The International School for Holocaust Studies
What Papa Told Me
Reviewed by Yael Weinstock Mashbaum
Dividends Press, 2010
This is the Holocaust testimony of Murray Schwartzbaum, from Szczekociny, Poland, as told to his granddaughter, Felice Cohen. While many such stories are told in the first-person with the help of a family member, Cohen also includes pieces of her conversation with her grandfather, opening the dialogue with the third-generation, a topic not always incorporated into Holocaust testimonies.
This touching and heart wrenching story begins when Murray is a child, born in 1921, to a traditional Jewish family. Owners of a family-run lumber company, he has fond memories of his sisters and brother and the “normal” life that they all shared. When the Nazis invaded Poland, Murray’s brother escaped to the Soviet Union, while the rest of the family tried to move to Bedzin but quickly learned of the killings of Jews and chose to return to their home. Murray lived most of the war in a series of slave labor camps, eventually being transported to Bergen-Belsen where he found his sister Cecia and learned of the tragic fates of the rest of their family. With his sister’s help, Murray survived and together they were liberated by the American army in 1945. They each married a Holocaust survivor and began rebuilding their lives.
But the story does not end there. Cohen asks her grandfather about her grandparents’ move to the United States and the hardships they faced as Holocaust survivors. Both Murray and his wife Fela were deeply traumatized by what had occurred during the six years of the Nazi occupation. Murray recalled those difficult years and yet the story concludes in an inspiring and uplifting manner, and he explains to Felice the legacy that he has left for her, his other grandchildren, and future generations.
This book can be graphic, exposing the horrors of the Nazi atrocities. Teachers should use their discretion when using this with middle-school students, though there is much to be learned from the story. It is written in an easy-to-understand style and tells the story of people their age who lived in an unfortunately devastating time. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons to use this with students is its emphasis on talking to grandparents, listening to their stories, and retelling them.