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Life After the Ghetto

Life After the Ghetto

For International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a survivor's grandchild speaks to American Purpose about being a living link to history.

Michelle High, Aaron Ginns

Aaron Ginns is a volunteer with 3GNY, a non-profit that connects the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors with speaking opportunities to share their families' stories. As January 27 marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, American Purpose's Michelle High spoke with Aaron about the importance of sharing his grandfather's concentration camp experience at a time of rising intolerance. 

Michelle High: Your grandfather was twelve years old when his Polish homeland was invaded by the Nazis. What was his experience of occupation and then deportation like? Given that he was a relatively young boy at the time, was he treated the same as the Jewish adult men?

Aaron Ginns: When my grandfather’s town was invaded by the Nazis, he and the other Jewish kids in his town were no longer allowed to go to school. His family was forced out of its home and into a ghetto on the other side of town. During my grandfather’s time in the ghetto, he was forced to work in the town’s police station cleaning the holding cells where his Jewish neighbors were taken before either being killed or deported to concentration camps. Because his father was an engineer for the local oil company, he and his parents were some of the last people from his town to be deported. 

MH: Are there certain aspects of what your grandfather endured in the Mauthausen concentration camp that you feel are particularly important to share with others? 

AG: My grandfather was subject to unimaginable conditions while at Mauthausen, but the thing I share that is most impactful with students is the fact that this concentration camp was not hidden somewhere in the woods. Mauthausen was right in the middle of a neighborhood. I went to visit the memorial a few years ago in Austria and one of the most shocking experiences is that when you are standing in the middle of the camp, you can see people’s houses. Students are always shocked to realize that the whole town was carrying on more or less as usual while a large concentration camp was operating just down the street. 

MH: Was it difficult for your grandfather to adapt to normal life after the war? Did he maintain a commitment to his Jewish faith? 

AG: After liberation, my grandfather felt no desire to return to his hometown that gave him up to the Nazis. Being an orphan he was able to immigrate to the United States with help from a Jewish organization that was helping survivors who had lost their parents. He spent a little over a year in an orphanage in Cleveland, Ohio, attending one year of high school before working odd jobs in the Cleveland area. Despite the fact that he had arrived as an orphan and had suffered traumatic experiences, he was eager to start living life again and adapted easier to life in America than one might imagine. 

My grandfather’s family was never particularly observant and although he was a member of a synagogue throughout his life, his real connection to Judaism was his passionate support of the State of Israel. 

MH: How did you get involved with 3GNY? What is your driving motivation to volunteer in this way—did your grandfather express a personal wish to you that you keep his story alive?

AG: Following the war in Gaza in 2021, I wanted to find a way to help combat the antisemitism that I could feel becoming more common and accepted in the circles I ran in. When I heard about 3GNY, I knew that my grandfather’s story would be a really powerful way to educate students in New York about where hate and intolerance can lead. Throughout his life, my grandfather would tell his story to anyone who would listen. He frequently visited local schools in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he lived. I’m honored that I can keep his story alive.

MH: What in your experience are some of the most common misperceptions or gaps in people’s knowledge of the Holocaust? 

AG: I think people don’t always realize how advanced of a society Germany was at the time. Some of the most highly educated people in Europe became the most passionate Nazis. Doctors, lawyers, and scientists were at the forefront of the Nazi regime and legitimized the Nazi ideology as scientifically sound. Similarly, I think people don’t realize that Jews were just as integrated into German society then as they are in America today. 

MH: When you listen to some of the most hateful anti-Israel rhetoric today, what does it make you think? Have current events added fuel to 3GNY’s commitment to its mission? 

AG: It’s obviously extremely concerning to see a stark rise in antisemitism today. Seeing smashed storefronts of kosher restaurants and other Jewish businesses in New York City is particularly horrifying, especially as a grandchild of a Holocaust survivor. I think the current situation makes 3GNY’s mission more important than ever. When we go into the classroom, we hope that our grandparents’ stories inspire students to think about how they can be upstanders in the face of hate in their communities. The most concerning aspect of the last few months is the vast number of people who have chosen not to speak up in the midst of a significant presence of antisemitism in our country. It is my hope that hearing our grandparents’ stories will help inspire people to step in and make a difference. 

Aaron Ginns is the descendant of a holocaust survivor and the education and outreach coordinator of 3GNY.

Michelle High is a senior editor for American Purpose.

Image: New arrivals to Mauthausen at the "Klagemauer" (wailing wall) after a week long trip in open railway cars. (Source: National Archives and Records Administration/U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

EuropeInterviewPolitical PhilosophyUnited States