The Return of the Baksts

In October of 1989, when Daniel was 7 months old and Leah was almost 2 ½ , Gary and I took our first trip to the Outer Banks. Prior to that I had never even heard of it. I didn’t know it was a narrow barrier island that mirrored the coast of North Carolina – one of the earliest sites of colonial settlement and infamous as the resting spot for many shipwrecks. That trip was the beginning of a tradition.

It was thirty years ago when we rented a beach house with friends from medical school who also had two children. They were coming from the D.C. suburbs (I wrote a post about our experience with them – here). Since our children were young, we were not beholden to school schedules yet, we took advantage of that flexibility and went in the early fall. Late September and early October are wonderful times to be on the Outer Banks. The water is warm, but the days are not as brutally hot and humid as is typical in the height of the summer. The only downside is the threat of hurricanes is greater in the autumn.

In 1989, as I did before any trip, I went to AAA to get a triptik and guidebooks to help plan our route. We loaded up our Camry wagon, which did not have air conditioning, and made the trek. After that first year, we took that drive at least a dozen times over the coming years. We continued to meet our friends and, because we liked it so much, we went with family and other friends, too. We watched the narrow barrier island develop. The first few trips we saw wild horses roaming the sand dunes and munching on the wild grasses that abutted the properties. By the mid 1990s some horses were penned in next to the Corolla Lighthouse, the rest roamed the northern part of the island that remained undeveloped. With each trip we saw the wild areas become covered with huge beach homes and shopping areas.

A combination of school schedules, the kids’ other activities, a desire to use limited vacation time in other ways led to the end of our trips to the Outer Banks. I think our last time there was in 2001.

Fast forward two decades and our son went with his family to spend a week in Kitty Hawk (which people may know from the Wright Brothers, but might not realize is part of the Outer Banks). In 2019 they went with family and friends and enjoyed themselves immensely.  Gary and I frequently talked about going back, wanting to see how it has changed and to revisit great memories, but other places and opportunities kept taking priority. Until this year.

With Covid waning, we were looking for a family vacation that we could all be comfortable with and would fit everyone’s schedules. Going back to the Outer Banks was a great option. I found a home that would suit us, walking distance to the beach and with access to a swimming pool.

Our trip down was different than it was 20 years ago. It was just the two of us – our kids and their spouses and our grandchild were travelling from Massachusetts and Connecticut respectively.

No longer using a Triptik, GPS adjusted our route depending on traffic. We took some back roads through Delaware to avoid congested main roads. I have always enjoyed road trips, especially when we get to see towns and neighborhoods off the beaten path. This trip fit the bill.

One thing we noticed as we drove down the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia was the increased number of restaurants, stores and churches that catered to Spanish-speakers. We saw many iglesias and tacquerias. The demographics of the area must have changed. Much of the route was still sparsely developed, but there were more shopping centers (seeing all the chain stores and eateries, Gary commented “America has come to the Eastern Shore.”). Previously we saw more bait shops. There were still many places to buy a gun.

As we neared the bridge to the Outer Banks, traffic increased. We slowly made our way across the Wright Memorial Bridge which spans the Currituck/Albemarle Sound. It was early Sunday afternoon as we crawled north on Route 12 toward Duck, where our rental home was located. We passed development after development. When we last visited there were areas where there was just brush and live oaks. We saw bicyclists and runners along the road. Though it was clear that it was very densely populated in season, the homes, landscaping and shopping areas are tastefully done. There aren’t any big box stores (other than where you first cross onto the island), none of the buildings are higher than two stories, there aren’t any amusement parks or McDonalds (or the like). One could argue that it makes the area too exclusive and expensive, but there is no denying that it is lovely.

Throughout the drive, I was hit by waves of nostalgia. I miss the time when our children were young. I loved taking care of them, being involved in their everyday lives, taking them to see new places, and sharing adventures. Time marches on and I am blessed they are still a regular part of our lives, and they were willing to take this vacation with us, but as we drove along the familiar (but new in some ways) route, I had pangs of missing that earlier time. Thinking about our friends who we shared that time with, whose lives were shattered by the loss of one of their children, added another dimension of poignancy.

I am happy to report our week together was fabulous.

The weather was unbelievable – it was hot, and sometimes humid, but perfect for the beach and pool. We prepared great meals, enjoyed wine and each other’s company. We created new memories. As we were getting packed up to leave on Sunday, our granddaughter looked at me and said, “I want to stay here forever!” Me too, little one. Sigh.

My Journey

One of the themes of this blog has been exploring different aspects of my identity. One central question I have grappled with is: What does it mean to me to be a Jew? This is part of a longer essay.

            At 61 years old, I think I have finally figured it out. As a young person I was confused by the different strands of Judaism. It took a while for it to dawn on me that it is both a religion and an ethnicity. Those two things are not one and the same. When I was child, those strands were all tied up together.

            To further complicate things, as a religion there are different levels of observance. I have not studied other religions, so I don’t know if others feature such a wide range of practice. We have three main branches: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Each branch, as their respective names suggest, represents a level of practice of ritual. The Orthodox adhere to many rules and regulations. On the other end of the spectrum, with very few restrictions on everyday life is Reform Judaism. Beyond Orthodox, on an even further extreme we have Hasidism, recognizable as the men who wear black hats and side curls, and the women who wear wigs and modest clothes; they live in very insulated communities. We also have secular Jews, those who have been born into the faith but do not practice it. And, we have everything in between. Even if the family you are born into provides a place on that continuum (mine was even less than Reform), each individual needs to figure out where they fit in, if they fit in. It can be confusing; it certainly has been for me.

            Over the years I explored whether I accepted Judaism’s religious tenets. As a young person I immediately hit a stumbling block. One of its foundational beliefs is monotheism. I was, and continue to be, uncertain about the existence of God. Most religious Jews either don’t share that uncertainty or they ignore it and observe the laws and rituals anyway. I tried that latter path as I continued my journey.

            One of the troubling things I have found is the sense that the Jewish community stands in judgment of itself, judging those within it who make different choices. Each segment casts an eye on their own members assessing whether they are Jewish enough, on one hand, or are they too dogmatic or zealous on the other? Maybe I imagined those appraising eyes, but I don’t think so.

            The family that I married into was far more observant than my family of origin. This created a tension for me. I was willing to practice many of the rituals because of my respect for my husband and his family’s history as Holocaust survivors. I hoped the religion would ‘take,’ or I would take to the religion.

            When Gary and I married we kept a kosher home. We went to synagogue regularly, not just on the high holidays. I made seders. We hosted Chanukah parties where I made latkes and we lit candles all eight nights. We sent our children to Hebrew school. I studied with the rabbi myself. Our home features Judaic art and we have mezuzahs on our doorposts.

Our breakfront – always ready for Chanukah. You would never guess we were Jewish.

Despite all of that I never uncovered a belief in God. I never felt a sense of belonging to the community in our synagogue either. I liked our rabbi, but my connection didn’t go beyond that. I would have been happy to find a home there, but I didn’t. I continued to try to make it work, but then I hit another major obstacle – 9/11.

            After 9/11 it felt like a door closed, both in my heart and mind.

            On that never-to-be-forgotten Tuesday, a sunny, clear late summer day, life came to a halt: the airports closed, Amtrak shut down, regular television programming was suspended. Fear was palpable.

            My parents, who were retired, were visiting. Dad, recently diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, was facing chemotherapy. His doctors were in Albany, near me, though they lived in the Catskills, over two hours away. They were considering getting an apartment in the area so they wouldn’t have to deal with the long drives while he was being treated. That very morning, we were planning to look at some apartments. In fact, we did go to look at one, but everyone was so distracted we decided not to continue. They went home and I waited anxiously for Leah and Daniel to return home from school.

            Thankfully they came home safely but I couldn’t take my eyes off the television – the images of the towers coming down were seared into my brain. Watching the firefighters rush into the billowing smoke and ash while everyone else ran away from it filled me with awe and fear for them.

            It all felt so strange. Without airplanes flying overhead, without the Thruway truck traffic that I ordinarily heard even inside our house, there was an eerie silence. Whenever there was a loud noise, it was startling. Was that a bomb? Was that gunfire? Those possibilities had never occurred to me before.

            We had to re-evaluate the risks of everything. Some things returned quickly – Gary went to work, the kids went to school but other things were slower to come back. The second weekend after the attack, we went to synagogue, we did not want to give in to the terrorists.

            The four of us walked into Temple Israel’s cavernous sanctuary on that Saturday morning, as we usually did. Attendance was bit lighter than usual, but plenty of people were there. We took seats in our customary location and opened our prayer books. Like every other time before, I read the English translation of the Hebrew and listened to the rabbi’s sermon. This time a coldness came over me. Something was wrong. I felt alienated from the proceedings. It hit me that the words and rituals were separating us from other people, reinforcing our separateness. The people in the sanctuary might be drawn together by reciting and chanting the prayers, but we were walled off from everyone else who didn’t participate. How could this be a good thing? We needed unity.

            I thought about all the different religions in the world. Each with its own structures, physical and otherwise. Each tradition offers an identity to adherents – and by providing those identities, they necessarily define ‘others.’ If 9/11 proved nothing else, it showed how toxic that could be. Taken to its extreme, it results in violence and death.

            Of course, this wasn’t the first time that I questioned the value of religion. I was well aware of history and how often wars were fought in the name of God. Despite that, when Gary and I had children, we wanted to give them a foundation in Judaism. Neither of us had strong faith in God, per se, but continuing the legacy of our Jewish identity was important to us. We knew that they would make their own choices as adults, but we thought it was important to give them roots, especially in view of our respective family histories.

            In September of 2001, Leah had already had her bat mitzvah, she was 14 years old and a freshman in high school. Daniel was preparing for his rite of passage, he was 12, and his bar mitzvah was coming in six months. We had been attending services regularly for the prior 7 years to give our children that foundation. I knew we would continue our commitment through Dan’s special day, but something changed for me on that Saturday in September of 2001.

            I spent many years trying to focus on the good – the positive values, the moral compass Judaism offered and the community it created. I tried to overlook, or compartmentalize, the portions of the teachings that held no meaning, or worse, were terribly anachronistic. Clearly in the modern world we rejected animal sacrifice and slavery, though those practices were still included in our Torah readings.  Aside from those obvious ones, there were other stories and rules that didn’t resonate. Spending so much time on the minutiae of the rules of the Sabbath seemed pointless to me. The general idea of observing a Sabbath day, on the other hand, was genius. Putting aside work, turning off electronics and turning inward and focusing on family, is a brilliant practice. But splitting hairs over whether one could plant a seed in a garden on the Sabbath or carry a purse, frustrated me. Too much energy was spent on parsing those rules instead of digging for more meaningful guidance.

            I think, in that moment on that Saturday in September, something crystalized. I realized I had come to the end of the journey. I was done with trying to make the religion an integral part of my life. I could continue to practice the rituals that were meaningful to me, but I wasn’t going to struggle to be religious anymore. Letting that go didn’t happen all at once, but I knew something inside me had changed.  

Photographs and Memories

Photographs and memories –  a Jim Croce song that was popular in the mid-1970s – could be the soundtrack for this past weekend. The song’s lyrics don’t exactly fit, that song is about a lost love, but the sentiment of being left with photographs of times gone by is right on point.

Once again, I spent hours sorting through family photographs. This time from my mother’s place in Florida. Two years ago, we cleaned out my in-laws’ home to prepare to sell it. I took boxes of photographs to sort out  – I wrote about that experience here.

This past weekend, I received a new set of boxes filled with photos, memorabilia, my mother’s paintings and other decorative items. These items made up her home in Boynton Beach, a home in the process of being sold. A great deal of the work of sorting was already done by my brother and sister-in-law, Mark and Pam, who spent a week going through Mom’s stuff – making multiple trips to Goodwill, wearing out a path to the trash dumpsters across the street, shipping boxes of books and photos, and finally packing their SUV to the brim with the rest to drive north.

Even with all the donations and distribution of many items, we are still left with the question: What to do I do with all of the photographs. I find it very difficult to throw them away. I know they can be digitized and, in fact, I have done some of that. But what should we transfer? How should we organize it? If we take the time and effort to convert photos, will anyone look at them? What is the point of photos?

I like to pull out albums from time to time. I go back through a vacation remembering the sights and funny anecdotes, or on the birthday of one of my children, I’ll take out an album from when they were an infant and walk down memory lane.

Walking down memory lane has its pitfalls. In some ways it was easier to do this task with the Bakst family photos – less baggage for me. The pictures I was going through this past weekend ran the gamut from when my mom was a little girl in the 1930s to family weddings through the decades to our more recent trip to Israel.

I find myself looking at the pictures as if they will provide answers. Who was Nana (my maternal grandmother)? She has been gone fifty years. She was such a central figure in my childhood and in my understanding of family. I see pictures of her with Zada, my grandfather, and try to intuit their relationship. It is fruitless. The pictures don’t bring her back. If I linger too long, I just get sad.

I came across photos of our time in Illinois where we spent three summers while my dad went to school at the university to get his master’s in economics. We were great friends with another family, the Emrichs from Delaware. I see our smiling faces, there were seven of us kids, as we sit in the grass at the side of the community pool that we went to every day – weather permitting. I can hear Sweet Caroline and In the Year 2525 playing over the loudspeakers as we splashed each other. I look at myself and wonder: why did I think I was so fat and ugly – even then, at 7 years old? Now I see a cute little girl. I’ve wasted so much time dwelling in that negative place.

Us standing in front of graduate student housing at the University of Illinois. Our cousins came to visit. I am front left.

So many people in the pictures are gone. Finding images of my dad holding his grandchildren as newborns, when they are now in their thirties, some even approaching 40!, knowing he has been gone for 16 years brings warm memories and the ache of missing him.

It reminds me how much he reveled in being a grandfather. He had six that he doted on.

The realization that Gary and I are on the precipice of being the oldest generation is mind-blowing. There are so few elders left and those that are still with us face serious health threats. I am grateful that they are here. The shape and nature of our family has changed and continues to evolve. It is the cycle of life, and I cannot control it, try as I might.

I think it is time to put the photos aside and look forward. It is fine to take a trip down memory lane, but I can’t live there. I need to focus on my family as it is today. I want to shed the negative self-image and create a healthier one; one that I can walk in more comfortably for the rest of my life. That is a more fruitful assignment. Good luck to me.  

Lessons Learned

A visit with Paula and David in Florida

After spending the last few weeks going over Paula’s survival story, I am struck by so many things. From the mundane: I wonder if her enduring love of chocolate has anything to do with the comfort and pleasure it brought her when the Russian army shared the treats as the war was finally ending. She and her family must have felt some relief, there was light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. Paula continues to crave chocolate and perhaps she finds comfort in it. Of course, she could simply like the taste.

I also think of the profound: how having her world turned upside down when she was just a child left her fearful for the rest of her life. She was able to take pleasure in life, she had loving relationships, but the cautiousness and the need to protect herself and those she loved was right at the surface. It was a huge price to pay as a child, an innocent.

I wonder how much of that reticence was who she was, even before the war. She described herself as an obedient child. She was likely shy before being thrust into the uncertainty and chaos that came with the Nazis. We will never know – she will never know – who she might have been, what she might have achieved. She was a smart girl with a sharp mind, good with numbers, a fast learner, quick to pick up languages. But she was growing up in a shtetl culture that didn’t encourage higher education for girls. I don’t know whether she felt that she hadn’t reached her potential or if she felt frustrated by her limited opportunities. Paula poured her energies into her family and they benefitted from that. I think her granddaughters feel an obligation to take up where she left off, to make the most of their opportunities and they have done just that. It is a blessing and a burden for them.

I can’t help but think of the many people, not just survivors of the Holocaust, but survivors of war crimes and oppression throughout history, who were and continue to be stifled. Not only is it a loss for that individual, but the world has been deprived. Paula and David were able to build constructive lives, so many others were not. Many were overcome by their sadness, their loss. We pay a huge price for humanity’s cruelty. Can’t we do better?

I think about the price she paid. About eight years ago we were visiting Paula and David in their condo in Florida. Paula was already on her Alzheimer’s journey, but she was still Paula. They didn’t need an aide yet. I sat at the kitchen table with her while Gary chatted with his Dad in the living room. Paula told me she was feeling troubled. I asked her what was on her mind.

“I keep wondering about my father,” she said.

Samuel had been killed by the Nazis more than 70 years before.

“What is it you are wondering about?”

She sighed, stirring her tea.

“I worry that he was buried alive,” she said.

I didn’t respond for a bit, taking it in, feeling so sad for her. Eventually I responded.

“I’m so sorry, Paula. That is an agonizing thought…but there is no reason to believe that’s what happened.” I said it almost as a question, wondering if she knew something she had not previously revealed. She mulled that over and shrugged.

I imagined her thinking about the story of the two men who came to Serniki, how they climbed out of the pit of corpses to escape. How could she not wonder?

“But what if he was alive?” she asked.

“We’ll never know…. I’m sorry.”

I knew I was out of my depth. I just wanted to comfort her but didn’t know how.

“But,” I continued, “I know you have good memories of your father. Let’s think about that.” I asked her about the stories he told her when she was a child. She didn’t mention her fear again, but I don’t imagine the thought left her.

Though the war took an extraordinary toll, Paula did reap the benefit of unexpected helpers, starting with the assistance provided by a Pole, Dimitrov Lacunyitz. I think about those Poles who stepped forward and those who collaborated and what made the difference. What pushed a person to choose to be on the right side of history? Unfortunately, in Poland today, there is a right-wing government which seems intent on whitewashing their history. They are making it increasingly difficult to acknowledge that there were collaborators. The mass executions could not have happened without local assistance. At the same time, we need to acknowledge those who overcame their fear and did the right thing. The Silberfarbs would not have survived without them. It is a tension that we in America face, as well. The impulse to ignore or sweep under the rug the ugliness in our history is strong, but we do that at our own peril. We all need to reckon with our past. We can’t only celebrate the heroism because it denies the experience, the reality of those who were mistreated.

I think about the importance of family. The Silberfarbs depended on each other; Lea was a tower of strength.  There were times when there were tensions between them, but the bond was stronger. Their extended family offered support through the ordeal in Serniki, too. They regularly sought shelter with cousins during the unrest in town. And, in the ultimate act of generosity, Uncle Nachum opened his home in Cuba to his wife’s sister-in-law and her children. He gave them a new start. My father-in-law, David, also got support from his family – they may not have been quite as warm and welcoming, but they made a new beginning possible. Where would we be without family?

I think about luck. While their survival was made possible by their own strength and ingenuity, luck was a critical element, too. When bombs fell, the Silberfarbs were spared. When Lea chose to go right instead of left in the woods, they avoided violence. When she knocked on a door begging for food, she wasn’t killed. Was that luck? Intuition? Fate? So many times, things could have gone differently. All of it had to fall into place for them to make it.

I think about faith. One might emerge from the ordeal with faith shattered or strengthened. My father-in-law believed God had spared him. That faith doesn’t come naturally to me, but understanding how meaningful it was to David, certainly gives me food for thought.

There are so many lessons to be learned by studying the Holocaust. I wish more people would take the time to learn.

Displaced

When World War II ended in Europe on May 8, 1945 most of the continent bore the scars of bombed out villages, millions dead and millions more displaced. Imagine resettling the entire population of New York City all at once. When the war ended that was the task. So many cities had been destroyed; millions needed to be resettled. Estimates of the number of displaced persons (DPs) vary wildly depending on who is included in that category: prisoners of war, concentration camp survivors, partisans, and refugees from places caught in the cross-fire flooded Europe. At the low end, 6.5 million people were displaced, at the high end 17 million. Lea, Bernard, Paula and Sofia Silberfarb were among them.

For some DPs, once the bullets stopped flying and the bombs stopped falling, they could go home and rebuild their lives. They could either reclaim their property (if it still existed) or start anew in their hometowns; they weren’t afraid to go back. In fact, by September of 1945, three-quarters of the refugees did go back to their country of origin. For others, including the Silberfarbs, going ‘home’ wasn’t an option. Serniki, reclaimed as part of the Soviet Union, held painful memories and they knew they were not welcome there. Their future lay elsewhere.

In order to establish order and begin the process of repatriating DPs, the Allies divided Germany and Austria into zones. Great Britain, France, the United States and Soviet Union each controlled sectors, and all but the Soviets set up camps to house the refugees. The USSR had a policy of expecting all its DPs to reintegrate into Soviet society, irrespective of their status as a former prisoner of war, a concentration camp survivor, or refugee and therefore no DP camps were set up in their zone. The other Allied countries utilized abandoned military barracks, hospitals, apartment buildings, private homes and other assorted structures to establish DP camps. In December of 1945 the American zone had 134, and by June of 1947, they had 416 sites. Great Britain had 272, while the French hosted 45.

An organization called Birchah (the Hebrew word for ‘flight’), which was a semi-clandestine Zionist network, helped Jewish survivors get to DP camps.  With their assistance the Silberfarbs left Pinsk and ended up in a camp in Ranshofen, Austria.

Ironically, Ranshofen was located near Brunau, Hitler’s birthplace. The DP camp was made up of brick buildings that were each two stories, with two two-bedroom apartments on each floor.  The Silberfarbs were assigned one bedroom in an apartment, and another family was assigned the other bedroom. The two families shared the common spaces (living room, kitchen and bathroom). Although the accommodations were not spacious, it was a welcome change from the instability of the prior four years. They had a roof over their head, shelter from the weather and food.

The other family assigned to the Silberfarb apartment included a man, Beryl Bakst, and his two adult children, David, who was 23, and Batya, who was 20, and her soon-to-be husband, Fishel. The families became close, sharing stories of their harrowing experiences. David was particularly taken with Paula, who despite being 9 years younger, was a good listener, sympathetic, smart, pretty and mature well beyond her years.

Paula and David in Ranshofen circa 1946/47

They were all in Ranshofen for the next two years before leaving on the next step of their journey. The Silberfarbs wanted to go to Palestine, as did Batya and Fishel. Beryl and David were trying to get to the United States. The paperwork to get visas and arrange travel was a bureaucratic nightmare that took patience and perseverance. In the meanwhile, Paula and David spent a lot of time together, as well as taking classes and participating in activities. David played in a volleyball tournament against other DP camp teams, which his team won.

One of the factors that determined which camp a refugee went to was where they wanted to resettle. For example, the best chance to immigrate to Palestine was from a DP camp in Italy. After some time at Ranshofen, Batya and Fishel went to Italy, since that was their goal. The Silberfarbs didn’t because they were still considering the option offered by family already settled in Cuba.

Immigrating to Palestine was very difficult and conditions in the Holy Land were challenging as the area tried to absorb survivors and build a new country in a hostile environment. In 1939 Great Britain, which exercised authority over the area, severely limited Jewish immigration. After the war, 69,000 survivors attempted illegal immigration, less than half were successful. Others were arrested and interned on Cyprus. Batya and Fishel were among those waylaid in Cyprus. In fact, their daughter, Rochelle, was born there. Once the state of Israel was established in 1948, immigration flowed more freely. Batya, Fishel and Rochelle finally made it to a Jewish homeland, and faced another war, the war for Israeli independence.

Meanwhile, intent on getting to America, Beryl and David went to another DP camp in Germany, one step closer to their goal. David and Paula agreed to correspond by letter. David told Paula that if she ended up going to Cuba, they would meet again. Paula held on to that thought.

Ranshofen was slated to close in 1948. The Silberfarbs had no choice but to move on. They went to another nearby DP camp. Lea, based on Bernie and Sofia’s wish to go to Israel, was still trying to make arrangements, but was not yet successful. She was also corresponding with her late husband’s family in Cuba. Two of Samuel’s sisters, Bushe and Mary, had settled in Havana with their respective husbands, Nachum and Solomon, before World War II.

Lea wrote to Bushe and Nachum, explaining her predicament. The children wanted to go to Israel, but she was unable to secure passage. Nachum, in response, wrote a heartfelt letter offering to sponsor them in coming to Cuba. He pointed out that life would be difficult in Israel, as a widowed mother without family to help. He suggested that they try life in Cuba. If they didn’t like it after a year, he would arrange immigration to Israel. He wrote that it would likely be easier at that point to immigrate, as post-war tensions eased, and the newly created State of Israel got on its feet. The Silberfarbs were touched by Nachum’s letter and generosity and were swayed by the soundness of his argument. They agreed to go to Havana.

During their family conversations about their plans, Paula kept silent. In her heart, she wanted to go to Cuba, thinking it was her chance to see David again. But, she didn’t think it was fair to try and influence the decision based on her burgeoning romance. She was very excited when the decision was made.

Meanwhile, the Silberfarbs bided their time at the new DP camp. Paula was back in school. She particularly liked math. A fellow survivor, a man who was an engineer by training, taught arithmetic and geometry. He was a volunteer at the makeshift school. He may not have known much about teaching, but that didn’t trouble Paula. She loved the precision and logic of the subject and took to it naturally. In addition to the academics, Paula took sewing. An organization, ORT, set up vocational training opportunities in the DP camps. Paula took full advantage.

The Silberfarbs planned to sail to Cuba from France. They left the DP camp only to find that the ship wasn’t there. With the assistance of another organization, HIAS, which helped with paperwork, and additional funds from Uncle Nachum, the Silberfarbs flew from Paris to Havana. Flying was unheard of among the survivors! It was another act of generosity by Nachum.

They arrived in Havana to both a warm welcome and warm weather. Paula’s aunts and uncles set up a furnished apartment for them. Paula began working, first in Uncle Solomon’s store and then in Uncle Nachum’s. She liked the responsibility of work, completing her tasks to the best of her ability, and she treated the stores as if they were her own. She felt a loyalty to her uncles who continued to be so supportive of her and her mother and siblings. They settled into life in Havana, enjoying for the first time tropical fruits like mangos, going to the beach and picking up another language, Spanish, along the way.

Paula resumed her correspondence with David, now that they were both settled. David was in a rooming house in Brooklyn near his Uncle Willie and Aunt Rose and had a job at their pickle factory. They agreed he would come to Havana for a visit. He saved his money and he went to Cuba in November of 1949 to see if they might have a future together.

Survival

NOTE: We pick up my mother-in-law Paula’s story, as the place where they were sheltering became unsafe. It is early in 1943.

Lea gathered her children and they moved on, grateful to Dimitrov for his generosity, but well aware that they had no choice but to leave. This would be the pattern for the next two years. They would find shelter, an abandoned hut, or a farmer who supported the Partisans who let them stay in his barn, or a camp in the woods with other Jews, and stay in that place for as long as it seemed safe. It could be days or weeks, inevitably, though, the danger of German soldiers or collaborators closed in. Lea could not let her guard down.

After leaving Dimitrov’s farm they met up with a group of Jews in the forest who knew where there were other Partisans. They went through the dense forest to find them. At night Lea would venture out of the forest to knock on doors to beg for food – some gave; others didn’t. One night a dog bit her on the foot. When she got back to their camp Lea boiled pinecones and used the water to clean the wound, unfortunately it became infected and it hobbled her.

Lea did her best to keep up the pace as they continued their trek through the woods, but eventually she needed to stop to rest her throbbing foot. Bernie, fearful that they would be caught and angry at his mother’s injury, left them and went ahead. The girls stayed with their mother. After a long while, he came back – he realized he couldn’t leave his mother and sisters. Fortunately, with time, Lea’s wound healed.

They came across another farmer who took them to a hut. Lea sewed for that farmer. During the war everything was in short supply, anything that could be repaired needed to be. Lea’s skills were put to use and in return the farmer provided food. They stayed there for about 6 weeks. Paula had reprieve enough to notice the beauty of the surrounding green forest. To Paula the woods came to represent safety.

At the end of the 6 weeks, the farmer told them where there was a Jewish encampment and they started in that direction. But they heard shooting, so they changed direction. They later heard the Partisans where they were headed got overconfident, got drunk and careless; a gang of Crimeans attacked them. Jews and Partisans were killed. Fortunately, once again, Lea’s good sense kept them away from danger.

While on the move, they crossed paths with a neighbor from Serniki, Natan Bobrov. He told them that more Jewish Partisans were in Lasitsk, a town north and east of where they were at that point. They made their way there.

During all of this, Lea fed her children positive thoughts. “The war will finish,” she reassured them. She reminded them, “We have family in Brazil and Cuba.” She kept their spirits up as best she could. She was always thinking a step ahead, of ways to escape. “We had hope,” Paula remembered. They huddled together for warmth and kept going.

They came to a clearing in the woods and saw a house. Knocking on the door was always a risk, but Lea used her best judgment. Unbeknownst to her they came upon a village that supported the Partisans. Paula was asked to crochet a huge scarf with scalloped edges– she didn’t actually know how to do it, but she persevered and figured it out. Paula stayed in the house, she knit or crocheted all day, making gloves and socks to support the Partisans. Lea, Bernie and Sofia stayed in the barn. They helped with farm chores. The family’s son was also in the Partisans. Lea and the children stayed the whole winter. If company came to visit, Paula went to the barn to join her mom and siblings.

At this point, the Russians began to turn the tide of the war. Slowly the Soviet army reclaimed the parts of Poland they had occupied before the Nazi invasion. Serniki was liberated from German control, but the Silberfarbs were about 100 kilometers away. The front moved but the war was not yet over.

Lea and her children were on the move again and they came upon the Soviet army who shared canned goods and chocolates with them. Paula could not remember the last time she had chocolate. She delighted in the rich, sweet treat. They were relieved to be in a bigger town, though bombing continued, they felt safer in the company of the army.

Life was improving, but then Sofia got typhus. Lea tried to treat her but thought it was serious enough that she brought Sofia to the Russian infirmary. Sofia was cared for there. Each child, in turn, got ill. Paula was admitted to the infirmary, as well. Bernie didn’t trust the doctors, and despite his illness, refused to be examined. He went so far as to jump out a window to avoid his mother’s efforts to get him to go with her to the doctor. Lea worked in the infirmary, cleaning, emptying bedpans in return for the care of her children. After the children recovered, the army gave them a ride to Pinsk. They sat atop barrels of kerosene on the back of a truck for the bumpy ride, but at least they weren’t walking.

When they got to Pinsk, they shared a house with another family. Lea baked and sold bread to try to bring in some needed money, even though doing so was illegal under the Communist system. She was questioned by the NKVD, the secret police, numerous times.

One day at the market, as she was selling bread, she spotted someone who looked familiar. She studied the man at a distance and slowly it dawned on her. She approached cautiously, but as she drew closer, their eyes met. It was Dmitrov Lacunyetz, the farmer who first hid the Silberfarbs. Neither of them could believe their eyes. They hugged in relief, absorbing the fact that each had survived the war. It was a tearful reunion. “Now I can die in peace,” he told her. Throughout the war he wondered if he had really helped them. Lea shared some yeast and salt with him as a gesture of appreciation, though she felt it was little compared to what he had done for them

Striving for normalcy, Paula went back to school in Pinsk. The war finally ended in May of 1945 while the family was in Pinsk. Paula was now 14 years old and had spent three years moving through the forest with her mom and siblings in a quest to survive.

The Silberfarbs knew they couldn’t go back to Serniki – there was nothing for them there. They wanted to go to Israel even though they had family in Brazil and Cuba. They wanted to live among Jews. Lea weighed their options. The first step was to go to a displaced persons (DP) camp, which was where transit arrangements could be made. What they found at the DP camp would change Paula’s life.

The red dot is Serniki in Belarus – too small to merit a label. Even today there are no large towns or cities nearby.

A Different World: Wichita Falls, TX 1954

Note: This is another essay by my mother, Feige Brody. Here she looks back on her time accompanying my father to Wichita Falls, Texas, where he served in the U.S. Air Force. Mom was newly married and just 21 years old.

I walked into Idlewild airport (now JFK) in New York in 1954. I was taking a flight to join my husband who was stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. Hours later I landed in Dallas, a whole different world. Signs jumped out at me, ‘No Colored Allowed’ above water fountains, bathroom entrances and restaurants. ‘Whites Only’ plastered along the brightly lit walls. It shocked me like a slap in the face. I felt revolted, but why was I so appalled? I read books, I saw movies, read newspaper articles, I knew segregation existed. So why was I so upset?

I lived in a different world. My neighborhood in Brooklyn was integrated. I went to elementary, junior high, high school and Brooklyn College with Negroes, as African-Americans were called at that time. We had one Chinese student whose father owned the laundry around the corner, and I knew Hispanic kids, too; my classmates were all colors from different countries around the world. It seemed to me that they joined school clubs and played team sports, in fact some went on to play on professional teams. We took pride in that. This was a time when Jackie Robinson was a beloved member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The ballparks and arenas that I went to weren’t segregated – watching games at Ebbetts Field, Madison Square Garden, and the Polo Grounds we all sat together. On the surface, at least, it seemed to be an integrated society.

When we went to the movies, we saw famous white actors in black-face, where Fred Astaire imitated Bojangles, and we didn’t think anything of it.  I was oblivious to the racism implicit in those movies or the wider culture. I didn’t see the subtler signs of racism in Brooklyn. When I arrived at the airport in Dallas, it was blindingly obvious.

Barry picked me up in a beat-up blue Pontiac with 150,000 miles on the odometer. It had dings, scars and scratches from battles won and lost. Riding to the air force base we struggled with the balky car fan which provided little relief from the oppressive heat and the erratic radio reception.

The ride was even more nerve wracking because Barry did not have his driver’s license yet. He had just learned to drive, my father taught him in Brooklyn before he left, and this was the very first car he ever bought; no one in his family had one before. Barry was waiting for his license to come in the mail. I kept my fingers crossed that we didn’t get pulled over by the police.

We started our slow drive to Wichita Falls through a landscape totally new to me. I expected to see oil derricks, but they weren’t anywhere to be found. Instead I saw houses with what looked like water pumps in their yards but were in fact oil pumps. I later learned that the derricks wasted too much oil and were replaced by numerous, smaller pumps.

Our trip took us past small towns – some had signs “No Colored Allowed.” Another shock to my system.

As we got closer to the air force base the air quality changed. An odor of rotten eggs and something metallic overwhelmed us. I learned that Texans say they blow the odor to Oklahoma overnight and they return the stench to Texas in the morning. I didn’t realize until then that Oklahoma was just a stone’s throw away from Wichita Falls.

We arrived at our rented apartment in town as they had no room for us on the base. Unable to open the door with the key we had been provided, a neighbor came over saying, “You have to poosh and pool.” Barry translated, he pushed and pulled and got the door open.

That first day, Barry drove me to do some basic shopping. I had to learn the lingo: I got a sack, not a bag, and pop, not soda. I was coming out of the store as a young Black woman walked toward me and she stepped off the wide, shady sidewalk into the sunny, dirty gutter. She never looked up and I couldn’t catch her eye. I was confused. That’s when I noticed the “Whites only” sign on the supermarket. The woman went through an alley to place her order at a side window. She wasn’t permitted in the store. I rarely went into town again. I lived in an all-white neighborhood and went to a small store on the corner. I didn’t see a Black person unless I went to the base.

On Wednesday, April 20, 1955 I went into labor and had my first child, Steven, at the air force base hospital. I went in at noon and delivered at 3:00 p.m. and I came home on Friday. I was prepared to give birth without family or friends present, but I was not prepared for natural childbirth! It was without any drugs for pain because the hospital staff were on their lunch break and when they returned at 1:00 it was too late; it would have been dangerous to the baby.

I called my parents on Sunday I told them we had the bris. Mom corrected me, telling me it was a circumcision (since it wasn’t officiated by a rabbi or performed by a mohel).

Barry and I survived being new parents with Dr. Spock, Mother’s telephone advice and a caring pediatrician. The pediatrician advised bringing Steven out in the fresh air. On a sunny, mild day I took Steve out with a blanket and put him on the grass. A neighbor came running out, shouting, “No, no! Chiggers!” She explained that chiggers were tiny bugs living in the grass and similar to mosquitoes, but they bit you and stayed under your skin. You have to light match at the site of the bite and watch it crawl out. It was the last time we walked on the grass. I never heard of that in Brooklyn.

My parents flew to visit us one long weekend. Barry went to the base with a friend and gave Dad that beat up blue Pontiac. Dad couldn’t get over the way he was treated when he went to the base or the PX. He was waved through security without needing to stop. After my parents left, the airmen were in formation as the general passed. Barry had to smile because the general was the spitting image of my father. Calling home, my father said, “No way, they were just being polite.” The thought on base was that the general came to do his inspection early, in disguise. The beat-up blue Pontiac was a ruse.

There were good things about our time in Wichita Falls, besides the birth of Steven. We made a life-long friend in Oliver Hailey (who went on to become a playwright with a show on Broadway). And our neighbors did help, especially the one who took a huge scorpion out of my bathtub. We were glad to leave and looked forward to our next assignment at Westover Air Force Base in Chicoppee Falls, Massachussetts.

We packed up the car. They didn’t make car seats for babies yet, so we put a small mattress across the back seat and tucked Steven in. Leaving at midnight, we drove until 3:00 a.m. and were somewhere in Arkansas when we realized we were hungry. We pulled into a small shack that said ‘Eats’ in big letters.

Stopping, leaving Steven sleeping the in the back seat, we walked into an all-Black restaurant. We saw no outward sign; we had no idea. They served us politely and one of the patrons kept an eye on Steven, looking out the door and telling us that all was well. As we left, I knew if the opposite had occurred, a Black family stopped at a white restaurant, it would not have gone the same way.

We arrived in Brooklyn for a brief stay between assignments. It was good to be back. Home is where the heart is.

Paula’s Journey Continues

Note: This is the next chapter in Paula’ journey. I have continued to research her story and the Holocaust in general since this was originally posted over two years ago which has allowed me to add more information and to improve the clarity of the narrative. If you have read this before, I hope you will choose to read it in its updated form. If you are new to it, I hope it both broadens and deepens your understanding of the personal tragedies experienced by survivors.

As I noted last week, most of the story comes from Paula’s Shoah testimony. One of the difficulties inherent in working from that is deciphering the names of people and places since they are either Yiddish or Polish. I have done my best to present the correct names and locations but recognize the potential for error. I don’t believe those potential errors materially change the truth of the story.

As a reminder, Paula’s immediate family, the Silberfarbs, included her mother (Lea), her father (Samuel), her older brother (Bernard or Bernie), and younger sister (Sofia). Her paternal grandfather was Gershon. One other piece of information for context: Serniki was a town of about 5,000 people, about 1,000 were Jewish.

After the two desperate men who escaped death shared their horrifying experience, the atmosphere in Serniki changed. Townspeople learned that Pinsk, the closest and biggest city, 19 miles to the northwest, was overrun by the Nazis on July 4, 1941. It was just a matter of time until they continued their march across Poland. As invasion by the powerful German army loomed, the Russians retreated, leaving a power vacuum in Serniki.

Some Gentiles took advantage of the absence of leadership and appointed themselves police, meting out justice as they saw fit. Anti-Semitism reared its ugly head. Where previously the communities peacefully coexisted, now Jewish homes were robbed, violence against Jews was perpetrated without consequence. Many Jews hid their valuables, believing that they were vulnerable not only when the Germans invaded, but at the hands of their Gentile neighbors. 

The Silberfarbs took their prized possessions to a farmer on the outskirts of town who did business with Samuel. The whole family went because Samuel and Lea planned to leave Serniki permanently, continuing on after securing their things. While they were with the farmer, they received word that Gershon (Samuel’s father) had been murdered. Devastated, Samuel felt they had no choice but to go back to Serniki to bury him.

Upon their return they learned a man named Danilo Polohowicz was the murderer. They heard Danilo shot Gershon as he stood in his backyard garden in broad daylight. There were witnesses and fearing no consequence, Danilo boasted about it in town.  He was right to fear no punishment; he wasn’t arrested or prosecuted for the crime.

Samuel went to his father’s house to oversee the funeral arrangements and, in keeping with Jewish tradition, stayed with the body until the interment. Lea and the children went back to their house, but instead of staying in the main house, they spent the night in the apartment next door. Lea thought, given the atmosphere in town, that the house would be a likely target of robbers. Lea was right. The four Silberfarbs, Lea and her three children, huddled under the bed in the apartment, listening to the sounds of burglars ransacking their house. The next morning, they cautiously returned to their home to survey the damage and found it in disarray, with floorboards lifted.

That day a German soldier on horseback came through the streets shouting, “Every Jew to the market!” Lea knew what that meant. She had no intention of taking her children to the market. Samuel still wasn’t home – as far as she knew he remained at his father’s house. Lea decided to try to escape with the children. She didn’t know where Samuel was or how to get information to him, but she didn’t think she could do anything to help him, so she focused her attention on saving her children.

They ran out their backyard through fields, across roads, towards the Stubla River, avoiding areas they suspected had police activity. As they approached the river, Bernie abruptly stopped. Lea had persuaded him to come, despite his reluctance to leave without his father. Now Bernie was unwilling to go any further – he said he wouldn’t leave without Daddy. Lea couldn’t convince him. Bernie turned back to town. Lea felt she had no choice but to continue. She took the girls to the farmer who hid their belongings. When they got to his house, he covered them all with hay and told them to wait while he went to town to investigate.

It felt like an eternity until the farmer came back and reported that the Germans kept the men to do work – to dig ditches. The streets of Sernicki flooded easily and in preparation for trucks and troops, they commanded the Jewish men of the town to dig drainage ditches. The women and children were sent home. The farmer told the Silberfarbs it was safe to return. Instead they went to a cousin’s house. This cousin’s house was situated closer to the Stubla and offered a better route of escape than their own home. By this time, it was dark out. They were relieved to see a light was on in their cousin’s house– if the house was dark, Lea was prepared to hide under the bridge by the river. They were doubly relieved to find that Bernie was also there. He had gone to the market, but since he was under 14 years of age, too young to be put to work, he was sent home. He, too, decided to go to the cousin’s house. Bernie reported that he hadn’t seen his father.

The next day, Lea went to the market alone to see if she could find Samuel. She spotted her nephew on a work detail but could not locate her husband. While she was near the market a Gentile townsperson gave Lea a message from Samuel, “Say kaddish for me.” [Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead.] Lea couldn’t allow herself to panic or be distracted. She went back to the cousin’s house and thought about what to do next.

That afternoon they heard machine gun fire. Later they heard what happened. Samuel was hiding in the garden of his Aunt Fanny’s house with Lea’s brother, Avrumchik. They discussed escaping. Avrumchik agreed to run to the river first because he wasn’t married and he had no children. If there was no gunfire, Samuel would follow. There was gunfire, but unbeknownst to Samuel, Avrumchik wasn’t injured. Samuel stayed put. German soldiers, combing the town for Jews, found him in the garden and arrested him.

Later that day 120 men, the town’s Jewish leaders, and one woman were executed. They were marched to a ditch near the cemetery, lined up and shot from behind. Among them was Samuel Silberfarb.

The Germans did not liquidate the entire Jewish community of Serniki at that point. They created a ghetto for the remaining Jews. Families doubled up in houses located on just a few streets. The Silberfarbs lived in the ghetto with another family. In Samuel’s absence, Uncle Avrumchik looked after them.

While living in the ghetto, Paula learned to knit and crochet (which turned out to be valuable skills through the war years). Fortunately, they had access to books – Paula sat by the window reading by the moonlight reflecting off the snow. Reading gave her rare moments of peace. Food was scarce – Mother would make a soup with a few potatoes, mostly water. They were barely getting by and, in fact, Lea’s mother passed away while they were in the ghetto.

Lea knew that they would not be permitted to stay in the ghetto indefinitely. It was now April of 1942 and there were rumors of an ‘aktion.’ (An ‘aktion’ was when the Germans would order the gathering of the Jews in the town square and either march them to the rim of a ravine and shoot them or deport them on trains to concentration camps.) The Silberfarbs snuck out of the ghetto and went again to the cousin’s house closer to the river. Across the Stubla there was a small group of wealthier homes (some Jews lived there – Paula thought perhaps they were allowed to stay by paying bribes). Those homes provided an even better opportunity for escape. The Silberfarbs had a relative in one of those homes – they decided to try to get there, though there was a guard at the bridge. Lea studied his routine and advised Bernie, and an aunt and uncle when to sneak across. Lea and the girls planned to go the next day. Later that afternoon there was a call for Jews to re-register. Lea understood what this meant and told her children “We are not going! We will not go back to town.” Uncle Avrumchik did go back to investigate (they never saw him again).

That night Lea couldn’t sleep. She sat in the window looking out. She saw headlights coming across the bridge – she understood that this meant that more of the German army was arriving. Lea woke everyone in the house (more than just the Silberfarbs were there) – they went out the back and fled across the river and into the woods. They dispersed in different directions, though Lea, Paula and Sofia stayed together. The next day they heard the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire coming from town. 850 men, women and children, the remaining Jewish population of Serniki were murdered and buried in a ditch on the outskirts of town.

As Lea and the girls fled, she thought of a man that Samuel used to do business with – they would try to make their way to him. His name was Dmitrov Lacunyetz.  When they arrived he cried like a baby when he saw them and heard what happened to Samuel. Bernie, and the aunt and uncle had already arrived at Dmitrov’s farm. Dmitrov brought them all to a forested area on his property to hide. He kept them there for 16 weeks.

Dmitrov supplied them with food once a day. After a while, he sent his son-in-law to deliver the provisions. In order to avoid bringing suspicion upon themselves, they varied the routine. The son-in-law, now that it was getting colder, built them a little hut out of young birch trees. There were 8 of them in hiding. They had two spoons. Two people at a time would eat from the kettle that was brought to them. There would be some arguing over the food – “Don’t eat so much! Leave for the others!” It was usually a soup with millet (a grain used frequently in the region). At one point, Bernie was so hungry he couldn’t take it anymore – he went begging. He had some success and brought back and shared whatever he was given. On his rounds, he was asked “Are you Gypsy or Jew?” He said, “Gypsy,” thinking it was the lesser of two evils.

There was a Partisan brigade (a group of people resisting/fighting the Nazis) in the area. Though the Silberfarbs weren’t part of the brigade, Lea felt they were safer when they were near them. Unfortunately, there was a dispute with a farmer over a cow and the Partisans killed the farmer’s son in the confrontation. The farmer vowed to inform the Germans. The area became unsafe. It was now the end of 1942. The Silberfarbs had to move on.

Lea Silberfarb on the left. Paula on the right.

A Survivor’s Story: The Beginning

Note: In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am revisiting the beginning of my mother-in-law’s story. When most people think of survivors of the Holocaust, they think of concentration camp survivors. But, there are other important stories, of Jews who made it through by hiding and fighting alongside the Partisans in the woods, using guile and courage, and sometimes the kindness of strangers, to sustain themselves. That is the story of my in-laws. Another thing that is important to remember is the quality of life those survivors enjoyed before the wholesale destruction of their shtetl culture. Not only did millions lose their lives, but a whole way of life ended. This story brings some of that to life. The information for this post comes from Paula Bakst’s Shoah testimony. On August 17, 1995, Paula, David, their children (with spouses) and grandchildren, went to the Pines Hotel in the Catskills to be interviewed and taped as part of Steven Spielberg’s project.

Paula Silberfarb was born on February 15, 1931 in Serniki, Poland, a small town in the northwest corner of what today is Ukraine. It was a landscape of forests, meadows, marshes and rivers. The Stubla River ran along the side of the town and provided for her father’s livelihood as a boat-maker. It was a primitive town: there was no electricity or running water in their homes, no cars or trucks, the roads weren’t paved. They didn’t have a movie theater and only one family had a radio (and Paula never heard it).

Serniki was made up of Jews and Gentiles, and though they lived peaceably before the war, they didn’t mingle; they lived clustered on different streets. They spoke different languages: Jews spoke Yiddish, the Gentiles spoke a combination of Polish/Ukranian and Russian, but they were able to communicate. They didn’t socialize, though they did have business connections. The cultural and religious separation became important in the crucible of the war.

Paula was the middle child, with an older brother, Bernard, and a younger sister, Sofia. Though middle children are often attention seeking, Paula was not. She was shy and obedient. If Mother gave her a chore, she did it. If she was told not to do something, she didn’t. She left the troublemaking and risk taking to her older and younger siblings.

The Silberfarbs made a loving home. Their house consisted of three rooms: one large bedroom, where they all slept – her parents (Samuel and Lea) in one bed, Paula and Sofia in another, and Bernie in his own; they had a separate living room and kitchen. They also had a large one room apartment next door that they rented out. A lush, colorful flower garden adorned the front and side of the house; a vegetable garden in the back. Further behind the house, they had a field where they grew potatoes and wheat. They hired someone to help with that field. They brought the grain to the mill and Lea baked her own bread on a daily basis.

Paula was lovingly cared for by her mother and father. Lea was the primary caregiver, providing guidance and nourishment, in all senses, to her children. Her father, Samuel, was a boat builder. The boats were made of wood and powered by oars. Farmers used the boats to get their produce to bigger markets across the Stubla. Samuel purchased parcels of forested land from farmers, logged it and brought the lumber to Serniki to build the boats. When a boat was completed, the children would gather at the riverside to watch it launch. It was a community event. The business took a great deal of Samuel’s time, he wasn’t home much. When he was home, Paula fondly recalls him sitting on the side of the bed she shared with Sofia, before they went to sleep, telling them stories. He told tales based on Jules Verne’s books. Samuel was a learned man, he had gone to university in Kiev. He was in partnership with his father, Gershon, in the boat business.

Gershon, a widower, lived in his own home, bigger than Paula’s family home, near the market in town. He shared the house with one of his sisters. Gershon had an aristocratic bearing, with a square little beard. Other family members, aunts, uncles, cousins, both maternal and paternal, were scattered throughout Serniki.

Paula’s life was made up of family and friends and observance of Jewish rituals. There was one synagogue in town. Samuel went Friday nights, and the whole family joined him Saturday morning. The men sat downstairs, the women upstairs. Paula watched her brother, father and grandfather through small windows. Though some men in Serniki were bearded, Samuel was clean shaven. He was a modern man. After services, family and friends would come by the house. Samuel played chess while the children ran around outside.

Paula played with her friends, who were all Jewish. They played hopscotch and a game with sticks that involved tossing them to see who could throw it further. She also especially liked walking barefoot in the mud and puddles. Paula was particularly fond of one neighbor friend, Chaya. Once Paula stopped by her house and Chaya’s mother was making pancakes. She offered Paula one which she readily accepted. Paula was served the pancake on a fine piece of china, not an everyday dish. It made her feel special and was the kind of thing Paula noticed and appreciated, even 60 years after the fact.

In 1939 the Soviets invaded Serniki. Though she was frightened of the newly arrived Russians, Paula was eight when they took over, her day-to-day life went on largely unchanged. She wasn’t very aware of how it impacted her father’s business. The one major change was to her school life. In addition to attending cheder, to learn Hebrew and Torah, Paula went to public school. The public school had been run by Poles and Paula had already completed first grade when the Soviets took over. Though Paula’s father had taught his children the Russian alphabet and to read, the authorities made everyone repeat their grade, so she had to begin again. Paula resented it. She completed second grade in the Russian school. It was during her third year at school that life as she knew it completely changed.

In early summer of 1941, a father and son arrived in Serniki, on the run. They told the story of their town which was to the west; of being marched to stand at the edge of a ditch only to have the Germans shoot them in the back, causing everyone to fall in, one on top of another. The father and son fell just as the shooting started and were not wounded. They lay, feigning death, amongst the bodies until nightfall when the Nazis left. They climbed out over the corpses and ran.

The Jews of Serniki didn’t believe the story. They thought it was a plea for attention, for sympathy and for help. Paula’s mother, Lea, though, believed it. Lea said, “It is too terrible for a human mind to make up. A normal human wouldn’t make up such a thing.” This was the first Paula had heard about the atrocities – it was possible that the adults had heard things before, but she was shielded from it.

It was a good thing Lea believed it – that belief made all the difference.

Paula just after the war, in her early teens, but no longer a child.

A Daunting Task

The task was daunting. Four large cartons full of loose photographs sat on the floor of our study waiting to be reviewed and organized. Sorting them would be a difficult job – the contents of those boxes represented two long and eventful lives, spanning more than 70 years. When we were emptying out my father-in-law and mother-in-law’s house in Liberty, as part of their move to a new, smaller apartment closer to their children, we couldn’t take the time to decide what to do with each photo album and all the loose pictures we found. We set aside some of the framed photos on the wall to bring to the new place and put the rest in cartons. I volunteered to take the load to my house with the idea that at some point I would go through them to see what we had and organize them. Once I unloaded the car and put the boxes in our study — two years ago — it was easier to let them sit than to begin the project.

Then my father-in-law died – a month ago now. In the immediate aftermath, I opened a few of the boxes and grabbed some photos for my husband and his siblings to reminisce over when they did their Zoom shiva sessions. Questions about family history were raised. It felt like it was time to fully open the cartons and see what the contents could tell us.

Fortunately, last Thursday, while chatting with my daughter, Leah, I mentioned this project and she offered to help. On the spur of the moment she suggested coming home, she lives in the Boston area, the very next day and spending the weekend. The project was starting to feel a bit less daunting.

I went to Staples to get photograph containers. The material we would be sorting came in all different sizes. I bought various sized plastic bins. I had no idea how many we would need. I started with five. It turned out not to be enough.

Leah arrived and we got right to work. First, we strategized. We would leave whole photo albums intact. We thought we would start with a sort into three broad categories: photos from before and during World War II, the years in Cuba, and then the ‘modern’ era in America.

We dove in and found out that those categories weren’t going to cut it. There were a number of things that didn’t fit. For example, my mother-in-law saved thank you cards that included photographs from various weddings. That became a separate category. There were also various documents and letters among the photos. We set those aside in another pile. As we pored over the pictures, another issue emerged: we didn’t recognize the people and we couldn’t tell where or when the photo was taken.

I should note that it was not our job to decide if any of it should be thrown away. That decision would remain for Gary and his siblings once they knew what they had. Our plan is once it is safe to meet in person, the siblings will get together and look through the catalogue and decide what to do with it.

On Saturday, Leah and I spent about five or six hours sorting, learning as we went. We got better at recognizing faces. We started picking up on clues: clothes, background scenery like palm trees and wallpaper, the numbers at the bottom of the prints sometimes helped group items or names of photolabs. Gary used his phone and took some photos and texted them to the family to get their input. Slowly but surely, we made progress. At the end of the day on Saturday, when we decided to break for dinner, we had succeeded in emptying all but one box. We were left with many piles on our dining room table and a final box to go through on Sunday.

The table early on Saturday

Saturday evening I was surprised to find myself exhausted and parched. Something about the sustained concentration and the dust from handling old papers, left Leah and I mentally tired and very thirsty. It was a relief to relax and water myself!

The table when we began Sunday morning

We resumed our efforts after breakfast on Sunday. The last box contained whole photo albums, two of which we were hoping to find: Gary and his brother’s respective bar mitzvah albums. We were delighted to find them all intact and no loose photos to categorize.

We set about combining our existing piles and further refined our categories. It was painstaking because there were so many different ways one could organize things. We could have done it entirely chronologically, another option was to do it by people or family, and still another possibility was to group things by events. There was no right way to do it. We made our best guess at what would make sense and used a combination of those categories. We finished our task late in the afternoon.

Once Covid is over, we’ll invite the family to a photo-review party. That should be fun. Then the siblings can decide if they want to divide them up or digitize them or dispose of some of it.

So, what did the contents of those cartons tell us? I was struck by the many pictures of my mother-in-law smiling. It isn’t that Paula doesn’t smile, but when I think of her I see her in my mind’s eye with a serious countenance, especially in this last decade as Alzheimer’s robbed her of so much of her spark. It was good to reminded of her lighter side and to see her full of life.

The photos also show Paula and David living a life connected to others. Many pictures of family and friend gatherings over decades – the same core of people crowding around a table for a meal over the course of many years. One thing about living such a long life, many of the people in the photos are now gone. It is bittersweet but comforting to reflect on the richness of those lives.

Looking at the pictures over the years, it was also interesting and sometimes amusing to take in the fashions. The Bakst family went to celebrations in style!

Bakst Family 1969

I also realize how wonderful it is when there is a note on the back of a photo or in the margin of an album that gives the names of the people (especially babies!), the date and maybe the place. This might be less of a thing with digitized pictures since some of that information is embedded, but it was so helpful in this project. Interestingly many of the notes on the back of these photos were in another language – Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish and something we couldn’t recognize. We put a post-it on all of those so we could come back to them and ask for assistance with translation.

I couldn’t help but think about my own collection of photographs. When the pandemic began one of my early projects was to go through a couple of drawers of loose photos and organize them and I completed that to some extent.  I still have a large plastic bin in the basement that needs to be organized.

I have generally been good about creating photo albums. Whenever we come back from a trip, I make up an album soon after, even though the pictures are on my phone. I am not satisfied with scrolling through files of photos. I prefer to look at them in print, along with saved ticket stubs, maps and small memorabilia – almost like a scrapbook, but not going that far. I enjoy looking through our adventures from time to time. But, what will become of them when Gary and I are gone? I think about the many albums sitting in my mother’s place in Florida. She too documented her travels in albums, and she was lucky enough to travel extensively with my dad and even continued to after he died. I guess there is no avoiding having to make painful choices when the time comes.

The vast majority of pictures we sorted through over the weekend were of people, very few were of landscapes or other sites. It makes me think about the purpose of taking the pictures in the first place. These days, with cameras in phones, we have so many photos and videos. What will we do with them? Maybe they serve their purpose in the taking; in solidifying an image in our minds so that we can remember it better in the future. I’m curious how young adults feel about the photos on their phones – do they curate them or organize them? Do they look back at them?

Having undertaken this effort, I have a lot of questions. One random one: Why do we keep whole sheets of school profile pictures? You know the ones – the page of wallet-size pictures, followed by the same photo in a variety of sizes. I admit it is hard to throw away perfectly good pictures of our adorable children, but…..

I imagine that some of the material we found has historical value. Would a museum or research institute want it? The family may want to consider donating those items so that they are preserved properly.

We believe this is David’s membership card in a Zionist organization

Photography, no doubt, is also an art form. When Gary and I travel, or when we hike, I like to take some images of scenes that I think are particularly beautiful or interesting. I doubt anyone else would find them compelling.

I admit my brain is tired this Monday morning. But, I do feel a sense of accomplishment and hopefully it will be something the rest of the family will find enlightening when they can peruse the collection – once we emerge from this plague.

The table on Monday morning – I still need some boxes for the remaining items