Tag Archives: Southern Belle

My Mother, A Jewish Southern Belle

by William Levine (Belmont, MA)

In a Yankee cemetery in 2006, my eulogy for my Atlanta born and bred mom, dead at 82, didn’t do her  justice. I didn’t play Dixie. I had contemplated using Elvis’s version from 1972, but my sense of political correctness trumped my Southern born and raised mom’s legacy.  

While I was growing up in suburban Boston in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Dixie was the only song my Boston born dad and my mom asked orchestras to play.  It was an anthem for mom.

Though mom lived over 5 decades in Massachusetts, and only two decades in Atlanta, she never stirred herself into the clam chowder melting pot.  She may have lost some of her accent over the years, but Atlanta and Georgia were always on her mind.  New England’s climate was always too cold and as were most of its inhabitants. She in turn always had that Southern graciousness so she fielded all her phone calls, from friend or foe, with a warm chatty, “How are you, dear.”  

Her real pet-peeve about Yankee living was the cost of it. She would often tout the cheap household labor in the South, not apologizing for Jim Crow.  Her well-off family always had live-in help and mom would sometimes sadly admit her maids raised her, an only child, as much as her parents did.  She would occasionally strongly suggest to my dad, an only moderately successful dentist, that we hire a maid.

Once as a precious elementary schooler, I told mom about the amazing Mount Rushmore in the far away   South Dakota with humongous carvings of the presidents.  She countered with Stone Mountain in Atlanta in which Southern heroes Stonewall Jackson. Robert E.  Lee and Jefferson Davis were carved into immortality.  What’s more she had actually seen Stone  Mountain in person. Whereas South Dakota in the early ‘60s might as well have been on the moon.

In the early 1960s, I asked mom about the two senators from Georgia, Richard Russell and Herman Talmadge. This inquiry most likely came after I had devoured the paperback, Meet the Senators, and wanted to get her informed opinion. I remember that mom extolled both legislators as Lions of The Senate types, ignoring their arch-segregationist credentials. 

Occasionally, her Yankee family would take a gentle swipe at her beloved South. Mom would then sometimes counter with “The South Shall Rise Again,” mostly joking.

Of course, I am raising the point that my mother sounded more like a Daughter of the Confederacy, than the grand-daughter of Russian empire Jewish immigrants, who arrived in Atlanta about 25 years after it burned down. Mom’s paternal Jewish family was large and well-known. Her father was one of 11 Bresslers and the spot of his department store in Atlanta is a registered neighborhood historic site.  Her uncle was president of Atlanta’s conservative synagogue. My mother, Irma Bressler, immersed herself in the clannish world of Atlanta’s Jewish population.  This world of temple, Jewish social events, Jewish organizations dances was the impetus for her happy teen years. She didn’t date Rhett Butler types, but was instead very happy to be popular with the boys at Georgia Tech’s Jewish frat. 

Her Jewish insularity most likely softened the antisemitism of 1920s and 1930s Georgia.  Mom was born in Atlanta in 1924, just 9 years after the infamous lynching of the Jewish pencil factory manager, Leo Frank, wrongly convicted, due to antisemitism, of murdering a young girl employee.  The Frank Case drove 3,000 worried Jews out of Georgia, though mom’s future parents were not among them.  When mom turned 1 in 1925, there were more Klansmen than Jews in the US.  The New Georgia Encyclopedia says about the post Frank trial years in Georgia, “During the succeeding decades Jews were attacked by the Klan, the Columbians, and other right-wing groups. They were tolerated but also singled out as different.”

It does seem ironic then that mom, a Southern outsider, embraced the Southern culture’s uber-maxim of “The Lost Cause” that emphasized the honor of the valor of a Confederacy fighting for states rights and home-turf protection and not slavery.  But though her innermost concentric cultural circles were Jewish, the larger, peripheral concentric circles advocating the Lost Cause were hard to ignore. Most likely she first learned of the War of Northern Aggression in the textbooks at the historic Spring Street school in the early 1930s.  From then there was Confederate Memorial Day, the statues of Civil War heroes, and social norms to reinforce her regional pride.

My mother’s racial biases were more societal than personal. Thus, she was easily awakened to the Civil Rights movement’s goals, I remember her being excited to attend a lecture by a Southern civil rights journalist in the late 1960s.  She always voted Democratic, as the South moved Republican after 1960. Most tellingly, I don’t know of any band playing Dixie for her, after a Bar Mitzvah my family attended in 1964.

Before Alzheimer’s locked down mom’s brain when she was 75, she understood that “Dixie” had become an anthem with many negative connotations. My sister and I also understood this, but we also understood that Dixie was a short-cut to her treasured Southern identity.  In 2014, we unveiled my dad’s grave marker.  Dad and Mom are buried in the same plot.  The gathering was just my son and I, and my sister and her two kids   We recited a few required prayers. Then we added our own flourish. My nephew, amped by his IPOD and Elvis, sang a few bars of his version of “Dixie.” To our family  this memorial requiem was not Lost Cause specific, or callously played.  The song just defined who mom was, a Jewish Southern Belle, for better or worse.  

Bill Levine is a retired IT professional and an active freelance writer residing in Belmont  MA.  He still prefers pecan pie to  Boston creme. 

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The Fate of Cousins Who I Never Knew

by William Levine (Belmont, MA)

On July 1, 1941 my mother was a popular 17-year-old girl in the insular world of Atlanta’s Jewish community. No doubt she was looking forward to being pursued by her favorite crushes from Georgia Tech’s Jewish frat in the carefree summer of 1941. Mom had also assimilated enough of Dixie culture to be a true Southern Belle, helped by her enrollment in the prestigious citywide Girls High School. Most likely on July 4th, Mom took in the pyrotechnics show in Atlanta that ushered in the day as a Federal holiday.

On July 1, 1941, my mother’s 2nd through 4th cousins, twice removed, the Seligson family of Riga, Latvia, were doomed as the Nazis occupied Latvia’s capital city and rained down hell on its Jews. The Seligsons also most likely witnessed a fiery display on the 4th of July as fellow Latvians burned down Riga’s Chor Synagogue.

On December 8, 1941 my mom most likely listened to President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech via a handsome radio in her well-appointed living room in the affluent Ansley Park section of Atlanta.

December 8th was also a “day of infamy” for the Seligson family, if they were still alive. On that day they may have been among the thousands of Jews killed by the Nazis in the Rumbula Forest just outside of Riga. If so, their last seconds on earth were spent lying in an open pit atop dead Jews and bracing to be shot in the back of the head. By the end of the day the three generations of Seligsons in Riga were gone, murdered on either November 30th or December 8th 1941.

Mom died in 2006 without knowing that she had relatives who had died in the Holocaust.   Of course, I also did not know either, as I relied on her for family history. We had discussed her family and WW II casualties, and Mom said that a distant cousin in the Navy had been killed in action. But she had no inkling of any Holocaust victims.  In 2016, however, my view of a family luckily unscathed by genocide changed.

I received an e-mail from a reader who had viewed my piece in Family Tree magazine describing how a distant minor-celebrity cousin, the late Bert Parks, had led me to my previously unknown Latvian ancestry via a notation in his Wikipedia page. Cousin Bert, the late host of the Miss America pageant, had not given me an introduction to a beauty wearing a tiara, but rather had given me a something better: a clue to my family’s history.

My token fan, Jan, said that she too was related to Bert Parks, so we might be distant cousins.   Shortly after hearing from her, I learned that Jan was my fifth cousin, a discovery based on her family tree spanning eight generations on my mother’s maternal side. I spent several hours perusing the tree’s numerous branches. It seemed like I was related to half the Jews in Atlanta. But a few perusals later I found that I was also distantly related to eight Seligsons, with the notations by their names: murdered by Nazis or died 1941.  This realization added personal sadness to the horror, outrage and revulsion that I felt when I thought about so many Jews who had been swept up in the evil of the Holocaust and strengthened my need to honor their memory.

My eight Seligson cousins personalize the Holocaust for me. Now that I know about the fate of my Latvian cousins, I am more profoundly saddened and thus more connected to the river of blood that flowed into the death pit outside Riga in the Fall of 1941, where, presumably, an iota of DNA found in the pit would match mine.

But thank goodness there is a counter-balance to the sadness that came with my discovery of the Seligson’s slaughter. It comes with the discovery of hundreds of living relatives (family tree verified) descended from these eight Holocaust victims. As a lucky American, I have the opportunity to make sure that future generations remember my Riga relatives who got caught in a cyclone of hate. This past year at Yad Vashem, I felt writing a check in memory of my relatives who died in the Holocaust was more meaningful than previous perfunctory donations. Next year my pledge will honor all my cousins by name, including my nine year-old cousin, Miriam Seligson (1932-1941).

I now want to visit Riga. Should I get there, I will first visit the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. This museum is laid out within the confines of the Riga ghetto, which was the way station for the Seligsons for five months before they were herded into the pit in the forest to be murdered. Then I would like to go to the Jewish Memorial at Rumbula. This is where the Seligsons’ bodies lie trashed in a pit. I will pay my respects, as well as the respects from my mom, the happy go lucky Georgia girl of 1941.

William Levine is a retired IT professional and an active freelance writer residing in Belmont, MA.  He  has a growing interest in genealogy.

 

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