Michalya Schonwald Moss reflects on how the experience of Covid-19 in South Africa catalysed her search to uncover her family's Holocaust history.
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen
Jolan Vida Schonwald, gassed at Auschwitz when she was 43 years old.
IT was an unimaginable curveball and it landed hard, right in my solar plexus. My husband had just returned from a scouting trip to Israel in March 2020 and we immediately went into quarantine, one week before the rest of South Africa. Being unable to control our circumstances and having to abandon our plans to emigrate, I found myself struggling to navigate this “new normal”. The only context I had to compare our situation to was the Holocaust. As a third-generation survivor, I felt trapped, anxious and afraid. It was then that hairline cracks started to appear, and with inherited transgenerational trauma overshadowing my present reality, I realized that I needed to find the courage to be curious about why a global pandemic had triggered an emotional reaction to a story belonging to my progenitors.
My grandfather, Moshe, had never spoken about his life before the war or his wartime experiences. My father and his brother were uncomfortable bringing it up. My uncle, David, described the impact of living with family secrets as having a constant elephant in the room, “and that elephant was death.”
When discussing the novel Everything is Illuminated, acclaimed author Jonathan Safran Foer once explained his writing process using the analogy of the wagon falling into the Brod river (chapter 2). “When I write, I am that wagon. I throw myself in and whatever rises to the surface is what goes onto the paper”. This process resulted in Safran Foer’s powerful tribute to his family’s European roots and their loss in the Holocaust. Over the past year, I have thought deeply about this analogy of the wagon, when we were all capsized into the amorphic Covid-19 ocean.
All around me, in my efforts to sink or swim, were questions without answers: was Covid-19 the Holocaust of our generation? And, were we to be the ones who did not make it? Did we have what we needed to survive this pandemic? These thoughts were making it impossible to breathe, depleting the oxygen at my water’s surface. I wondered if I might be the only third-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors being asphyxiated by panic attacks under my mask at Woolworths.
In trying to make sense out of this new reality, the conspiracy theories brought greater anxiety. I had no patience for conspiratorial talk of ‘the circular cabal’, QAnon, 5G, or implants in Covid-19 vaccines. I chose to anchor myself in the science of the pandemic in an effort to become more mindful. I realized that in order for me to rise above the chaos of pandemic uncertainty, I somehow needed to dig deeper into my own story. I hoped that this could allow me to live in the moment, one day at a time, and not let my genetic inheritance hijack my wellbeing.
I reached out to my sister, Eliana, who lives in Israel. She reassured me that we would both be alright, especially since we had been preparing for a doomsday scenario to unfold in our lifetime, given that history loves to repeat itself. Aside from our inherited survival instincts, all I had to protect my husband and children from impending doom was half a dozen bottles of coveted hand sanitizers and a generous supply of copper-infused masks imported from Israel. I still felt ill-prepared for combat and I retreated further into lockdown mode. Safe in our fortified Johannesburg abode, I took on my greatest fear: the ghosts of my ancestral past, and I decided to start digging. I knew before I started the excavation process, many of our family members had perished during the Holocaust. I knew that my father’s maternal line, in particular, had been decimated. I also knew that the Holocaust had essentially paralyzed me in the present, and I did not know why.
I do not think that I would have been able to sit with my unresolved familial trauma and begin excavating my family’s past had I not been living in South Africa during the lockdown. Being in the midst of a global pandemic, in a developing country, with so much unpredictability and uncertainty, our safety and security became even more of a concern. With so much corruption, everyone said, South Africa was going to go rogue. This was not a new story – it has been circulating since the early 1990s when South Africans transitioned from Apartheid to majority rule. But outside it did indeed look like a dystopian nightmare. Stores were shut on main streets, garbage was strewn everywhere, and beggars, the only people on the streets, roamed our neighborhood in droves, desperately searching for a means to survive. Eerily echoing the State of Emergencies of the 1980s, the army was deployed, primarily to poorer, over-crowded townships. The army and the South African Police Service inevitably used excessive force. While the world protested the death of George Floyd, in South Africa eleven ‘black’ men were killed for ‘crimes’ as trivial as possessing a glass of alcohol. The South African context created an urgency in my search for answers.
The experience of discovering my family’s story was akin to peeling back unending layers of onions in a hermetically sealed room. I had found our family’s pandora's box on my father’s paternal line. These findings were met by other family members with concern and trepidation. “I’m really ok not knowing,” one family member told me.
"And there was profound healing to the initial shock and trauma: in having had the opportunity ‘to meet’ my forebearers for the first time. They are now part of my story. I have shifted my focus away from how they died, to how they lived".
But I needed to know, so I kept digging. I had reached a point where there was no one alive left to ask. I had accumulated more questions than the available online resources could answer. I decided to reach out to an experienced and kindred genealogist in Kosice, Slovakia. He agreed to help navigate the Slovak national archives for me. After a single trip to the Slovakian Embassy in Pretoria, he had the power of attorney to act on my behalf. A few weeks later we had names, birthdates, and wedding certificates. This information allowed us to locate concentration camp lagers, and other World War II archival data. The genealogist also discovered that we had two other living descendants that we had never even known existed. Once we had put the pieces together, my uncle shared that as an adult, he had confronted his father, appealing to him to open up as “the family secrets are killing us!”. My grandfather Moshe chose to remain silent. After decades of not knowing, or not wanting to know, it took only a few days for our genealogist to discover that aside from a small handful of survivors, the entirety of my grandfather’s maternal and paternal lines had perished in Auschwitz. On my grandfather’s maternal line alone, 120 family members had been murdered.
Some would argue that Covid-19 has been an astonishing social equalizer in that we were all victims of this past year – both the haves and the have nots. That said, as South Africa yet again attested, the poorest and most vulnerable are always hardest hit. In our need to take Covid-19 seriously, the Jewish community was forced to become even more insular. But we had our communal safety nets. Our children did not go hungry and our community’s medical infrastructures, particularly Hatzolah and CSO (Cape Town), ensured that as a community we were well cared for. Most of us in the Jewish community had the ability to educate our children online.
All of us know entire families who have been impacted by the virus, who have lost their health and lives, homes, relationships, businesses and struggled with mental health issues. We know that our lives will never “go back to normal”. We are grieving, we are confronted, we are trying to pick up the pieces. “Pivoting” is not as easy for some as it is for others. We are surrounded by the hairline cracks that Covid-19 ‘illuminated’. We are all thrashing about in the Brod River.
Moshe and Trude Schonwald, also a survivor of Auschwitz, on their wedding day in a DP camp in Belgium, 1946.
2020 was the year that exposed the hairline cracks in my relationship to my family legacy, and let the light in. The loss of a move to Israel, the loss of a “normal” life, allowed me the privilege of having the time and the courage to sit with the unresolved trauma in my life. This, I can now see, was a gift. I was allowed to process the enormity of our family’s loss and sit with the sadness and grief that came in waves while mourning 120 plus of our family members. There were joyful moments as well: being in lockdown with my family (not always joyful), having to slow down, finding peace in nature, integrating gratitude rituals into our lives, the privilege of living in the digital age where connections were strengthened, and cultivated over Zoom. And there was profound healing to the initial shock and trauma: in having had the opportunity ‘to meet’ my forebearers for the first time. They are now part of my story. I have shifted my focus away from how they died, to how they lived. In this way, I can honor them. We even found a forgotten box of pictures, possibly saved by the Schonwald’s devoted and religious Christian maid, Maria, who lived her final days in Haifa.
I have also found compassion and forgiveness for my grandfather Moshe, for having kept the secrets of our past buried. Against every odd, Moshe survived the Dora-Mittlebau subcamp of Buchenwald, with his father, Miklos. Miriam, Moshe’s sister, also survived the war and returned home from Auschwitz after being experimented on by Dr. Josef Mengele. She returned alone, a young daughter without her mother Jolan, my great-great-grandmother, who had been ravishing, with long raven hair that fell gently on her shoulders and huge brown eyes, was gassed at Auschwitz when she was 43 years old, the age I am turning next month.
While I am still in the river, a year after Covid-19 flipped my wagon, I am not alone. We are all swimming together now, forging ahead, until the next curveball comes and lets even more light in. The year may have brought deep trauma to the surface, but it has also allowed for profound personal healing. Witnessing the pain around me in South Africa, with so many facing hunger and food insecurity, has shifted how we engage around our privilege. Between the constant ringing of our bell from people needing food, water, soap, clothing, money, shoes, blankets, words of encouragement--our children have learned about their privilege. They have also learned to be kind and learned about the importance of giving. And, when they are old enough, they will learn about their family that we never had the privilege to meet. In the words of Jonathan Safran Foer “Everything is illuminated in the light of the past”.
Originally from the United States, Michalya Schonwald Moss is the Director of Global Impact and Development for Cadena, an international humanitarian aid and disaster relief organization, guided by the principles of Tikkun Olam. Michalya has been living in South Africa since 2009.