In 1982, I earned my first big byline writing about computer crime for MIT’s Technology Review. From then on, I covered robotics and the computer revolution, exciting beats that I considered gifts. I had a good run as a technology reporter and co-authored a book on robots with Isaac Asimov. I also produced two documentaries about technology and society. But in 2014, features about computer science research were harder to win from the dwindling number of print magazines. I was writing shorter pieces for online national publications and had come full circle covering cyberwarfare. But instead of explaining computer science and profiling the brilliant technologists combating cybercrime, my task was to condense the fruits of their research into online slide shows for Chief Information Officers.
Between assignments, I found myself noodling around the Web. Occasionally I googled my parents’ names, which was a little weird because my mother and father had been dead for 17 and 44 years, respectively. What was I hoping to find? And why did I resort to this haphazard encyclopedia online? The fact is that I terribly missed my parents, and yet in many ways they were mysterious to me. Both were Polish Jews; one was a refugee who arrived in the U.S. in 1939 and the other survived the Holocaust as a slave laborer. I ached for a project on which to unleash my investigative skills as a reporter yet I struggled with the approach. So much had already been written about the Holocaust and I was not clear how to contribute to the already voluminous literature. Unlike most children of survivors, I had access to a treasure trove of inherited portraits, documents, photos, and artifacts which my sisters and I had inherited from our mother. She, in turn, had inherited the contents from her grandparents, who arrived in New York City from Berlin in 1941 with two steamer trunks.
Thus began this journey of discovery that took many forms. First it was to be a work of narrative non-fiction. Then, with the help of my colleague Marcia Rock, it turned into a documentary feature and a five-part documentary short series. I am also rewriting the earlier account as a memoir to accompany our film.
Unearthing information about family losses by digging up whatever could be found in the world’s archives became a way of honoring my parents and other relatives. Through it I have gained some solace and a deeper understanding of my parents’ ordeals and their impact. Piecing together the little I knew with new-found information resulted in an increased understanding of my family’s trauma and loss. It also shone new light on my parents’ resilience and love of life despite what they endured. Venerating them is, to me, the family treasures.
Excerpts from Memoir:
The following twos excerpt are from my mother’s thread in my memoir about events that occurred in Bad Neustadt, Germany, during her last days as a slave laborer. She was working at a Siemens factory shortly after the Allies landed on the French coast of Normandy in June 1944. She had a false identity, posing as a Catholic Pole; her fake name was “Danuta Milewska. Friends called her “Danka.” The chapter is titled “Liberation:”
On Friday evening, June 6, 1944, a French POW in Bad Neustadt clandestinely tweaked the antenna of his contraband radio. After fiddling for several minutes, he found the frequency he wanted. A mix of crackle and news emanated from Radio London. Moments later, he jumped up and ran to the open window of his room, which was across the street from the workers’ barracks at the Siemens factory.
“Danka, the Allies landed in Normandy,” he yelled. “They were not pushed back into the sea!”
At that moment, for the first time, my mother began planning to live, to imagine her future as a person with rights, dignity, and free will. In her oral history, she put it this way:
The day-to-day existence abruptly changed with hope. I don’t think that I allowed myself any kind of daydream, but—this was the important thing—there is a chance that I may live and I began to look at my situation as temporary, which I could not do before.
And yet, asked about the outstanding events between D-day and Liberation, my mother answered, “Nothing really changed. The only thing that might have changed was that the Germans were getting friendlier.”
One of the interviewers did not quite catch her meaning. “Friendly?” she mistakenly echoed.
“Friendlier,” my mother clarified, emphasizing the last syllable. The interviewer asked how she sensed this. My mother answered:
“Some of them were friendlier. Some of them were friendly all along and supportive. But you can’t really pinpoint this down. You had a feeling—ah, they wanted to be remembered on your good side….”
…On April 6, 1945, as American troops approached Bad Neustadt, Radio London instructed civilians to avoid railroad stations because they would be bombed. The Siemens factory was next to the tracks so the frantic slave workers sought shelter nearer the village. In her oral history, my mother commented:
“…[we] were not allowed to go into the shelter because it was only for the Germans, which was idiotic. Across the river were already American troops. Some people had the perception that things were changing. Others had none, as is usually the case.
The Liberation—the most idiotic thing that I did before Liberation was that I stayed in factory.”
Initially I was surprised that my mother chastised herself for not heeding Radio London’s warning. But actually, self-blame was in character; when it came to keeping a step ahead, anticipating, and strategizing, she was a perfectionist. After bombs struck and killed several workers, my mother and some friends ran from the factory across the bridge over the Franconia Saale River to Bad Neuhaus. Then they clambered up the hill to the castle. I checked the map of the village and searched for photos of the mount. If you were fleeing from the northwest to save yourself, as they were, it was a steep hike.
“We were watching the dogfight of two planes,” my mother told her interviewers.
I imagine the roar of two aircraft swooping and diving murderously, shooting and ducking as they fire at one another. My mother presses herself against the cool gray sandstone of the castle wall. While the planes growl at one another and the pilots ready themselves for another joust, my mother runs for cover under the arch of the main gate. The din of the swarming fighters, a series of shots—and then one plane suddenly pitches and yaws violently. Something is wrong with its wing. Is it the American plane? Or has the Yankee outwitted the Nazi? As one plane tumbles to Earth, the spectators spot the unmistakable iron cross on its wings.
And then the moment my mother had awaited for six years:
“And then suddenly we looked down, and there were American tanks in Bad Neustadt. We were across the river. Absolutely unbelievable feeling. And German soldiers were fleeing.”
There she stood on that hilltop literally at the precipice of freedom. Did she watch in stunned silence? Did she and her friends cheer and applaud? My mother’s wartime travails, which had begun with warplanes, were ending with them.
Asked to elaborate on her feelings, my mother either could not or would not articulate them. Instead, she continued to detail events, but reaching back almost forty years and revisiting the trauma made her narrative choppy:
“It wasn’t until next day that I was liberated. I still tried to get to the shelter. I couldn’t get in. The bridges were bombed. The Saale River is a very tiny river. And then Americans came.”
Twice? Twice excluded from the shelter? The petty rigidity and inhumanity of the villagers shocked and galled me….