Somehow, after recounting the drama and trauma of my in-laws journey through an anti-Semitic landscape, the events of this past weekend are crushing to me. It is a terrible reminder of our need to be vigilant in the face of hate and violence. I can only hope that we, as a country, will turn the tide. I hope the coming election sends a clear message. Please vote – and please vote for change.
Although I have covered the broad strokes of the Bakst family’s story, I do have a few more essays to write on that topic. I have learned a lot in the process of researching and listening to David’s stories, and I have thought quite a bit about the meaning of his and Paula’s experience that I would like to share.
But, first, I am taking a short break. In fact, I write this from Barcelona, the first stop on a Mediterranean trip. Lucky me! Don’t worry, though, I voted by absentee ballot and so did Gary!
What is left to tell? Paula and David began their life together in Queens, New York. David continued working at the pickle factory. Paula was a homemaker and managed their finances. She was very frugal and even with David’s modest earnings, they were able to put away some money. Eventually they bought a car, and a few years after that (in 1963), they were able to buy a house in Rosedale, Queens. Rosedale bordered Nassau County, Long Island and had the look and feel of a suburban neighborhood, even though it was in the New York City limits.
Their oldest child, Rochelle, arrived 18 months into their marriage. Paula’s mother and sister, Lea and Sofia, flew up from Cuba to meet the newest generation of their family. Four years after that, in 1956, Paula and David’s first son, Steven, was born. Lea and Sofia came north again, this time on permanent visas. They stayed and lived with David and Paula. It was tight quarters, six of them, in their small apartment with one bathroom, but it was nothing they couldn’t manage given all that they had been through.
Gary arrived in 1959 and was the baby of the family for 8 years, until Doreen entered the picture. Now the Bakst family was complete. David, as he envisioned when he spoke to Uncle Nachum years earlier, moved up to become the general manager of the food distribution company that the pickle business grew into.
In their early years in New York, David and Paula attended night school to learn English and, in time, they became United States citizens. They straddled two worlds. They were a product of their Eastern European shtetl childhoods, a world that had been destroyed by the Nazis, and they bore the scars of that trauma, and now they were trying to fit into the modern American society of the 1950s and 1960s. They embraced much of what America offered, but were also anxious about their ability to understand American institutions. They continued to seek out the company of family and friends that shared their shtetl experience. The generation gap, a common experience of that era, was alive and well in the Bakst household.
Not too long after her arrival, Sofia met and married Marvin Bressler, and began her own family. The Bresslers also settled in Rosedale. They had three children, a girl and two boys.
Lea continued to live with Paula and David, until her death, of a brain tumor, in 1973. She was 80 years old. She was the only grandparent the Bakst children would know.
Bernie didn’t leave Cuba until after the communist revolution in 1959. He was a businessman enjoying his life in Havana, and in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of the Batista government, Bernie made a lot of money. With some reluctance, he, along with Nachum, Bushe, Solomon and Mary, left for Florida. The aunts and uncles, and their children, settled in North Miami Beach, a community of Cuban-Jewish exiles. Over the years, Paula and David would visit when they could. Nachum lived a long life, well into his nineties.
Bernie eventually moved further north and became a successful businessman, marrying, and starting a family in Woodmere, on Long Island (a short distance from Rosedale). He and his wife had two children.
As a result of their extended time in Cuba, Bernie and Sofia, in particular, developed an affinity for its culture and maintained a connection with it throughout their lives. As part of his business in America, Bernie owned a warehouse in Union City, New Jersey (a community with a lot of Cuban immigrants). Gary worked there a couple of summers and has vivid memories of the experience. Gary commuted from Rosedale to Jersey, with his uncle. Bernie drove like a maniac, waiting until the last minute to dart across three lanes of traffic to get to the exit of the highway. And, Bernie would play a game with the tolls at the bridges, tossing one coin at a time, hoping the wooden arm would go up before the full fare was paid. Bernie employed a number of Cuban men at the warehouse. Gary remembers the men cooking a communal lunch, pork spiced with garlic, pepper, onion and coriander, as well as the smell of strong coffee. Gary also picked up some Spanish words that weren’t taught in high school.
David’s sister, Batya, lived in Israel for 7 years, with Fishel and their daughter Rochelle. Batya left Israel and came to the United States to get a divorce (she wasn’t able to get a divorce in Israel). She lived with David and Paula while she waited for it to go through. After a year, Rochelle joined her mom in New York. Though Batya regretted leaving Israel, she felt she had no choice. In time, she remarried and had a son, Ben, and she became an educator. She and her family lived blocks away from the Baksts in Rosedale.
Batya carried her own brutal memories, one of which she shared in a speech she delivered at the Rosedale Jewish Center, where she was being honored as a woman of valor. With her children, Rochelle and Ben, in the audience, Batya recounted her time in the work camp (the one she was miraculously rescued from by the Iskra Partisan Brigade). She told of one particularly horrific experience. She was walking across the camp compound and she heard a slight thud and a small mew as a piece of balled up laundry fell to the ground nearby. Batya didn’t see who had dropped it and thought it might be a kitten so she bent down to see what was in the bunched-up fabric. She found an almost newborn baby girl, barely alive, seemingly frozen. Without thinking, Batya quickly scooped her up, held the bundle to her chest and hurried to her bunk. She tried to warm the baby. Over the next day or so, Batya smuggled water and milk and fed her as best she could. She seemed to be reviving, and Batya named her Ilana. She didn’t know what she was going to do with her, she was just going from moment to moment trying to protect the baby. At one point, much to Batya’s distress, Ilana started to cry, bringing a German soldier to investigate. The soldier grabbed the baby, and to Batya’s everlasting horror, he plunged a bayonet into her. Batya shared this memory from the bemah in the synagogue. It was the first Ben, who was about 14 at the time, had heard the story. Though he knew his mother had endured suffering during the Holocaust, he didn’t know the depth of her anguish until then. Batya died of a rare type of cancer in 1982, she was 57 years old. Her daughter, Rochelle, lovingly cared for her in her final days. When Ben became a father himself, he and his wife named one of their sons after Ilana.
Paula and David didn’t often speak of their wartime experiences with their children. For the older children, Rochelle and Steven, the impact of the trauma was more apparent. Paula was still having nightmares when Rochelle was young. Gary and Doreen were more removed from it, as Paula and David healed and as their economic circumstances improved. All four of the children, though, were acutely aware of the legacy they carried.
Out of the ashes of the destruction of Ivye and Sernicki, new generations took root in America. The Baksts and Silberfarbs had 11 children, who in turn had 15 grandchildren and, to date, two great-grandchildren.
Note: One of the greatest sources of pride and joy for Paula and David are their four grandchildren, each accomplished in their own right. Laura, third oldest and the daughter of Gary’s brother, was kind enough to contribute this piece.
Nearly five years ago, I made my way across rural Germany to visit my great-grandfather’s grave. While the trip itself took only a few days the process started months earlier in New York, when my Poppy (grandfather) presented me with a disintegrating photograph of his father’s tombstone and the knowledge that it was located in a Jewish cemetery near Kassel, Germany. I could tell that at the age of ninety Poppy was still haunted by not knowing what came of the grave that he last saw over sixty years ago. I also knew that given my upcoming travels to Israel and Europe it was likely the only opportunity I’d have to locate the grave in the near future, and possibly in his lifetime.
Over the next few months I sifted through archives, including multiple visits to Yad Vashem (Israel’s holocaust museum), attempting to find records on my great-grandfather. Eventually I stumbled upon a German database of abandoned Jewish cemeteries. With the aid of Google Translate, I managed to obtain location information for a gravestone that appeared identical to the one in my grandfather’s photograph. It was in a cemetery in Hofgeismar, a small town in Northern Germany.
Fortunately, it was relatively easy to tack on a detour to Hofgeismar between trips with friends to Berlin and Amsterdam. Nevertheless, I was still nervous to be traveling across Germany on my own; I was the first in my family to return to the country since WWII, did not speak the language, and was traveling in areas not frequented by tourists. Fortunately, the kindness of others made the process a bit easier: I had made a few German friends while I was studying in Dublin who helped me book trains. Julia, a woman who volunteered at the Jewish Museum in Hofgeismar, was generous enough to not only respond to my cold-email inquiring about the cemetery, but also coordinate my entire itinerary for the day in Hofgeismar (unfortunately I was not able to meet her in person as she was traveling for a conference in Israel at the time).
Around 6:45am on a brisk October morning, I left my friends in Berlin and anxiously entered a metro station. True to Germany’s reputation, the four separate trains I took were impressively prompt. After making it to Hofgeismar, I met Mr. Burmeister, the Jewish Museum’s director, who drove me to the cemetery.
I didn’t really know what to expect, but I recall being surprised by the beauty of the place. Though obviously aged by the elements, the gravestone was completely intact, with the inscription still easily readable.
The small cemetery was in a lovely location, overlooking gorgeous valleys and blanketed by colorful leaves.
Following the Jewish tradition, I left several stones on behalf of my family on the gravestone. Across from my great-grandfather’s grave there was a small hill, below which a number of stones from the 1800s once stood. Unfortunately, they were destroyed during WWII (the cemetery houses Jews from after the war and pre-1936), so Mr. Burmeister showed me the memorial stone erected in their memory the prior year (2012).
Mr. Burmeister gave me a tour of the small but substantial Jewish museum, in which we had an interesting conversation about the Jewish history in Hofgeismar and his interest in the subject as a non-Jew. While there are no longer any Jews in Hofgeismar, before the War it was home to one of the highest percentages of Jews in Germany (10%).
Julia’s friend, Gabriele also showed me around Hofgeismar. We walked down to where the community temple once stood, now destroyed. We also drove through where the displaced persons camp used to be, the same camp that my grandfather stayed in after my great-grandfather died from surgical complications. The grounds are now being used for a school and police station. The town center was exactly as I’d have pictured it, with lovely sculptures and traditional German buildings.
Gabrielle pointed out some of the homes where Jews once lived, in front of which small metal squares note their names, dates of birth and death, and what occurred to them during the war. I remembered seeing similar stones in Berlin, and Julia explained that they are becoming more common as people are more open to uncovering that their homes may have been taken from Jews.
While the entire trip was extremely meaningful, what struck me the most was how seriously modern-Germany takes addressing its history. Unlike in America, it’s illegal to deny the Holocaust, display Nazi symbols, or otherwise incite hatred based on religion or ethnicity. All schools deeply educate students about the Holocaust, leaving my German peers more knowledgeable about it than me. People like Mr. Burmeister and Julia chose to dedicate their time to preserving the Jewish history in a small, now Jew-less town. Mr. Burmeister’s parents had no familial connection to Judaism, but rather his interest in the subject was peaked as a schoolboy studying German history. A teacher from a neighboring town told me how she believed it was important to expose her students to Jewish culture early on, bringing her class of 8-10 year olds to the Hofgeismar Jewish cemetery and Museum for a three-day workshop. Through tears she explained that she educates others about Nazism because her daughter has a disability and likely would have been killed had she been living during WWII.
Note: Laura is quite correct in saying that David was haunted by never having gone back to see his father’s grave. In going through the effort of locating and visiting the site, Laura did a mitzvah (good deed) that brought her grandfather comfort. Thank you, Laura, for doing that and for sharing this story on my blog.
Note: At the end of this piece, Gary offers his perspective.
It was the beginning of our relationship. Gary and I had long conversations about our histories, comparing our families, and sharing our dreams for the future. I knew the broad outlines of his family background, that his parents were Holocaust survivors who had not been in concentration camps. But, I didn’t yet grasp the impact of that on Gary. On one particular autumn night, with a particular conversation, I touched a nerve and, thus, I began to learn.
We were in the living room of the apartment that he shared with two friends. It was late at night, as it often was in those days when we hung out and talked into the wee hours. I was sitting on the floor with my back against the chair he was sitting in, his legs framing my arms.
It started as an innocuous conversation, at least it seemed so to me, about his need to take the MCATs (the medical school entrance exams) and the timing of the test.
A little background might be helpful. Most pre-med students take the MCATs at the end of junior year so that they can apply to medical school during senior year. This sets them up to go directly from college to med school. Since med school is four years and there is additional training required beyond that, which often takes anywhere from three to ten years, many want to be as efficient with their time as possible. Unfortunately, Gary wasn’t in position to do that. His junior year had not been terribly successful. He lost motivation and stepped off the track he had been on, and didn’t take the MCATs. It was now the 1979-80 school year, our senior year, and the test wasn’t available to be taken very often. I think it was offered maybe twice a year. Gary’s next opportunity would be in the Spring, but he hadn’t filled out the application yet.
In order to take the test, Gary had to fill out some paperwork, write a check and mail it in. Paperwork wasn’t a strong suit for Gary, as I was beginning to learn. But, it turned out there was more to his procrastination than met the eye.
“So, let’s fill out the application now and you can mail it tomorrow,” I helpfully suggested.
“You don’t understand,” came the testy reply.
“What do you mean?” I asked, moving to turn around to face him.
“You don’t understand the pressure I am under,” his voice was tight. I heard anger, frustration and anxiety.
“Explain it, then.”
Explain he did. A torrent of words describing high expectations placed on him from as early as he could remember. “It’s good to be a doctor,” his father, David, told him when he was in Kindergarten. It was an idea David repeated regularly over the years. Gary was a good student, it was clear he was intelligent from the get-go. The seed was planted early and his father could be relentless. It was assumed he would go to medical school.
This story isn’t unusual among Jewish families. Many children were on the receiving end of those messages. My response, thinking I was supporting his vision for himself, was to say, “But you can do whatever you want! You don’t have to be limited! You don’t have to be a doctor.”
“You’re not hearing me!” Now he was angry. Gary didn’t, and doesn’t, get angry often. He was angry now.
“I feel like I do have to be a doctor! I will disappoint my father, let down my entire family, if I’m not!” He went on to describe how things went at family gatherings, how it was assumed he was on track to go to medical school. His parents, not aware of the particulars of college and graduate school, didn’t know where Gary was in the process. He was carrying 22 credits that semester (and would have to carry an equivalent load again the next semester), to make up for junior year and to graduate on time. He explained how so much was wrapped up, for his father in particular, in his earning a medical degree.
At first, I stuck to my thought that Gary could do what he wanted. “You’re great at explaining things. You could be a great science teacher,” I said. After all, I was thinking, both of my parents were teachers. I thought it was an admirable profession.
“You’re still not getting it!” Gary exploded.
I recoiled at the power and emotion behind his words. I retreated, “Okay. Okay.”
We agreed that it was late and we weren’t going to solve anything in that moment. I told him I wanted to understand, and we could talk again after we both got some sleep. We said good night and I went back across the hall to my apartment.
It was the beginning of my understanding the impact of his parent’s Holocaust experience on Gary and how it shaped him. No child wants to disappoint their parents, I certainly didn’t, but there was a more intense sense of responsibility and deeper obligation for Gary, knowing how much his Mom and Dad had gone through, how much they suffered. Gary had this opportunity that they never had, and he felt a duty to make the most of it regardless of his own wishes. I was beginning to appreciate the weight of that.
I think our conversation was also a step along Gary’s journey to sort out what he actually wanted for himself and what others expected of him. He began to acknowledge that it was okay to factor in what his father wanted, after going through an internal rebellion. And, over the course of the next two years, it would become clear to him that he did want to be a doctor.
Of course, there was also all the other anxiety that every pre-med student deals with: getting good grades, scoring high enough on the MCATs, getting into a program (preferably in the United States!) and succeeding in one. Under the best of circumstances, it is a fraught journey. Not nearly as fraught as the journey his parents had taken, but challenging nonetheless.
Some thoughts from Gary:
We all should pursue our own dreams. Right? That seems straight forward enough and yet that very question was at the heart of my dilemma back when Linda and I had that tense conversation. To be fair, that idea, the belief that each of us can and should do what we want to do, is something that many in the world would find laughable. It is a luxury many don’t have.
Many people are just trying to survive and it is for those who are fortunate enough to grow up in the right county and in the right circumstances to even think about such questions. How many people dream of picking up garbage or cleaning hotel rooms? Of working endless hours picking fruit on farms, or working in mines? On top of that, many people really don’t have a dream. We fall into whatever and we do our jobs and earn our paychecks and the world keeps spinning around.
But back then, I firmly believed I should pursue my dreams. And, while I had no reason why being a physician couldn’t be my dream, I had one really big problem: My father wanted it for me more than anyone. And that left me with the dilemma. Did I want it or was I doing it for my father? And how could I do it if it wasn’t for me? And how could I not do it after all he had been through and all that he seemed to have emotionally invested in my becoming a doctor?
As it turns out, medical school was four of the best years of my life and being a physician has allowed me to utilize my inclination to think scientifically and serve people in a most important and personal way. It has brought me a tremendous sense of purpose, a sense of doing something meaningful. And it has given me financial rewards beyond what I would have ever imagined reaping. As it turns out, it was the perfect decision.
But at that time, it wasn’t clear to me whose decision it was; where did my father’s will end and mine begin? Certainly, complicating all of this was the fact that my parents are Holocaust survivors. The children (and I’m sure grandchildren) of survivors have common traits. We tend to be anxious. We tend to be driven. We tend to live with the guilt that comes from the fact that we never had to endure what our parents did. They were getting shot at. I was more concerned about whether Keith Hernandez would get the lead runner out when fielding a bunt. They didn’t have food. I was annoyed when my brother changed the channel on our TV.
Even now, if you ask me whether I should feel guilty, I think the answer would be yes, I should.
I got derailed this week. Between two work assignments that demanded a great deal of time and the Judiciary Committee hearing this past Thursday, I had no opportunity to write. Well, that isn’t entirely true. Thursday, the day I could have spent writing, was instead spent in a rage. I am fortunate that I have not been the victim of a sexual assault, but listening to the testimony (and I didn’t listen to all of it in an effort to protect my own mental health), I was flooded with profound sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety about our country’s future and loss. I will likely need to spend some time processing and writing about this sad episode in our history.
In the meantime, I do have more to tell about the Bakst story, including a piece written by one of David and Paula’s granddaughters about a journey she took that was spurred by a photograph David shared with her. I also plan to provide a summing up of what happened to everyone. Finally, I want to explore the threads of their story that reach through time and connect to me, my family and our collective history.
So, please stay tuned. I appreciate that so many have been taking the journey with me.