WE SHARE THE SAME SKY

 

I remember as a child, my grandmother taking hold of my hand and circling my palm with her pointer finger. It would tickle, but I let her continue. “Life will give you callouses,” she told me. “But, with each one, your skin will become thicker.”

Growing up, I knew my grandmother’s story. At least a version of it. I knew she was a Holocaust survivor. I knew she lost her whole family in the war. And, I knew she was a refugee, but as a kid I didn’t have the language nor the maturity to understand what that meant. I took the history for granted. But that is what grandchildren do — we accept the stories that came before us as normal… 

Hana sits with her two grandchildren almost a half century after immigrating to America. Rachael (the artist) is on the right. She is the fourth in a line of seven grandchildren.

Hana sits with her two grandchildren almost a half century after immigrating to America. Rachael (the artist) is on the right. She is the fourth in a line of seven grandchildren.

When I first asked my grandmother for her story, in the summer of 2009, I simply thought that it would be an opportunity to spend one-on-one time with her. I knew that one day I would be grateful to have her testimony — as she would give it from grandmother to granddaughter — but I had no idea that it would come to shape the entirety of my young adult life. 

In the years that followed, I became entranced with her story. I spent years sitting on my bedroom floor in Boston, organizing and digitizing her archive. I scanned every photograph and rewrote every diary. Every word she had ever written went from her fingertips to mine. I went through every delicate piece of paper, taking note of how she moved from one place to another and who helped her along the way. I became the curator of my own museum. 

When that wasn’t satisfying enough, I traveled to Europe to find the people who saved her life during the war. And then, I moved in with their descendants. I lived side by side with them as my grandmother had done. My insatiable curiosity to touch the past has led me into the lives of countless strangers. It has taken me across Central Europe, Scandinavia and the United States, many times over. My grandmother’s story led me to my husband and held my hand after his sudden death. Her story of loss became my guidebook for how to live a life narrated by death and empowered by grief.

In the 10 years I have been researching and retracing my grandmother’s story, this project has taken many forms. It began as a family history project and then became a photojournalism project. I have written articles and told the story on the radio. I have taken this documentary work and created curriculums for students as young as fourth grade and as old as my grandmother’s generation. I have presented in dozens of congregations and communities as well as international conferences and at embassies. I have a forthcoming memoir and and most recently have released a podcast titled We Share The Same Sky. It was produced for USC Shoah Foundation and will be used in high school classrooms across the United States as a way of teaching Holocaust history through a contemporary perspective.

My grandmother once described the Holocaust as an “indescribable black page in history.” This story is about what happens when you turn the page.