Category Archives: Ukrainian Jewry

What I know

By Marilyn Schonfeld-Davenport (Louisville, CO)

I am a first generation American and a second generation Holocaust survivor. 

My mother was born in Korosten, Ukraine. 

My father in the shtetl of Oleszyce, Poland. 

They came to this country in 1950 with my three-year-old sister who was born in a displaced persons camp in Ansbach, Germany.

They were lucky, my mother always said. They were not in concentration camps.

They met during the war on a Russian state-owned farm (Sovkhoz) in Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan.

I do not know the name of the farm. I do not know how my father ended up there. Only that while in the Russian army, he jumped off a train to escape banishment to Siberia and found himself on the same Sovkhoz. 

They were lucky, my mother always said

They were not tortured. They did not starve.

They did not have to hide underground or in sewers or cellars with rats. 

They did not have to strip down naked and suffer inhuman conditions and humiliating treatment. 

They did not have to forage for food in the forests. 

They did not have to watch their children die.

My parents were lucky. 

Not like their dear survivor friends whose tragic stories I overheard as a child, amidst the shuffling cards and the clicking chips of the poker table. 

But still, their young lives were thwarted by the horrifying rampage of a madman.

They were scared. They were on the run. 

They were separated from their families. 

They scampered to strange places, seeking refuge and safety.

Their fate collided at the Sovkhoz where they fell in love and lived in relative peace. And waited. And wondered, when will it end?

They worked in the fields, repaired small machinery, slept in bunkers and occasionally had a decent meal of more than watered -down soup.

My mother worked in the canteen and snuck my father extra bread and cigarettes.

That’s all I know about their life there.

After the war, they got married and returned to Korosten so my dad could meet his in-laws and my mother could say hello and goodbye to her family. 

My dad set his sights on America. 

The land of promise. The land of opportunity.

She was going with him.

But first he wanted to go back to Poland to see what happened to his family. 

He had no idea if anyone was still alive.

Somewhere, somehow he discovered they all perished in Belzec. 

Except for one sister.

She escaped with the help of a priest and was in a displaced persons camp in Ansbach, Germany. 

And so they went there.

My mother said they walked.

But how? How did he find out about her? How did they walk all that way? 

Who helped them? How long did it take? 

My past is a patchwork of fragmented stories and unanswered questions.

They hang suspended looking for a place to rest, to make me whole.

My father never talked about his past or his childhood.

I try to seam it together through any research I can do, any tidbit I can find. 

A box of papers from the DP camp; sponsor forms, luggage tags, passport pictures, a diploma from ORT that said my father could make a shoe.

But I reach a dead end when it comes to my Polish family. There is so little.

There are only imagined faces of my relatives instead of photos that do not exist. 

Imagined lives in places I cannot fathom.

I never asked enough and they never said enough. 

I do not know enough. 

But I do know this.

I am a first generation American and a second generation Holocaust survivor. 

I am defined by that more than anything.

Marilyn Schonfeld-Davenport has always held the stories of her parents and her ancestors deep inside her, those few that she knows, those fragments that she can piece together. These stories composed the backdrop of a relatively carefree childhood in the suburbs of Chicago, but beneath the surface was the lingering impact of her parents’ trauma: her mother’s anger and fear, her father’s quiet introspection.

Throughout the years, Marilyn has returned to those haunting stories of her youth to try to weave the pieces together and better understand her past. She is currently working on a memoir of sorts, based on her mother’s notebooks of recorded minutes as the secretary of the Trossman Family Club. Uncle Sam Trossman, the patriarch, brought her parents and sister to this country after the war.  She lives in Louisville, Colorado with her husband Mark and dog Wilson. Her two grown sons live in Portland, Oregon and Minneapolis, Minnesota and she misses them every single day. 

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

The World’s Oldest…Question

by Irina Tsukerman (Brooklyn, NY)

…is “Who am I?” In my case, it means who am I as a Jew. Am I even a Jew? My ethnic identity and my religious identity should be one and the same, because all Jews, as a people, are supposed to follow certain religious prescriptions (many of which indeed sound like a bitter pill to swallow). But I don’t believe in much of it. For instance, I don’t think kashrut is justified. I’m an agnostic. Praying doesn’t do the trick for me. I don’t want to waste my Saturday afternoons in synagogue, which to me, is a good place for community interaction, but otherwise isn’t particularly useful. I’m not a Democrat. I don’t believe in abortions, welfare, affirmative action, community service, and pro bono work. What can I say? I’m a bad Jew…

Or at least I would be according to one view. The other view, secular nationalist one, seems to justify me completely. I espouse my history and background. I completely support Israel. I encourage the unity among the Jews, including one language, which should be Hebrew, not Yiddish or Ladino or anything else. Hebrew. I’m an ardent advocate of Israel’s right to exist… I long to rejoin the Jewish community, and hopefully one day will actively participate in a number of important Jewish networks and organizations. And I support the core tenets of “traditional” Jewish values, such as justice, defense of the helpless, and love of learning. (Though the phrase “People of the Book” has a slightly different connotation in my view). I hope to become the best that I can and make my people proud of me. Which makes me a good Jew…

But wait a second. Some of the more religious communities wouldn’t call me Jewish at all. I don’t even follow the basic of Jewish things. I eat pork, well, sometimes. I don’t really like pork. But I love rabbit and seafood and black caviar and chicken covered with cheese with dry plums. I am far from modest in my attire. I don’t mark the Holidays with the exception of Yom Kippur, which I mark only by fasting not prayers or restraint from work. I don’t have a Jewish name and I don’t want one. And though I want my children to have a Jewish education, I’m more concerned about their secular one and that they enjoy life, and are vivacious, aggressive, fun-loving, a bit crazy and to an extent, even disobedient and skeptical.

I want them to be everything I am and more. I want them to have an opportunity to go to the prom in school if they so wish. I didn’t, but only because I didn’t want to, not because I couldn’t. I don’t want them to wear long skirts all the time, but a variety of clothes that they like, as long as they don’t look like prostitutes. At the same time, I would love them to be as much interested in Jewish history, culture, and current life as I am, and I want them to be just as supportive of Israel. So who am I? Am I Jewish or not? Am I a bad Jew or a good Jew? Is an agnostic who supports Israel any better than an ultra-Orthodox who doesn’t? Is it so wrong to want to live to the fullest, and eat what I like, and do what I want with my life and free time, in the modern world?

Life is so short – why waste it on useless restrictions? Don’t get me wrong, if I were forced to follow the rules (such as if I married into an observant family), I’d be able to. I’m a good, disciplined girl. But is it worth it? Is any man and any family, no matter how much I love him, worth the sacrifice of my core belief, my very identity of living life to the fullest? Can I really change – not just my habits, but my very nature- for the sake of somebody else? Do I want to? I’ve read John Fowles’ masterpiece, Daniel Martin. There, a character, an energetic, spunky though very stubborn young woman, marries a guy who becomes a deeply observant Catholic. She adapts to his way of life, but in return, fades, and loses her sparkle. Is that what would happen to me if I were to embrace my traditions? Do I want that? I’m seriously questioning myself and my motivations. I have no right to make promises that I can but do not want to keep… including promises to myself.

And I have to make peace with myself and know who I really am. Otherwise, I don’t feel like I really belong anywhere. If anyone of my readers has ever experienced such a conflict, please help me understand what is happening to me. How do I deal with not knowing what I am in relation to my own nation? What do I owe to my ethnicity and my religion? One thing I know for sure: if I want to come to any satisfactory conclusion, I’ve got to be honest with myself, which I haven’t been previously. And if any observant Jew ever reads this, please do not judge me too harshly. I came from a world where Jewish tradition was suppressed, and for me it doesn’t make any sense half the time, rationalized or not. For me the costs of giving up the way of life that I enjoy seem greater than the dubious benefits of an observant lifestyle. Before condemning me as the heretic that I probably am, read Daniel Martin and try to see how similar I now feel to Jane. And read Hesse’s Steppenwolf – it’s kind of the opposite. There, a cultured but very withdrawn and dry individual, reaches out to embrace life with all its complexities and heterodoxies. Please do respond to this, whether you’re Jewish or not. What, to you, is your identity?

Maybe Jewish and maybe not,


Irina Tsukerman was born in Kharkov, Ukraine in 1985, and came to the United States in September 1995. She received an A.B. in International/Intercultural Studies from Fordham College at Lincoln Center in 2006, and graduated from Fordham University School of Law in 2009. She currently resides in Brooklyn.

You can read more of her work at her blog, The IgNoble Experiment where this piece first appeared in 2004. It’s reprinted here with permission of the author.

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