Category Archives: Jewish

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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My Brother’s Death

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

He was my younger brother,
perhaps older in wisdom than I.
He had a gentle heart and caring nature,
never forgetting a birthday or anniversary in our family.
He loved nature and history, and a good joke,
and loved being outside making sure the birds were fed.
In his younger days he loved riding his bicycle
through the streets of Brooklyn.
He loved old movies and could tell you
every John Wayne movie ever made.
He loved comic books,
especially Superman and Supergirl.
He loved his mother with a bond
that was true and enduring.
His passions were simple, and anybody who met him
enjoyed his quick wit and genuine smile.
According to the rabbi at the grave site,
as the body is set to be lowered into the ground,
it is believed that the soul hovers
over the pine box and the deceased
can hear your final messages.
“Goodbye, Gabriel, my brother,
I wish I could have given you a happier life,
but failing that, I wish you a full afterlife,
of walking pain-free and strong,
wherever that may be.”

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/

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Grandfather

by Milton P. Ehrlich (Leonia, NJ)

Grandfather did magic
with a tremulous sleight-of-hand.
Cards and coins vanished
before my surprised eyes.

He could do soft-shoe and tap dance
with a cane like a vaudevillian pro.
He loved to tell corny jokes that
he heard on Eddie Cantor’s radio show
and that never failed to amuse him.

We went to the Stanton Street Shul
on Saturday mornings. I tossed
small paper bags filled with peanuts
and raisins at bar mitzvah boys.

The scent of leather phylactery
straps permeated the premises
from the men who wrapped tefillin
on weekdays on arms, hands, and fingers,
as well as on the top of the head.

Afterwards, he shared snuff
with friends, who sipped wine
and relished schmaltz herring
on challah woven together
with strands representing
the unity of Israel’s tribes.

Sabbath lunch: borscht and pitcha,
followed by a chulent, baked overnight
on a coal kitchen stove.

Grandfather had only one request.
He wanted a photo of himself
dressed exactly like his father
in a photo taken years earlier.

When I was old enough to use
a Brownie Kodak box camera,
he got the picture he wanted,
just before he died.

Little did he know his great-grandson
would become a columnist for The Forward,
the only newspaper he ever read
while drinking Swee-touch-nee tea
in a glass with a cube of sugar.

He was just a man, loved, and not forgotten.
What will my grandchildren remember of me?

Milton P. Ehrlich, Ph.D., an 85-year-old psychologist, has published numerous poems in periodicals such as Descant, Wisconsin Review, Rutherford Red Wheelbarrow, Toronto Quarterly Review, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, and The New York Times.

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“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/

 

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Questions for My Mother

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

What if
that afternoon instead of making love
in the sewing room you’d
cooked in the kitchen
perfecting what would become
your family’s famous zucchini bread recipe or
what if
you and Daddy had just talked?

What if
you decided that afternoon
to read a book instead,
and what was it
made you decide to make love
the second day of Rosh HaShanah
and that makes us toast my conception each year

with champagne? Would I
have turned out differently or would I
have received someone else’s fate if I
had been conceived at another moment?

Would the angel in charge of conception still have
placed the same drop of semen before the Holy One
and asked, Master of the universe what
is to happen to this drop?

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us, poems about her family and the Holocaust.  Her recent work has appeared in The Poet’s Quest for God and is forthcoming in Forgotten Women.  Janet is currently producing AFTER, a cinematic film about Holocaust poetry.  https://www.facebook.com/AfterAPoetryFilm/

This poem is reprinted from Kalliope, where it first appeared, with the kind permission of the author.

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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.

 

 

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Please, Stop Staring at My Stomach!

by Rachel Cohen (Philadelphia, PA)

Recently, a woman in our community gave me a gift of esrog jelly. She felt that this gift would be a catalyst for me to become pregnant and have a child. She also offered frequent Shabbos invitations to my husband and me, perhaps because she felt bad for us that we were alone.

I was very hurt and frustrated by this as I felt that she had crossed personal boundaries and made an assumption that I was having difficulty conceiving. Based on this assumption, she gave us a gift that we did not want. I felt that she was treating us as a charity.

I could have told her that there are many reasons why couples do not have children for extended periods of time, and that these reasons are exclusively the concern of the husband and wife and only the husband and wife.  But I didn’t feel comfortable confronting her. It isn’t this woman’s place to pry into our personal life, even if she thinks she has noble intentions.

I’m not the only one in our community who feels that some people pry too far. Once an expecting mother remarked to me: “Last year I miscarried a child. My husband was in a bakery when I was giving birth to the miscarriage. A person in the bakery would not stop questioning my husband about my pregnancy. My husband refused to answer but the man kept nagging. Eventually, my husband explained that I was having a miscarriage in the hospital. The man in the bakery gasped.”

The question that I’d like to pose to my community is this: why are people so insensitive to the feelings of others and feel a need to pry into a sensitive part of other people’s lives that is not for them to know about? Does a person have to experience such an embarrassing moment like the man in the bakery to realize that he is crossing boundaries?

I’m sure there are many people who are simply not thinking when they pry. Some of my peers tell me, “I mean it for the best,” or “I thought it was acceptable to ask,” or the best one, “Because we are all one nation and have to watch out for each other.”

But, truth be told, I feel there are very few reasons to rationalize crossing such private and personal boundaries and embarrassing a person. So again I ask: why do people do this? And more importantly, why should people stop crossing personal boundaries?

The answer, I believe, is rooted in one of Judaism’s most significant attributes, which sets the Jewish people apart from all other nations.

The Jewish people received the Torah as a guide for how to live and how to treat other people. The great Talmudic Sage Hillel tells us how we should treat others. When summarizing the entire Torah to a prospective convert, he says, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah…the rest is the explanation of this – go and study it!”

Perhaps if others took a moment to think about how they would feel if the situation was reversed and they themselves were being asked about their most private, personal matters, they would think twice before prying.

In the Torah we also received laws about modesty. Tznius is more than just what one wears. Rabbi Maurice Lamm, z”l, writes, “Tznius means discreet habits, quiet speech, and affections privately expressed…This is not merely a series of behavioral niceties, a sort of Bible’s guide to etiquette, but a philosophy of life.”

Questioning someone’s pregnancy status, then, is not acting in a tznius manner. Taking time before speaking or even averting one’s gaze from a woman’s swelling belly could save someone potential harm and hurt feelings.

I know that, personally, I don’t want to be that person who questions everything about others. I don’t want to be the person who embarrasses others in order to get a juicy detail about their private life because I believe that asking is so called “caring.”

Please keep your esrog jelly (and your assumptions) to yourself. Pray, please pray for others. But, please, don’t tell the person who you may hurt that you are praying for them. My stomach is my stomach. I may have gained some weight, but please stop staring.

Rachel Cohen is a cardiac Intensive Care nurse who loves Philadelphia, PA. When she is not at work, she enjoys freelance writing and poetry. She is currently in graduate school and working on a memoir.   

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