A Summing Up

What is left to tell? Paula and David began their life together in Queens, New York. David continued working at the pickle factory. Paula was a homemaker and managed their finances. She was very frugal and even with David’s modest earnings, they were able to put away some money. Eventually they bought a car, and a few years after that (in 1963), they were able to buy a house in Rosedale, Queens. Rosedale bordered Nassau County, Long Island and had the look and feel of a suburban neighborhood, even though it was in the New York City limits.

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The Bakst house in Rosedale, pictured in 2018. Photo captured from GoogleMaps. David sold the house in 1990 (give or take a year).

Their oldest child, Rochelle, arrived 18 months into their marriage. Paula’s mother and sister, Lea and Sofia, flew up from Cuba to meet the newest generation of their family. Four years after that, in 1956, Paula and David’s first son, Steven, was born. Lea and Sofia came north again, this time on permanent visas. They stayed and lived with David and Paula. It was tight quarters, six of them, in their small apartment with one bathroom, but it was nothing they couldn’t manage given all that they had been through.

Gary arrived in 1959 and was the baby of the family for 8 years, until Doreen entered the picture. Now the Bakst family was complete. David, as he envisioned when he spoke to Uncle Nachum years earlier, moved up to become the general manager of the food distribution company that the pickle business grew into.

In their early years in New York, David and Paula attended night school to learn English and, in time, they became United States citizens. They straddled two worlds. They were a product of their Eastern European shtetl childhoods, a world that had been destroyed by the Nazis, and they bore the scars of that trauma, and now they were trying to fit into the modern American society of the 1950s and 1960s. They embraced much of what America offered, but were also anxious about their ability to understand American institutions. They continued to seek out the company of family and friends that shared their shtetl experience. The generation gap, a common experience of that era, was alive and well in the Bakst household.

Not too long after her arrival, Sofia met and married Marvin Bressler, and began her own family. The Bresslers also settled in Rosedale. They had three children, a girl and two boys.

Lea continued to live with Paula and David, until her death, of a brain tumor, in 1973. She was 80 years old. She was the only grandparent the Bakst children would know.

Bernie didn’t leave Cuba until after the communist revolution in 1959. He was a businessman enjoying his life in Havana, and in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of the Batista government, Bernie made a lot of money. With some reluctance, he, along with Nachum, Bushe, Solomon and Mary, left for Florida. The aunts and uncles, and their children, settled in North Miami Beach, a community of Cuban-Jewish exiles. Over the years, Paula and David would visit when they could. Nachum lived a long life, well into his nineties.

Bernie eventually moved further north and became a successful businessman, marrying, and starting a family in Woodmere, on Long Island (a short distance from Rosedale). He and his wife had two children.

As a result of their extended time in Cuba, Bernie and Sofia, in particular, developed an affinity for its culture and maintained a connection with it throughout their lives. As part of his business in America, Bernie owned a warehouse in Union City, New Jersey (a community with a lot of Cuban immigrants). Gary worked there a couple of summers and has vivid memories of the experience. Gary commuted from Rosedale to Jersey, with his uncle. Bernie drove like a maniac, waiting until the last minute to dart across three lanes of traffic to get to the exit of the highway. And, Bernie would play a game with the tolls at the bridges, tossing one coin at a time, hoping the wooden arm would go up before the full fare was paid. Bernie employed a number of Cuban men at the warehouse. Gary remembers the men cooking a communal lunch, pork spiced with garlic, pepper, onion and coriander, as well as the smell of strong coffee. Gary also picked up some Spanish words that weren’t taught in high school.

David’s sister, Batya, lived in Israel for 7 years, with Fishel and their daughter Rochelle. Batya left Israel and came to the United States to get a divorce (she wasn’t able to get a divorce in Israel). She lived with David and Paula while she waited for it to go through. After a year, Rochelle joined her mom in New York. Though Batya regretted leaving Israel, she felt she had no choice. In time, she remarried and had a son, Ben, and she became an educator. She and her family lived blocks away from the Baksts in Rosedale.

Batya carried her own brutal memories, one of which she shared in a speech she delivered at the Rosedale Jewish Center, where she was being honored as a woman of valor. With her children, Rochelle and Ben, in the audience, Batya recounted her time in the work camp (the one she was miraculously rescued from by the Iskra Partisan Brigade). She told of one particularly horrific experience. She was walking across the camp compound and she heard a slight thud and a small mew as a piece of balled up laundry fell to the ground nearby. Batya didn’t see who had dropped it and thought it might be a kitten so she bent down to see what was in the bunched-up fabric. She found an almost newborn baby girl, barely alive, seemingly frozen. Without thinking, Batya quickly scooped her up, held the bundle to her chest and hurried to her bunk. She tried to warm the baby. Over the next day or so, Batya smuggled water and milk and fed her as best she could. She seemed to be reviving, and Batya named her Ilana. She didn’t know what she was going to do with her, she was just going from moment to moment trying to protect the baby. At one point, much to Batya’s distress, Ilana started to cry, bringing a German soldier to investigate. The soldier grabbed the baby, and to Batya’s everlasting horror, he plunged a bayonet into her. Batya shared this memory from the bemah in the synagogue. It was the first Ben, who was about 14 at the time, had heard the story. Though he knew his mother had endured suffering during the Holocaust, he didn’t know the depth of her anguish until then. Batya died of a rare type of cancer in 1982, she was 57 years old. Her daughter, Rochelle, lovingly cared for her in her final days. When Ben became a father himself, he and his wife named one of their sons after Ilana.

Paula and David didn’t often speak of their wartime experiences with their children. For the older children, Rochelle and Steven, the impact of the trauma was more apparent. Paula was still having nightmares when Rochelle was young. Gary and Doreen were more removed from it, as Paula and David healed and as their economic circumstances improved. All four of the children, though, were acutely aware of the legacy they carried.

Out of the ashes of the destruction of Ivye and Sernicki, new generations took root in America. The Baksts and Silberfarbs had 11 children, who in turn had 15 grandchildren and, to date, two great-grandchildren.

Other Voices: Rosedale

Note: After last week’s entry (“What are you?”) several people shared their experiences with race and ethnicity. I invited them to write them up to share on the blog. Gary, my husband, took me up on the offer. One of the things that Gary and I bonded over when we first met was talking about our experiences growing up in similar neighborhoods – he was just east of JFK airport, while I was just west of it. Here is his story – in his words. Thanks, Gary.

I wanted to share a story about my favorite bicycle. I was in seventh grade when this happened and to me it encapsulates so much about racial issues growing up in New York City in the early 1970’s.  At that time, the neighborhood I grew up in, Rosedale, was much like Canarsie.  It was largely Italian and Irish and Jewish.  There were no African-Americans in our part of the neighborhood.

Later on, when I was in high school that would change.  The first black families moved in and were greeted with rocks thrown through their windows, their garbage dumped out on their lawns and their children harassed.  Back then, I didn’t grasp how those families tolerated such racism and abuse.  Why would they stay in Rosedale when they were met with such hostility?

But now I understand that those brave people were standing up for their right to live in that neighborhood just like anyone else had the right to.  Eventually, that story was the focus of a PBS special report by Bill Moyers (you can find it on YouTube).  And, I must say, my Catholic neighbors were particularly vehement in their racism and use of the N-word.

But let’s get to my story.  Rosedale was divided by Brookfield Park.  On one side of the park, everyone was white.  On the other side, the neighborhood was nearly entirely black.  The park itself was everyman’s land.  Blacks and whites both used the park, and then retreated to their side of the divide.

Along with a group of my friends, I would bike to the park on weekends.  We would put on helmets and shoulder pads and play tackle football on a grass/dirt field and then we would bike back to our homes about a mile away.  On one particular weekend day, we had just finished playing and we all got on our bicycles and started to head home.

I really loved my bicycle.  It was a five-speed Schwinn lemon peeler.  It even had shock absorbers.  It was heavy and slow but it was cool and was perhaps the best gift I had ever received as a kid.

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A Schwinn Lemon Peeler – How cool is that?

As I started to ride, I realized I had left my helmet behind.  I should have called out to the other kids to wait for me but I figured I would grab the helmet and catch up to them quickly.

That turned out to be a terrible decision.  As I picked up the helmet, a large, older black kid pushed me off the bike and started to pedal away towards the black part of the neighborhood.  I ran after him for no logical reason.  I couldn’t catch him on foot, even if the bike was slow.  And I surely could not physically take on this clearly older, bigger and stronger person.

Eventually, I walked home, embarrassed, and reported the theft to my family.  My brother Steve said we should go back to the park the following weekend and see if we could find the kid on the bike.  I thought that was worthless because nobody could be stupid enough to go back there so soon after stealing the bike.  And, once again, I was wrong.

I was in the park playing football with my friends and my brother was walking around the park and spotted a kid who fit the general description on a bike that obviously had been repainted but otherwise seemed like it could be mine.   Steve engaged the kid in a conversation and walked him over to where we were playing.  Upon seeing him on my bike, the football players surrounded the kid.  He said he had to go and my brother said, “You aren’t going anywhere.”

This was well before cellphones and I went running over to my Aunt Sophie’s house nearby and called the police.  They drove up in a patrol car and one of the two officers asked me if I wanted to press charges.  I said no – I just wanted my bike back.  So he gave me the bicycle.  And he got into the back seat of the car with the kid.  The other officer started driving the car away.

I will never forget what I witnessed as that car pulled away from us.  The police officer in the back seat took out his baton and started beating the kid.  It was horrible.  It was brutal.  It was surely criminal.  And yet it was the police – law enforcement itself – doing it.

It took three cleanings with turpentine to get down to the original paint job but eventually my lemon peeler turned yellow again.

I thought I would never see that kid again, but I was wrong yet one more time.

The following Monday, as I got out of school, Junior High School 231, he was there, waiting for me with a look of hatred in his eyes.  It was clear that he was intent on revenge for the beating he had been subjected to.  To be fair, he had no reason to be angry with me.  He stole my bike.  And I didn’t tell the cops to beat him up.  But, he surely couldn’t take his anger out on the police, so I was the only choice.

He ran after me and I faked right and cut left and got past him and ran onto the Rosedale bus.  That was the only bus he could not get on.  It was full of white people.  While boys are supposed to deal with their own issues, I realized this was not someone I could fight.  I told my parents what had happened and they went to the school and told school officials.

The next day, when I got out of school, the kid was there again and ran towards me.  But the dean grabbed him as soon as he moved.  And I never saw that kid again.  I must add that the dean was also black.

Racial overtones run throughout this story.  And no side is innocent.  The racism ran both ways but the white people ultimately had the power, in this case in the form of the police.  Surely economics were part of the issue too.  The blacks in our small part of southeastern Queens were living in poorer and less safe neighborhoods.

But still, race was the clear and obvious divide.  How much have things changed?  Surely the N-word is no longer acceptable to say in public.  And surely we could not have elected an African American president then.  But just as surely, we have many issues left to deal with and a substantial divide still separating us.