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Searching for My Father's Ashes

By Nesse Godin

For many years I have been sharing memories about my life as a prisoner under Nazi occupation during the time we call the Holocaust. I do so with the hope that humanity will learn the truth of what happened and, most of all, so they will not allow it to happen again to any human beings regardless of how they pray or how they look or where they came from. People always ask questions. They ask if I am still Jewish or if I believe in G-d. People also like to know if I went back home to Siauliai, Lithuania.

My answer to them is always the same: Why would I not be Jewish or believe in G-d? It was the Nazis that did these killings; we the Jews were the victims. We the people have a free will to do good or bad. I always say I was born in a Jewish family. I suffered as a Jew and I will die as a Jew. I’d rather be the victim than the murderer.

To the other question my answer is: There was no reason for me to go back to Lithuania. There was no more home or family waiting for me. The people in the audience always say that it would be a good idea to go back to find something they call “closure.”

I did not know what this thing called closure was or is and I did not bother to look it up in the dictionary. There were reasons that I could not go to Lithuania. It was occupied by the Soviet Union and they would not let you visit. I believe it was 1992 when Lithuania became independent; by that time I had already given up my paying job and was volunteering for the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and then for the Museum when it opened in 1993, and so I could not afford such a trip.

One day when I spoke to a group of Council members, the question about going to find closure came up. And when I gave my usual answer, the chairman of the Council, Mr. Meyerhoff, offered to give me his frequent-flyer points so I could go to find this thing called closure.

I took this opportunity and decided to make the trip. My family could not go with me, so a dear friend offered to be my companion. We traveled to all the places that I lived before the occupation and also to all the camps I was imprisoned in and we looked and looked but we could not find this thing called closure.

For many years I wondered what happened to my father’s remains. I knew that Papa was taken in a selection from the ghetto on November 5, 1943, and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. That was a big selection where the Nazis took a thousand children and many elderly and sick and many healthy and strong. After the war, records showed that they were all killed there in gas chambers and their bodies were burned in crematoria.

So we decided to go to Auschwitz to look for my father’s remains, his ashes. A guide took us to Auschwitz—now it is called Birkenau—and we walked through the buildings that are now offices and some small museums. We found the gas chambers—they were all scrubbed clean. I stood in one of them and wondered how my Papa died. Did he suffer or did G-d take him quickly? Then we went looking for the crematoria. There used to be many of them; now they are just piles of rubble. There were signs with numbers on them.

I tried to find information so I would know where to look but no one knew where the victims of the Siauliai ghetto were burned. There was no specific information, no records. So I walked among the rubble of those crematoria looking on the ground searching for the ashes of my Papa. There were ashes among the many stones and sand, ashes of millions of Jewish men, women, and children. The sky was gray and it was a cold and windy day. I just decided to pick a spot and light the memorial candle that I brought with me from home. I closed my eyes, put the candle on the ground, and tried to light it but the wind would not let me do it—it kept blowing the candle out. So I gathered some stones and some pebbles and made a small little circular tower just big enough to hold the candle and then I lit it. I said the prayer of kaddish, the memorial prayer, and then I stood up and took a picture so at least I would have something to remember that moment with and to show my family.

I did not notice that a crowd had gathered around me. It was a teacher with students from England. Everyone shook my hand and many people said that they will never forget that day and neither will I. I came home to the United States with no closure. I feel good that at least I lit a candle among the ashes of millions of our brethren who were gassed and burned in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau—among them the ashes of my Papa, Pinchas Galperin.

©2006, Nesse Godin. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.