‘That Girl’

Click on this link to hear the theme song and opening sequence: That Girl

I loved “That Girl.” I wanted to be Ann Marie, the lead character. She had great hair (I’ve written about my struggles with my hair before in Hair: Not Long, Not Beautiful). Hers was shiny and straight with a stylish flip at the bottom. Her bangs were perfect. My bangs always curled – the least bit of humidity or sweat and my bangs were history, just frizz and curls. She also had a cute figure, like a real-life Barbie doll. She had a boyfriend who was devoted to her, despite her sometimes-exasperating adventures. She was bubbly and had a great smile. She lived in Manhattan and her loving parents lived in a nice suburban house. Oh, why couldn’t I be her?!

I was seven years old when “That Girl” first started airing. It was on for five years. No matter what I did, my hair would not look like Ann’s. No matter what I did, my body was simply too thick. I come from Eastern European peasant stock, after all. The closest person, in real life, that I knew who met that ideal was my Dad’s cousin, Carol. Somehow the peasant stock was noticeably absent in Carol. She was petite and had fabulous hair that she wore in the same style as Ann Marie. She lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and she was a lawyer. I was in awe.

But, and this is big, she wasn’t married! While it is entirely possible she had a boyfriend, I was not aware of that as a child. This was a major problem, in my young mind. It confused me. According to my sophisticated world view, she should have either been married or had a steady boyfriend, since she was the epitome of what a woman should be.

The messages I received as a girl growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s were conflicting. I was paying close attention to the women’s movement and I bought in to the idea that women can and should have it all: career and family. That message turned out to be incomplete – maybe we could have it all, but not at one time. It was also unrealistic given the need for all of society to change – men, the world of work, families, our institutions. It was a tall order that hasn’t been fulfilled yet – 50 years later.

Even with those ideas about changing roles for women, my notion of romantic relationships remained quite traditional. I thought a woman should marry a man, have two children and a cat. The idea of having a cat may have been revolutionary, but otherwise, I was quite traditional.

I got the message that a woman should be attached, that something was amiss if she was without a husband. Even as a girl, I felt that pressure. I could not separate what was societal, familial or my own neuroses.

In my family, the dating status of single female adults was not spoken of. Generally, you had to be engaged to be married for the relationship to be recognized. And, while that is understandable, in terms of welcoming someone into the family, it doesn’t explain the silence on the subject. I took the silence to mean there was something wrong with being a single woman. In our extended family, there were a few who fell into that category. Oddly enough, there was only one single male, my Uncle Mike, and it was understood that he certainly wanted to be married (which he did, eventually). We had no ‘confirmed bachelors.’ In retrospect, I wonder if the silence around the women who weren’t married was more about wanting to avoid any conversation about sex.

All of this contributed to my great fear that I would not marry. If Carol wasn’t married, pretty as she was, how would I ever ‘catch’ someone. Why, as an adolescent, was I preoccupied by this fear?

I remember a conversation I had with my brother when we were teenagers. For a couple of summers, Mark and I worked at the same summer camp. One time there was talk on the girl’s side about a counselor, Robin, coming back to her bunk with grass on her back and in her hair. There was some joking and teasing about who she had been with. Rumor had it that she was with my brother. That was weird for me to hear. Some brothers and sisters may talk or joke about their dating lives, but that was not the case in our family. After hearing the scuttlebutt, alone with my brother, I asked him if he thought Robin liked him. He responded that he hadn’t really thought about it.

That was an ‘aha!’ moment for me. He hadn’t thought about it!! That is all I would have been thinking about. It was all I ever thought about when it came to guys: does he like me? Not, do I like him? I would worry about that once I knew that he liked me! Now, my brother may be unusual, actually, I know he is unusual. But I do think there was something to this. I spent endless hours with friends parsing words, body language, tone of voice to determine if the guy was interested. While I don’t doubt that guys were concerned with whether they were liked, I think their priorities were elsewhere – like: What’s for dinner? How did the Mets do? When would they next have sex? Maybe that is an overstatement, but I think there’s truth to it.

So much of my self-worth hinged on whether there was a guy interested in me. Or at least that’s what I thought during my teenage years and well into young adulthood. The irony is I came to learn that having a boyfriend or husband didn’t fix that self-worth issue. As author Anne Lamott said in her recent TED Talk (which I highly recommend watching here), that is an ‘inside job.’ No outside validation can silence the persistent voice in your head that tears you down. You have to find a way to do that yourself.

 

 

 

 

More Questions

Note:  Since I have been traveling over the last several weeks, I have not been able to devote as much time to this blog post as I would like. Please consider it a work in progress. (the whole blog is actually a work in progress!) I want to continue exploring Brody family history and its implications but my life gets in the way. Bear with me as I continue the journey.

After reading the letter from the priest, I felt a need to see if the events described had been recorded; to see if history had taken note of the massacre. I did some research, mostly on the Internet. I also looked at a couple of books, including Jewish Roots in Poland by Miriam Weiner.

I also wanted to find the towns listed in the letter. In addition to looking at maps online, I poured over a world atlas.

I did find most of the towns, though it was challenging. The translation of town names, and my total ignorance of Polish, made finding these locations difficult. Several still exist and can be seen on a current map of Poland (Jaslo, Dukla, Nowy Zmigrod), all in the southeast corner of the country. By the way, Stary in a town’s name means ‘old,’ while Nowy in a town’s name means ‘new.’ Oddly, to me anyway, Zmigrod (without Nowy or Stary attached) appears to be miles away to the west and slightly north of the towns mentioned in the letter.

In looking for mention of the massacre in Halbow, I found another massacre exactly one month earlier, June 7, 1942, in the same area. At first I wondered if it was the same incident, perhaps the month was mistakenly recorded. After further exploration, it appears that there were actually two separate incidents (or “actions” in the language of the war) exactly a month apart. On one level it is hard to believe that there could be two (intellectually I know there were many “actions”), but the scope and horror of the Holocaust is still hard to comprehend, even all these years later.

I did find the July 7th genocide noted in several places and it appears that there is a monument erected to memorialize the lives lost in Halbow.

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Monument to the victims of the atrocity in the forest in Halbow.

In the 1990s many children of Holocaust survivors visited Eastern Europe searching for their parent’s hometowns and gravesites of family members. Some of those travelers documented their findings. As a result, I was able to find a picture of the monument (see above). The monument was funded by Zmigrod survivors’ families in America. I was relieved to find that at least there is a monument, but another issue emerged from my research.

The priest’s letter indicates that 1434 people were buried in the mass grave in Halbow. The sources I found on the Internet reported 1250 .(archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/Galicia/2009-07/123905001; www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/nowy.zmigrod1/now065.html; kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/zmigrod/zmigrodholo.htm).

I am disturbed by the discrepancy and wonder what it represents. As mentioned above, in doing the research I found two separate incidents, each with 1250 victims recorded. But it seems odd that the number would be exactly 1250 in both cases. Were they estimates? How were the numbers documented?  Could the 1250 represent only the Jewish victims? Or, could the priest’s information be incorrect? It raises so many questions about how history is documented.

Which led me to another question: Does the number matter? My gut reaction was, of course it does – we are talking about 184 souls not ‘officially’ counted.

But, then, I don’t want to obsess about the actual number. The number, whether it is 1250 or 1434, is too many to accept. Either way it is roughly the size of the suburban high school in my community. It is almost half the population of the town I live in. The number is important, but it isn’t the central point – the central point is that humanity was lost in every sense; in the lives cut short and in those who perpetrated the crime. Those who were responsible for the crime discarded their humanity.

We struggle today to identify and agree to facts. Sometimes when the numbers are in dispute people take the opportunity to dismiss the larger issue. Especially for those with an agenda. That these atrocities were committed is a fact that cannot be denied. My family bore the weight of it, in the loss of life, in the loss of faith and the silence that followed.

I wish I had an answer, though, for reconciling discrepancies in records (data) that sometimes lead us to lose the forest for the trees.

 

 

 

 

A Very Different Experience

The legacy of the letter from the priest is many layered. Of course, there was the profound impact of the loss on Leo Brody, my grandfather, and thus on his immediate family. I had not considered the ripple effects of the atrocity and the silence surrounding it through the generations until now. My family stands in stark contrast to Gary’s family experience – where the impact was more obvious.

As I got to know the Bakst family, when Gary and I started dating in 1979, I was aware that Gary’s parents were Holocaust survivors. Our shared Jewish identity, and the differences in our experiences, was a subject we talked about quite a bit as we got to know each other. My parents were American born and college educated. As I described in prior blog entries, we were culturally and ethnically Jewish, but God was conspicuously absent. No one in my family attended synagogue regularly and when we did it was obligatory, certainly not heartfelt. The Holocaust was discussed, but in a more scholarly way, despite my grandfather’s tragic loss. It was at a remove from our day-to-day experience.

Gary’s parents, while not Orthodox Jews, were far more observant – religion was part of their practice, they kept a Kosher home, didn’t drive on the high holidays and went to synagogue on Shabbat. Gary’s Dad believed in God despite his harrowing experiences – or maybe because of them.

While I would not say that their Holocaust experiences were spoken about often, they were not shrouded in silence either. They attended the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C in 1993, were involved in the organization (Holocaust Survivors and Friends) that was instrumental in establishing the museum and attended the annual meeting of the Iwie Society (a group of lansleit from David’s hometown in Poland). Their status as survivors was an essential part of their identity and of Gary’s (and his siblings).

As I got to know Gary’s family I came to recognize some of the scars from their Holocaust experience. Paula, Gary’s mom, who was about nine when her life in the shtetl of Sarnik was upended, was anxious and fiercely protective of her children. The first time Gary and I went on a date when we were home from college, Gary drove to my house using Paula’s car. This was long before cellphones. When Gary arrived in Canarsie (20 minutes away), he asked to use our phone to call home and let Paula know that he had arrived safely. Years later, when I was pregnant with Leah, my doorbell rang one evening in Albany. I went to the door to find my brother. He had come to deliver a message, “Call your mother-in-law. She hasn’t been able to reach you and she is worried.” Apparently our phone was off the hook and I didn’t realize it. Paula, ever resourceful, long before the Internet, found my brother’s phone number, called him and dispatched him to check on me. Needless to say, I called her immediately.

To say Paula didn’t trust easily would be an understatement. Years before he met and married Shari, Gary’s older brother, Steven, was dating a woman, Jenna, who wasn’t Jewish. I sat at Paula’s kitchen table in Rosedale while she shared her fear that if Steven was to marry Jenna, she might kill him in his sleep. I was at a loss as to how to respond. I asked her why Jenna would do that. She shrugged and said, “Because she is Christian and he is Jewish.” I began to understand the depth of the damage done by her traumatic childhood.

Gary and I were together for four years before we married and had children (at least another 5 years later) before I felt I had earned her trust.

When Steven Spielberg, as a companion to Schlindler’s List, undertook the Shoah Project (the effort to record the testimony of all living survivors before their numbers dwindled), the Bakst family participated. We went to the Pines Hotel in the Catskills and waited in the lobby while Paula and David were interviewed separately. Then all ten of us – Rochelle and Doreen (Gary’s sisters), Steven, Shari, Laura and Jordan (Gary’s brother, wife and two young children) and our family (Gary, me, Leah and Daniel) – went in to be filmed as a coda to their testimony.

Over the years I had heard the stories of their survival. David fought in the Russian army and with the partisans in the woods in Poland. Death was all around him. Paula survived by the guile of her mother and, for several years, with the assistance of a gentile Polish farmer. They told how they met in a displaced persons camp and of Paula’s resettlement in Cuba where she had family and David’s in New York. Ultimately David went to Cuba to propose marriage and a year later, on September 3, 1949, they were married in Havana. David brought Paula back to New York and they settled in Queens and started their family. Paula’s mother, brother and sister survived, her father was murdered as they fled their town. David’s father and sister survived the war, though his father, having navigated the war itself, tragically died from complications from hernia surgery in Germany just before they were to immigrate to America. There is so much more to their story than can be told here in a blog entry.

Despite his travail, David’s experiences reinforced his belief in God. He felt he was spared by God’s hand on several dramatic occasions. Over the years I attended synagogue many times with David and Paula and it was impossible not to be moved by his faith, in particular. He chanted the prayers from his heart. Paula also took comfort in the rituals. They felt part of a community that shared beliefs and customs. It was very different than the synagogue experience, limited as it was, that I had growing up.

The process of integrating our two families and creating our own is still a work in progress.

A Tragic Turning Point

My last blog post (No Easy Answers) told of my grandfather, Leo, and his time staying with us in Canarsie. Comments from my brothers and mother prompted a deeper examination of his life.

The Brody family story is not unique among American Jews, but it is still important to give voice to it. Grandpa may not have shared his story; at least to the best of my knowledge he didn’t. I believe it merits telling. There are important gaps that I don’t know if I will be able to fill. Many of the people who could offer insight are no longer alive, and some, who are elderly, are particularly subject to the vagaries of memory (as I’ve noted before, memory is a funny thing under the best of circumstances).

This is what I know: Leo Bruder (he changed his name to Brody, perhaps to fit in with other family that had come before) came to this country from Poland. Specifically, he came from Galicia, an area of southeast Poland that changed hands many times throughout history, in the Carpathian Mountains. He came to America with an entrepreneurial spirit. He made the journey alone, not in steerage like most immigrants. He had enough means to buy a ticket that allowed him to arrive in New York City without going through Ellis Island. He was 18 years old and the year was 1921 when he arrived. He left his parents and sister in Europe.

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Page 1 of a copy of the translation of the letter Grandpa received

In November of 1945, about six months after World War II ended, Grandpa received a letter (picture above), in response to his inquiry by cable, from a priest from his town about the fate of his parents and sister. The original letter was in Polish. My brother Steven has a copy of the translation of the letter. In order to read it more easily, Steven transcribed it into a Word document that I have posted below.

When I was growing up the letter and the tragedy it describes was not spoken of directly. I knew that Grandpa’s parents and sister had been killed by the Nazis. I also knew that, from that point on, Grandpa didn’t go to synagogue unless there was a specific celebration like a bar mitzvah or wedding. He lost his faith in God. The events described in the letter and Grandpa’s life in Europe were not spoken of otherwise and it was understood that questions weren’t to be asked. Late in his life, after Grandma died, he seemed to be more willing to talk, but the legacy of silence was still strong.

I think it is important to share this letter because it provides documentation of the atrocity. I want to give fair warning, though, that it is graphic and disturbing and I understand if you choose not to read it. I did want it posted, though, as it is an essential part of my family’s history. It made its mark on us in a myriad of ways.

I’m not sure why I didn’t ask more questions about this letter when my father was alive. I knew of its existence from sometime in the late 70s or early 80s. I don’t believe I ever saw it with my own eyes until this past week when Steven scanned it and sent it to me. I have so many questions now. I am hoping that I can find some answers. If I am successful in finding insights that add to our family story, I will share them.

[A note about the letter: Steve and I did our best to transcribe the translation, but as you can see from the picture above, it is not a clear copy. In addition, the original translator was not able to decipher some of the Polish. Fortunately, these difficulties do not impact the meaning of the text.]

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Translation from Polish of a letter dated 11/21/1945

Zmigrod Stary 11/21/1945

Dear Mr Leon,

Your cable was delivered to me only today, though it was received in Zmigrod on November 12th. The post office delivered it to Wohlmuth, who turned it over to me only today. I am answering at once. I am sorry but I cannot write you something good. Your parents and sister were killed by the Germans on July 7th 1942 in Halbow, near –Rempno. On the same day and in the same woods all Jews from our town and the neighborhood with the young rabbi Halboratwa. Your family was killed, family Weinstein and family –estreic from Lysa-Gora.

But before it came to this terrible tragedy, your family suffered a lot. Your mother used to say always why did they not go to USA with their son, why they have to suffer?

To start with all their belongings were taken away from their house and farm. Then they were deported to the town where they lived at Lembik’s house. In the beginning they left with me some of their personal belongings asking to hide them, but before the deportation they took everything with them. They had very bad time there, as they had nothing to eat. I used to send them bread and milk and flour. I saw them a few times and tried to console them and reassure them that nothing will happen to them, that they will be sent to a camp, because nobody could think of such a tragedy. On July 6th I saw them, and they asked me to write you about everything. They gave me your address, but I lost it during the evacuation and the fire of the village. Still in the last day of their life my house-keeper Salka went to see them and to comfort them, but alas it was too late, as they knew already that death is near. The Gestapo patrols were already in the streets. With moans and tears they prepared themselves to the saying of last prayers. On July 7th 8 o’clock in the morning all Jews were gathered on the meadows across the bridge. There they were ordered to surrender all their money and valuables, after this they were by trucks brought to Halbow. There, before dug out trenches, they were ordered to undress and stand up in rows. They were killed by shooting from behind. The children were killed by smashing their heads with rifle butts. Altogether 1,434 persons were killed in this day and buried in the trenches. It is possible that Americans will not believe in such a horrible murder, but it is true.

It is quite impossible to describe what we went through during the war. All villages, Zmigrod Stary, Lysa-Gora, Glojsce, Iwla, Siedliska, Makarowaka, Nienaszow were destroyed and burned down. . Only chimneys and rubble remained. Zmigrod Nowy, Dukla and Jaslo were in ruins. 153 bombs and grenades exploded over my church and in the parsonage and barns. We were hidden for a month in the cellars, later we were removed to some other place. When we after 6 months came back, we found only ruins, without roof and doors, and, what was still worse, nothing to eat.

The house of your parents and of Weinstein are not damaged and at present homeless families live in these houses. The farmland is not tilled. You have to apply to the court to be recognized as heirs after your family. Same apply also to Weinstein, or send me power of attorney legalized at the Polish consul authorizing me to do it on your behalf, as well as giving me right to manage your property, as I presume you do not intend to return. Tell Wallach to do the same.

I have to add that you sister (name illegible) and your mother used to come often to the parsonage. Many times before an imminent danger they used to come to me in order to find shelter and protection. But from death I could not save them. Only Sommer, house painter, son-in-law of Wrobel from Lysa Gora saved his life.

I cannot write more today, though I have many more things to write that would be of interest to you. I am not sure even that this letter will reach you, as the conditions are still not normal (illegible) conditions are better and better, and we hope soon will everything will be in order.

I would ask you do me a favor. I have a brother in USA by the name Maoiej in Carteret, NJ Hudson Street, 18. I do not know if he is alive. He does not write to me. Maybe you would go there and find out what is with him, and would let me know.

I finish this letter with my deepest sympathy on the death of your parents and sister. Let God comfort you.

Best regards,

Priest Juljan Beigert

Zmigrod Stary

District Jaslo, Rz.

Regards to Weinstein, Wallach, also family, and especially Hashek Wallach and Mortek. Please answer this letter immediately

_________________________________________________________________

I hereby certify that I am thoroughly familiar with the Polish language; that I have read the attached document in said language; and that the above English translation was made by me and is a true and accurate translation.

Samuel Birger

 920 Riverside Drive

  New York 32, NY

What are you?

Note: One of the reasons I started writing these memoir-stories was to explore different aspects of identity. I have struggled with notions of femininity and masculinity, as well as issues of social justice with respect to race and class for as long as I can remember. Some of the stories I have posted have touched on these topics. The essay that follows is intended to be one of several on race and ethnicity – it is a big topic! And, I have a couple of experiences I want to share. I welcome your contributions to the conversation – please feel free to share your perspective by commenting or sending an email.

“What are you?”

When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the late 60s, it was one of the first things we asked each other. It was a way of sorting ourselves out. I wonder if kids still ask each other that. As adults we tiptoe around those questions.

When we asked, in that place and time, we were usually asking whether the other person was Jewish, Italian-Catholic or Irish-Catholic. There really weren’t that many other possibilities in my neighborhood. I’m embarrassed to say that I was a young adult before I realized that there were many other possibilities – and how small a minority I was part of.

I’m not writing nostalgically of that time – I don’t think those were the good old days. I have been reflecting on why we asked each other that question and what it meant. I think we need to figure out how to talk about our identities in a way that doesn’t stir up suspicion, insinuate judgment or assume superiority. We are, after all, curious about each other.

As kids we were figuring out our identities and where we fit in. In asking the question ‘what are you?’ it felt to me like we were looking for connection, searching for commonality. The question was a shortcut to understanding something about each other and the answer could help seal a bond. And if it didn’t create a bond, it gave a point of reference.

We talk about prejudice being learned and in part I think that is true. Certainly we don’t come into this world thinking that a particular group is cheap or dirty or dangerous. All of that is learned. But, I think there is a hard-wired discomfort or suspicion of those who are different from us and that makes fertile ground for prejudice. We are born into a family or culture that defines what is comfortable and known to us.

I was born into a second-generation Jewish-American family. Actually both of my grandmothers were American born, which would make me third generation, and my grandmothers were high school educated. Both of these facts made my family a bit unusual in my neighborhood. My parents were not only college graduates, but my Dad had one master’s degree in education and another in economics. My mom was going back to school while I was growing up and earned her master’s in reading. Education was a value in and of itself.

We took great pride in being Jewish, though we weren’t religious at all. I recall Nana lighting Shabbos candles on Friday nights. I have a mental picture of her moving her hands forward and back over the candles as if to invite the flame into her heart, her white hair covered by a white doily. Then she put her hands over her eyes as she completed the prayer silently. That was the extent of our ritual. We didn’t go to synagogue and we enjoyed ham, among other treyf (unkosher) items. Judaism was a culture to me, a sense of humor, and a way of looking at the world. It meant asking questions. It included certain foods at certain times of the year. It didn’t include God.

I was and am ethnically Jewish. My grandparents liberally sprinkled Yiddish in their speech. Shana madela (pretty girl), lay keppe (lay your head down), meshuganah (crazy), and schnorer (a moocher) and many other words were part of our lexicon.

One Yiddish word confused me. I grew up hearing blacks referred to as “schvartzes” by my grandparent’s generation. It wasn’t the equivalent of using the n-word, but it was a pejorative. When I sat at Nana’s kitchen table listening to her conversation with friends and family and the word was used, it sounded wrong to my ears, it was a discordant note. When I was older Aunt Simma shared a story of being told that she couldn’t go to a black classmate’s house to play when she was a child, though she was welcome to invite the girl to her own home.

I never had to face that issue, though I can’t imagine my parents issuing such an edict. There weren’t any black families on my block. There were only one or two black kids in my elementary school classes and neither of them were girls. Even in high school, my life was pretty segregated. My path crossed with black kids in gym and on the basketball team. The relationships didn’t extend beyond the court.

I’m 56 years old and still trying to sort out the different aspects of my identity and what it means for my relationships with family, friends and the larger community. In some ways it has gotten even harder to talk about.