Haunted by the Holocaust: A family's storyby Mona Prufer
When Barbara Buckner walked the half-mile route across campus with a black cloth tied around her arm for the Holocaust Memorial Walk in April, it wasn’t just a leisurely stroll or a break from the workday routine. For Buckner, it was personal. She was paying tribute to her great-grandparents and their children who were among the six million European Jews murdered at the hands of the Nazis. To put this in perspective, consider that only 4.5 million people live in South Carolina as of 2009, so it would be as if the entire state was wiped out. And then some.
Her great-grandmother Chana Tsesler, who wears a sweetly serene expression in the 1908 family photo that Buckner carried, was doused with gasoline and set on fire. Her great-grandfather Iosel Tsesler was arrested and never seen again.
Their daughter Shifra, one of three of their seven children who remained in Lithuania when the Nazis invaded, was sent to a work camp with her three children in 1943. She watched in horror as her youngest child, 12-year-old Reuven Kagan, was bayoneted to death. Another child, Bill, 14, was pushed off a truck that was traveling to the camp. “I’m sure the man who pushed him off did it on purpose,” says Buckner. “It saved his life.”
Bill was later pick up by resistance fighters, who sheltered him through the war years.
Two of Shifra’s brothers, with their wives and children, did not survive. Orel Chesler had five children, and Chiam had eight. All were killed by the Nazis.
Shifra’s husband, Yaakov Kagan, was also shot and killed.
“Even on my dad’s mother’s side, all the relatives who lived in Poland are just gone; there’s no one left,” says Buckner, who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust and its grim horror. Her mother cautioned her to “never tell anyone you’re Jewish.”
“As a kid growing up, the war was always a huge part of my life,” says Buckner. “It was a huge shadow. It shaped us, but we weren’t allowed to talk about it,” she says. “I think it was just too painful for those who had been through it.”
Barbara’s mother, Mary Smith, who grew up in Cambridge, England, was studying to be a nurse when World War II broke out in 1939. At only 17, she was taken out of nurses training and soon found herself working in a hospital caring for wounded soldiers on one side of the ward and injured prisoners of war on the other.
Buckner’s father, Bernard Chesler, was a test pilot for the Army Air Force. They met at an officers’ dance hall during the war, and Mary soon became a war bride. Sadly, the Polish side of the Chesler family cut ties with Bernard when he married Mary because she was not Jewish.
“I wish my mom had written down her stories,” says Buckner. “She had some great stories from her experiences during the war.”
(As a youngster, Barbara’s mother dressed her in orange on St. Patrick’s Day instead of green because of the ongoing animosity between the English and the Irish.)
During the war, the Tsesler family – the Chesler’s original Lithuanian family name – became so scattered around Europe that Barbara’s grandfather Lee asked her father to go back after the war and locate as many family members as he could. As a young man, Lee had been a socialist along with two of his four brothers and would always speak his mind. Since he lived with her family in Cleveland, he influenced her character.
“Dad went to Europe and found Shifra (Barbara’s great-aunt) and her daughter Paula and son Bill,” says Barbara. Paula had met her future husband, Leo Silberman, at the work camp during the war; they later married once they both came to America.
Shifra’s son, Bill Kagan, the one who was pushed off the Nazi truck transporting Jews to a camp, later met and married a Jewish Croatian named Leah who spent the war hiding in an attic. Leah returned to Croatia in June 2009 to attend the 95th birthday of the woman who hid her family in her attic for the entire war.
For Barbara Buckner, standing up and speaking about her family’s horrific experiences during the Holocaust was a healing but difficult task. “I never thought I’d be able to do that,” she says.
“Every family has a story,” says Buckner, who wonders whether her story is really interesting enough to write about and for people to care about. I assure her it is and they will.
This is her family’s story, the story her grandparents and parents passed on to her and her brother, albeit reluctantly, the same story she has told her children, son Eric, who attends Temple Law school in Philadelphia and daughter Amy Resnick, who was married last September. She also shared the family story with her nieces, who were unaware of the litany of tragedies. “The year of death for many in my family seems to be 1943,” says Buckner. “Not a good year for my family.”
But, she has carried away more than grim history from these awful experiences.
“What all this taught me is tolerance and acceptance,” says Buckner, who speaks her mind (her grandfather Lee’s influence) and is always ready to listen to both sides of a conflict. “You don’t classify people. I can’t understand hate. I think I look at things differently than I might have otherwise.”