Global Jewish Reflections | Honoring My Grandparents’ Jewish Journey to Australia

For a Yom Kippur unlike any other, Taryn Silver brings the Yizkor memorial service home, sharing her grandparents' story of surviving the Holocaust and journeying to Australia. It's one that inspired her to explore Jewish Europe and brought her back to her hometown of Melbourne.

By Taryn Silver - JDC Entwine Participant | September 21, 2020

Taryn Silver as a young child, with her grandmother, Rosa Wroby.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

On Sunday, it will be Yom Kippur — one that will be very different from any other in living memory. In Melbourne, Australia, our synagogue doors remain closed, and a day typically spent in synagogue fasting and praying amongst the community will be spent at home.

For many people, including my parents, this will mean missing the Yizkor memorial service and the opportunity to honor those who are no longer with us. This year, we need to bring that spirit into our homes and so I’d like to share my story in honor of my grandparents Godel Wroby (???) and Rosa Wroby (???).

I come from the vibrant Jewish community of Melbourne, Australia; with about 113,000 Jews, it’s the ninth-largest community in the world, about 0.5 percent of the city’s population. Australia also has the largest per-capita Holocaust survivor population outside of Israel, and it’s concentrated in Melbourne. Between 1946 and 1954, around 20,000 Jewish refugees arrived in Australia from Europe and Shanghai. JDC played a critical role in this immigration program.

Growing up in Melbourne, if you visited the local Holocaust museum your guide was often a survivor. School assemblies in memory of the Holocaust always included someone’s grandparent sharing their story. However, those days are now coming to an end, and it’s now our collective responsibility as the next generation to continue sharing their stories. This is mine.

Taryn’s grandfather, Godel Wroby. ‘I will never forget the assistance I received after the war,’ he wrote of JDC’s help.

My Zaidy, Godel Wroby, was born in 1925 and grew up in the small village of Mlyny in Poland, close to the city of Lodz. I’m writing this blog on what would have been his 95th birthday.

A sole survivor of the Holocaust, he lost his mother, father, brother, and sister during the war. He somehow survived multiple camps and ghettos before he was liberated by Russian troops in 1945 from the Theresienstadt ghetto.

Following the war he lived in one of the largest displaced persons camps for Jewish refugees, Foehrenwald in Germany. In his book “My Battle for Survival,” he writes that JDC, or the Jointprovided residents with a tallis, tefillin, and siddur:

“It is thanks to the Joint that so many people discovered that they were not abandoned, that there were people who wanted to help them. The Joint was a mother and a father to us. They really cared for us. I don’t think I would be alive today if not for them.”

My grandfather kept that tallis and brought it with him to Australia, where it is still in our family’s possession.  

At Foehrenwald, my grandfather was diagnosed with tuberculosis and through JDC was eventually transferred to the health resort Bella Lui in Switzerland, where he lived for almost three years. 

The Joint was a mother and a father to us. […] I don’t think I would be alive today if not for them.”

Godel Wroby, ‘My Battle for Survival’

With the help of JDC, he arrived in Australia in 1950, writing that:

“I will never forget the assistance I received after the war. During the three years I spent in Switzerland, I promised myself that after having been forced to live on charity I would one day be in a position to contribute to whichever community I found myself living in.” 

My grandfather kept his promise and went on to make many contributions to his local community and beyond. He married my grandmother Rosa in 1954, building a family and a successful business before his passing in 2017.

2018 was a difficult time for me. I was living and working in New York but struggling with the loss of my grandfather and my grandmother’s deteriorating health and eventual passing. Having grown up five doors down from my grandparents, the loss was immense. My family was in mourning and I was on the other side of the world. 

At the same time, a close friend of mine in New York was raving about her second JDC Entwine trip, this time to the Philippines. With her encouragement, I applied for an upcoming trip to Greece that July. 

Taryn with her grandparents, Rosa and Godel.

My kavannah (intention) was to honor my grandparents and to learn more about the organization responsible for my very existence. The trip was particularly special as it would culminate in a pluralistic shabbaton with Junction (the pan-European partnership between JDC, the Schusterman Family Foundation, and Yesod) that would bring together young Jewish leaders from all over Europe.

The trip started with a bang and a wall of heat as we toured Athens and Thessaloniki, visiting historic sites and meeting members of the local Jewish community. I soon learned I wasn’t the only member of our group with ties to the Joint. One new friend shared how JDC helped her father escape Iraq in 1951 and begin a new life in Canada.

In Athens, at the local synagogue, I learned for the first time about the Romaniote Jews, their unique traditions, prayer services, and the huge influence Greek had on Hebrew. In Thessaloniki, our guide pointed at grand homes, now government municipal buildings, that had once belonged to the Jews in the city. We also ate incredible food, swam in the Mediterranean, and danced with locals.

Taryn (bottom row, third from right) on her JDC Entwine Inside Jewish Greece trip. For her, the trip was a way to honor her grandparents by learning more about the organization that had helped them.

But for me, the shabbaton in Thessaloniki was the most meaningful part of the trip as the Junction participants arrived, sharing their stories of growing up Jewish in places like Russia, France, Germany, Serbia, and Greece. To me, Europe had seemed a dead place after the war, but at that shabbaton, my assumptions were challenged and a much richer picture of the continent’s Jewish life emerged. I also learned about JDC’s broader humanitarian work, not only in the Jewish community but around the world.

It was all over far too quickly, and as we partied into the night I realized my own outlook on life had changed. At the end of the trip, I made the momentous decision to return to Australia after almost four years overseas to be closer to my family. I am so grateful for JDC for providing me with the opportunity to open my eyes to the rich tapestry of Jewish life beyond my own backyard, to honor my grandparents’ memory, and to find my own place in both their story and the global Jewish family.

Taryn Silver, 30, is an account manager at Thrive PR + Communications. She lives in Melbourne, Australia.

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