Category Archives: European 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.

 

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, Boston Jewry, European Jewry, Family history, German Jewry, Jewish, Jewish identity

“You Jewish?”

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

“You Jewish?”

At a crowded train hub

a man dressed in a long black robe

pointed at me and repeated, “You Jewish?”

“You, Jew, step out of the line.”

I waved him away.

“Men here, women over there.”

How dare he, out of all the people

rushing for their trains, single me out?

“Achtung, mach schnell.”

Do I have a long nose?

Do I have money pouring out of my pockets?

Do I shuffle along like a prisoner?

Please, God, don’t single me out.

The mournful music of the camps

resonates in my soul.

But then, later, after some thought,

I wondered if I had misread the Chasid.

Maybe he was just offering me

a sweet greeting for the holiday season.

I don’t want to be chosen.

Maybe he was simply saying

we are landsmen, no?

I dismissed him out of hand.

My parents are European.

I could have had numbers on my arm.

Have I been so scarred I may have missed

an opportunity for connection and grace?

You, Jewish? Yes, I am.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

 

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry

A Proper Home

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

While growing up in a Yiddish speaking home, I was often witness to the respect and adoration given to the Yiddish books that once graced our small bookcase. It goes without saying that prayer books, bibles and other holy texts were held in high esteem, but books written in Yiddish, the mameloshen (mother tongue), came in a close second. Like many Eastern European Jews, my parents had a particularly strong attachment to books written in Yiddish. Whatever the theme or intended message, these books were often afforded special status not only because they were written in Yiddish but because Yiddish utilizes Hebrew script, the very same letters found in all of our sacred texts.

More often than not, many of these Yiddish books were passed on to my parents by either aged or sickly friends and neighbors who simply wanted their treasured books to take up residence in a proper home. Yiddish books, after all, were like beloved relatives who detailed our long and often difficult history. I remember how we always removed and replaced these books with the utmost care so as not to injure their often spindly, dilapidated spines and worn bodies. In our home, we read these books primarily on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays when there was ample opportunity to lay on the couch, close one’s eyes and perhaps take a solemn journey back in time.

History has a way of repeating itself and perhaps is meant to do so. A short while back, I was approached by a few acquaintances and patients asking if I would be willing to take possession of their Yiddish books. Some followed my advice and sent their books to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts while others would not hear of it. This latter group wanted their books to reside in a warm loving home rather than in an “orphanage for Yiddish books”.

I remember an elderly gentleman who, only recently, was seated in my examination room. He began speaking as soon as I entered. “I have to talk to you about my Yiddish books,” he began. “I know you speak and read Yiddish. So, doesn’t it make sense for them to be with you? They mean so much to me. I can’t just throw them out. Please, come to my home. The books will be waiting for you.”

His pleas were repeated with ever increasing urgency. How could I possibly refuse this clearly distraught gentleman? He was concerned about the fate of his beloved Yiddish books now that he had sold his house and was about to move to a small apartment where there was simply no room for his books. Aware of how much this request meant to him, I agreed to come by that very night and take possession of the box of Yiddish books that, I was told, was silently awaiting my arrival. As I left his home carrying the box, I heard a long tremulous sigh follow me to the door. It was an unmistakable declaration of sadness at seeing his beloved friends leave, accompanied by a sense of relief that they would at least have a proper home.

Since then, in addition to a few books that once belonged to my parents, I have accumulated a fair number of Yiddish books as I found it difficult to refuse those pleading on behalf of their loved ones. And so, just about every Sabbath and Jewish holiday, I’ve gotten into the habit of carefully taking one of these aged volumes in hand to reacquaint myself with many of the words and phrases that no longer see the light of day.

Much like aged relatives, these books speak volumes of survival and adaptation and give voice, as well, to immense pride and joy. Each time I’m done and get ready to close one of these books, I start to wonder who will be next in line? Who will be willing to accept books that are written in a strange language dealing with topics that have little or no relevance to most people? I’ll ask around when the time comes, but, apart from the praiseworthy mission of the Yiddish Book Center, I fear there will be no takers.

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.

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

Look to the Sky

by Toba Abramczyk (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

When I was a small child, my dad, a Holocaust survivor,  used to take me over to the window and ask me to look to the sky. He would take my brother and sister and ask them to do the same thing. This happened all the time, whether it was a barbecue or a family occasion, he would take us out and say “Look to the sky.”

When I got married, he took me outside. It was the hottest day of the year, but he asked me to go out and look to the sky

When I had my first child, he said “I am not good with babies. Don’t let me hold her, my hands can’t carry her and I will drop her.”

His hands were bent and swollen from years of hard labour and butchering meat for years and years.

The day my daughter was born, there were about ten family members in the hospital’s recovery room, all waiting for a turn to hold her. All I could see was her little body bobbing up and down from person to person.

There was so much noise and laughter, but through all this hoopla, I could see my dad holding his first grandchild, tears streaming down his cheeks. He was singing so softly to her. I had never heard my dad sing. Perhaps this was a lullaby his mother sang to him. He then walked my daughter to the window and said, “Look to the sky.”

That’s when I got it, I finally got it, and I started to cry.

I was sobbing so hard, everyone around me thought I was breaking down, but my mom understood. She took my hand and smiled.

All these years, all the times we had “looked to the sky,” my dad was showing his family, everyone who he had lost in the Shoah — mother, father, sisters, brothers – he was showing our faces to them, his legacy, and now his granddaughter.

Toba Abramczyk is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Her father was born in Belchatow Poland, the only survivor of seven children. His parents and two younger sisters, grandparents and extended family were taken to Chelmno. One older brother was shot on the street; two older sisters and an older brother were taken to Lodz and then sent to Chelmno in 1944. Her father came to Canada in 1956 after serving in the Haganah as a soldier (1948-1952) in the engineering corp while in Israel. Her mother came to Canada from Rovna Poland in 1930. A single parent of three children, Toba  lectures on the Holocaust, has gone on the March of the Living as a chaperone, and volunteers with various Jewish organizations. 

1 Comment

Filed under Canadian Jewry, European Jewry, Family history, history, Jewish writing, Polish Jewry

A Paris Odyssey

 

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

Suzanne’s parents had moved to Paris in the 1930s as a young married couple from Ukraine.  Mr. P. was a barber and opened a shop on a busy Paris street.  They wanted to start a new life away from the anti-Semitic fears in Ukraine.  Two daughters were born and the family lived in an apartment on the floor above the shop.

And then came the rise and popularity of Hitler.  And then the war.  And then the occupation of Paris by Germany.  The barber shop was shuttered and the family stayed in their apartment clandestinely to see if they could outlive the occupation.  Sarah, the younger daughter, then about to become a teenager, blonde and blue-eyed, became Suzanne as a way to fool anyone who stopped her as she was the one sent out to forage for food.

For four years they were able to avoid detection.  When Paris was freed, Mr. P.  decided not to attempt to reopen his shop, fearing that vestiges of the Vichy anti-Semitic regime remained.  Instead the family made plans to emigrate to the United States where Mrs. P. had cousins in Philadelphia.

My father was a barber and had operated his own shop for many years.  We lived behind the store in a two-story house.  When he needed another barber to work “the second chair,” the Barbers’ Union sent Mr. P, whose languages were French and Yiddish, but not English.  However, the South Philadelphia neighborhood where we lived was still primarily Jewish at that time, peopled with many immigrants, so speaking Yiddish worked fine.  After a few weeks Mr. P. said to my father, “I have a daughter exactly your daughter’s age.  She is miserable.  She won’t go to school until the fall and she doesn’t know any English or have any friends.  May I bring her to meet your daughter?”

The arrangement was made. I was not consulted, which increased my anxiety of meeting a girl my age who had undergone life experiences I could not imagine. The next day Mr. P. arrived with a pretty 17 year old who looked visibly intimidated.  We introduced ourselves and tried to find a way to talk.  My high school French had taught me “Open the window” and “The pen of my aunt.”  I didn’t think either phrase would help us communicate, but we discovered we were both fluent in Yiddish and that was our method of conversation for the next few months until Suzanne began her halting study of English.

Eventually, Suzanne married and moved to the suburbs with her family.  I did the same.  We lost touch but sometimes met at a Jewish film festival and were always glad to see each other.

Many years later I was a volunteer interviewer for the Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Project.  I decided to interview Suzanne, and in the intimacy of a two hour conversation I learned more about her years barricaded in the family apartment.  She shared emotions I had not heard before: the daily apprehension of being discovered, her inner trembling when she walked on the street to buy food, the tensions, even in a loving family, of spending four years locked together in one space, never knowing what had happened to their extended family.

I suddenly understood the seclusion and safety of the Jewish life I had led living in a Jewish neighborhood and the false sense of security this evoked in me.  The war had not been threatening to us and it was a while before we heard about the horror and devastation of concentration camps and could begin to understand the attempt to exterminate our people.  Leaving Suzanne’s house that day, I felt for myself the wrenching internal anxiety Jews had always felt throughout the world, throughout eternity.

Some time after that experience I wrote a memoir about growing up in Jewish South Philadelphia and sent it to Suzanne, certain it would evoke many shared memories.  She, in turn, sent me her memoir of those parallel years which she spent hidden in the Paris apartment and told of the loss of dear cousins and friends.  She thought she was lucky; I thought she was incredibly brave. It was not until I read her poignant memoir that I learned Suzanne had been Sarah.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free lance writer for national publications.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

The Old Man and the Tortoise

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA) 

Whenever I think of Olivaer Platz, I remember the old man and his tortoise. A picture of him remains in my mind and brings up a complete memory of a time and a place.

Olivaer Platz was a small public park in the midst of Berlin when I was growing up in the 1930s. It was located near the major artery of Kurfuerstendamm, and it attracted many people. All around the park were shops popular with customers of all ages.

I remember my favorite, Café Heil, where I was occasionally treated to the small meat pastry I loved whenever one of my parents had coffee and cake there, met friends, or just read the assorted newspapers and magazines available to the patrons. There was an ice cream parlor in the same block, too, whose various flavors of ice cream sandwiches were in enormous demand in warmer weather.

In the afternoons I remember seeing older adults reading their newspapers on the benches in Olivaer Platz. It was only a few squares from our home in Mommsenstrasse 66, and I was occasionally taken there to play in the children’s section.

I went primarily to shoot marbles. The object of the game was to propel the marble with one’s thumb in order to hit an opponent’s marble. If the hit was successful, the other child’s marble became yours. I had a collection of colorful glass balls on which I prided myself. Not being very skillful, however, I was often unsuccessful at the game, lost my own marbles, and came home crying.

One day my mother and I arrived at Olivaer Platz and found that one of its park benches had been painted yellow with an orange-colored letter J drawn on it. The bench clearly stood out from the others. Nearby was a sign proclaiming that due to a new ordinance Jews were no longer allowed to sit on the regular benches and were subject to arrest if they disregarded the law. The yellow bench was now the Jews’ bench.

After that my mother, whom I called “Mimi,” no longer took me to the park, except for walking through it en route to the Kurfuerstendamm. She would not sit on the yellow bench. And she could not—and would not—stand around waiting for me to finish my marble game.

I still remember that bench, primarily because of one old man. I saw him only twice. Each time he fascinated me, not because he sat on a bench that had changed its color, but because of what he did when he sat on the bench.

I watched him closely as he carried a shabby leather briefcase to the bench, sat himself down, and opened the briefcase. Out came a large, dark-brownish tortoise. The old man gently placed it on the ground in front of him, presumably to give the tortoise a little air.

I assumed the tortoise was his beloved pet, possibly his only family. It was certainly a sad time for all of us. How pathetic that lonely old man was I could not fathom then. I only knew I felt sorry for him.

But in years to come, the memory of the old man sitting on the yellow park bench with his tortoise became a symbol to me.

In my mind all of the degradation and isolation heaped upon the Jewish people by the Nazi regime crystallized into the figure of that solitary old gentleman, with his reptile friend, sitting alone on a yellow bench.

(Author’s Note: It was not until September 1, 1941 that a new Nazis law required all Jews over the age of ten to wear a yellow star affixed to their clothing identifying them as Jews. The yellow star was intended to humiliate Jews, as well as make them visible targets vulnerable to attack. Not wearing the insignia carried the death penalty.)

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry, Family history, German Jewry, history, Jewish identity

Vienna – 1938

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

It was like speaking to my mother,
my mother who has been dead for 14 years.

Invited to dinner, I sat next to Renee,
an elegant woman of advanced years.

She looked like my mother, sounded like my mother,
and spoke in soft Viennese accents
that sounded like melted chocolate.

But most remarkable of all,
she lived in that classical city in the same year,
my mother did, 1938, the year of the Anschluss.

Spellbound, I listened as she told the following story:

“Ordinarily, a red flower sitting in a pot on the window sill
basks in the early light, its petals rising to meet the emerging sun.

Amid the tightening noose of soldiers swarming, doors knocked open,
the flower appears as a symbol that beauty has not been crushed
under the soles of marching boots.

But the bright red flower has been discolored
by the growing and blackening evil,
and serves now as an ominous warning sign.

‘Papa if you see a flower on the window sill, do not come home.
The Gestapo is here looking for you. Run, please!
I do not know when I -or the flower- will ever see you again.'”

Both my mother and Renee escaped the Holocaust,
one to Palestine, one to Switzerland.

How many other lives were saved, I wonder,
by the appearance of one red flower
sitting in the morning sun?

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry, Family history, history, Jewish identity, poetry