YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y. -- Sheri Gordon Handwerger calls herself a "third generation survivor."
That's because the Yorktown Heights resident grew up with maternal grandparents and a mother who survived the Holocaust. And while it shaped their lives, it also shaped hers.
"I felt robbed of my family," she said of growing up in Riverdale, just one street shy of the Yonkers border. "I had three uncles I never met, as well as a host of other relatives I never knew." To this day, she says she would never buy a German car such as a Mercedes or BMW. "I just won't," she said.
And while she had a normal childhood growing up, she was aware of the tattoo on her grandmother's arm (her mother had her tattoo -- received at Auschwitz -- removed when she was young. "She was tired of the questions at cocktail parties asking what that was," said Handwerger. "People actually asked, 'Is that your phone number?'").
She admits it wasn't until she was about 14 that she started to ask questions. "The Holocaust wasn't something we talked about when we were young," she said. "It wasn't taught our elementary school and it wasn't a topic of discussion."
It took a high school history class that delved into World War II that Handwerger's father gently suggested she might want to talk to her mother.
"That's when the story started to unfold, " she said. It's also when she began to ask more questions of her grandmother, who lived with them in a two-family house (her grandfather had since passed).
The family was from Modrzejow, a small village in Poland. It was so small, said Handwerger, that when the Germans marched into the country in 1939 the family continued with their day to day activities until 1942.
That's when they started running, hiding in the forest. At this point, Handwerger's mother, Marysia Wegier, was with her father and mother. One brother had been shot in the street after curfew trying to find food. The other two went sent to the camps and would later die there, one from a burst appendix, the other from being beaten to death.
At one point in the woods, Wegier's father said he couldn't go on anymore. "He told my mother and grandmother he'd meet them when it was over," said Handwerger.
The two women were eventually caught and sent to Auschwitz (they were in three camps total) where Gitta, Handwerger's grandmother, worked doing the Getaspo's laundry while Marysia, then 16, had to walk two hours each way every day to work at Birkenau where she dug trenches for burying the dead.
"My grandmother basically kept my mother alive," said Handwerger. "She had only one child left and was going to do everything she could to keep her alive."
When they were liberated in 1945, they went to Sweden and were eventually reunited with Kiva, Handwerger's grandfather who had survived as a vagrant ducking into outhouses and barns and whereever else he could find refuge.
The three came to the U.S. in 1945 and settled in Brooklyn.
Once she learned her grandmother's and mother's stories Handwerger said she felt like they were heroes. "They are both strong-willed people who, once they put their mind to something, could accomplish anything."
One of Handwerger's stories, in fact, showing that strength, comes from a time when her mother went to China with an aunt as cousin, when the Tiananmen Square uprisings broke out.
"My cousin and aunt were scared for their lives," saisd Handwerger. "But my mom said to them, 'Relax. This is nothing.'"
Another story that tells it all: Her mother, now 91, still drives and still lives in Handwerger's childhood home in Riverdale.
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