Category Archives: Boston Jewry

The Fate of Cousins Who I Never Knew

by William Levine (Belmont, MA)

On July 1, 1941 my mother was a popular 17-year-old girl in the insular world of Atlanta’s Jewish community. No doubt she was looking forward to being pursued by her favorite crushes from Georgia Tech’s Jewish frat in the carefree summer of 1941. Mom had also assimilated enough of Dixie culture to be a true Southern Belle, helped by her enrollment in the prestigious citywide Girls High School. Most likely on July 4th, Mom took in the pyrotechnics show in Atlanta that ushered in the day as a Federal holiday.

On July 1, 1941, my mother’s 2nd through 4th cousins, twice removed, the Seligson family of Riga, Latvia, were doomed as the Nazis occupied Latvia’s capital city and rained down hell on its Jews. The Seligsons also most likely witnessed a fiery display on the 4th of July as fellow Latvians burned down Riga’s Chor Synagogue.

On December 8, 1941 my mom most likely listened to President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech via a handsome radio in her well-appointed living room in the affluent Ansley Park section of Atlanta.

December 8th was also a “day of infamy” for the Seligson family, if they were still alive. On that day they may have been among the thousands of Jews killed by the Nazis in the Rumbula Forest just outside of Riga. If so, their last seconds on earth were spent lying in an open pit atop dead Jews and bracing to be shot in the back of the head. By the end of the day the three generations of Seligsons in Riga were gone, murdered on either November 30th or December 8th 1941.

Mom died in 2006 without knowing that she had relatives who had died in the Holocaust.   Of course, I also did not know either, as I relied on her for family history. We had discussed her family and WW II casualties, and Mom said that a distant cousin in the Navy had been killed in action. But she had no inkling of any Holocaust victims.  In 2016, however, my view of a family luckily unscathed by genocide changed.

I received an e-mail from a reader who had viewed my piece in Family Tree magazine describing how a distant minor-celebrity cousin, the late Bert Parks, had led me to my previously unknown Latvian ancestry via a notation in his Wikipedia page. Cousin Bert, the late host of the Miss America pageant, had not given me an introduction to a beauty wearing a tiara, but rather had given me a something better: a clue to my family’s history.

My token fan, Jan, said that she too was related to Bert Parks, so we might be distant cousins.   Shortly after hearing from her, I learned that Jan was my fifth cousin, a discovery based on her family tree spanning eight generations on my mother’s maternal side. I spent several hours perusing the tree’s numerous branches. It seemed like I was related to half the Jews in Atlanta. But a few perusals later I found that I was also distantly related to eight Seligsons, with the notations by their names: murdered by Nazis or died 1941.  This realization added personal sadness to the horror, outrage and revulsion that I felt when I thought about so many Jews who had been swept up in the evil of the Holocaust and strengthened my need to honor their memory.

My eight Seligson cousins personalize the Holocaust for me. Now that I know about the fate of my Latvian cousins, I am more profoundly saddened and thus more connected to the river of blood that flowed into the death pit outside Riga in the Fall of 1941, where, presumably, an iota of DNA found in the pit would match mine.

But thank goodness there is a counter-balance to the sadness that came with my discovery of the Seligson’s slaughter. It comes with the discovery of hundreds of living relatives (family tree verified) descended from these eight Holocaust victims. As a lucky American, I have the opportunity to make sure that future generations remember my Riga relatives who got caught in a cyclone of hate. This past year at Yad Vashem, I felt writing a check in memory of my relatives who died in the Holocaust was more meaningful than previous perfunctory donations. Next year my pledge will honor all my cousins by name, including my nine year-old cousin, Miriam Seligson (1932-1941).

I now want to visit Riga. Should I get there, I will first visit the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. This museum is laid out within the confines of the Riga ghetto, which was the way station for the Seligsons for five months before they were herded into the pit in the forest to be murdered. Then I would like to go to the Jewish Memorial at Rumbula. This is where the Seligsons’ bodies lie trashed in a pit. I will pay my respects, as well as the respects from my mom, the happy go lucky Georgia girl of 1941.

William Levine is a retired IT professional and an active freelance writer residing in Belmont, MA.  He  has a growing interest in genealogy.

 

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This Evening

by Sarah Lamstein (Newton, MA)

The house is filled
with the smell of baking challah.
My daughter sings
night songs in her bed.

The loaves expand
slowly in the oven.

Generation, generations,
I chant
as the two loaves
rise.

Sarah Lamstein’s life is sweetened by the rise of a new generation – her grandchildren.  She lives in Newton, MA and writes books for children.  To learn more about Sarah’s books, visit www.sarahlamstein.com.
 

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Filed under American Jewry, Boston Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, poetry

Yiddish, A Look Inward

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

My parents were fiercely devoted to Yiddish, their beloved mother tongue. Both were Holocaust survivors and were incapable of distancing themselves from the past. Although they spoke Polish and some English, they would speak of their experiences and share their thoughts and memories in no language other than Yiddish. Only Yiddish, they would remark, could properly describe their emotions, inner turmoil, or unbridled joy. Their penchant for Yiddish carried over into our daily routines. It made little difference where or when, Yiddish was spoken nearly all of the time. Be it at home, in the park, or at the corner market, it was Yiddish, Yiddish, Yiddish, with only a word or two of English thrown in for good measure.

I became acutely aware that we were different from many of our neighbors shortly after moving into our apartment in Boston. For some reason, the contrasts became all the more evident whenever we rode the trolley. I was certain that the other passengers — you know, the regular Americans in the car — were staring in our direction as the strange, unfamiliar sounds of Yiddish emanated from where we sat. I felt embarrassed and ill at ease and urged my hapless parents to avoid using Yiddish and to please, please speak to me only in English. After all, most of my friends at the time conversed freely with their parents in English. Why should it be any different for me? Their reaction was nearly always the same. They looked at one another for a moment or two, chuckled in unison and murmured in Yiddish that I most assuredly had been led astray by an evil spirit (Dybbuk), a troublemaker whose mission was to take advantage of young innocent children and lead them away from menschlichkeit, the path of proper behavior and decency.

And so it went for a number of years until one day the Dybbuk decided to leave my person, perhaps seeking greener pastures elsewhere. I suddenly found myself being drawn closer to Yiddish at about the time I left home to begin my undergraduate studies out of state. A course in Jewish history was indeed an eye opener and got me to thinking about Yiddish and its impact on us as a people. Attending lectures and reviewing books relating to our long and turbulent history both confirmed and reinforced much of what my parents would often speak of. I had previously never appreciated the immensity of the hardship, isolation, denigration, and danger that many European Jews were forced to contend with during previous generations. As a people, we were subjected to forced conversions, expulsions, ghettos, isolation, and murderous pogroms. Yiddish, the language of our forbearers, in concert with its literary and cultural outgrowths, proved to be critical in helping keep us unified and intact during these most difficult of times. Yiddish infused us with hope and laughter, tenacity and perseverance.

During school breaks, I found myself returning home with a newfound appreciation for all that our people had endured in generations past. I began speaking Yiddish to my parents and their friends and actually enjoyed doing so. I befriended a number of individuals who enjoyed dropping a sentence or two of Yiddish into the conversation. But perhaps most gratifying is the role Yiddish has played in my professional life. Having a medical practice in the New York metropolitan area means contact with a large immigrant population from the former Soviet Union as well as a number of Holocaust survivors. Yiddish comes in quite handy considering that many of the former group speak little or no English while the latter simply relish the opportunity to schmooze a bit in Yiddish

Renowned linguist and Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich was said to have remarked that much like the Jewish people, Yiddish will find a way to outwit history. Yiddish exemplifies how we, a stiff necked people, have learned to survive against all odds by remaining tenacious, resourceful and devoted to one another. Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, has miraculously managed to save thousands upon thousands of Yiddish books from near certain destruction. In doing so, he seeks to assure that we continue to remember and has observed that “historical amnesia is a dangerous malady, especially for a people whose identity is as dependent on historical memory as ours.” Let’s take the time to occasionally look inward and remember that Yiddish is not only a reflection of our past but of our future as well.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning,a book on the Holocaust.

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