The letter sat at the bottom of my mother’s closet inside an old shopping bag, tossed among yellowed photographs, her Cuban passport and her American citizenship papers. It was written in German, a language she didn’t speak, but she kept it because it was addressed to her father, who died in 1961 when my mom was only 19. It was one of the few possessions of his that made it with her to the United States when she left Cuba.
Years went by and life got in the way, as it so often does. Any curiosity she had about the letter’s contents wasn’t enough for her to take the time and trouble to have it translated. She might have even forgotten about it if we hadn’t tracked down lost relatives of his in Colombia who shared our German roots.
Faded and crumbling, the letter was addressed to my grandfather from his sister in 1949. Its contents must have rocked him to the core. Sixty years later, it had that exact impact on my mom and on me as we read the translation. Two of his aunts were murdered at Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp. That meant my mother’s great aunts were killed in the Holocaust. It meant I, too, was descended from Jews exterminated by Nazis.
Most sons, daughters, nieces and nephews of Holocaust victims and survivors live with that knowledge all of their lives. It becomes part of their identity. Also, most are almost certainly Jewish. We are not. My grandfather was Lutheran. My mother is Cuban American and Catholic. I am half Cuban, half Italian and was raised Catholic. But the fact of my baptism doesn’t change the truth of my family history: I am a 3G or “third-generation” survivor.
As I’m close to finishing a novel based loosely on my grandfather’s life, I’ve given a lot of thought to what it means to be writing about Jews and the Holocaust without actually being Jewish. It’s a quandary similar to that faced by any author when writing about an ethnic group or race that is not one’s own—but not exactly. The legacy handed to me is as legitimate as that of someone who has lit Shabbos candles or attended synagogue their whole lives. Regardless of what religion I practice, no matter how I’m seen or even how I identify myself, all the branches of our family tree that extend from that point have been shaped in some way by the experience of anti-Semitism, displacement, hate. My own story, in fact, has been influenced not by one, but by two diasporas—Germany in the 1930s and Cuba in the 1960s.
It is likely my grandfather left Germany in 1931 at least in part because his father was Jewish. He certainly never returned. As a writer, I find myself returning for him, reawakening a memory he intentionally put to rest. It’s a lesser-told story of the Holocaust, but certainly no less real.