A Personal Reflection on the Deaths of Some of the Last Auschwitz Survivors

"The responsibility of carrying on a legacy is both a burden and a privilege, a duty that bridges generations and a torch that illuminates the path forward." - Brad Wolfe

At the recent funeral of my great aunt Esther Nieroslawski, who died at the remarkable age of 97, I couldn't help but reflect on the awesome responsibility that now falls upon me and my generation. Esther was the last surviving member of three sisters and their husbands, all of whom endured the horrors of Auschwitz and other concentration camps during the Holocaust. My own grandmother Sally, the eldest sister, also departed from this world just a few months prior at the impressive age of 102. It felt shocking to suddenly have no one from that generation of Nieroslawski’s remaining on this Earth. It’s a chilly, almost naked feeling without them here. They were true matricachs, whose very existence as survivors felt like an impenetrable brick wall of strength protecting our family.

Brad Wolfe with his Grandma Sally and Great Aunt Esther

As I listened to my cousins eulogize Esther, I was struck, however, for the first time by the subtle differences between these incredible bricks—between Esther and my grandma’s lived experiences, their subtly different personalities, and how those distinctions translated into passed-down differences between my cousins and me. Esther's essence was one of pure love, kindness, and gratitude for life. My grandmother shared those characteristics, but she also seemed unmistakably burdened by a certain seriousness, and was the only one who spoke openly about the atrocities they endured. Grandma Sally wept every time she recounted to me those harrowing memories, a duty she felt as the eldest who had helped keep her younger sisters alive after their father's death in the ghettos and their mother's murder in the gas chambers, both at the hands of the Nazis.

I too feel burdened in some sense by this world and all the pain that fills it up. It shapes so much of me. In fact, my life’s work through my own music and more explicitly via LetsReimagine.org is part of a mission to spark a movement of people transforming loss, mortality, and adversity to create a more compassionate, just world. I do this work to honor my grandparents and their experience, which I know is passed to me both via story…and also in the very fibers of my body and DNA.

During my grandma Sally's funeral in July, the rabbi had asked me what I would miss most about her. At that moment, I replied, "Actually, nothing, I don’t need to miss her, because she's already so deeply a part of me, she's forever right here in my heart and in my actions." And while that sentiment remains true, I've come to realize I do miss her in ways I didn’t expect. I especially miss having her and her sisters alive as tangible living proof of what they represented. In a world where there are those who deny the truth of the past–and those who increasingly are unable to see nuance–the living, breathing reality of the Nieroslawski sisters conveyed a truth so hard to ignore about what we are all capable of, both for worse…and yet also mostly for better. Their lives made me feel proud of who I am and where I come from.

Brad Wolfe's Grandma Sally and Great Aunt Esther, Guests at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2019

Photo: Brad Wolfe's Grandma Sally and Great Aunt Esther, honored guests at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2019

During Esther's last week, my cousin Lisa shared a touching insight with me. She told me how Esther, in her dementia, started having vivid conversations with Sally, as if she was already excited to be reunited with her in another dimension. It was a testament to the unbreakable bond between these sisters, transcending the boundaries of life and death. Knowing that brought me peace.

As we gathered to say our final goodbyes to Esther, we followed Jewish tradition. Each of us took a turn shoveling dirt into the open grave, symbolizing our participation in laying our loved one to rest. This solemn moment carried a profound sense of closure.

As snowfall blanketed the cemetery, adding a layer of unmistakable symbolism to the day, I was reminded of the generations that have passed and also those that will follow. It doesn’t stop. One after the next, somehow life keeps going. The memories of Esther, my Grandma Sally, and their sister Jenny, and the lessons of their journey through the Holocaust and thereafter, will continue to touch us, to inspire us, and to guide us.

Boarding the plane back to San Francisco, I couldn't help but feel a sense of existential sadness but also a rising sense of deep connection, not just to the now-deceased matriarchs of my family..but also to the remaining living family of my own generation. While our grandparents’ generation is now gone from this world, all my cousins are bound together by a sacred collective duty to ensure that the lessons of their lives are never forgotten. And while they are indeed alive in our hearts, that won’t stop us from missing them. After all, continuing to miss them is a big part of what it means to never forget.