In the past few weeks, many of us — Jews and gentiles alike — have racked our brains to derive some type of meaning from Squirrel Hill. My friend Robbie Whelan, who grew up in the neighborhood, summed up the collective sense of bewilderment at POLITICO: How does something so horrible happen to a community this strong? If it can happen here, a place where the truth guides people to be good to one another and ideas are shared and debated, rather than weaponized, can’t it happen anywhere?
Consistent with the aftermath of most national tragedies, the reductive takes have come fast and furious. Political narratives have focused on the emboldening of the alt right’s violent fringe; religious arguments have pointed to the omnipresence of anti-Semitism, even in areas where Jews feel most comfortable; regulatory discourse has predictably centered on gun control issues. Still others have steered the conversation to examining the shooter’s poorly diagnosed mental illness, the epidemic of disaffected “angry white men,” and how to better police our communities.
None of these explanations have been of much comfort to American Jews, whose admittedly distant connections to the horrors their ancestors faced in the 1940s were reignited by the Pittsburgh events. A recent study revealed that 41 percent of Americans and 66 percent of millennials cannot say what Auschwitz was, and even among American Jews, knowledge of the Holocaust is frequently limited to the secondhand recollections of a deceased ancestor, faded memories of a grade school Facing History and Ourselves module, or a long-ago visit to a memorial. A feeling of tremendous unease that the “never again” mantra is being challenged in our own country — combined with an inability to understand where one’s own experience fits within the historical framework — has had a deeply isolating effect on many of us. Are we helpless to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again?
In this context, I have found that constructing a family history — both the process of assembling one and the history itself — can help illuminate the present in ways that the endless onslaught of competing narratives fails to deliver. What follows is my journey down this path, from New York City in 2018 to Slonim, Poland of the 1930s.
My grandmother Dora (Dweyra) and great aunt Miriam (Mera) left their village of Slonim, Poland for Buenos Aires in 1936 and 1938. Three years later, after being ghettoized and forced into slave labor, all 25,000 Jews of Slonim were shot by the Nazis and their local volunteers, most of them massacred in pits outside the city. The remainder were burned alive over a two-week period of chaos as the ghetto was razed. A tiny number of survivors slipped into the forest and joined partisan units. My great grandmother and another great aunt were included in the group that did not make it out. Thus ended the 600-year history of Jews in Slonim.
This was the basic outline I was given as a child. Since then, I have been drawn to this gruesome series of events in Slonim, which, I came to learn, was typical of the atrocities wrought by Hitler’s mobile death squads, the Einsatzgruppen, between 1941 and 1942. As the last members of the “Slonim generation” — my grandmother, my great Aunt, and my great uncle Isaac — started to pass away in their adopted home of Argentina, I acquired a sense of personal obligation. If I were not the one to keep Slonim alive in my family, who would?
Complementing this feeling of familial duty was the hope that immersing myself in the events that transpired in Slonim, as grotesque as they may be, would allow me to wrestle with an increasingly grim set of current circumstances. Jews were being killed in Paris and Copenhagen; neo-Nazis circled a Charlottesville synagogue chanting “sieg heil.” I read with disbelief as headlines such as “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” multiplied. Might the story of Slonim offer some insight on the present? In this context, I sought to construct a personal history tightly focused around this one Belarusian village.
But where to begin? As far as I knew, the last member of my family to be in Slonim was my deceased great aunt, who left that town 80 years ago. My search for what transpired there turned up one out-of-print book and a couple early internet-era websites.
I began my search as many do: by purchasing an ancestry.com subscription. A week of digging yielded two yellowed ship manifests from my grandmother and great aunt’s transatlantic journey to Buenos Aires, both identified as “HEBREW TRANSMIGRANT ALIENS” with “SLONIM” clearly marked as place of birth.
Holding these documents in my hand and imagining these two Yiddish-speaking Slonimers — 16 and 20 at the time of their departure — being counted by a British immigration clerk, without understanding that they were escaping certain death and would never see their mother and third sister again, was a moving initial find. While I have always regarded myself as the product of refugees (my mother had to flee her native Argentina as well), the tactile sensation of leafing through these pages connected me with their legacy in a way that I had never felt.
I became transfixed by Slonim. Over weekends of the next year, I would search through depositions of German POWs, contact Belarusian remembrance groups, listen to interviews of aging gentile Slonimers who had witnessed the executions, search through Nazi files and attempt to track down anyone living in Slonim today. With each rewarding find, the desire to dig deeper intensified.
The picture that began to take shape was even more depraved than I had imagined. A situational assessment submitted by Gerhard Erren, the commander in Slonim, to his superiors in Germany coldly distills the killing of 18,000 Jews on November 13, 1941 into a single sentence: “the action carried out…rid me of unnecessary mouths to feed.”  His interpreter Alfred Metzner, who ended up being caught, interrogated, and eventually executed by Allied forces, offered a disturbingly matter-of-fact perspective on his participation in that day’s slaughter:
“I was holding a whip or a pistol…The men, children and mothers were pushed into the pits. Children were first beaten to death and then thrown feet [first] into the pits…There were a number of filthy sadists in the extermination Komando. For example, pregnant women were shot in the belly for fun and then thrown into the pits…Before the execution the Jews had to undergo a body search, during which…anuses and sex organs were searched for valuables and jewels. ”
As my picture of these blood-soaked days became more vivid, my thoughts turned back to the present. I was interested in speaking with someone who had been in Slonim recently and could tell me what it felt like to stroll streets that had been bustling with Jews for hundreds of years and were one day wiped completely clean. I felt that the “missing link” in the conversion of my recent immersion into the horrors of my family’s past into a perspective that would help me better understand the present would be a first or secondhand observation of Slonim itself.
As I grappled with how to make this happen, I connected with Aleksander and Helen at MI POLIN, a Polish company that seeks to deepen the connection of Jews to their ancestors who perished in the Holocaust. To this end, they visit the former Jewish ghettos of the “bloodlands” (Belarus, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine), searching for mezuzah traces on door frames. They then make a bronze cast of the mezuzah trace and attempt to find out what happened to those who used to live in that residence. When I asked them if they would visit Slonim on my behalf and received a quick message back of “Sure just PayPal me $60 for travel fare from Warsaw,” I could barely contain my enthusiasm.
After an eventful journey, my contacts located a mezuzah trace on the doorframe of a Belarusian gymnasium that was being repainted that very day. The building, formerly known as the Zionist Synagogue, is located at “2 Communist Street” and is one of 21 synagogues that existed in Slonim on the eve of the first World War.
After unearthing some old maps and photos, I could identify that this building was ultimately used by as a German POW camp.
To think that this mezuzah trace survived on the doorframe of a Nazi jail, and then witnessed another four decades of brutally anti-Semitic Soviet rule, felt like a barely masked metaphor for perseverance amid unspeakable adversity.
As we reflect on these taxing times, the importance of remembering the past has taken on renewed relevance. Amidst the gloom, there are more than a few glimmers of hope. This year, The World Monuments Fund began restoration work on Slonim’s baroque synagogue, which has been labeled as one of the most endangered Jewish sites in Europe.
The organization Yahad In-Unum works tirelessly, village-by-village to document the largely unmarked graves that characterized the “holocaust by bullets.” MI POLIN does amazing work in helping diaspora Jews feel connected to their past. It is ultimately on individuals to remain vigilant and fulfill the famous charge of former Congressman and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos: “The veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians, and we can never rest.”
Ezra Mehlman is a healthcare investor and an adjunct professor at Columbia University. He holds a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis and an MBA from Columbia Business School.
Klee, Ernest, Willie Dressen, and Volkier Reiss (eds), The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders (Free Press, 1991), 178-179.