by Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson (Bala Cynwyd, PA)
My first conscious memory of my grandmother’s youngest brother, Moishe (Morris in English), is from 1945. My older brother and sister and I were visiting Great-Uncle Moishe Spicer and his wife Rose in Coney Island. My grandmother and her sister Molly were there as well, and, when the declaration of the end of WWII came over the radio, I found myself outside with one of the kitchen pots and a spoon, hammering on the pot to celebrate. It was a very noisy night and I can still remember that celebration.
For some reason, Uncle Moishe favored me more than my four siblings. I never asked him why, but I liked the attention, especially because my mother was always too busy to pay much attention to me and my father was always working. So I basked in my great-uncle’s attention whenever I saw him. He made me smile and feel special.
Uncle Moishe became a widower, and eventually retired to Florida where I visited him in the mid-1980s. He moved near my aunt, actually living in the same building, so when I occasionally visited Aunt Gladys, I could also visit my great-uncle. One sunny day, after visiting my aunt, Uncle Moishe and I took a walk in a nearby park and I began asking him questions about our family background. Where were we from? What was life like in Austria-Hungary? How did he come to America? I asked him so many questions, he began to lose his voice from talking, but I persisted, and being his favorite, he could not say “no” to me.
What I learned fascinated me. Uncle Moishe told me that his family had lived in a shtetl in Russia on the border of what was then Austria-Hungary, very close to the Tibor River. The family had no last name because in the 1860s last names in Russia were still in the future. (A child was identified as “the son of” or “daughter of” his or her father, using his or her father’s first name as part of their names.) Because the Russian Army at this time conscripted young Jewish boys into the army when they were very young, Uncle Moishe’s grandfather and great-uncle were sent across the river to avoid being drafted and converted to Christianity. The parents never saw their children again!
The boys fled to a small town called Tarpiluvka in Austria-Hungary where they were adopted by a family with the name Speiser (which means food store). Mrs. Speiser was unable to bear children and thought the boys’ appearance was a miracle from God. Moishe and his older siblings grew up in Tarpiluvka, and eventually half of them came to America to start new lives, never to return to their place of birth. Half of the siblings kept the name Speiser and the other half, including my grandmother and Great-Uncle Moishe, anglicized it to Spicer.
The sacrifice that my great-great-great grandmother Sorah (Sarah in English) made to send her sons away went straight to my heart. I cannot imagine anyone today making such a sacrifice out of a desire to have her children remain Jewish. Inadvertently, I think, her sacrifice led me to become more aware of my Jewishness. We joined a Reconstructionist congregation of mostly seniors and I have found a renewed interest in Jewish history and Jewish holidays. I feel if I abandon my Jewish upbringing, then I am somehow abandoning Sorah’s wishes to have her children remain Jewish. Her desire has been handed down to her children’s children and eventually to my generation. It’s a perfect example of l’dor v’dor.
While I consider myself a Jew, I am not ultra-religious, although I do attend synagogue and belong to a small congregation. But I realize that learning about the sacrifice that Sorah made also made my life possible. If Sorah had not made this sacrifice, I may have never been born! My sense of being Jewish became heightened as a result of her heroic act. (And I believe the second part of my Hebrew name, Sarah, is from this ancestor, which pleases me even more.)
I will always be grateful for the time Uncle Moishe spent with me. He helped me learn so much about my ancestors. I feel fortunate that he agreed to answer all my questions. Otherwise, my family’s history might have remained a mystery. Instead, it has become a legacy.
Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson is a freelance writer and author of four cookbooks, a children’s coloring book, a computer manual, and a children’s (fiction) book based on her ancestors’ trek from Russia to Austria-Hungary (and eventually to America.) She lives in Bala Cynwyd, PA, and has a health-oriented website, www.menupause.info for older women.