There were two times I shared the same ground as my grandfather. In Israel, at Kibbutz Shoval, I walked through rows of creamy white Jerusalem-stone boxes overhung with olive trees to his gravestone – Gershon Hoffman. In Germany, this past summer, at Flossenburg Concentration Camp, I walked on the cold, piercing white gravel of the Appelplatz where he once stood roll-call. In Israel, I learned how his premature death would alter the course of my family’s life. In Germany, I learned of the life he lost and his struggle to remain human. His courage and resilience enabled my existence and shaped who I am.
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August 1944: My grandfather arrived at his sixth and final camp. Looking to feed his hunger and his soul, he found the will to ask. He noticed a little boy, about the age of the younger brother he had lost to the Nazis. He asked for bread, and, in turn, the boy watched him, smuggled sustenance, and talked with him secretly. I understood Gershon cared about the boy, perhaps filling the void left by his brother. Upon learning how deeply Gershon’s loss affected him, I would come to reevaluate my relationship with my own brother. Before departing on the final death march, April 1945, Gershon made the boy a beautifully intricate card wishing a festive and peaceful Easter. Today it resides in my mother’s hands.
July 2010: An inconspicuous envelope arrived; inside, a search for descendants of Gershon Hoffman. The little boy, Anton Sailer, grew up with unshakeable memories of my grandfather, yet we had never known of him. He found us, and we would meet him in Flossenburg the following summer.
July 2011: Greeted on the street by Anton’s son and grandchildren, we approached tearful Anton waiting on the steps. He hugged my mom, touched her face, told her she resembled Gershon. As he hugged me, I felt a familiar intensity in his embrace. Overcome by emotion, I stood speechless, in awe of the man who had fueled Gershon’s will to survive with hope. Anton’s German words escaped me, yet I knew I was absorbing all he meant to convey; the stricken little boy, appalled by what he witnessed, was driven to help however possible. Before we left, Anton gave me treasured cufflinks baring his initials and pulled me and his granddaughter close, asking for a photograph with his two granddaughters.
Anton became a surrogate grandfather to me, having harbored a part of Gershon within him and in the card he passed to us. Gershon became my inspiration. I can only strive to be the kind of person who could have found the courage to ask, the capacity to love, and the selflessness to wish peace for someone else in the darkest hours of history. I did not know Gershon, still, his ability to connect and to persevere are qualities I see in myself. My middle name, Galya, is after him. Gershon means “stranger” in Hebrew, but because of Anton and my trip to Germany that allowed me to meet him, my grandfather is no longer a stranger to me.
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