Tag Archives: family silence

Memories of My Grandmother Adele

by Christopher Bailey (Geneva, Switzerland)

For two summers I lived in San Francisco with my Grandmother Adele while I was with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.  

Over the meals the two of us shared together, my grandmother often talked about what lore she could remember about the Jewish village in Romania where she was born, or at least the stories told to her, (she couldn’t remember the name of the village), her passage as a little girl in steerage with her sister and their mother to the United States, and their hard life living in tenement housing on the Lower East Side of New York, sharing an apartment and one bathroom with three other families.  

Her last name was Itzkowitz, not her given name, but the name the clerk at Ellis Island gave the entire boatload of Jews as he could not understand Yiddish.  But even seventy years later, my grandmother would tell me how her mother would take her and her sister Tillie up on deck twice a day from the hold for air—women and children were allowed this luxury—and how above them the ‘white people’ (she described their 1908 clothing as white dresses and jackets, like angels…)  would stand on the balcony looking down at them in pity, and toss leftover items from their breakfast to the hungry steerage passengers below.  Her mother would try and catch what she could to give to her young daughters. 

Once she caught an orange for my grandmother.  As she described the sensation a lifetime later, my grandmother told me she had never even seen an orange before and did not know how to eat it.  But it looked like sunshine.  When her mother helped her peel it, she could smell the anticipated taste from the spray of citrus oil released from the torn peel, and her ancient face lit up with the retelling.  

As she described taking her first bite, and feeling the sweet summery juice explode in her mouth and comfort her insides, she exclaimed as if again experiencing it for the very first time, “It was like tasting sunshine…”

Life was not easy on Essex Street.  The women from the earliest ages worked in the garment industry. Her father, who eventually joined them, could not find a job.  She remembers him sitting in a corner, holding up his Yiddish newspaper, looking for news of home, and trying to block out the chaos of the families beyond the wall of his newsprint paper, all the while holding in his regret and anger and sorrow for leaving Romania, anger which planted the seed of the colon cancer which soon would take his life, the same cancer that very nearly took mine a century later.  

My grandmother also described her ‘pet,’ a mouse in the tenement, which she slowly taught to trust her by saving scraps of food furtively stolen from the dinner table and laying them out for the mouse, a little nearer her little hand every day, until the mouse learned to eat right out of her hand, its tiny lungs and heart beating in double time in her tiny palm.  

Eventually, after growing up in the sweatshops, and as a young woman joining the labor movement, she eventually left New York with my drunken hard scrabbling grandfather for California, because in her words, “It’s where oranges come from.” 

Gabriel, my son, last year did a little ancestry research and actually found the village where my grandmother was born, a place called Lasi.  As he read up on it, he discovered that it was the site of the most systematic slaughter of Jews in Romania during the Holocaust.  As far as we know today, only those members of my family that took the boat survived.  

When my grandmother died some years ago, my father and his brother went to clean out the house.  I asked him months later where he kept the boxes of letters and journals she had shown me in her basement.  I mentioned it too late.  He had thrown everything out.  

That Thanksgiving, when he told me that he had emptied the house and kept nothing, I told him some of the stories that his mother had told me.  He knew nothing of them.  As I told them, I felt a chill coming over me as the realization began to sink in. My memories of those conversations were all that was left of that world. 

Christopher Bailey was educated at Columbia and Oxford Universities, as well as at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After a career as a professional actor and playwright, he is now the Arts and Health Lead at the World Health Organization, where he co-founded the Healing Arts Initiative, which looks at the evidence for the health benefits of the arts. As an ambassador for the field, he has performed original pieces such as Stage 4: Global Stories on Empathy and Health, and The Vanishing Point: A journey into Blindness and Perception, in venues around the world, hoping to spread the WHO’s definition of health as not merely the absence of disease and infirmity, but rather the attainment of the highest level of physical, mental and social wellbeing. To view some of his work, visit: The Vanishing Point and Chris Bailey at The Met in NYC

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

Memories Lost and Found

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

The stamp of German Jewish culture left its imprint on me as a child growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s. My nanas, papas, and tantes spoke German and Yiddish and served kuchen instead of cookies. They dressed up a lot more than ordinary Americans and seemed very refined. They were still immigrants in a new country whose dependence on each other deepened the bonds within our extended family.

Decades later as an adult living in California and Montana, there were only rare moments to connect with my cultural heritage. I often tried to reach back and touch the memories from my childhood, to bring them closer and feel their presence in my daily life. But how could I grasp these vague shapes from the past as they receded further into the distance? My memories were no longer solid or extensive enough to offer more than a footnote to my identity. I was floating through life in the vast ocean that is America without an anchor, without a strong enough sense of home.

Most of my relatives who were born in Germany are gone now, so the only way to reclaim my past was to come back to the land from which they fled. I took this step two years ago and have wandered since then without a map or plan into the rooms of a place that is both new and familiar. The events that my parents closed the door on are here for me to discover and the memories from my childhood seem closer at hand. I’ve picked up the thread of family history that was broken in 1938 and am stitching it back into the fabric of a changed Germany.

Like a time traveler, I have stepped into the past and present, trying to understand the extent to which Germany lays a claim on me. I’ve opened myself to the pain of a genocide that cannot be understood and the joys of finding my place in the vibrant landscape of Jewish life in Berlin. I came here to experience the culture that captivated my senses as a child, but I never expected to find anything that would shed light on my own family history. I never suspected that my family kept secrets.

When my father’s family closed the door on their homeland, they locked my great-aunt Meta into a past that would remain hidden from the next generation. Meta was the Holocaust victim who my family never spoke about. My father was eight when he left Germany so he would have remembered Meta. But he inherited the silence of his parents, and chose not to share the story of his aunt who was left behind.

My father only wanted his two daughters to hear about how the family escaped to America, struggled as poor immigrants, and successfully pursued the American dream. He protected us from having to grieve over a loss that he had no control over. But the descendants of those who escaped and survived should not be spared from knowledge or grief; we have a collective responsibility to learn our stories and remember them.

It would have been easier not to dig up the past, to put aside my determination to fill in the gap in my family history. I could have avoided the awkward discussions with my aunt, the charges of tainted motives from one of my cousins, and the countless hours spent searching for records that had been destroyed. But the injustice of a lost memory loomed so much larger than the tensions caused by confronting my family’s silence.

More than seven decades of silence about a forgotten Holocaust victim have now ended. On July 2, 2012 we placed a stolperstein for Meta in front of the former Adler residence in Altwiedermus. We restored Meta to her place in our family and her village. This small stone is tangible evidence of a lost life; like a gravestone it marks a place to honor the dead. Meta’s stone is a permanent link to the past for our family and a town that has had no Jewish population since 1938.

Meta’s memorial ceremony was the culmination of more than a year of effort to reconcile an omission in my family history. I did not come to Germany to be a family researcher or Holocaust historian. I never expected to experience the kind of pain and grief that I felt about Meta. But my need to account for the past placed me on the path of a single victim, and brought a depth of sorrow that I had been shielded from as the daughter of German Jewish parents.

As I stood on the steps of my father’s childhood home before the small crowd gathered on a rainy Monday morning for Meta’s memorial ceremony, I could barely retain the composure necessary to speak for Meta. But with the support of my sister and my son, who raised the money for Meta’s stolperstein as part of his bar mtizvah in Berlin, I gave voice to the life of a woman who was forgotten. This is one of the most powerful things I have ever done in my life.

I’ve made other discoveries about my family since coming to Germany, discoveries from the lost and found of a land that holds many fragments of a dark past. Each discovery strengthens my sense of self and helps me to find my footing as a Jewish woman in Germany today. I don’t want to lose myself in the past, but to touch and preserve a part of what was left behind, to carry the reclaimed memories with me into the future. I feel more free to live in the present now and ready to fill the pages of a new chapter in my family’s German Jewish history.

Donna Swarthout writes about being Jewish in Germany on her blog Full Circle http://dswartho.wordpress.com/. Her recent work has appeared on The Jewish Writing Project and in Tablet Magazine. This piece first appeared on AVIVA-Berlin.de and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the publisher and author. To read Swarthout’s earlier piece about her great-aunt Meta, visit:  https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/metas-untold-story/

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Meta’s Untold Story

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

The few stories that were passed down to my sister and I were about survival, escape, new beginnings in America. These stories always drew a clear line between the tragic background of the Holocaust and the fate of our family. We never knew. No one told us. My grandfather’s sister, my great aunt Meta Adler, was left behind. Five siblings escaped to the U.S., Israel, and South Africa. Meta vanished from sight and memory.

No one in our family kept Meta ’s memory alive. We have to look back and construct a memory of her life. So we can keep her with us. Some people discover a living relative who they never knew about, a sibling who was given up for adoption or a parent who was long absent. We discovered Meta, an unwed country woman who worked as a maid and failed to pass the U.S. immigration examination because she was too shy or scared to answer the questions.

The silence was broken last year on a sunny April afternoon in Altwiedermus, the village where Meta and the rest of my father’s family trace their roots. We had traveled to the rural enclave, forty-five kilometers northeast of Frankfurt, to see the old Adler house and meet with Gisele, the woman who had spent years researching the fate of the twenty-seven Jewish residents of the village in 1933. I had almost canceled the trip due to a sense of unease about what might lie ahead. Instead, we drove into the past and the vague contours of my German Jewish family history were abruptly reshaped in a darker hue.

It was Gisele, someone I had just met, who told us about Meta as we sat at her dining room table and thumbed through an enormous album of her historical notes, photos, and clippings. Meta stared at us from the past with a direct gaze that ended the decades of erasure from our family tree. As Gisele patiently related further details about the thirteen Jews who perished, I was too stunned to concentrate and can’t recall much of what she said.

How could I not have known about Meta ? Was I told about her as a child, but the story hadn’t lodged in my memory beside the other vignettes with the happy endings that were passed down to me? In the following months I queried key family members about our family history narrative. It was through these conversations that I slowly became aware of the collective family silence about Meta. This knowledge brought deep sorrow, but there would be ample time to grieve for Meta. I felt a much more urgent need to honor her memory and restore her to our family.

That fall I met a Jewish woman whose family had fled to the U.S. even later than mine. “It was because my grandfather would not leave until all family members had permission to emigrate,” she said. “Not my grandfather,” I had to tell her. The silence about Meta was a thin cover for the guilt that must have haunted my grandparents. Couldn’t they have done more to help her escape?

Reclaiming Meta ’s place in our family has not been easy. Only the faintest traces of her life have survived. Many people in Germany, from government archivists to self-designated Holocaust historians like Gisele, have shared clues about her fate. Months of research after our trip to Altwiedermus yielded little more than a set of financial records that the Nazis used to assess whether she could keep her meager Reichsmarks earnings. The trail runs cold on a bare sheet of paper dated May 9, 1942, four years after my father’s family fled to the U.S. The document notes that she was “evakuiert.”

Nine hundred and thirty-eight people were deported from Frankfurt on May 8, 1942. The records from this transport were destroyed, but Meta was likely among the deportees. We think they went east, possibly to the Izbica concentration camp in Poland. The date and location of her death are among many of the unknowns in her story.

The German government has placed Meta’s name among the Holocaust victims at two memorial sites in Frankfurt. Our family of survivors has so far done nothing. My father and his sister inherited the silence of their parents. They had a living memory of Meta, but could not reach back to embrace her. It is left to the “second generation” to look back from a greater distance and tell her story. My move to Germany in 2010 was the first step that made this possible.

My aunt has now broken her silence about Meta and supports our efforts to reclaim her memory. She remembers Meta as a woman in the shadows, perhaps someone who lacked a valued place in the family even before they left Germany. She also recalls that my grandfather, Meta’s brother, left the problem of what to do about Meta to my grandmother.

As a child I yearned to know more about my parents’ lives in Germany and the events surrounding their escape. Decades later I’ve uncovered a hidden truth about my family history: we closed the door on someone we lost. I will now pass down to my children a different Holocaust story than the one I heard as a child. Our efforts to confront the past, while living as Jews in Germany today, have become a new chapter in our family narrative.

This summer we will lay a stolperstein (brass stumbling stone) in the ground for Meta Adler. So she can be remembered, in the village of her birth and within our family. Meta’s stone will join the thousands of cobblestone memorials to individual Holocaust victims throughout Germany.

Donna Swarthout writes about being Jewish in Germany on her blog Full Circle http://dswartho.wordpress.com/. Her recent work has appeared on The Jewish Writing Project and in Tablet Magazine.


Filed under German Jewry, Jewish identity