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'Their stories were repressed': Seattle author's family survived less-known chapter of Holocaust

Maksim Goldenshteyn didn't hear these stories about his family until his early 20s. His book tells a personal story, and a broad historical one too.
Courtesy of the author
Maksim Goldenshteyn didn't hear these stories about his family until his early 20s. His book tells a personal story, and a broad historical one too.

The opening pages of Maksim Goldenshteyn’s new book take us to a lunch in 2012 with his grandparents. In his early 20s, Goldenshteyn had only just learned about his family’s history during the Holocaust. It began when his mother made a passing comment a week before.

“Something about my grandfather’s leading people to safety during the war,” Goldenshteyn writes in the prologue to “So They Remember: A Jewish Family’s Story of Surviving the Holocaust in Soviet Ukraine,” out this month from The University of Oklahoma Press.

“The revelation was so startling that I had since forgotten what prompted the conversation,” he remembers in those first pages. “When I looked up from my cucumber and tomato salad, my grandfather had already retrieved a large shoebox from his bedroom.”

Motl Braverman, who died in 2015, was a boy when he and his family were taken to the camp at Pechera, in what was then occupied Soviet Ukraine. And what unfolds in the following chapters of Goldenshteyn’s book is a tale of bravery, perseverance, horror, despair and hope.

A lesser-known chapter

The story of the Holocaust in eastern Europe is different than the commonly known history, but no less horrific. Pechera was in an occupied part of Ukraine run by Nazi-sympathizing Romanians. The conditions were so brutal that, in some instances, the Germans themselves expressed disapproval.

But the camps were also more porous than places like Auschwitz. Young Motl Braverman, for example, was able to sneak out frequently to retrieve food for his family and others inside. And he helped children and families escape to the relative safety of nearby ghettos.

The stories from this part of the Holocaust are less commonly known in large part because the survivors found themselves still living in the Soviet Union after the war. They were unable to speak freely about their experiences and, in many cases, unable to leave and share the story with outsiders.

“Their stories were repressed. The records of what had happened were hidden, and they were unavailable to researchers until the 1990s,” after the Soviet Union fell, Goldenshteyn told KNKX. “I think this image of where the Holocaust happened and who was affected has remained somewhat stagnant since then, even though in the last 20 years, the focus very much, at least in the scholarship, has shifted to Eastern Europe.”

The past, and the future

Goldenshteyn tells his family’s story in “So They Remember,” but he also walks us through the broader history in a style that blends deep research with a compelling narrative. The book turns inward, too. Goldenshteyn talks about his own education and how, despite learning Holocaust history in both K-12 school and college, it never occurred to him that his family might have been victims themselves.

“There wasn’t really a focus on the [history of the] Holocaust in the Soviet Union. Even in my college course, we learned about the Einsatzgruppen — the mobile killing units that swept through the Soviet Union — but that was sort of the extent of it,” he said. “It sort of leads you to believe that in the places where the occupying forces had been, that everybody was wiped out, that there were no survivors to tell the story. There were survivors, but their voices had been left out.”

This book adds to a growing chorus of works trying to include those voices and tell those stories. Goldenshteyn dedicated it to his children, now 5 and 3.

“I hope they understand who their family was and the enormous sacrifices they made, not just during wartime, to come to this country for a better life,” he said. “It’s knowing people’s goodness, knowing how they were helped, and paying it forward.”

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.
Posey Gruener is a former KNKX producer who worked on All Things Considered and Sound Effect.