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It won’t be long until there are no more living Holocaust survivors.
That’s the thought that drove art and design junior Daniel Deitch and his sister, Lauren, to write the book “We Will Always Remember” about their grandparents in 2006, at 13 and 12 years old.
Now, seven years after their book’s publication, that thought is becoming even more of a reality. Though exact numbers of living survivors are unknown, it is certain this is the last generation that will be able to personally know or meet someone who escaped Hitler’s systematic death machine.
“The book came from the viewpoint of what it’s like to be the third generation — us kids — and how it feels to be the very last generation to know these Holocaust survivors before they all die,” Deitch said. “We found that to be one of the most important things, ever. We are the last ones to be able to document what we saw and what we heard: their stories.”
Deitch’s dad’s mom and his mom’s dad are both Holocaust survivors. Deitch’s grandfather, Walter, 87, is still living.
“I speak to many high schools now, and I tell them my story, how I got out and so on,” Walter said. “It’s a very lucky story, as far as I’m concerned, about how I got out of Germany, and how I lived in England, and how I came to the United States, and how I got to China and how I saw my parents again after eight years. That’s a lot to tell.”
Deitch’s grandmother, Julie, died in 2006 at 86-years-old.
Julie’s death prompted Deitch and his sister to write it all down.
“My grandmother, she had Alzheimer’s, and it was really bad,” Deitch said, “It started in maybe 2004, and she forgot who I was, who my sister was, and then she started to forget my dad, who was her son. But there was one thing that she did remember, though. And that was every single detail about her siblings and her parents who died in 1944 because of the Holocaust.”
As his grandmother’s memory faded, the Holocaust remained burnt in her mind.
“At the end of her Alzheimer’s, the Holocaust was all she could talk about, all she could remember,” he said. “Traumatic events, I think, stick with you the longest, and it was just so important to her. I think that’s why it stuck. She wanted to commemorate those who had been unjustly killed, her siblings and her parents.”
Julie was 22, married and pregnant at the start of the Holocaust. All of her family members, including her then-husband, were killed in concentration camps. Their bodies were burnt in crematoriums.
Deitch and his family visited a concentration camp in Poland approximately four years ago, and when he saw the crematorium, it hit home.
“Walking through there and smelling the stale smell, I lost it when I saw that crematorium,” he said. “There was a light, a small candle, near it, and I thought, ‘So this is how my entire family, other than my grandmother, went, in one of these crematoriums,’ and it was just really powerful.”
After Julie died, Deitch and his sister decided to commemorate her story and also share their grandfather’s story by writing “We Will Always Remember.” The siblings interviewed family members, drew illustrations and tried to look “beyond the small picture,” Deitch said.
“They were really able to, at a pretty young age, relate and get the feeling of what my mom and Judy’s (Deitch’s mom’s) father went through,” Deitch’s dad, Mark, said. “It really touched them, and it took on a life of its own.”
The book tells Julie’s story, but it also tells the story of Deitch’s grandfather, Walter, an 87-year-old survivor currently living in Encino, Calif.
At age 12, Walter made it onto one of the very last Kindertransport rescue missions, a train and ship system that saved more than 10,000 Jewish children. It took him safely to England, and his parents fled to Shanghai. At 18, Walter came to America and joined the army where he entered an essay contest. The winner of the contest would receive transportation to Beijing.
And requested to stop at Shanghai along the way.
“He went to China and had no idea what his parents’ address was, so he went to the local post office, and he fell asleep on the post office step, and the man who woke him up knew where his parents lived,” Deitch said. “The man brought him to his parents in a small ghetto. His mother fainted when she first saw my grandfather at the door.”
Walter says he was lucky.
“I showed up in Shanghai, and my parents didn’t even know I was an American,” he said. “They thought I was still in England, so here I am outside their door, an American soldier, pretty dramatic, but that’s how I got together with them again. It was very emotional; you can imagine that.”
An overriding message in both of his grandparents’ stories, Deitch said, is the importance of family and the need to persevere.
“Both sides of my family are Holocaust survivors, but they’re totally different stories,” Deitch said. “Still, there were points where either of my grandparents could have chosen an early death, but they didn’t give up. That’s a theme in the book.”
Seven years after writing the book, Deitch said he has no regrets.
“When I was writing this book, I knew that these stories weren’t just stories, they’re identity, and they’re what we need to know. Otherwise, we come from nothing, and we don’t come from nothing.”
The book is now sold on Amazon and in the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. A portion of the proceeds goes to the Blue Card Fund, a charity that provides direct financial aid to Holocaust survivors in need.