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Bound by stories

Elan Barnehama (Boston, MA)

I am the progeny of refugees with thick accents who passed on a heritage of the gloom of war and the promise of peace. They had the self-assurance that came from having survived and the mistrust of having had to.

My mother’s family fled Berlin for Jerusalem when Hitler came to power. My father’s family escaped Vienna for Haifa in the days following its Kristallnacht. Soon after Israel’s War of Independence, my father contracted polio and was shipped off to New York for medical care. That’s where my mother met him, as she was in New York City visiting friends and relatives. And there they stayed.

And there I grew up, in a place where no one could pronounce my name and no one considered me American. To them, I was Israeli even though I was more focused on why they killed Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I wanted to know why Newark was burning. I was worried that the war in Vietnam would still be going on when I reached draft age.

When it was time for me to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah, I had little interest. Why would I want to celebrate a God who allowed the Holocaust, a God who looked away as my father got polio and became confined to a wheelchair?

The thing is, while we were not remotely observant, my parents were proudly Jewish, and we marked the holidays at home. About our table were family and friends, most of whom also had their own stories of survival and persistence, who came to discuss and debate the meaning of those holy days, and not just recite pages in order to get to the food.

From an early age, Biblical stories drew me in. The writers offered different points of view, were comfortable with contradictions and highlighted that most of life resided in uncertainty. The opening chapters had two very different tellings of creation. It only took a few pages to encounter the first lie, quickly followed by the first murder. Brothers did not fare well. The stories were not simplistic or dogmatic. Context mattered.

The more I read, the more these texts resonated with me and helped me make sense of a senseless world. Increasingly, I felt connected to the Jewish story, if not the Jewish God. And that was how I knew I was going to follow through with my Bar Mitzvah. The Tribe had survived for thousands of years and countless attempts to get rid of it. Who was I to mess with a streak?

I remain strengthened by listening to and retelling these stories, even when they are not easy to hear or easy to repeat. And I am proud to add my story to our shared history.

_ _ _

Elan Barnehama’s new novel, Escape Route, is set in NYC during the 1960s and is told by teenager, Zach, a first-generation son of Holocaust survivors, and NY Mets fan, who becomes obsessed with the Vietnam War and with finding an escape route for his family for when he believes the US will round up and incarcerate its Jews. Elan is a New Yorker by geography. A Mets fan by default. More info at elanbarnehama.comEscape Route, available now

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My Father’s Holocaust

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

My father escaped the Holocaust,
but suffered for it, and when, as a kid,
I pointed out he never actually
spent time in Auschwitz or Dachau,
he stared at me, “Same thing,” he said.
“You’ll see,” he added. When I pressed
him further, he said only one word: “Family.”
I didn’t see, the Holocaust becoming 
just one more historical fact.
I began my own very secular career.
Then I saw a picture at a lecture
given by a famous art historian.
Thumbprints of dirt, blood, ink, 
mounted upon rows of stripes
in different colors, an abstract
suddenly becoming very real— 
a line of prisoners awaiting the 
morning roll call in the freezing cold.
I looked closer at the thumbprints
and could see my father’s face.
“I am here, remember me, never forget.”
A generation later I am still safe, still free, 
but the picture still haunts me.
“I escaped,” I said to the thumbprints.
“Oh, no, you didn’t,” I heard my father say. 
And finally I understood his words.

Mel Glenn, the author of twelve books for young adults, is working on a poetry book about the pandemic tentatively titled Pandemic, Poetry, and People. He has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. 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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Yosl and Henekh

by Mark Russ (Larchmont, NY)

My father, Yosl Russ, was born in 1907 in a shtetl 30 miles southeast of Warsaw called Kaluszyn (Kal-u-sheen).   Kaluszyn, the Poles corrected my pronunciation to Kal-oo-shyn (I explained mine was the Jewish pronunciation), was a midsize commercial town that was on a major trade route between Warsaw and eastern Poland and Russia. My father was one of six children born to a poor family that dealt in the beer distributing business; they had a small tavern connected to their home.  The family was observant like all others in the shtetl.  Crisis struck the family when my father’s father suddenly passed away in 1917, one of millions of victims of the Spanish flu pandemic.  With no means of support, the family moved to Warsaw.  My father was sent to live with an aunt at the age of 10 and spent his teenage years performing housework and eventually learning to work in the knitting trade.  He, like so many others in his poverty-stricken, working class generation in Poland became radicalized, gave up religious observance, embraced a Jewish brand of socialism and internationalism, and went on to organize like-minded Jewish youth in Warsaw.  He became active in the Jewish Labor Bund, the principal Jewish political party of his time and place, a Yiddishist, consistent with the Bund’s tenets, and a leader in the party-affiliated sports and outdoors organization, Morgenshtern.  The latter provided organized physical activity and an appreciation of the natural world to slum-bound, impoverished Jewish working youth.  He led “ski trips,” hikes and other expeditions in the Carpathian Mountains and environs of Warsaw.   It was in this context that he met my mother. 

My parents never wanted to return to Poland after the war.  They had escaped east to Bialystok and the Soviet Union in 1939, one step ahead of the German advance into Poland.   They spent the next 18 months in a forced labor camp in Siberia cutting timber.  The Sikorski-Mayski Agreement was struck in 1941 between the Soviet Union and Polish Government in exile in London, effectively liberating all Polish citizens held captive by the Soviets.   My parents, like tens of thousands of other Polish Jews who had taken the same path, made their way south in a harrowing journey through the Soviet heartland.  They spent the remaining war years in Uzbekistan.   After the war they briefly returned to Poland to see who had survived; all but one sibling on each side of the family perished.  They lived in a German DP camp for a time, Paris for a year, and eventually immigrated to Cuba (where my sister and I were born), and finally, to Philadelphia. 

This background is necessary to explain what happened when my wife  and two adolescent children decided to visit Poland.  Initially, the trip was planned as part of a larger Bar Mitzvah journey for my nephew’s son that was to begin in Poland and end in Israel.  Timing was such that we could only join my sister’s family for the first part of the trip.  I shared my parents’ reservations with respect to visiting Poland.  I imagined a land full of anti-Semites, denigrating me and insulting me on the streets of Warsaw.   Although I had powerful trepidations about the trip, I remained curious about what it would be like.  Part of me was drawn to travel there.   

My father had a younger brother, Henekh.  Growing up, I heard bits and pieces about his life.  I heard that he was smart, quick-witted, passionate, and very energetic and capable.  I also knew that he was very well thought of.  My parents’ friends, all Holocaust survivors, many of whom were bona fide heroes in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and partisans in the Polish forests, all knew him and held him in high esteem.  He was one of them.   As I grew older I read some the biographical sketches that had been written about him in Yiddish texts.  Before the war he had been a leader in the young adult section of the Jewish Labor Bund, the Tsukunft, and served on the Bund’s Warsaw central committee, a major achievement for someone so young.  With the advent of the Internet and newly discovered references to him in a variety of books and documents, I learned more about him over the years.   I learned that he had been an active member of the Jewish underground in the Warsaw Ghetto, and that he had been the co-editor of one the underground newspapers, Yugnt Shtime, preserved as part of Emanuel Ringelblum’s Oneg Shabbat archives.  He also authored a “diary” consisting of the proceedings of meetings and historical events related to the Bund in the Warsaw Ghetto, preserved in the YIVO Archives in New York.  I learned that his infant son was killed during a bombardment in the Ghetto.  According to Marek Edelman, the leader of the Bund fighting organization in the Ghetto, Henekh’s vote broke a deadlock resulting in the decision to create the Jewish Combat Organization (the Bund’s military group) in the Warsaw Ghetto.  Henekh and his wife were captured and sent to the Majdanek death camp near Lublin for four months.  I read that he had engaged in acts of heroism while incarcerated.  He and his wife were ultimately sent to Werk Tze, the section of the notorious munitions factory commandeered by the Germans in the town of Skarzysko-Kamienna midway between Krakow and Warsaw.  This factory had three sections, the third, Werk Tse, a combination factory and concentration camp, was reserved for Jews.  The work in this part of the factory was so dangerous and toxic (they used picric acid as part of the munitions processing that literally turned the skin yellow) that the life expectancy of Jews in this setting was 3 months. 

And I knew two more things.  I knew that my uncle and his wife, along with others, were shot in the forest outside this camp in a failed attempt to escape following a rumor that the camp would be liquidated the following day.  And I knew from the time I was a small boy that my father had always said:  “If I knew where my brother Henekh was buried, I would bring flowers to his grave every day.”  These were words I never forgot, words that expressed both a connection and a loss too intense to comprehend.   I had always imagined a “grave” waiting for flowers that would never come.   

Mixed feelings regarding our trip to Poland gave way to clarity of purpose.  I did not know where or how my family perished.  Only Henekh’s journey could be traced, and, with the help of my research efforts, Internet and modern technology, I was intent on addressing my father’s wish.  I found a map of the factory where my uncle and aunt had been incarcerated in Felicia Karay’s book about the Skarzysko camp, Death Comes in Yellow.  With the help of Google Earth, I was able to superimpose that map on the current map of Skarzysko.  I contacted the local historical museum in the town and was informed that parts of the factory still exist, that it is still a munitions plant, but that it makes classified weapons (many of which, ironically, it sells to Israel), and that I would need permission to visit.  My goals were to visit the ruins of Werk Tse if they were to be found and the forest where my uncle was murdered.  With this information in hand, I was able to surmise the approximate location of where Werk Tse stood and that a forest still exists outside the factory complex.  As expected, it was to the east, precisely the direction they would have gone in 1944 to reach the advancing Soviet army.  With help from the local museum staff I was able to contact the factory administrator and set a date for a visit for my wife, my children and me.  We arranged to have a guide as well who would drive us from Krakow to Skarzysko and on to Warsaw, our final destination.  My plan was simple; lay flowers at the ruins of Werk Tse

In Krakow, we stayed in what had been the Jewish quarter, on the block lined with “Jewish” restaurants, each with its own ensemble playing Yiddish folks tunes and klezmer music into the night.  Initially odd and off-putting, there was an air of respectfulness among the locals we met, and, for me, a kind of strange familiarity that counterbalanced an otherwise bizarre and awkward scene.  We visited Auschwitz and toured Krakow, including the site where the Krakow Ghetto had stood.  On July 30th, coincident with the exact day that my uncle and aunt were killed (this was not planned), we bought a bouquet of flowers, and were off to do what we set out to do.  That very morning, however, I received an email from an administrator at the munitions factory stating that he regretted to inform me that the factory was about to start its annual two week summer holiday and that our visit could not take place.  I asked our guide for advice.  He said we should not respond, check in with the museum staff first, and then make our way to the factory and “play dumb.”  If asked, I was to lie about getting the email that morning.  This made me very anxious (I am not a good liar), but fittingly seemed to evoke the uncertainty and tension of an earlier time.   We followed his instructions.  The museum staff could not have been friendlier or more welcoming, and, in a show of support and enthusiasm, two of them piled into our van in a scene reminiscent of “Little Miss Sunshine,” and we were off to the factory.  Our guide took the lead, spoke with Security, and after what seemed like an eternity, arranged an impromptu meeting with a plant administrator.  A long and tense discussion took place in Polish in the parking lot of a surviving factory building.  I was not called upon to lie, but did learn during the negotiations that Werk Tse no longer stood.  However, there was a memorial at the site of Werk Tse, which they referred to as the “Patelnye,” which was absolutely off limits for a visit.  The word “patelnye” was instantly recognizable to me as it was one of the many Polish words that made its way into Yiddish vernacular and my family’s kitchen.  It is the word for frying pan, and came to epitomize the horrifying conditions of the labor camp in the most grotesque terms imaginable.  I also learned that the larger factory complex had its own memorial.  It was located in the surviving and refurbished building immediately in front of us.  They called it the Room of Remembrance and it was dedicated to all those who had perished in the era, Poles and Jews alike.  After what seemed like endless negotiations, we were informed, begrudgingly, that the administrator could take me alone into that room, and just for a minute.  Realizing this was the best I could do, I took my flowers and followed her to the room.  Among the various military artifacts and other memorabilia in the room was a simple stone memorial dedicated to the Jews who had perished.  In an experience that was robbed of meaning and emotion, I lay the flowers down in a perfunctory manner, and left.   

But my real goal, to honor my father’s wish to visit my uncle’s “grave,” was not yet realized.  Naturally, there was no grave, but there was the expanse of forest immediately adjacent to the site where the camp had stood.  I knew that somewhere in that forest, my uncle, aunt and others had been shot.  After dropping our new friends at the museum, I instructed our guide to drive down the road that bordered the forest.  At a small dirt road, which I found on Google Earth, I asked him to stop.  My wife, daughter, son and I walked down the road to a small clearing in the forest.  This was certainly not the spot where Henekh perished, but it would have to do.   We read my uncle’s biography.  My son chanted El Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer for the dead.  We hugged and shed some tears.  I suddenly felt this pang in my heart; I had used the flowers to support our ill-fated visit to the factory, and could therefore not fulfill my father’s wish to lay flowers on Henekh’s “grave.”  And just as suddenly, I had this epiphany.  I had, in fact, fulfilled his wish.  My children and my family were his flowers.  We had done what we set out to do. 

But the story does not end there.  There is a postscript.  Part of our itinerary in Warsaw included a visit to the museum, POLIN, dedicated to the thousand-year history of Jews in Poland.  It is a magical place, first rate, detailed, comprehensive, and beautiful.  After wandering through centuries in the galleries, we walk into a gallery devoted to the history of Jewish political movements between the two World Wars.  We approach the section devoted to the Jewish Labor Bund.  The exhibit includes several “Ken Burns style” slide shows depicting photographs of the era.  As I watched one of these slide shows I gazed upon a photograph of a large group of young people in boats on a lake.  To the right in the photograph was a handsome man, bare-chested, wearing sunglasses.  I swear it is my father.  But I am very familiar with how the unconscious desire to see things can influence what you see.  I call my wife and ask her, without preparation or warning, to watch the slide show.  “Oh my G-d, it’s your father!”  I break down.  She then goes to a second slide show in the exhibit.  She says, “Quick, come here.  It’s a picture of Henekh.”  He is marching in a parade, his clear and piercing eyes evident, dressed in the uniform of his party.  The poignancy of the moment does not escape me.  For however long this museum will stand, my father and his beloved brother will be together.  And, perhaps for at least a brief moment in time, one brother’s wish will have been honored, bringing a modicum of peace to another brother’s soul.

Mark Russ is a psychiatrist in Westchester County, New York.  He is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and Vice Chair of Clinical Programs and Medical Director at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Westchester Behavioral Health Center in White Plains, New York.  Dr. Russ was born in Cuba and emigrated to the United States at the age of 2 with his parents and sister.  He was the first in his family to achieve a baccalaureate degree and attend medical school.   Dr. Russ has contributed to the scientific psychiatric literature and is beginning to publish fiction and non-fiction pieces.

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Shevat—the month that makes my soul ache

by Carol J. Wechsler Blatter (Tucson AZ)

Shevat, it’s the month that makes my soul ache, my heart hurt. It’s a cruel month, usually cold and bleak, sometimes damp and dark. Rarely do the rays of sun seep through my windows and lift my spirits. It’s during this month that I light three yahrzeit candles–one candle on 2 Shevat for my mother, one on 9 Shevat for my sister, and one on 13 Shevat for my father.

***
It was on January 16, 1965 that my mother, sister, aunt, uncle, and I were present at the burial of my father, Albert, in the oldest Jewish cemetery in Middlesex County, NJ, Mount Lebanon. It was a frigid, snow-covered Sunday morning in central New Jersey. Rabbi Yakov Hilsenrath (of blessed memory) gave a very brief eulogy. Over my down winter coat he pinned a black ribbon cut to simulate the physical act of death ripping me apart from my father who, from that time forward, would only be in my memory.

I remember how bleak and alone I felt losing my father. I was only twenty-two years of age. I was angry. I felt cheated at not having a father. Even when my father was alive, he worked so much to provide for us that I had very little time with him. He had grown up with minimal emotional support, love, and self-esteem, and as a result he was unable to be supportive and complimentary. He was an expert in delivering put-downs. Yet once he was gone, I imagined that if he had lived longer, things would have been different between us. How could I have fooled myself into believing he would have changed his ways and been more fatherly to me? Yet, despite his flaws, I still miss him. After all, he fathered me and, in his own way, he loved me.

***
It was on January 2, 1986, twenty-one years later, that my husband, my sister, my brother-in-law, my brother-in-law’s mother, and I were present at the burial of my mother, Bertha, in Indianapolis. Rabbi Dennis Sasso spoke about my mother and described her as a powerful, intense, and passionate woman filled with love for her family and her heritage. “You could agree or disagree with Bertha,” said Rabbi Sasso, “but you could never be indifferent to her.” I was forty-three.

Unlike my father, my mother supported, nurtured, and loved me. She was always my cheerleader and made certain that I had every possible opportunity to be successful. It was a shock when she died to find that she was no longer at my side. It was very hard to let her go.  

***

And it was on January 14, 2019 that I lost my sister, my life-long friend, who died unexpectedly of a catastrophic brain hemorrhage. Although we had a minyan prayer service in her memory in our home in Tucson with our rabbi and many congregants, we were unable to attend the service and burial in New York. I never had the opportunity to say goodbye to my sister. I never had the opportunity to put shovelfuls of dirt over her coffin. I never had the opportunity to sit shiva with other family members. This has left an emotional gap in my life and an unfillable hole. There is one thing I do, though. I keep on my bed a tiny green velvet embroidered pillow which she gave me which says, Sisters Are Special.

***
As long as I can remember I have sensed God’s presence, as a supreme being who governs my life in unexplainable and unknowable ways. It’s as if God beams a light leading me to insight so I can glean what had been until that moment unseeable and unforeseeable. I feel that God is — and will always be — my protector.

But is this the same God who allows death? How can I praise God, I ask myself as I recite the mourner’s Kaddish prayer with a broken heart? And I tell myself it’s because I also believe that God is not all-powerful. God cannot prevent death. This is not God’s job. Death is not about blame. Death is what death is. It is my job to accept death.

***
The Kaddish prayer is always said in the presence of ten adults, a minyan, and a community of worshipers. As part of a minyan for eleven months after the death of each of my parents and my sister, I reaffirmed and praised God’s presence in unison with other mourners.

Healing took place slowly.

Day by day.

***

Now I’m seventy-nine years of age. I am acutely aware that my time on earth is limited. I am here only for an extended visit. Some day I know I will die. So I am trying to make each day count. I am trying to be fully present, especially when I arise at all services, on Shabbat, and on holidays, and say my prayer:

I give thanks before you, O God living and eternal, for You have returned within me my soul with compassion; abundant is your faithfulness!

_____

Carol J. Wechsler Blatter is a recently retired psychotherapist in private practice. She has contributed writings to Chaleur Press, Story Circle Network Journal, and One Woman’s Day; stories in Writing it Real anthologies, Mishearing: Miseries, Mysteries, and Misbehaviors, Pleasure Taken In Our Dreams, Small Things, & Conversations,The Jewish Writing Project, and in 101words.org; and poems in Story Circle Network’s Real Women Write, Growing/ Older, and Covenant of the Generations by Women of Reform Judaism She is a wife, mother, and grandmother of her very special granddaughter who already writes her own stories. 

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The truth is not always easy to find: discovering my family’s Jewish roots

by Cathy A. Lewis (Nashville, Tennessee)

In 1963, my thirteen-year-old brother Jeffrey left our home in Pittsford, New York, to travel by plane to Mexico.  I had no inkling he’d return to us changed after spending six weeks there.

My mom’s family lived in Mexico City, which was beyond my comprehension at age six. While I was growing up, there was always a shroud of mystery around Mom and her familial origins.

Mom would tell me, “I’m not Latin, nor is our family. Circumstances caused me to be born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, while my brothers and sisters were born in Lima, Peru.”

My parents met in Colon, Panama, where Dad was stationed during WWII. Mom worked on the US army base as a translator. Their worlds collided, and it was kismet. They married six months later. I wondered at the brevity of their relationship. Mom would explain, “Back then, you didn’t waste any time. You never knew from one day to the next whether or not the world would implode.”

It was a year after Jeffrey returned from Mexico when my sister, at age ten, two years my senior, broke the news to me. She said as a matter of fact, “Jeff Lewis is Jewish.”

Puzzled, I asked, “What? What is Jewish?”

At that point, Mom sat me down and explained that my grandparents, who were named Silverstone and had changed the name from Zilberstein, were Jewish. “So that makes me Jewish, and my children Jewish. You are Jewish.”

My brain felt like it could burst by the sheer force of questions popping into my prefrontal cortex. One question dominated all others. “But how did your parents get to Mexico?”

Exasperated by my barrage of questions, Mom answered, “They had to leave South America due to the economic issues plaguing that country. Mexico at that time seemed like a land of opportunity. Plus, there was an already established sizable Jewish community.”

I still had questions. The thing about my mother, though, was once she finished discussing a subject, that was it. No further interrogations could continue. Much of my childhood was like that—no resolution to my unending queries.

In eighth grade, a history project was assigned. We were told to pick a country we’d like to live and work in. Much to Mom’s chagrin, I proclaimed, “My project will be about Israel and a kibbutz!”

My father became involved in my research, helping me put historical events in chronological order. I read an article Dad gave me about David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and the founding of Israel. It inspired me even further to communicate the empowering story of survival and conviction. 

My project was one of three picked to present at a school event, with parents invited to attend. At the end of my presentation, I concluded that “Moving to Israel was on my radar, and kibbutz living was the life for me!” With my parents sitting in the audience, I saw the color drain from my mother’s face.

On the ride home, Mom explained how she came to the US in 1944 after marrying my dad. She faced so much anti-Semitism. Mom had a great desire to protect her children from the hatred she experienced. As it turns out, my mom’s parents had fled Baranovichi, Poland (now Belarus) when WWI ended, to start a new life in Buenos Aires after marrying.  The Nazis murdered their extended family members who had stayed behind. 

Many years later, after Mom passed, I completed an ancestry search and found out that Mom’s family all had come from Israel at the start of the first century, fleeing to Eastern Europe after the Romans conquered Jerusalem, Israel. 

Now I embrace my birthright with pride and joy. Through my newfound connection to Judaism, I’ve formed a meaningful relationship with my Creator. And I’ve found while researching my genealogy over 100 relatives living in Tel Aviv, all Orthodox Jews. I’ve also connected with my cousins who immigrated to the US from Mexico, some of them Reform Jews, some Orthodox living in Lakewood, NJ. 

They have all welcomed me into the family with a full embrace, disregarding our differences, while focusing on the mutual affection and pleasure we derive from being one big family.

Cathy A. Lewis’ novel, The Road We Took—Four Days in Germany, 1933, is partially based on a true story of her father’s sojourn through Europe as a sixteen-year-old in 1933 and the four days he spent in Germany.  The book’s main objective, she writes, is to honor her relatives and those who perished in the Holocaust and express how quickly hatred can destroy our world. “It is a critical imperative,” Cathy says, “to remember history to ensure such events like the Holocaust never happen again.” To learn more about Cathy and her book, visit: https://cathyalewis.com

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Stories My Father Told Me: Remembering Monty Kuper

by Ivan Koop Kuper (Houston, TX)

I shared a hotel room with my father when my family took a trip back to Poland, on a fact-finding mission, in the year 2000. One morning upon wakening, my father, the late Monty Kuper, a man of many interests, identities, and ideas, looked over at me from his bed and said that his “dead relatives” had visited him all night long – in his dreams.

On this particular pilgrimage, my family only scratched the surface of discovering the fate of my father’s parents and siblings, who – like himself – were residing in the industrial city of Lodz, in an apartment building located at Skladowa Street 14, when the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland, on September 1, 1939.

Growing up in Lodz, my father, then known by Moszek, was a very spirited child and with an active and highly developed natural acuity. He was raised with five other siblings, in a poor but nurturing family. Monty often reminisced how he would go to the cinema on the weekends; sing in the synagogue choir during the High Holy Days, and how he would help his father, who was a painting contractor, after school. He once confided that of all his boyhood memories, his favorite was seeing the “Polish Harry James,” aka Adolf “Eddie” Rosner, perform one summer evening, in the city park, in 1938. He also shared that when he used go to the cinema to see the silent, black and white American Westerns, he was particularly fond of the ones starring Tom Mix, and grade-B cowboy actor, Buck Jones, who he and all his friends referred to in their Polish dialects as: “Bucksie Jones.”

As a child, my father developed certain personality traits that would define him as an adult. These were characteristics I would also come to recognize all too well. These defining traits would literally drive me crazy throughout my lifetime; however, it was not until I grew into adulthood that I fully understood his unpredictable temperament. Monty had a short attention span and was easily distracted; he made impulsive decisions, and he often possessed a real lack of focus. My father was known to lose track of time; he would change his mind at the drop of a hat, and he would lose interest in a project before he completed it – only to begin another. Needless to say, his spontaneous behavior tested the limits of my mother’s already depleted patience that often resulted in marital friction between the two of them. 

Monty’s predisposition would be identified by latter-day, 20th century popular culture and men of medicine as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Those who are of the Jewish faith and who speak the Yiddish language also have a word to describe this condition: Shpilkes.

Monty Kuper, however, was also very intuitive, and had an uncanny ability to read people and potentially dangerous situations. It was his highly defined, improvisational, decision-making acumen that probably saved his life, time-after-time, as he traversed the landscape of the Second World War – during the uncertainty of his youth.

My father knew very little of the fate of his missing family in the aftermath of WWII, the war that decimated Europe’s Jewish population. He discovered his older brother, Lyva, aka Leon Kuper, in 1945, convalescing in an International Red Cross displaced persons detention camp after the war, in Zeilsheim, Germany, near Frankfurt am Main. Leon had survived both forced labor in Auschwitz-Birkeneau Concentration Camp and a death march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald. However, Monty always lacked the hard and fast evidence regarding the fate of his other family members, and how they endured the daily indignation and degradation of the 14 months they spent inside the Lodz Ghetto.

Monty learned from his surviving brother that their father, Izrael Kuper, and their older sister, both died of starvation, in the winter of 1941, in the Lodz Ghetto. And, according to family folklore, my father always maintained that his mother, Cutla Bryks-Kuper, and his other siblings were all deported sometime in 1942, to Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camp. It was there – he believed – they met their final horrific fate, as did so many other of his boyhood friends and members of his extended family that forever erased any tangible evidence of their existence from the pages of history.

In February, 1940, when the German Waffen-SS began their roundup of Lodz’s Jewish population five months after the initial invasion and occupation of Poland by the Third Reich, my father, along with several friends from school, were already on their way to the eastern frontier of Poland that was now under the control of the Soviet Union. As a result of the political alignment between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, a non-aggression pact was negotiated between these two divergent ideologues that carved up and annexed Poland, for their own geopolitical and ideological objectives. It was in the town of Kovel (now in present-day Ukraine), where Monty and his friends found refuge, and where they were dealing in black market goods to other displaced Polish, Jewish, Russian, and other Slavic refugees who were also seeking sanctuary from the oppressive hand of German National Socialism. However, Monty was soon approached by the occupying Soviets, who insisted that he become patriated into the ranks of Soviet citizenship and a member of the Communist Party in exchange for asylum. 

The ultimatum Monty received from the Soviets did not exactly fit in with the spontaneous and free-form, decision-making lifestyle he was adhering to since the invasion of Poland by the Germans in their quest for lebensraum (living space). And so – at age 19 – Monty found himself branded as a “political undesirable,” and was sent to the Soviet Gulag forced-labor camp system in Siberia. For the next 18 months, Monty cleared rocks and cut timber for the construction of the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railroad in the Russian towns of Kozhva and Vorkuta, near the Arctic Circle. Monty once explained his rationale for choosing the role of a political prisoner instead of becoming a party member and joining the armed forces: “I thought I would never see my family again and I would be sent to the front if I agreed to join the Russian Army and become a member of the Communist Party,” my father confided. “I was never in fear of my life when I was in Siberia. There was always a possibility I could starve or even freeze to death, but the Russians never tortured or deliberately mistreated us like the Nazis would have done.”

On June 22, 1941, the German Third Reich broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Russia was now at war with Germany and, as a direct result of this act of aggression by Germany, the Soviets set their foreign political prisoners free to join them in their fight against fascism. My father and his best friend, Michael Schulz of Warsaw, who he met in Siberia, were both conscripted into the newly formed 8th Division of the 2nd Polish Corp that was in exile and training with the British Army, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, under the command of Polish General Wladyslaw Anders. It was during this period that my father told me he also met a Russian girl named Rada; the daughter of a Soviet diplomat, who, with her mother, were sent deep inside Soviet territory, into Tashkent for safety, along with the families of other high-ranking Soviet officials. It was Rada’s mother, Nina, the second wife of the future premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Kruschev, who befriended young Moszek and who he said was educated in London and who, ironically – as the story goes – taught him to speak English. 

Monty and his friend Michael traveled with “Ander’s Army” from Uzbekistan to Persia, Iran, and eventually into the British Mandate of Palestine. After they reached the territory of the British Mandate, the command of this rag-tag, undisciplined unit of former political prisoners was then transferred to British control. Historically, the 8th Division of the 2nd Polish Corp then joined the British Army in what is referred to as the “Italian Campaign.” This included the infamous Battle of Monte Cassino, where Allied forces were engaged in a series of futile and costly attempts to capture a little-known abbey on top of a hill, on the outskirts of Rome. These series of battles lasted from January to May, 1944. However, while this historic event was unfolding, my father told me that he and his friend, Michael Schulz, were – at that time – in the Royal Tank Regiment of the British Army, and stationed at Camp Catterick (presently Catterick Garrison), located near the town of Richmond, in North Yorkshire, in England. It was there they both remained for the duration of the Second World War, and where my father said that he rose to the rank of corporal, and in charge of the parts department of the British Army’s Royal Motor Pool.

I am familiar with most of my father’s personal war-time history, because unlike most individuals who experienced the Shoah, my father was not introspective or reticent about sharing his personal history. I also do not recall Monty ever showing any indication of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or displaying any outward signs of what has come to be known as “survivor syndrome.” To the contrary, he was very personable and very outgoing. Throughout my lifetime – growing up in Houston, Texas – I heard the same wartime-era stories, over and over again; the same ones with slight variations from time-to-time, although, never presented in a boastful way or in an arrogant manner, but simply as a matter of fact. However, as I grew older, I became acutely aware that there were also parts of his saga that he conveniently omitted, thereby leaving significant transitional gaps in his narrative.

On another occasion my father shared with me that once, when he was in Siberia and had fallen ill, and was delirious with fever, his deceased grandfather, Rachmil Kuper, from Opoczno, Poland, appeared to him in a dream with a remedy. His grandfather told him to drink from a glass of wine that he offered him, and according to Monty, after he drank from the wine glass, his fever broke the following day and he was soon cured of all the symptoms of his illness.

Still operating by his wartime, heightened self-preservationist wits and his highly defined survivalist instincts, in 1992 – not long after the fall of the Soviet Union – when my father discovered I was planning to take a trip to Eastern Europe, he became very concerned. Monty still remembered the anti-Semitism he experienced as a child from his pre-nostra aetate (Vatican II), Roman Catholic neighbors with whom his family lived side-by-side while he was growing up in Lodz. One day before my journey, my father, anticipating the worst-case scenario, took me aside and said, “When you go to Poland, don’t tell anyone who you are and don’t tell them you’re Jewish. Just tell them you are an American.”

The fate of my father’s family was finally revealed to me in the summer of 2019 when my wife and I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. There I was able to discover what my father could not during his lifetime. In their archives it is documented that on the morning of March 10, 1942, 790 ghetto detainees assembled on the train platform of the Radogoszcz Railroad Station, located just outside the Lodz Ghetto. These unfortunate individuals received an order from their Nazi occupiers, four days prior, to gather up their personal possessions and assemble at the station because they had been selected for “resettlement” to a nearby work camp. Included on the roster of names, and chosen for deportation, was my father’s mother and four of his siblings.

“March was a cold month in 1942, with temperatures dropping to -15 degrees C (5 F), and sometimes even -20 degrees C (4 F),” wrote Polish historian and Lodz Ghetto survivor, Lucjan Dobroszycki, in his memoir, Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941-1944. “The mortality rate in the ghetto (2,224 deaths) was higher than it had been in the previous months with suicides occurring almost every other day.” 

Transport No. 17’s destination on that bitterly cold Tuesday morning was actually to Chelmno Extermination Camp, the Third Reich’s very first “death camp,” located 31 miles north of Lodz, on the outskirts of the rural town of Chelmno nad Nerem. According to post-war testimony compiled by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, Israel, these passengers were first taken to the nearby town of Kolo, then they were ordered to transfer to a smaller, narrow gauge train that took them directly to an abandoned brick mill in the forest on the outskirts of Chelmno. It was there they spent the night, and on the following morning they were forced into the back of an ordinary cargo van used for hauling furniture whose motor was left running and whose diesel exhaust system was retrofitted to flow back into the cargo area, thereby ending the lives of all those who were locked into the back of the sealed van. Their remains were then buried in one of several mass graves in the nearby forest, later to be exhumed and cremated toward the end of the war.

This was the Nazi’s attempt to conceal their fanatical mission of systematic mass murder and wholesale genocide from the rest of the world. The ashes of these victims – including those of my paternal family – were then unceremoniously scattered all together on the ground of the killing site that can still be found to this very day on the outskirts of the rural town of Chelmno. This event, which transpired on March 11, 1942, was verified by local Polish journalist and eyewitness, Stanislaw Rubach, who kept a diary of all the deportations and executions he witnessed during the Second World War. Needless to say, there were no survivors of the deportation and the subsequent executions that were delivered by the hands of the Nazis on this tragic day. 

My father has visited me only once since his death in October, 2011 at age 90. I was lying in bed and he appeared before me and asked if he could lie down beside me and rest. And in my dream I found comfort in his presence, and I was truly glad to see him again, although I don’t remember telling him so. And with my father lying by my side, I rolled over and went soundly back to sleep. 

Ivan Koop Kuper is a freelance writer, professional drummer, real estate broker and podcaster in Houston, Texas. His byline has appeared in Aish.com (Jerusalem), Jewniverse (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), ReformJudaism.org, Cable Magazine (London), the Los Angeles Free Press, and the Rag Blog (Austin). Koop invites everyone to follow him on Twitter @koopkuper. He is also available for comment at: koopkuper@gmail.com.

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A Moment of Truth

by Susan Rudnick (Pleasantville, NY)

      Just days after they had become available, I had snagged an appointment early in January for my first vaccine. I did a little dance in front of the computer to celebrate. The night before I had stayed up till after 1 AM and then had gotten up before 7 to go on both the New York state and city websites, as well as my local Westchester county medical provider’s site. I had stayed with it through the mire of questions and red tape. It had paid off.  Caremount, my medical provider, came through. 

     But the next day a text message abruptly canceled it.

     Caremount was no longer able to provide the shots.  

     My vaccine rollercoaster rolled off the rails. I felt vulnerable, jealous of the friends who had already gotten their vaccines, and ashamed. 

     How come I couldn’t make it happen? What lead hadn’t I followed? Why me? I’m a first-generation child of Holocaust survivors, and that night I woke up shivering from a nightmare about the visa I had which was no longer valid. I was trapped in Germany while others were able to leave. 

     Around 7:30 AM,  the day of my canceled appointment, I woke up to a phone call. Nope, it wasn’t a last-minute call for the vaccine.

     In a supposedly unrelated matter a few weeks ago I had received an e-mail from a second cousin I had never met who lived in Israel. Her sister, Ruth, and I had visited each other several times, both in Israel and NY, and we had become close. A year ago I had mourned her death from breast cancer. But Nomi lived on a kibbutz in the south and for a combination of reasons we had never met.

     Now in her eighties, Nomi was looking to connect with me. Her daughter, living in California, had found me. She mentioned that her mother had health problems and, realizing her time was short, wanted to meet me, and also learn what I could share about our family. We had all gone back and forth a few times about using What’s App and how to meet. But nothing had been settled.

     When I picked up the phone on that morning, I heard a voice that sounded familiar. It was Nomi. Her voice was comforting, and sounded a lot like her sister’s. Her English was not the best, but we managed a lovely back-and-forth conversation about our family. She had met both my parents on their trips to Israel.

      At one point I asked if she knew my parents’ refugee story: how they escaped Germany, made it to Brazil and then to New York while my mother was pregnant with me.

     “Yes” she said, “and how your mother lied about the pregnancy because for some reason at the time you were not supposed to fly if you were.”

     My heart missed a beat.  As a child, and, even now, I loved telling friends how I was conceived in Brazil but born here. But my mother had never told me about the lie. Nomi didn’t remember where she had heard it, but she knew it was true.

     My brave mother! She had lied to get us here. I literally wouldn’t be here now if she hadn’t. She desperately wanted a better life for us in the United States.  My parents had risked everything several times.  On this very last leg of their journey, I imagine them standing on an airport line together, and my mother not hesitating for a second to omit the truth about me in her belly.  

     In that moment I could feel my mother’s strength and wily wisdom coming to me through this fragile phone connection with someone I had never met.

     If I had been driving to get my shot I could not have picked up the call that held this vital fragment, a glorious puzzle-piece of my story that I would certainly enjoy sharing with friends.  

      I didn’t get the vaccine that day.

      But I was gifted with another kind of boost: a testament to the resiliency and creativity of my parents in a far more complex situation than my current one. I would surely find my way through the miasma of hotlines and websites to get my vaccine. 

Susan Rudnick is the author of the memoir: Edna’s Gift: How My Broken Sister Taught Me To Be Whole. It is the story of how her differently abled sister has been her greatest teacher. Susan is a published haiku poet and maintains a psychotherapy practice in Westchester NY. To learn more about her and her work, visit her website: susanrudnick.com

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A Return to Hannover

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

I was in a taxi en route to the Hannover Airport on a bright, chilly April morning in the 1990s, looking forward to a relaxing flight home to the United States after a brief unpleasant visit to Germany.

Suddenly, while still within the Hannover city limits, a street address popped into my head as if it had just waited to emerge. I had a change of heart and asked the driver to take me there. Perhaps I sensed that we were in the right area. More likely, I did not want to leave Hannover without paying a visit to a house I had heard about all my life.

Im Moore 21 turned out to be right within the vicinity. The taxi stopped across the street and I walked over to the dilapidated grey apartment house. Despite a fresh coat of paint, some of its bricks still flaked. They were heavily damaged by Allied bombers during World War II. I had once seen a photo of the building taken right after the war, so I knew repairs had been made to it in the intervening years. It looked genteelly shabby, but judging by the geranium pots on all of its balconies, it was apparently fully occupied.

I paced up and down on the sidewalk and looked up to its four floors. How I longed for a glimpse inside. Of course, there was no such chance. Its main door was locked and no one was around to let me in. But suppose someone had come along with a key? Possibly a current tenant returning home early to find a strange woman standing in the street, staring at the building. What would I have said?

“Excuse me, but my family once lived here. I was born in this building. Now I have come back on a nostalgic visit. Could you please let me in?”

I stood on that sidewalk a little while longer wishing I could unlock the whole era of my family. I needed to have a peek at life before my time. There were so many things I wanted to understand. What were the family’s idiosyncrasies? How did the various members relate to one another? Perhaps understanding would also allow me to know myself. But I will never have the answers I need. None of the people who could give them to me are still alive.

I saw the taxi driver look in my direction. I had told him my plane would leave within two hours. Now was the time to go. Caught up in the present again, I suddenly remembered what day it was. April 12. My father’s birthday. What a co-incidence that I should stand on this spot this day. Here where my father had started his family. In a house to which most likely I would never return. 

Perhaps it was my imagination. Did the driver look at me strangely when I climbed back into his taxi? I did not owe him an explanation but I said it anyway. “I was born in that house.” Let him figure it out for himself, I thought, as he took me to the airport.

Now, many years later, I believe that brief trip to my birth house may have given me the impetus to record my past in order to preserve it for the future.

So often I feel my childhood has been stolen from me. In comparison to the early days of my children and grandchildren, very little about my childhood days was normal.

I am not an important person, but I was born into and have lived through some remarkable historical times. As the years go by, I feel the urge to document what I have witnessed. Perhaps rediscovering my early life will help me to understand myself better. And surely I owe those who preceded me a telling of their story.

Some day my descendants may even want to know more about their roots. I want to share with them whatever I do know and remember.

Born in Germany, Ellen Norman Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for children and young adults, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, Elie Wiesel,, and, most recently, Kurt Weill.

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One-two-three

by Rita Plush (New York, NY)

A short muscular man, Adler elevator shoes his footwear of choice, my father liked to have the last word. Actually, he liked to have every word, not only with my mother and me, but with the world at large; he dispensed his unsolicited opinions at will and with abandon. Boundaries? My father? 

It gets around that a relative is contemplating a divorce. He’s on the phone in a heartbeat speechifying that marriage takes work (ask my mother about that!). A neighbor is trying for a baby. He holds forth on everything from birth deformities to breastfeeding. Doesn’t matter who, give him half a chance to interfere, he’s on it like a smile on Liberace. 

Enter his mother, my grandmotherthe only person who could zip his lip, the one he took advice from, instead of giving to. 

Short like my father, feet so small she bought her shoes in the children’s department. A pint-sized woman, she spoke mostly Yiddish, and when she talked to my father in that furious pitch and rhythm of the mother tongue, she was an Amazon in Mary Janes. Yes, mommy; yes, mommy, to whatever she said, my father became a six-year old boy. 

That six-year old was worried big-time when my brother was getting married and my father learned shrimp was on the wedding menu (shell fish is verboten under Jewish law). My grandmother kept kosher in her home and outside of it; if she got wind her grandson’s wedding was serving non-kosher food, Oy vey! wouldn’t begin to tell it. 

His solution: hightail it to the caterer and offer him money on the sly to make the big event kosher. It did not occur to my father that his visit was unseemly, and that the caterer would refuse his bribe, and the in-laws who were hosting the affair would find out. 

The big day arrived. Some fancy footwork was in order.  

“Let’s dance, Ma,” he said, and waltzed her tiny feet far from the seafood table. One-two-three, one-two-three. “Vau iz der lox,” she said. Where’s the lox? “Later, Ma.” One-two-threeBut try as he might to shift her away from the crustaceous creatures, he was no match for my grandmother. 

“Dos iz nisht keyn kehshr.” This is not a kosher affair, she said and pulled a knowing face. 

“It isn’t?!” my father said, all innocence, sweating in his rented tuxedo. 

Rita Plush is the author of the novels, Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection, Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News, and teaches memoir, Continuing Education, Queensborough Community College. If you’d like to learn more about Rita and her work, visit: https://ritaplush.com

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Hyman in America

by Herbert J. Levine (Sarasota, FL)

Born down the street from Boston’s Old North Church, my grandfather Hyman was the first American-born child of Jacob and Jennie, so his family fondly called him Hyman-in-America. His mother was one of two sisters Levine who married two brothers Krasnapolsky, who had the good sense to take their wives’ last name, so that their American children didn’t grow up with names like Hymie and Morris Krasnapolsky.

I never met this grandfather for whom I was named, Herbert having substituted for Hyman, because my mother didn’t want the bullies calling me Hymie (they Herbie’d me instead). He had seven brothers and two sisters. The brothers mostly died of heart disease, so we Levines watch our cholesterol. I wear a gold ring that was his, a mermaid ringing its edge, with a garnet in its tail, and our shared initials in Chinese-y script in the middle. I have the well-worn tefillin that he received for his bar mitzvah and used all his life, quite small and still useable more than a hundred years later. I had his Hamilton gold pocket watch until our house was robbed and also the pin from his fraternal order, the Knights of Pythias, which featured a medieval-looking helmet and crossed lances, pinned to a velvet cloth in a leather folder, one of my childhood treasures.

This order that was so important to him, the Knights of Pythias, took as its founding myth the legendary story of two friends, Damon and Pythias, students of the Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras. The story goes that Pythias, sentenced to death by a tyrant, asked to go home to settle his affairs and was allowed to do so only because his friend Damon stood surety for him until his return. That he did return so impressed the tyrant that he freed the loyal pair and kept them on as counselors to his court. The motto of the latter-days Pythians is the founder’s creed: “If fraternal love held all men bound, how beautiful this world would be,” which goes a long way to explaining why my father so often quoted to me that part of Polonius’s speech on male friendship, which he described as his father’s favorite: “The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,/ Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.”

When my father gave me an edition of the Twelve Minor Prophets for my Bar Mitzvah, he said his father had given him the book and told him to make his philosophy of life from each of the prophets. At that time, Martin Luther King was quoting Micah in his world-shaking speeches: “Let justice flow like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” so it seemed a powerful idea to me. Both my father and my Levine grandmother loved to quote another of Micah’s memorable utterances, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God,” so it’s likely that this verse also summed up my grandfather’s creed.

Grandfather Hyman was something of an orator, so was designated to give the annual Yom Kippur appeal at the community’s one synagogue, even though he was neither a successful businessman (he worked at a coal company weighing the coal trucks before and after their deliveries), nor renowned for scholarship or piety. Apparently, his oratorical flair was what was called for. His surviving books also show his affinity for oratory – Emerson’s Essays, which were first delivered as public addresses, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in which the poet presents himself as a grand teacher to America and the world.

Whitman, who loved laborers, might have celebrated him as a jack of all trades. There’s a picture of him smiling broadly wearing a carpenter’s belt with a hammer suspended from it and behind him, one of the bunks at Camp Young Judea that he had helped to build, which generations of his descendants have attended. 

As I grew older, I heard darker stories — that he had to be carried home drunk from a Simchat Torah eve festivity, that he had occasionally snuck out with Gentile friends on a Saturday night to eat non-kosher food in Boston’s Chinatown. Fifty years later, my father was still burdened by these memories. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to pass them on as the shadow of his father’s legacy.

Toward the end of his life, Hyman had a stroke and sought to recover his faculties by practicing penmanship. We have in his hand a short popular poem that he copied in an elegant, calligraphic script. This poem can be found on the Internet, under the words of its refrain, “All I Got Was Words.”  The stanzas speak to me of his life – like the poem’s anonymous speaker, he got no fine clothes from his parents; they gave him no car nor sent him to college. What he got were words that embody a way of life, “Zog dem emes,/ Gib Tzedakah,/ Hub rachmones/ Zei a mensch.” –Tell the truth, give to the poor what is just. Have compassion. Be a mensch, the sort of person with whom one is proud to be associated

Herbert J. Levine published his first book of poetry, Words for Blessing the World, at the age of 67. His previous books were scholarly treatments of Yeats and Psalms. To learn more about Herb and his work, visit:https://benyehudapress.com/books/words-blessing-world/

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