Documenting My Grandfather's Experience of the Holocaust Taught Me About the Resilience of Fatherhood

While making the documentary The Starfish of my grandfather's life during and after the Holocaust, I became a better person and even greater father.

Herb Gildin and Tyler Gildin taken at the world premiere
Herb Gildin and Tyler Gildin taken at the world premiere of the film at the Miami Jewish Film Festival. . Photo: Courtesy of Tyler Gildin

If you had only two years left with someone you loved and looked up to, how would you want to spend that time with them? While that's not exactly what propelled me to produce The Starfish, a documentary on my grandfather's life during and after the Holocaust, that's how it ultimately turned out. A final exchange with my grandfather that has made me a better person and a greater father.

A wise man at 88 years old, my grandfather opened up to me about his childhood. How at the age of 10, along with his two sisters (12 and 14), he traveled by train from Germany to Sweden to live with three non-Jewish families in order to escape Nazi persecution. Arranged by the organization Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), my great-grandparents watched from the platform as a train with their three young children road off into the distance, never knowing if they'd see them again.

I can't even begin to imagine what that must have been like for my great-grandparents and the emotions they must have experienced. Frustration, for the situation they were put in. Relief, that their children were getting out of Germany. Concern, for how these families would treat their children. The unknowns must have been unbearable. As my grandfather describes in the documentary, "What a terrible decision for parents to have to make, to give up their children, so that they will survive."

As a father of two, it's hard to grasp the gravity of what making that decision would be like. I have two young kids, a 17-month old and a 5-month old (for those of you doing the math at home, yes they're one year apart—367 days to be exact!) and just the thought of having to give them away is something I can barely even process. I can't help but question if I could make such an impossible decision if it was put in front of me. Would I be willing to do anything to protect my children, even if it meant giving them up? Part of being a parent is taking responsibility and having to make tough decisions, as difficult as they may be, and that's exactly what my great-grandparents did.

If there's anything this process of documenting my grandfather's story has really given me, it's perspective and appreciation. Throughout his entire life, like his father before him, my grandfather faced obstacles head on and always found a way to adapt and thrive. By the age of 12, he had lived in three different countries (Germany, Sweden, and the U.S.) and spoke three different languages, all in the pursuit of freedom. By the age of 12, my biggest concern was reciting my bar mitzvah portion without completely embarrassing myself and avoiding being hit in the face with the shower of "Mazel Tov" gummy candies that would follow.

Tyler Gildin
Alex Utay (producer of the film), Herb Gildin, Tyler Gildin taken on set. Courtesy of Tyler Gildin

Being a parent of two kids under 2 has not been easy, especially during a pandemic. It's hard enough as is taking care of multiple children who are so dependent on you, it's another thing to have to rock a crying baby on your knee while you're in the middle of an important Zoom call. But in difficult moments like these, I allow myself to take a step back and think of what my grandfather and his family endured, and I begin to appreciate everything I have.

I'm fortunate to be able to spend more time with my children during a crisis and not have to seek refuge for them elsewhere. I'm lucky to have my own parents who have allowed my family to stay with them so my son can run around the backyard picking up every rock and pile of dirt he can find (he only occasionally brings them inside with him). Knowing what my grandfather and great-grandfather went through in order for me to be here, gives me such a positive outlook on life, as well as on raising the next generation of our family.

I miss my grandfather and often wonder how he'd be handling the pandemic if he were still here. I do have an idea how he would: calm, cool, and collected like he always was. He'd take the time to process the situation, listen to the experts, and then make the right levelheaded decisions. And most importantly, he'd encourage whatever is the best and necessary steps for his family.

Having been separated from his family for nearly two years before they reunited in Brooklyn, New York, my grandfather always made sure to keep his family intact. This is how I strive to live my life, and this is the example that I want to set for my children as well. We named my daughter after my grandfather, and I can't wait until she and her brother are old enough to watch the documentary and are able to truly see the great man and role model that he was.

My grandfather's story is a story of perseverance in dark times, a story about generosity and empathy from strangers, and at its core, a story about the importance of family. Knowing more about my roots of what it took for my family to come to this country, I will never take another day of spending time with my kids for granted. Even if they insist on making a cameo in every one of my Zoom calls.

Watch The Starfish on any of the platforms listed here:

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