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Unexpected Departure, 1938

by Helga Harris (Sarasota, FL)

Perhaps due to my age, I was the only member of my family of four who had not been upset about unexpectedly leaving Berlin in April 1938. My parents kept their plans to emigrate a secret from me, fearing that I, a talkative child, might speak out and be heard by a Nazi. My brother, Eric, five years my senior, and I had opposite personalities. He was an introvert. For weeks he had known of the family’s plans and was treated as an adult. … and I …  as an afterthought.

I saw the horrors in the streets of Berlin, especially toward old, religious-looking Jewish men. Some were beaten, punched in the face, pulled by their long curly side-locks, flowing black robes, dragged by their legs through the streets or by the tzitzit of their prayer shawls. It made me shudder and wonder what the future held for Jews in Germany.

When walking in the street it was common to hear thunderous sounds from blocks away of soldiers marching in high brown shiny leather boots, displaying the swastika armband on their brown shirts, and waving flags while marching on the cobblestone pavements. Besides the noise of goose-stepping soldiers, the storm troopers sang their patriotic songs in high decibel. Knowing the Nazis would be within our sight in a few moments, Mutti always quickly pulled me into a building’s doorway in order not to be seen. It was mandatory to salute the flag or be instantly arrested.

“Mutti, when will this stop?” I asked innocently.

She looked at me sadly and said, “I don’t know.” Mutti always seemed to know everything. With that realization, my perception of where I lived changed. To this day I cringe when hearing marching music, and I am wary of the display of flags. Nationalism frightens me. In my geography class in Berlin, I became intrigued about that fascinating land, America, “The land of opportunity, where the streets were paved with gold.” I was a cynic, even at such an early age. I didn’t believe the gold part, but dreamed of living in “The Land of Opportunity” and freedom.

I was not made aware of my parents’ plans to leave Berlin and travel to America until a week before our departure. Suddenly, large wooden crates appeared in our living room. It was then that my parents finally explained their agenda. I was happy and excited to escape Hitlerland, but the timing was too abrupt. I questioned myself. How will we live there? I don’t know English. How will people understand me? I’ll feel stupid in school.

My main misgiving was how I would tell my best friend, Ruthchen, that I’m moving to America. We’d been close, like sisters, since kindergarten: half of our lives. How will I say goodbye to her? The most serious question in my mind was: Will I ever see her again?

The difficult job was to convince my parents that I must say Auf Wiedersehen to Ruthchen. In 1938, Jews in Germany were always on alert when outside the safety of their home. (A year later, after Kristallnacht, there were no secure places.) Both families discussed the request and finally agreed for Ruthchen and me to meet; possibly for the last time of our young lives.

After all these years, I can still conjure the image of my dearest friend standing with her mother on the platform of the Berlin train station for the last goodbye. Our mothers had lectured each of us to control our emotions. For young girls, not yet eleven-years-old, that was difficult. We were also instructed not to bring the usual farewell gifts of flowers and chocolates.

It was a cool and sunny day that April in Berlin when we met at the railroad terminal. I remember Ruthchen dressed in a wool pleated navy skirt and hand-knit light blue jacket (to match her big, sparkling eyes), her blond curls escaping from her beanie hat that framed her round, sweet face. I probably wore something similar.

I recall clearly how our mothers were attired. Both wore well-tailored dark wool suits. Each had a fox (the entire animal, from head to tail) draped nonchalantly over their shoulders. The mouth of the animal was fashioned into a clothespin, to which the tail was secured. That look both fascinated and abhorred me. When I was very young, I hoped that the animal with its soulful eyes would loosen the clip somehow and spring from Mutti’s shoulder to freedom. To complete the outfit, they wore Marlene Dietrich type felt fedoras, leather gloves, purses, and clunky, dark oxford shoes. The young matrons did not look out of place: it was the style of affluent women of the 1930s.

For our exodus, my parents decided to separate the family for security reasons. My father and brother were to follow my mother and me by train a week after our departure from Berlin. That was a frightening thought. I wanted us to be together. My imagination went wild with terror. What if Mutti and I got lost? I’d want to be with my father … he could always make me smile. My mother was serious with no sense of humor. Or, what if something happened to Papa and Eric? What would my mother and I do to help? A month ago we heard that Hitler had marched into Austria and occupied that country “peacefully.” What’s next?

The plan was to travel to Belgium and stay with relatives in Antwerp and Brussels for six weeks while waiting for our visas to the U.S. Two sisters–my mother’s first cousins; one family living in Antwerp with her husband and son, the other with her spouse and daughter in Brussels–had moved to Belgium to escape Hitler two years earlier. The sisters, like my mother, were born in the same shtetl and moved to Berlin after WWI. My cousins and I, all the same age, had been very close in Berlin.

Although both cities are in Belgium, the spoken language in Antwerp is Flemish and in Brussels, French. My ten-year-old cousin, Vera, in Brussels, felt superior to Ziggy, in Antwerp. She tormented him for not speaking French and emphasized that Flemish is a non-language. I didn’t like being the third wheel. “Why are you so mean to Ziggy? It’s not his fault that he lives in Antwerp.” “I don’t care. Flemish is a stupid language and he’s stupid, too.” I later learned that in 1941 there was a knock on the door, and Vera’s father was forced out of their house, arrested, and shipped to Auschwitz Concentration Camp, never to be heard from again. The rest of the family somehow survived the war and got to New York five years later. Vera and her mother were never the same free-spirited people again.

My six weeks in Belgium were a wonderful experience of new things and foods that we all had been craving due to years of rationing for Jews in Germany. After leaving Belgium, my parents, Eric, and I, were scheduled to travel to Paris. The land journey would end in Le Havre. There we’d set sail on the magnificent SS Normandie and be on our way to New York. In order for it to appear as if we were on holiday, my father bought round-trip tickets. My brother had studied English for the past three years and offered to teach me rudimentary phrases. I was thrilled.

Brussels and Antwerp were interesting cities, but nothing compared to the splendor of Paris. I loved watching people while sitting in cafes, eating al fresco, and smelling the perfume from the flowers in window boxes that seemed to be everywhere.

I was impressed by French women, who all tended to be slim and wore simple, elegant clothes. They were masters at draping scarves and making every outfit, no matter the price, look unique. It instilled a style I adopted and empowered me to become a dress designer, which I’d been dreaming about. By comparison, I found German and Belgium females were rounder, had no sense of style, and wore too much makeup and jewelry. I learned a lesson from the French: be classic, understated, and you will look like “a million dollars.” I liked that American expression.

Never will I forget the abundance of food of every kind, especially the meats. (Kosher meat had not been available for several years for us in Germany.) I must have had a grin on my face when I finally bit into the juicy hotdog that snapped with every bite and as the liquid ran down my arm. Mutti permitted me to have as many as I wished, knowing that eventually I’d have my fill. Even the mustard was luscious. Eating freshly baked butter-dripping croissants and crunchy warm baguettes every day was unforgettable.

My one regret: I wish I had been older to experience and understand more of the uniqueness of the trip. Even as a young child, I recognized that Paris was more vibrant, artsy, and sophisticated than Brussels, Antwerp, and even cosmopolitan Berlin. More important than the food I craved was the freedom of speaking in public … not worrying about being overheard by the Nazis. Unfortunately that changed after the war started.

I would not have objected to living in Paris, but America was waiting for me. I was ready,

A writer, artist, and fashion designer, Helga Harris has published a memoir, Dear Helga, Dear Ruth, as well as articles in The St. Petersburg Times, The Sarasota Herald Tribune. and The Tampa Tribune. Her stories have appeared in anthologies, including Dolls Remembered, Doorways, and, most recently, We Were There, which was published by the St.Petersburg Holocaust Museum. Her latest memoir is Susie … WAIT! and her first collection of nonfiction short stories is Nothing Is Forever. She is currently co-leader of a writing program at The Lifelong Learning Academy in Sarasota.

“Unexpected Departure, 1938” is an excerpt from her most recent memoir, There’s A Witch In My Room.

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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. 

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Father’s Phantom First Family

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

When it came to keeping secrets, few were as tight-lipped as my parents. Once these two Holocaust survivors decided to exclude any one particular topic from conversation, no amount of whimpering, urging or cajoling could convince them to reconsider. You see there were some wartime memories that proved just too painful to discuss and so keeping them under wraps was felt to be the only sensible thing to do.

One such prohibited topic dealt with my father’s first family, a wife and three small children, four innocent victims who perished during the Holocaust. They, along with thousands of others held captive in the Lodz Ghetto, had either succumbed to starvation, exhaustion and illness or were ruthlessly singled out, rounded up and taken to nearby killing centers. The story of this first family had become a closed chapter in a book of tragedies that was to be kept out of sight and out of mind. From my earliest recollection, I sensed that this was a subject that was strictly off limits and, though I was always intrigued, I knew better than to ask too many questions.

My father, who was generally an open and talkative sort, never spoke of this phantom first family. There were no details of their lives and no information as to how or where they died. Talk of their appearance, likes, dislikes, mannerisms and personalities was never forthcoming and remained under lock and key. My mother, perhaps fearful of not wanting to open old painful wounds, seldom discussed any subject that was certain to upset my father. “Your father is a nervous man,” she would often say, “he has suffered enough. There are things you should not ask.”

On rare occasions, mother would inadvertently let a word or two slip about the secret first family but there was never enough information that would amount to much of anything. She always seemed to catch herself right in the nick of time. It was like a pinhole in a drawn window shade that permitted a hint of light but resulted in little, if any, illumination or insight. The first family’s names were never mentioned and their faces never graced the pages of our emaciated photo album.

Growing up, I found myself trying to come up with likely names and images for this first family. I played with the possibilities. The color and texture of their hair, the color of their eyes and any distinctive facial features that would make them stand out in a crowd. In spite of a vivid imagination, my efforts failed miserably as these faceless spirits continued to elude me. Whenever emboldened by a jolt of curiosity, I would cautiously approach my father with questions relating to his first family. “Foolish child, how could you ever possibly understand?” was his customary response, a refrain he often used whenever feeling distressed and at a loss for words. I accepted defeat and never gave it much thought until my own children came on the scene.

While visiting my parents a number of years ago, I was determined to be a bit more forceful in my attempt to learn about this first family. Whether it had been the presence of my own children or the appreciation that I could no longer be put off, my father began to appear a bit more receptive to the idea of introducing his first family into our daily conversations. As the lone survivor of his extended family, he, and only he, could provide information about those who had not survived. No photographs, letters or mementos of the first family’s existence had ever surfaced after the war, making my father’s recollections all the more critical. I was well aware of his sensitivity and appreciated his vulnerability, and, at my mother’s urging, I proposed that we go slowly and proceed at a pace of his own choosing.

Father took a long deep breath and began to speak haltingly of the strife and struggle of life in the ghetto. He continued on this theme for a number of minutes before introducing me to his young daughter and two infant sons. Though details were quite meager, a milestone had been reached that, I hoped, would lead to more open discussion in the near future. A major hurdle was overcome and I could immediately appreciate that a bit of clarity had been sprinkled onto a distant blur. Visions of faint images were beginning to inch forward ever so slowly with the promise of additional advancement if time would only permit. But it did not. My father died soon after our initial breakthrough. This first small step had barely scratched the surface and now there was no one left to ask and nowhere else to turn.

Years later, I came upon a most remarkable work by Josef Zelkowicz, a witness to the horrific events that took the lives of so many in the Lodz Ghetto. In Those Terrible Days: Writings from the Lodz Ghetto, Zelkowicz describes how children were brutally separated from hysterical parents, forced onto transports and then taken to extermination centers:

“Hours have passed since these woes, these agonies, were inflicted on those wretched people, but the situation has not calmed down one bit. Mothers have not yet tired of shrieking, fathers’ wellsprings of tears have not yet sealed, and the silence of the night amplifies the reverberations of the screaming and sobbing. No sound reaches your ears, man, but that bitter wailing; no thought occurs to you but death; and your heart ponders, nothing but devastation.”

I will likely never know what became of this first family. I now, however, understand why it was my father could not relive a time when mothers and fathers, all terror stricken and desperate, wept uncontrollably as their loving children were savagely torn from their protective embrace. His common refrain—“Foolish child, how could you ever possibly understand?”—has now taken on a clarity of its own. My father had been right all along. I could not possibly understand. I could not possibly appreciate the horrors that had left him dispirited and at a loss for words. When it came to any talk, any mention, any recollection of the first family, I now realize that my father couldn’t and my mother wouldn’t. He succeeded in keeping his secret intact, thereby helping safeguard his sanity and keeping us, his current children and loved ones, safe from harm.

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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Great-Uncle Moishe: L’dor v’dor

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.

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Exploring “Emotional Genealogy”

What is “emotional genealogy” and how does it differ from traditional genealogy?

Award-winning travel journalist Judith Fein describes “emotional genealogy” as a combination of a family’s history and the behavior of family members who have created that history.

An acclaimed speaker and workshop leader, Fein is the author of Life Is A Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel and the just-released The Spoon From Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands. (If you’d like to read an excerpt  from The Spoon From Minkowitz, click here: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/minkowitz-and-me/)

She was kind enough to share some thoughts on “emotional genealogy” with readers of The Jewish Writing Project:

JWP: How did you first come upon the idea of emotional genealogy?

Fein: I noticed that when I saw names and dates on my family tree, I fell asleep under the branches. I so admire people who do genealogical research, but I realized that I am definitely not one of them. On the other hand, whenever my parents or relatives related the slightest crumb of family stories, I became ravenously hungry.  “Hmm,” I thought. “What do you call it if you are mesmerized by the tales of those who came before you? Emotional genealogy. It seemed to fit.

JWP: What is emotional genealogy?

Fein: It is not only the stories that are told and have been handed down, but it is also the family behavior patterns that are transmitted. There are positive behaviors–like optimism, the thirst for social justice, kindness, an artistic or musical bent–but also the dark ones like rage, violence, lying, addiction, stonewalling silence.

JWP: What if I don’t know anything about my ancestors?

Fein: There is always a snippet of information or a piece of a story. Even the most minor details are pieces of the puzzle. If you have older relatives who are living, they are a prime source. If you have cousins, they may have some stories. As a child, you certainly observed behaviors of your relatives. Do you see them in yourself?

JWP: What if no one in my family knows or wants to talk about them?

Fein: Then you go to Plan B, which involves research or using your intuition. Are you particularly drawn to a certain country? You may have had ancestors there, even without knowing for sure. Are you attracted to certain types of people? Well, you may have an ancestral connection. Your own intelligence, creativity and intuitive instincts are sources of a different kind of information.

JWP: What did you gain from approaching your genealogy search in this way?

Fein: First, by learning the stories, I feel that I have roots in a very rootless world. They give me a sense of meaning and purpose. That is why I wrote my book, The Spoon From Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands.

Second, I have understood the behavior patterns in my family–especially the toxic ones. I have seen how negative traits are passed down from one generation to another. And I have vowed that the buck stops with me. As someone recently told me, “If you don’t transform it, you transmit it.”

JWP: Thank you, Judith. Good luck with your explorations!

If you’re interested in exploring your own emotional genealogy, visit Judith Fein’s website for more information: www.emotionalgenealogy.org.

And if you’re interested in hearing her speak, click on this link to hear her inspiring TED talk on the beauty of travel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GErjagMyrYk&feature=youtu.be

You can view more of her work at her website: http://globaladventure.us

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Minkowitz and Me

by Judith Fein (Santa Fe, NM)

When I was 10 years old, while other girls were playing with dolls, I was obsessed with the shtetl, or village, my grandmother came from. I begged my parents to take me to Brooklyn, so I could sit next to her, feel the softness of her skin, and ask her about her village in Russia.

My grandmother was not forthcoming. Nor did she know exactly where her shtetl was located because it was an isolated village, and the only time she ventured any real distance from it was to come to the United States when she was 17.

“Grandma, where do you come from?” I would ask.

“Far.”

“What was it like?”

“Feh.”

The less she said, the more my imagination went wild, conjuring up images of a dark, mysterious place in Russia with sinewy alleys. I was awed that my grandmother, the woman who was my mother’s mother and called me “mamaleh,” lived in such a place and knew its secrets.

“Please, Gram, tell me.”

“It’s better to forget about it.”

She never spontaneously talked about Minkowitz, and I never gave up questioning her or trying to find out about her life before she came to America, before I knew her. Who was she before she was my grandmother?

“Tell me what you ate there, Gram.”

“Food.”

“Where did you buy it?”

“There was a market once a week, on Tuesdays. We had beans, potatoes, beets, corn….” her voice trailed off. She went into the kitchen to stir the chicken soup, and I watched the yellow chicken legs float to the surface and then disappear.

“Are you hungry, mamaleh?” she asked.

When I nodded, she opened the refrigerator and took out a jar full of schmaltz—rendered chicken fat—that was speckled with burnt onions. She spread half an inch of schmaltz on a piece of rye bread, and handed it to me.

“Did you eat schmaltz in Minkowitz?”

She nodded yes. I took a huge bite of bread, relishing the schmaltz, because it linked me to my grandmother’s village.

I was never very interested in religion, but I loved everything about my grandmother’s culture: the Yiddish newspaper that was folded up on an overstuffed, upholstered armchair in the living room; the front parlor, where I slept, and which looked out over the street; the pantry closet which smelled vaguely from matza. Most of all, I loved that she came from Minkowitz. It sounded so exotic. It was somewhere across the ocean, in a vast country called Russia. She wasn’t born in America, like I was. She came from a mysterious place and she was a foreigner with secrets. I felt about her the way the ancients must have felt about travelers who arrived in their midst; they wanted to hear stories, to learn about how people lived in faraway lands. The slightest details that my grandmother divulged about Minkowitz became indelibly imprinted on my brain.

“Gram, did you go to school?”

“No, mamasheyna.”

“Why not, Gram?”

“We weren’t allowed to.”

“Why couldn’t you go to school?”

I was like a little prosecuting attorney, and my grandmother softened on the witness stand. She got a faraway look in her eyes.

“I stood at the bottom of the hill, looking up at the school where the Russian girls studied. They wore blue uniforms. I wanted to be educated like them.”

“But you couldn’t….?”

She shook her head no. I wrote down everything she told me, and thought about it until the next time I saw her. Then I started asking questions again.

“If you didn’t go to school, what did you do all day in Minkowitz?”

“When I was 10 years old, like you are now, I was working.”

“What kind of work?”

“I dried tobacco leaves in the field with the women.”

I had never seen a tobacco leaf. Why did they need to be dried? I wrote down what my grandmother told me, and mulled it over until our next conversation. My mother said I was making my grandmother crazy. I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. I loved my grandmother. I was just asking her about her childhood.

“Tell me about your house, Gram. What did it look like?”

“The floor was made from goat dreck.”

Goat shit for a floor. Were there clumps of dung? Who spread them out? Did they stink? What happened if you walked on the floor with bare feet? I clung to each tidbit, marinating it in my mind and imagination, repeating it to myself as though my life depended upon my remembering it.

On one visit, I was playing with cans of food in my grandmother’s hall closet, stacking them, and unstacking them, using them like big tin Legos. She walked by and patted me affectionately on the shoulder.

“Where in Russia was Minkowitz, Gram? Do you know the name of the biggest city in the area?”

Oy. Always Minkowitz. The biggest city was Kamenetz Podolsk.”

Again, I wrote down every word she said. I thought I was getting ancestral gems, but later, when I looked at the content, it was paltry indeed. No stories. No slice of life anecdotes. Just six facts about my grandmother’s life in Minkowitz. That was it. The weekly market was on Tuesday. When she was 10 years old, she dried tobacco leaves with the women. She lived at the bottom of a hill. The Russian girls went to school on top of the hill. The floor of the house was made of goat dung.  Kamenetz Podolsk was the big town. I repeated the scant facts over and over, clinging to them, imagining what they looked like, felt like, smelled like. It was so vivid that I felt as though I had lived in Minkowitz too.

I knew that in Minkowitz they spoke Yiddish. I started trying to imitate the sounds of the language since I couldn’t speak it. Instead, I invented a sort of fake Yiddish. I would call my grandmother, and, when she answered the phone, I would cheerfully ask, “Grandma, vus habastups-du?”

“Judie,” she would say sadly, “I don’t understand your Eedish.” That’s how she pronounced it: “Eedish.”

The next time I called, I greeted her with the bogus, “Grandma, hoison boisin galempt.”

“Judie, I’m sorry. I just can’t understand your Eedish.”

When I was 19, bedridden with mononucleosis and hepatitis, I didn’t have the energy to roll over or kick the covers off when it got too hot. My grandmother got on a train in Brooklyn, which was unusual for her, and came to see me in Queens. She sat next to my bed, on a folding chair, and informed me that she finally figured out why she didn’t understand my Yiddish. “Because you go to college and you speak a very educated Eedish.” If I had had the energy, I would have leapt out of bed and hugged her.

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist who has written for more than 100 publications. An acclaimed speaker and workshop leader, she is also the author of Life Is A Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel and the just-released The Spoon From Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands, from which this piece is excerpted and reprinted with the kind permission of the author. Her website is http://www.GlobalAdventure.us

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