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.  

The Family Game

When I was growing up and my family gathered for holidays or special occasions we often played ‘the family game.’ After we finished eating, and there was always copious amounts of food, and after the table was cleared and the leftovers were stored, we adjourned to the living room. Paper and pencils were distributed to each person – all were expected to participate, young and old. We would toss out potential questions like: If you had only one book on a deserted island, what would it be? If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would you choose? What is your pet peeve? Etc, etc. We would agree on the question. Each person would write down their answer, fold the paper and drop it in a bowl. A reader would be designated. That person would go through each answer and we’d speculate on who might have written it. After we had gone through all of answers once, we would go back through a second time, voting on the likely candidate.

Sometimes people answered to get a laugh, but mostly they offered sincere responses. The process resulted in lots of jokes, lots of insights and some surprises. We learned about each other. My father would play a couple of rounds and then, if we were at home or if we were all gathered at a hotel for a bar/bat mitzvah, he would call it a night and go off to sleep. After another few rounds, others would retire for the evening, myself included. That would leave the hard-core night owls to stay up until who knows when. My mom, Aunt Simma, Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara, my cousin Laurie, and my brother Mark could be counted on to far outlast me.

I wasn’t yet a teenager when we started the family game. I don’t know who came up with the idea. (I think a version of this has been packaged as a real game recently, but we were playing it 50 years ago!) As people married into the family, they joined in. It was part of the initiation.

A couple of rounds from those years stay with me. I remember one in particular. We must’ve been getting desperate because the question was pretty convoluted. It was: What characteristic does the person on your left have that they haven’t fulfilled yet? What potential could they realize if they want to? Hmmm – that was pretty deep. I don’t remember who I had to answer for. Looking back at it now, I think it’s pretty cool that children were expected to answer that about an adult.  I well remember what Aunt Simma said about me. She said I could be cheerful.

I don’t know exactly how old I was at the time – I’m going to guess I was around 14 or 15. I found it to be a very interesting observation. It meant that she recognized that I wasn’t happy. In a strange way, I found it validating. I didn’t know I was being seen or that my sadness was noticed. Other than being the object of a lot of teasing by my brother and my uncle, I didn’t feel like I received a lot of attention. Her answer suggested that I was noticed, even if it was for having the potential to be cheerful.

It also made me feel hopeful. Maybe I could be happy? If Aunt Simma saw that potential, maybe I could grow into a cheerful person.

Now, at age 61, I can’t say I fulfilled that potential, but as a general rule, I’m not sad (and there is better living through chemistry to thank too). I think I bring positive energy to my friends and family.

I remember one other round of the family game that made an impression. We were playing at Livingston Manor, the home my parents retired to in the Catskills. The question asked us to name our pet peeve. My father and I said exactly the same thing: stupid people.

Neither of us were referring to people who had actual diminished mental capacity. We shared an impatience with people who don’t pay attention to what they are doing or don’t bother thinking before they act or are just oblivious to those around them. Especially when driving or providing customer service. By the time we played that round of the family game, my father had mellowed considerably but he still was impatient. I never had his temper, but I shared his frustration. I was amused that not only had we named the same pet peeve, but we labeled it using the same terms.  I knew my dad and I shared a way of looking at the world and this confirmed it.

Along those lines, once when Gary and I were visiting Aunt Simma in Florida many years ago, she asked me an interesting question – this was not part of the family game.

This picture is from the time we visited Aunt Simma in Florida that I write about below. Leah is about 7 months old.

She observed that my father stated things as if they were a given, when others might have a different view and she wondered if I didn’t find that difficult to deal with as a child growing up? I thought for a moment and said, “Honestly, no. Probably because 99% of the time I agreed with him.” Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, “Interesting,” she said. I smiled. And it was true. My life would have been much more difficult if I clashed with my dad, he was intense, opinionated and smart. When on rare occasion I did disagree with him,- it wasn’t pretty. Fortunately, though, I mostly saw things as he did. I will always be my father’s daughter.

I am grateful for memories of our family game. Maybe once Covid isn’t the danger it is now we can gather and play it.

I would be delighted to hear others’ memories of the game – the good, the bad, the ugly (if there was any of that).  Feel free to chime in.

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.

A Tense Conversation

Note: At the end of this piece, Gary offers his perspective.

It was the beginning of our relationship. Gary and I had long conversations about our histories, comparing our families, and sharing our dreams for the future. I knew the broad outlines of his family background, that his parents were Holocaust survivors who had not been in concentration camps. But, I didn’t yet grasp the impact of that on Gary. On one particular autumn night, with a particular conversation, I touched a nerve and, thus, I began to learn.

We were in the living room of the apartment that he shared with two friends. It was late at night, as it often was in those days when we hung out and talked into the wee hours. I was sitting on the floor with my back against the chair he was sitting in, his legs framing my arms.

It started as an innocuous conversation, at least it seemed so to me, about his need to take the MCATs (the medical school entrance exams) and the timing of the test.

A little background might be helpful. Most pre-med students take the MCATs at the end of junior year so that they can apply to medical school during senior year. This sets them up to go directly from college to med school. Since med school is four years and there is additional training required beyond that, which often takes anywhere from three to ten years, many want to be as efficient with their time as possible. Unfortunately, Gary wasn’t in position to do that. His junior year had not been terribly successful. He lost motivation and stepped off the track he had been on, and didn’t take the MCATs. It was now the 1979-80 school year, our senior year, and the test wasn’t available to be taken very often. I think it was offered maybe twice a year. Gary’s next opportunity would be in the Spring, but he hadn’t filled out the application yet.

In order to take the test, Gary had to fill out some paperwork, write a check and mail it in. Paperwork wasn’t a strong suit for Gary, as I was beginning to learn. But, it turned out there was more to his procrastination than met the eye.

“So, let’s fill out the application now and you can mail it tomorrow,” I helpfully suggested.

“You don’t understand,” came the testy reply.

“What do you mean?” I asked, moving to turn around to face him.

“You don’t understand the pressure I am under,” his voice was tight. I heard anger, frustration and anxiety.

“Explain it, then.”

Explain he did. A torrent of words describing high expectations placed on him from as early as he could remember. “It’s good to be a doctor,” his father, David, told him when he was in Kindergarten. It was an idea David repeated regularly over the years. Gary was a good student, it was clear he was intelligent from the get-go. The seed was planted early and his father could be relentless. It was assumed he would go to medical school.

This story isn’t unusual among Jewish families. Many children were on the receiving end of those messages. My response, thinking I was supporting his vision for himself, was to say, “But you can do whatever you want! You don’t have to be limited! You don’t have to be a doctor.”

“You’re not hearing me!” Now he was angry. Gary didn’t, and doesn’t, get angry often. He was angry now.

“I feel like I do have to be a doctor! I will disappoint my father, let down my entire family, if I’m not!” He went on to describe how things went at family gatherings, how it was assumed he was on track to go to medical school. His parents, not aware of the particulars of college and graduate school, didn’t know where Gary was in the process. He was carrying 22 credits that semester (and would have to carry an equivalent load again the next semester), to make up for junior year and to graduate on time. He explained how so much was wrapped up, for his father in particular, in his earning a medical degree.

At first, I stuck to my thought that Gary could do what he wanted. “You’re great at explaining things. You could be a great science teacher,” I said. After all, I was thinking, both of my parents were teachers. I thought it was an admirable profession.

“You’re still not getting it!” Gary exploded.

I recoiled at the power and emotion behind his words. I retreated, “Okay. Okay.”

We agreed that it was late and we weren’t going to solve anything in that moment. I told him I wanted to understand, and we could talk again after we both got some sleep. We said good night and I went back across the hall to my apartment.

It was the beginning of my understanding the impact of his parent’s Holocaust experience on Gary and how it shaped him. No child wants to disappoint their parents, I certainly didn’t, but there was a more intense sense of responsibility and deeper obligation for Gary, knowing how much his Mom and Dad had gone through, how much they suffered. Gary had this opportunity that they never had, and he felt a duty to make the most of it regardless of his own wishes. I was beginning to appreciate the weight of that.

I think our conversation was also a step along Gary’s journey to sort out what he actually wanted for himself and what others expected of him. He began to acknowledge that it was okay to factor in what his father wanted, after going through an internal rebellion. And, over the course of the next two years, it would become clear to him that he did want to be a doctor.

Of course, there was also all the other anxiety that every pre-med student deals with: getting good grades, scoring high enough on the MCATs, getting into a program (preferably in the United States!) and succeeding in one. Under the best of circumstances, it is a fraught journey. Not nearly as fraught as the journey his parents had taken, but challenging nonetheless.

Some thoughts from Gary:

We all should pursue our own dreams.  Right?  That seems straight forward enough and yet that very question was at the heart of my dilemma back when Linda and I had that tense conversation.  To be fair, that idea, the belief that each of us can and should do what we want to do, is something that many in the world would find laughable. It is a luxury many don’t have.

Many people are just trying to survive and it is for those who are fortunate enough to grow up in the right county and in the right circumstances to even think about such questions.  How many people dream of picking up garbage or cleaning hotel rooms?  Of working endless hours picking fruit on farms, or working in mines?  On top of that, many people really don’t have a dream.  We fall into whatever and we do our jobs and earn our paychecks and the world keeps spinning around.

But back then, I firmly believed I should pursue my dreams.  And, while I had no reason why being a physician couldn’t be my dream, I had one really big problem:  My father wanted it for me more than anyone.  And that left me with the dilemma.  Did I want it or was I doing it for my father?  And how could I do it if it wasn’t for me?  And how could I not do it after all he had been through and all that he seemed to have emotionally invested in my becoming a doctor?

As it turns out, medical school was four of the best years of my life and being a physician has allowed me to utilize my inclination to think scientifically and serve people in a most important and personal way.  It has brought me a tremendous sense of purpose, a sense of doing something meaningful.  And it has given me financial rewards beyond what I would have ever imagined reaping.  As it turns out, it was the perfect decision.

But at that time, it wasn’t clear to me whose decision it was; where did my father’s will end and mine begin?  Certainly, complicating all of this was the fact that my parents are Holocaust survivors.  The children (and I’m sure grandchildren) of survivors have common traits.  We tend to be anxious.  We tend to be driven.  We tend to live with the guilt that comes from the fact that we never had to endure what our parents did.  They were getting shot at.  I was more concerned about whether Keith Hernandez would get the lead runner out when fielding a bunt.  They didn’t have food.  I was annoyed when my brother changed the channel on our TV.

Even now, if you ask me whether I should feel guilty, I think the answer would be yes, I should.

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Graduation day from SUNY-Binghamton, May 1980 – we made it through to the other side of that conversation.

 

 

 

The Wedding

The Silberfarbs arrival in Cuba was greeted with a warm welcome, a furnished apartment and opportunities to work. David’s arrival in the United States, while supported by his uncle and aunt, wasn’t quite as warm. And, it started with a much more trying trip across the Atlantic, than the Silberfarb’s plane flight.

David, and 548 other displaced persons, left Bremerhaven, Germany on the Marine Flasher on January 7, 1949. The Marine Flasher was an American ship that was built to carry troops during the war in the Pacific. In 1946, it was refitted to ferry emigres across the Atlantic. It made many such trips until it went out of service in September of 1949. The American Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC), a Jewish charity which was involved in organizing and funding these trips, made efforts to comfort the traumatized passengers, many of whom were concentration camp survivors, or like David, battered by the relentless effort to endure the war. The AJDC provided kosher food to those who required it, they had novels in Yiddish available, and religious services were conducted on board. But, they could not control the weather.

David’s journey was a particularly challenging one. The North Atlantic was stormy in January and the seas were rough. In fact, the arrival of the ship was delayed by heavy gales. According to a newspaper article at the time, the Marine Flasher had to slow down to withstand the storms. David recalls that even the sailors were sick. David didn’t think he’d survive the waves crashing over the sides and his intense sea sickness. He was never so happy to set foot on land as when he disembarked on the pier of Boston Harbor on January 17th.

His cousin, Benny, Uncle Willie and Aunt Rose’s son, met him at the harbor and drove him to Brooklyn. David had never seen buildings so big or a city so densely populated as New York. In Europe, the tallest building he had seen was two stories! He moved into a room in a house in Brooklyn and he began work for his uncle at First National Pickle Products.

He put on overalls every day, took the subway to Kent Avenue and moved pickle barrels at the warehouse in Williamsburg. David didn’t feel good about dressing like a laborer and hoped for a time in the future when his work would be more professional. In the meanwhile, Uncle Willie took him to the Lower East Side to get a suit. David took pride in his appearance and looked forward to the weekends when he would don his suit to go to synagogue and socialize with fellow ‘greeners.’ Greenhorn was a term used to describe the newcomers. While it may have been meant as a pejorative when used by other Americans, when David and his community used it, they were acknowledging their shared experience.

David went to dances and sought out the company of the few survivors from his hometown. It had been customary, dating back to earlier waves of Jewish immigrants, to create organizations of ‘landsleit,’ people from the same shtetls in Eastern Europe. There was an Iwie Society that met at least annually and David became active in it.

Though David met single women during his first months in New York, his mind and heart were still with Paula. In order to ensure that Paula still had his attention, Aunt Bushe insisted that Paula send a photograph of herself to her boyfriend in New York. She took Paula to a photographer’s studio. Whether the picture did the trick or not, he continued to correspond with her, and they planned his visit.

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Though this isn’t the photo that was taken at the studio, it is from the same time. Paula in 1948 in Cuba.

But before David could visit, Uncle Nachum flew up to New York to talk to him. Since Paula’s father had been tragically murdered, Nachum took it upon himself to look out for his niece’s best interests. He went to the pickle factory and talked to David there. David felt self-conscious in his overalls, knowing Nachum was a successful business man. Paula’s uncle asked David about his future. David explained that he aspired to move up to management and he looked forward to the day when he could discard his overalls, but this was his job now and he worked hard for his uncle. Nachum asked, “Do you love Paula?” David, without embarrassment, replied unequivocally, “Yes.” Though Nachum may not have been impressed with David’s current station in life, he saw something in David’s resolve that gave him confidence. He gave his blessing so that David could visit Paula and then he returned to Cuba.

David flew to Cuba in November of 1949, 10 months after his arrival in Boston.

Uncle Nachum and Aunt Bushe were particularly welcoming to David when he arrived in Havana. He was invited to stay in the guest room of their home. David felt very comfortable there. Lea, Paula’s mother, also treated David warmly as they renewed their relationship which was first established in Ranshofen. It became increasingly clear to David that he wanted to make a family with Paula, and fortunately, she agreed. At the end of the three-week visit, they decided that he would come back to Cuba the following September and they would marry.

David flew back to New York and shared the good news with his aunts and uncles. He asked Uncle Willie and Aunt Rose to come to Cuba for the wedding. He continued to work hard and save his pennies.

Paula and her family planned the wedding. The date was set, September 3, 1950, at Havana’s main synagogue. At the last minute, Uncle Willie told David that they would not be going. He told him that it was too hard on Aunt Rose to travel. David was profoundly disappointed and hurt. Though he was excited about his marriage, he was deeply sad that he had no family to stand up for him, that he would walk down the aisle alone. It is traditional at Jewish weddings for both the bride and the groom to be accompanied by their respective parents when they walk down the aisle. David missed his father desperately.

When David got to Havana, he shared his disappointment with Uncle Nachum. Nachum offered to accompany him, with Bushe, to the chupah (wedding canopy), and they did. Paula was accompanied by her mother and brother. David also wanted to acknowledge his parents at the ceremony. He asked the cantor to recite El Maleh Rachamim, the Jewish prayer for the dead. The cantor objected, saying that it wasn’t appropriate to chant that prayer at a simcha (a celebration). David insisted. He explained that it would make him feel better, it would help him to feel his parents’ presence at this milestone in his life. After quite a bit of back and forth, David prevailed. The cantor sang the prayer in memory of Berl and Rochel. David felt that his parents were blessing this momentous occasion.

 

 

New Beginnings

The Silberfarbs left Ranshofen, since it was closing, in 1948. They went to another nearby DP camp. Lea, based on Bernie and Sofia’s wish to go to Israel, was trying to make arrangements, but was not yet successful. She was also corresponding with her husband’s family in Cuba. Two of Samuel’s sisters, Busha and Mary, had settled in Havana with their respective husbands, Nachum and Solomon, before World War II.

Lea wrote to Busha 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 reminded Lea how difficult life would be in Israel, as a widowed mother without family to help. He suggested that they try life in Cuba, if in a year they didn’t like it, he would arrange immigration to Israel. He made the point 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 swayed by the soundness of his argument. They agreed to go to Havana.

During the 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 family decision based on her burgeoning romance. She was beyond delighted when things fell into place.

Meanwhile, the Silberfarbs bided their time at the DP camp. Paula was back in school. She was grateful for the opportunity. 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 were slated 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 with 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 a warm welcome. Paula’s aunts and uncles had 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, 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 company. They agreed he would come 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.

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During David’s visit to Havana in 1949: L-R Paula, David and Uncle Nachum

Paula’s Journey Begins

Note: Much of the information for this post comes from Paula Bakst’s Shoah testimony. On August 17, 1995, Paula, David, their children and grandchildren (myself included), went to the Pines Hotel in the Catskills to be interviewed and taped as part of Steven Spielberg’s project, following the making of Schindler’s List. Paula and David were interviewed separately. Although Paula’s dementia has made it impossible to ask her questions now, we are fortunate to have her story recorded.

Paula’s journey to Ranshofen was quite different than David’s, but harrowing nonetheless.

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The red dot is Serniki (Sernyky), Ukraine, very close to the Belarus border. Paula’s home town was (and still is) too small to merit a label.

Paula Silberfarb was born on February 15, 1931 in Serniki, Poland, a small town in the northwest corner of what today is the Ukraine. It was a landscape of forests, meadows, marshes and rivers. The Stubla River ran along the side of the town and provided her father’s livelihood. 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). They lived an insulated life.

Serniki was made up of Jews and Gentiles, and though they lived peaceably before the war, they didn’t mingle, and they lived clustered on different streets. They spoke different languages: Jews spoke Yiddish, the Gentiles spoke a combination of Polish/Ukranian and Russian, though they were able to communicate with each other. 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, Bernie, 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.

Paula described herself as coming from a nice, loving home. Their house was made up 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 apartment next door –  one room divided by a curtain – that they rented out. A beautiful 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. Lea baked her own bread on a daily basis.

Paula felt cared for by her mother and father. Her mother, Lea, was the primary caregiver, she provided 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 River. 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 to watch it launch. It was an 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. (Gary is named in memory of Paula’s paternal grandfather, Gershon).

Gershon 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; his wife, Paula’s grandmother, died when Paula was two. Paula described Gershon as having an aristocratic bearing, with a square little beard. She characterized her family as middle class, while her paternal grandfather may have been wealthier. Other family members, aunts, uncles, cousins, both maternal and paternal, were scattered throughout Serniki. The various locations of their homes became relevant when the Nazis invaded.

Paula’s life was made up of family and friends and observance of Jewish rituals. There was one Orthodox synagogue in town. Samuel went Friday nights, and the whole family went Saturday morning to shul. The men sat downstairs, the women upstairs, looking down at the men 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, similar to the routine in David’s town. Samuel played chess while the children ran around outside.

Paula recalls playing with her friends, who were all Jewish. They played hopscotch and a game with sticks that involved tossing them to see who could throw one further. She also particularly liked walking barefoot in the mud and puddles. Paula had fond memories of one neighbor friend, Chaya. One time Paula stopped by her house and Chaya’s mother was making pancakes. She offered Paula one, and 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 as a youngster and even 60 years after the fact.

Though she remembers being frightened of the Russians, Paula was eight when they invaded, 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 in her life was school. 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 Russians came. 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 the 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 and then the  Germans shot them in the back causing everyone to fall into the ditch. The father and son fell in just as the shooting started and were not wounded. They lay, feigning death, amongst the bodies until nightfall when the Germans had 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 – she thought it was possible that the adults had heard things before, but as a child she was shielded from it.

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

 

[Next week: Paula’s journey continues]

 

The War Finally Ends

Note: For the first time since I embarked on writing David’s story, I have no corrections to last week’s narrative! Maybe I’m finally getting the hang of this.

The Soviet army continued its march into Germany. David’s unit was trying to establish a strategic position on an island in the middle of the wide Elbe River in Magdeburg. The Germans and Russians exchanged continuous machine gun fire across the river, as the Germans tried to hold the line on the advancing troops. The Soviets, having successfully gotten some soldiers to the island in the middle, needed to establish communications with the beachhead. Many soldiers attempted to bring communication wire across to the designated spot. They each failed, many died in the attempt. Though his commanding officer was reluctant to assign David the job since he liked and valued David, he had no choice. It needed to be done.

David waited until dark. He lay down flat, on his stomach, in a small wooden row boat. He set up the spool of wire at the back of the boat so it would unroll as he paddled. He propelled the boat with his hands and kept his head down, as best he could. He looked up every so often only to make sure he was heading the right way. He heard bullets whizzing by. He kept going. He made it to the island successfully, and connected with the others. Mission accomplished!

Now he just had to make it back. He still had the cover of darkness. He got back in the boat, laying as flat as he could while still able to paddle with his arms. Machine gun fire continued to be exchanged. David prayed as he paddled. He made it back to shore and emerged from the boat.

When he got back to the trench, he took off his heavy overcoat. He looked it over and saw that there were bullet holes through the pleat in the back. His coat had a gathering of material that ran down the back. Bullets had passed through it cleanly, leaving him unharmed. David believes that God was looking out for him.

The war grinded on, with the Soviet army making slow progress. They crossed the Elbe but were still in Magdeburg when David heard the sound of artillery fire and the rumble of tanks. As a communications officer, he was about to call in an air strike. He was told, though, that it was the Americans. American troops were closing in from the other side.

David described the joy of the two armies meeting. The soldiers did not share a common language, but they communicated effectively enough. The Americans supplied the chocolate, the Russians brought the vodka and they celebrated. Chocolate never tasted so sweet. Words were not necessary. David recounts this with a broad smile on his face. The long, arduous, painful war was finally at an end.

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Rather than wait for everything to get sorted out, David took fate in his own hands. He didn’t know what plans the Soviet army might have for him and he didn’t want to find out. Though he had managed to survive the ordeal to that point, he was well aware of the anti-Semitism that ran rampant in the Soviet army, and Soviet society as a whole. He just wanted to get back to what was left of his family. He went AWOL (absent without leave). He rode the rails back to Lodz, where Berl and Batya were now located.

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David’s family, long before the war, and before Gussie was born. R-L: David standing (with Berl’s arm around him), Berl, Rachel, Ellie and, in front (seated), Batya.

David and his father had devised a method for coding letters so they kept each other informed of their whereabouts. David knew that Berl and his sister were now in Lodz so he made his way there. Since he was AWOL, he needed to keep a low profile, and the trains were packed, so he rode on top of the train, only coming down to stand between the cars when a tunnel approached. David had an address for his family, and he found his way to them. Though they had endured many losses, the three were relieved and grateful to be reunited. Other survivors had no one.

Berl gave David a pair of pants that were too big for David’s lean waist. Fortunately, he had a belt.  Berl took David’s uniform and stashed it under the window sill in their apartment. David put on civilian garb and tried to escape notice. Today he wonders if his uniform would still be in the hiding spot.

Now they had to make plans. Where were they to go? It wasn’t an option to stay in Poland, there was nothing for them there. Berl and David wanted to go to the United States. Two of Berl’s brothers, Ike and Willie, were already established there, having left Iwie long before the war. Berl had been a successful businessman before, he looked forward to the opportunities America offered.

Batya had met a fellow partisan who she planned to marry, and they wanted to go to Palestine (in 1945 the state of Israel had not yet been created). They wanted to be part of establishing a Jewish homeland.

Of course, getting to either of those destinations, the United States and Palestine, was not a simple task. Their first stop on their respective journeys was a displaced person’s camp.

Next week: The DP camp experience and meeting Paula.

Part of the Story

I try to imagine how it would feel, but it just isn’t possible. I can’t put myself in his shoes. It is important to try, though. The more I learn, the more astonishing his story is.

We were sitting in a luncheonette in Saugerties, Gary, David, my father-in-law, and Paula, my mother-in-law, as part of an ordinary Thursday afternoon visit. We lingered while Paula painstakingly ate her cream cheese on bagel. The rest of us had long since finished our lunches. But, I felt no impatience. David was telling us about his childhood. David grew up in the vanished world of the shtetl, in a town called Iwie (pronounced Eve-ya), in what was then Poland (today it is Belarus, and the spelling of the town varies).

“It was a beautiful youth,” David explained. Almost like the scene from My Cousin Vinny, I ask, “Beautiful what?” David repeats the word, then asks, “That’s the word, right? Youth?” All these years later, he still questions his English. “You said it perfectly, I just didn’t hear you,” I replied with a smile.

I hadn’t given much thought to what shtetl life meant to them. We have had many conversations over the years, but it mostly covered things like: Did you have running water in the house? (No) Did you have electricity? (yes for David, no for Paula). Those kinds of things are interesting tidbits, but don’t paint a picture of their lives. This conversation offered more insight, perhaps because Gary asked, “Did your father think about leaving for the United States earlier?”

David’s parents, Berl and Rachel, were comfortably established in Iwie. Berl’s brothers left for America in the 1920s. They appealed to Berl to come with them. He declined. His business, making and selling leather shoes, was growing. He was making a name for himself based on the quality of his product; he was becoming more and more successful. He was providing a good life for his growing family. David was born in 1922, another son, Eliahu, was born in 1925 and two daughters followed.

Perhaps as important, Rachel’s family lived in Iwie, too. Every Shabbos, after services, aunts, uncles and cousins, came to the Bakst (spelled Bakszt) home to visit. The adults schmoozed and talked politics, the children ran around outside. There was warmth and affection – there may have been arguments, too, but nothing serious. Berl was to the right politically of some of his family, a supporter of Jabotinsky, while others were more mainstream Zionists. They enjoyed the give and take.

David observed, “The family was close. Not like what I see in America. It is different here.” I said what he described sounded a lot like the family I grew up in (minus the observance of Shabbos) – with aunts, uncles and cousins coming in and out of my grandmother’s upstairs apartment. But, I had to agree, it probably wasn’t typical of American families.

Without saying it explicitly, the picture David painted made it clear why Berl didn’t leave in the 1920s. And, it would have been up to Berl, as the head of the household. David was in awe of his father. “I thought my father was the smartest man in the world,” he said, with pride all these years later.

David’s idyllic youth ended September 3, 1939 (he remembers the date), he hadn’t celebrated his 17thbirthday yet. After the Soviet Union and Germany signed the infamous Non-Agression Pact in August of that year, Germany invaded Poland from the west, the Soviets invaded from the east. The Russians took over Iwie.

A lieutenant and a captain in the Soviet army commandeered rooms in the Bakst house. Their shoe factory was confiscated by the state. Their passports were stamped ‘capitalist.’ Berl was permitted to work at the factory, but he could no longer claim ownership. They were persona non grata in the communist system.

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David, in the family shoe store, around 1939.

As bad as things were under the Russians, it got worse when Germany violated the Non-Aggression treaty and made their move to invade the Soviet Union. The German army invaded Iwie in June of 1941.

It was far too late to decide to emigrate to America, it became a question of survival for Berl and his family.

Note: I will continue the story in future blog posts. If family members have more information to add, please do. If I have gotten anything wrong, please correct me!