with you.
    Happy, healthy New Year,

  8. Dear Irit
    I’m so sorry for your loss as a child of survivors I can understand your feelings we are attach to not only our family members but our parents friends became of family. May your memories be a blessing for you and your family. I still have one aunt and it hurts me that we cannot go visit her and see her she’s going to be 94 in couple weeks and I would like to be there and celebrate with her but hope that by the end of the year it will be possible.

  9. Ettie Zilber says

    Among 2Gs, ‘almost’ uncles or other ‘grinders’ ’ served as surrogate family members in the absence of real family. Thus, strong bonds and relationships were formed without DNA connections. The loss of these surrogate family members is as painful as the loss of real blood relatives. I feel for your loss. Ettie

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

      Dear Ettie,
      Indeed, you are so right! These WERE our family. We barely had any other. This is such a sense of a loss, the end of an era. Thank you for your email, which is much appreciated.


  10. Dear Irit,
    Thank you so much for sharing these most important and beautiful thoughts of such a special man. I sense, through your words, that your life has been made much richer for having had him in your life and for the cherished memories he has held for you.

    I believe that his light will continue to shine in you and he will continue to be at your side always and forever. To me, this is the beauty of the very special relationships we hold so dearly and have been so privileged to have.
    Deeply caring thoughts, Etty

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

      Etty, thank you for your beautiful words. I believe that is true, the light of these relationships will always be with us!


  11. Nina Indig says

    Beautifully written, thank you for sharing. If only more of us 2Gs had asked more questions and recorded more answers in the past! But then again, so many of the survivors found it too painful to remember and share. BDE.
    Besorot tovot!

  12. Caron Strulowitz says

    Dear Irit , I am so sad and sorry to hear this. You expressed so beautifully how we all feel about family members who weren’t actually related by blood. We are all sad knowing that these precious survivors who are still with us ..are truly living their last days. It is so hard to imagine a world without these people. It leaves such a void in our lives and strengthens the need to remember and teach our children. Wishing you nechama and may his memory be a blessing for you and your entire family. Hamakom yenachem,

    Caron Strulowitz

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

      Caron, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the lovely email. I know you understand, and am very much moved by the responses, it is really a virtual Shiva. Thank you.


  13. Rochelle Pollock says

    Your loss is every 2 G’s loss. As another survivor leaves us that world feels further away. Remembering and sharing with the next generation is our only hope to keeping the memories alive. It will be the legacy for generations to come. My deepest condolences Irit.

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

      Thank you very much, Rochelle. It is deeply moving to hear your words, I appreciate it very much.


  14. Lea Tenenbaum says

    Dear Dr. Felsen,
    I am sorry for your loss. Like you said, with every passing of another of the few remaining survivors, our generation feels not only the loss of their personal connection but the loss of entire communities, societies and history. Since I started listening to your series, I have been struggling with how future generations will remember our recent heritage and past ancestry. Especially now that the pandemic has brought it’s own set of anxieties to the children of 3Gs, my concern that future generations will become inured to the horrors of the past amidst the still prevalent “ethnic cleansings” occurring globally even today. Those who believe that the only means of achieving a continuum is by the strictest of adherence to the Law, set themselves apart from those who simply maintain a cultural or traditional affiliation and sadly that in itself becomes another source of conflict, alienating Jew from Jew. Our future generations have so much to contend with, past memories will not suffice.

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

      Indeed, Lea, each generation has their particular challenge. We can only hope that the memory of the people who were murdered and the life and culture that were destroyed will be forever remembered.
      Thank you for your email!

  15. Rinah karson says

    Oh Dear Irit, I am…deeply touched by your sad sharing & wishing you and loved ones deep healing & comfort. Heartfelt condolences to you and family. May his memory be a blessings and May he Rest In Peace, shalomshalom❤️

  16. Tammy Forstater says

    Dear Irit, I’m so sorry for your loss. What a tender, sad story. Wishing you and all his loved ones healing.

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