A question rarely asked: Would I have survived the Holocaust?

When the Germans bombed Warsaw in September, 1939, my family’s future was cancelled, but not their hopes. My father and grandparents barely survived and eventually escaped the Warsaw Ghetto, then were pursued by the Gestapo across the Polish countryside. As a second generation survivor, I have welcomed opportunities to share their story of dedication to family, personal fortitude, unshakeable faith and a bit of luck.

Through the rubble, disease, death squads, forced slave labor and starvation, my grandfather could only plan to get through the day, then maybe the next one. As a 7-year old, my father smuggled food, was forced to collect the dead on the street and ultimately, tunneled out of the Ghetto. My father and grandmother shared their true stories of resilience with me, now a published book shared world-wide with thousands of people.

After giving numerous book signings and presentations, the comments were kind and honest. Attendees would approach me and wonder, in subdued tones, how my family could endure such brutality and deprivation and survive. The downward gaze and head shake were common, as if they were trying to personally imagine it.Whether they were students, educators, second generation survivors or from the community, it was the same, yet one question was never asked. Never.

“If I were in the Warsaw Ghetto, would I have survived?” Would you, you may wonder? The question is left unanswered, because it is never openly asked. Until now.

For me, it is like when a family member or friend faces a dire medical challenge and you privately wonder how you would deal with it, if you were put in that situation.

The ability to survive would depend on numerous personal and Ghetto factors, but that’s over thinking it; the end result would probably be the same. Most of the Jews herded into the Warsaw Ghetto did not survive the German invasion or occupation. They died because of bombing, starvation, disease, forced labor or were violently killed in the streets or the Treblinka concentration camp.

As I sit here in 2020, contemplating my family’s perseverance, why bother wondering if I would have been up to the life challenges they faced? It pains me to envision what the Nazis did to my family and concede that I can’t go back in time and change it.

However, by answering the survival question for ourselves, we recall the twisted justification for total extermination of the Jewish people and many other innocent victims. Abandoning the truth re-victimizes the dead and disrespects the survivors.

A recent study reported in USA Today noted that 2/3rds of millennials and Gen Z don’t know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Half of them couldn’t name a single concentration camp. Without understanding the Final Solution, they won’t be able to conceive the unimaginable horror of executions, gas chambers and crematoriums.

Holocaust education is vital to remind everyone that it can happen again and in any society. It is essential to maintain the fundamental historical truth and never take it for granted.

Would I have survived? It is unlikely, but if I say “yes,” then there are more questions. How far would I be willing to go to save lives? Would I have killed to survive or save family members? Looking directly into the eye of a Nazi guard could result in your head being cracked open by a rifle butt. What would I have done if I had seen a loved one beaten to death?

My father frequently witnessed these things on the streets. He was then forced to lift and stack the bloodied corpse onto a wagon full of dead bodies, which were taken outside the Ghetto and dumped in a deep pit. Survival was a death-defying act, where lives were unceremoniously disregarded and ended.

Wishing that my life would have purpose in the Warsaw Ghetto, I’d like to believe that I would have joined the resistance and been a part of the uprising, even though I know it was brutally crushed. Even if I had contributed writings to Emanuel Ringelblum’s hidden archives before the total liquidation of the Ghetto, I envision struggling to the end with my family.

You might ask yourself, if you were there, what would you be forced to do to live? With no guarantees, what would you dare do to save yourself and family? In asking this, you must come up against the reality of the Holocaust and the incredible humanity of those who survived and died in it. Forgetting is choosing the option of calamity. Instead, we should aspire to live better lives than our ancestors, while praying to learn from their lives, values and decisions.

As a Jew, the chance of survival would clearly be against me, but I choose to not focus on that end. We should ask ourselves the unasked question as a means of preserving the memory of the Holocaust, while embracing our family and history. Even if we cannot accurately answer the question, promoting Holocaust education preserves its truth, while seeking to improve the future. That is hope too.

Jeffrey N. Gingold is the internationally acclaimed and award-winning author of Tunnel, Smuggle, Collect: A Holocaust Boy (Henschel Haus, 2015).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

A question rarely asked: Would I have survived the Holocaust?

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