Features May 2021

North Phoenix Mom Pens Holocaust Survivor Memoir

Adena Astrowsky has always been curious about seeking truth and justice.  It bodes well for her career as a prosecutor in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.  And it has been what has driven her to learn more about and share the story of her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor.

Married for nearly 20 years to husband, Brad, she is the mother of three children, 17-year-old twins Sarah and Zachary and 15-year-old Gabby.

“I always knew my Bubbie [Yiddish for grandmother] was a Holocaust survivor. She was very open about it as it was important to her that we knew where we came from,” Astrowsky remembers. “She always said that the younger generations would be missing out if they didn’t know their family history. And she didn’t want that to happen to our family.”

What Astrowsky didn’t know then as a teenager was that curiosity would put her on a lifelong path to know everything she could about her family’s journey.

Her grandmother, Mania, was the youngest of three girls from Wlodzimierz, a small town in Poland –– just north Lvov, which is now part of the Ukraine. She was just 17 years old, the same age as Astrowsky’s oldest children are today, when the Holocaust began. She was in a labor camp, forced to work for the Germans.  Although she was not tattooed as many Jews were, she carried the scars of that time with her throughout her life.

Because of the region’s inadequate railway systems and the capacities of the death camps, the Nazis were unable to easily transport all the Jews to the camps. Instead, mobile execution units, known as Einsatzgruppen, gathered, shot and killed the Jews on their home soil.

Approximately 26,000 Jews were eliminated from her hometown. Mania was the only one from her immediate family to survive. While living in the ghetto, she and a cousin found each other, eventually making their way to a Polish woman’s house who kept them hidden for a few months.  Later, they came upon two brothers from their hometown, and together the four of them formed a “family,” eventually liberating themselves at the age of 19.

“My grandmother eventually married one of the brothers while they visited their hometown one last time. My mother, Jeanie, was born at Kibbutz Baderach, a displaced persons camp in 1946, two years after the liberation. After a few years, the family moved to Montreal, Canada.”

When Astrowsky’s mother was 13 years old, her father passed away from leukemia.

Astrowsky’s parents met and married in Montreal and eventually moved to Arizona. In the mid-1980s, they moved her grandmother here, too.

Throughout the years, Astrowsky would sit with her grandmother asking questions and recording her stories of that terrible time.  Using her grandmother’s own words as well as her grandmother’s writings, Astrowsky has written a memoir titled Living among the Dead, which was published in March 2020 by Amsterdam Publishers.

The book is just one of the ways that Astrowsky makes sure her grandmother’s story and stories
just like hers are never forgotten.  She is a member of the board of directors of the Phoenix Holocaust Association (PHA), an active member of the organization’s Speakers Bureau, and a founding member of 3GAZ, a third-generation Holocaust descendant group.

PHA is a partnership of Holocaust survivors, their descendants and the larger community, whose mission is to honor the memory and legacy of the survivors and victims, promote awareness of the Holocaust, provide education of this and other genocides, and contribute to tikkun olam, repair of the world.

There is something very powerful hearing the story of the Holocaust directly from a survivor.  And as the number of survivors decreases each year, second, third and fourth generation survivors must be responsible for telling these stories.

Astrowsky’s children understand the significance of that responsibility.

“Knowing my great grandmother’s story is an honor and a blessing. Not only does her story teach me and inspire me to make the most out of my life because I don’t know what will happen next, but it also makes me appreciate my life more because without her survival, I wouldn’t be here,” said Zachary.

His younger sister, Gabby, agrees. “To know B-Bubbie’s story is to know who I am. I know where my strength comes from, where my hope comes from, and where my courage and bravery come from. My great grandmother is the reason I am here and without her survival and will to live, I would not be here. She has taught me many things such as the desire to never give up. Because my great grandmother was a part of the Holocaust, it has changed my views and deepened my understanding of history. Because of her, I am more educated, and I feel it is my responsibility to educate others when I can.”

Holocaust education will soon be mandatory in public schools. In October 2020, the Arizona Board of Education made a rule change that requires students to receive instruction on the Holocaust and other genocides at least twice during their secondary school career.

“Although I learned a lot about World War II in public school and Sunday school, knowing the details of my own grandmother’s life makes me respect and appreciate everything I have more, especially my respect towards her,” said Sarah. “To know B-Bubbie’s story and the difficulty she had to go through to survive, I feel it is up to me to pass it on to the next generation. My understanding of the Holocaust and other genocides has definitely increased in knowledge over the last few years after learning my grandmother’s story and learning more about history.”

Zachary agrees that teaching about the Holocaust is so important. “It is crazy to think about how her perseverance saved future generations. Since my great grandmother was a part of the Holocaust, I have definitely learned more about the Holocaust and other genocides because they are an important part of history and have impacted my emotions and life greater than any other subject in history.”

Written by: Abbie S. Fink

Abbie S. Fink is vice president/general manager of HMA Public Relations and an active member of the Jewish community in Arizona. She is also the host of Copper State of Mind, a locally based podcast; a past president of the Phoenix Chapter of the PRSA as well as Scottsdale Leadership; and past chair of both PRSA’s Western District and the PRSA Counselors Academy. afink@hmapr.com

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