Tracing my Family History Destroyed by the Holocaust

Tracing my Family History Destroyed by the Holocaust

By: Rose Brystowski, Sharsheret Peer Supporter

Everyone has fantasies. I fantasize about long-lost relatives. We are reunited, living close, and sharing happy lives together. Unfortunately, fantasies are just that – dreams. It is hard enough living with only memories and tales. No grandparents, very few aunts and uncles, no cousins. But even worse than that is having no family history.

When my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, one of the first questions her medical team asked was did she have a family history of breast cancer? What do we say when we have no family history at all? We have a few facts and a lot of maybe’s. Maybe if our ancestors hadn’t died during the Holocaust they would have had cancer. Maybe if they were not exterminated they would have lived long lives.

When I went for my genetic counseling appointment, the genetic counselor gave me a large chart to help trace my family history and identify known BRCA gene carriers and breast cancer survivors. My chart was basically empty. We don’t have a past. Many people feel the anger all over again, how we suffer even now 60 years after the Holocaust ended. I try to move forward and I don’t linger with the absence of history. I feel that I must do something now, for my children, for my husband. Although I don’t have a history of breast cancer with my known family, my children do. They know I am BRCA positive, they know I have options and medical support, they know that when presented with an obstacle we must face it and overcome it. History doesn’t change the now or the future.

When faced with a major life-changing event we often want to share the news, whether it’s good news or bad. My sister’s diagnosis in October of 2008 was such an event. But not everyone wants to share this news. In addition, not everyone “gets it”. They don’t know the shock and fear we go through when presented with such a challenge. I began talking to friends who either had a relative dealing with breast cancer or were survivors themselves. While watching our sons playing basketball, we talked about Sharsheret. When I received the news that I was BRCA positive I contacted Sharsheret and was linked to another woman who had faced the same news. She gave me insight and information, but most importantly, she calmed me and I am so grateful for that. Now that I am finishing my reconstruction, I want to help others and provide them with basic information, including what to expect after surgery, how it affects your relationships, and how to deal with it all with humor and a sense of balance. I tell people we are now part of a small and exclusive group and we must help each other.