|Photo by Melanie Einzig|
Good afternoon. My name is Jordana Stone. I am honored to be here today, speaking to this room of Holocaust survivors and their families. All 4 of my grandparents were Holocaust survivors; but sadly, none of them are alive today. I do not have a clear recollection of when I first learned about the horror and tragedy of my grandparents’ young lives in Europe. I recall hearing terrifying stories throughout my childhood, of the catastrophic events that shaped their lives.
I regret that I never spoke directly to my nana about her life story. Growing up, I was very close with her. She was the best babysitter, always playing games with us, singing, and cooking. We had so much fun together. She often cried as she told me that I looked like her father, or how she missed her childhood cat, Tune. I never asked her to tell me more because I did not want to make her cry. I learned about her past from my mother and aunt, and in even more detail watching her video testimony. My mother told me that Nana thought I was too young to hear the stories, and by the time I was old enough, she was sick with Alzheimer’s disease and unable to tell them.
My Nana, Henny Durmashkin Gurko, came from a musical family in Vilna, Poland. Her father was the director of the Great Synagogue's choir. Her sister and brother were pianists, her brother was the only Jew and youngest conductor of the Vilna Symphony Orchestra, and she herself was a singer. When her family was taken to the Vilna ghetto, her brother convinced workers who were able to leave, to smuggle in a piano, piece by piece, over the course of many days, and put it back together inside the ghetto. He established an orchestra and choir within the ghetto, where my nana sang. Originally they played for other Jews in the ghetto, but eventually the Nazis learned of their great orchestra and came to listen. After the ghetto was liquidated, my nana’s family was separated. She and her sister were sent to a series of concentration camps, and ended up at Dachau where they lived for two years before they were liberated by the American army. They later learned that their brother was killed just hours before liberation. They were the only two family members to survive.
After they were liberated, she and her sister went to St. Otilien DP camp, and became members of the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra. They traveled to many DP camps to entertain Holocaust survivors. One of my nana’s proudest moments was when the Ex-Concentration camp orchestra was conducted by Leonard Bernstein, while he was on a tour of Europe. In 1949, she met my grandfather on the boat coming to America. They eventually settled in New Jersey where they had three children, my mother, her sister, and her brother, and 6 grandchildren. For all of us, music, piano playing and singing, are still a great part of our family traditions.
For the past ten years I worked as a math teacher at a high school in Harlem. I heard that my math students were learning about the Holocaust and World War II in history class, and reading Elie Wiesel’s Night in English class. I helped their English teacher to bring 3rd generation speakers into our school to tell their grandparents’ stories. My students were spellbound and in shock as they listened to the horrific stories. Afterwards, during a question and answer period, my students asked simple questions like “Why didn’t the Jews just run away, or revolt against the Germans?” To me, their questions showed that they had never thought about the events of the Holocaust on a personal level, or thought about the victims as individuals, even though they had studied it before. When it came time for the 3g speakers to leave, the students continued to ask questions, so I offered to stay and answer them. I told them that I was Jewish and that all four of my grandparents were Holocaust survivors. I also shared the story with them about when my nana, her sister Fanny, and their mother were on line at a concentration camp. At the head of the line stood a Nazi guard who decided who would live and who would die. Nana and her sister rubbed rouge on their mother’s cheeks, to make her look younger and healthier, but at the end of the line their mother was torn from them, and they never saw her again. As I spoke, I began to cry. My students were stunned into silence.
That unforgettable day reaffirmed to me the importance of knowing and telling my grandparents’ stories. It showed me how crucial it is for students to hear personal Holocaust Survivor’s stories from current and future generations. My students had been learning about the Holocaust in history class throughout their education, but I know that day of learning the stories from living people had a lasting impact for many of them as it did for me. Several of them even went on to become volunteers at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. These stories have so much more power, beyond what books alone can teach, when they are heard first hand.
After that experience, I joined the Young Friends of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where I found many other people like me, who saw the importance of remembering the Holocaust and discussing it. They felt, like me, that it is our duty to honor our grandparents’ legacy and tell our families’ histories. I will make sure that my daughter, Leah Henny, who I named after my nana, will know her family history and the importance of sharing our story. My baby Leah is already so musical; as soon as she hears music, she stops what she is doing and starts dancing. I want to promise all the survivors here today, and those who are not with us, your stories will never be forgotten, and your important legacy will live on. Thank you.