A Meditation on Christmas

Note: The following post is written by Leah Bakst, my daughter. Thank you, Leah, for your thoughtful, interesting contribution.

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I’m no expert on schizophrenia, but as I understand it there are two important categories of symptoms. Positive symptoms are things that are extra or added to the average experience. This could be something like hallucinations or delusions. Then there are negative symptoms – things that most people experience that can be absent in someone with schizophrenia. Like experiencing pleasure. Thankfully, most people have rich experiences of pleasure, but these feelings can be missing in people with schizophrenia.

In the same way that there are positive and negative symptoms associated with particular disorders, I think we also understand our identities through both things we Do and things we Don’t Do compared to the average experience. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the context of being Jewish at Christmastime.

In my experience of Judaism, there are definitely things we do:

  • Eat bagels (with cream cheese and lox!)
  • Fast on Yom Kippur
  • Hold Seders on Passover
  • Light candles on Chanukah
  • Ask lots of questions
  • Gesticulate

And many things we don’t do:

  • Eat milk and meat together
  • Eat shellfish or pig products
  • Eat leavened foods on Passover
  • Work on the Sabbath
  • Believe in Hell

There’s a lot of food-related stuff.

In my immediate family, there was one critical addition to the “Don’t Do” list: celebrate Christmas.

We did not have a tree. We did not have lights. We didn’t sing Christmas carols. Obviously, we didn’t go to church. We didn’t watch Christmas movies (with the critical exception of Die Hard, which, yes, is a Christmas movie, fight me). We didn’t have stockings or ornaments. No eggnog, or Christmas cookies. (I did taste eggnog for the first time last year, and I finally get it. It’s delicious. And mixes oh-so-well with bourbon.)

There were absolutely things we did do on Christmas. As the stereotype goes, we went to the movies where we saw many people we knew from our local synagogue. We also ate Chinese food. These were our own Christmas traditions and absolutely left me feeling like a part of my own special community.

There were challenges though. In high school, I sang in a select choir that went caroling. It was by no means mandatory, but most of my friends would bundle up and go to the local shopping plaza to sing and make merry in the few days prior to Christmas. I couldn’t imagine purposefully missing an opportunity to make music and have fun with my friends, so I went. But there was a discomfort that tugged at me. This was something that We Didn’t Do. And if I define myself by not doing that thing – not being part of the community that carols – then what does it mean if I go right ahead and sing along?

That wasn’t the first time I was presented with a challenging choice around Christmas music. In my public elementary school, we sang songs about Jesus in music class around the holidays. As a born participator, I decided that I would sing the songs only up until the lines that seemed religious. During those moments I stood silently, feeling out of place while my classmates sang with gusto around me, not knowing if the line I was walking was the right one.

Later on, the studio where I took dance classes took part in a Christmas parade. As before, I couldn’t imagine missing out and I happily danced the parade route to Mariah belting “All I Want for Christmas is You.” That one didn’t bother me so much. And I appreciate my parents letting me find my way – they certainly didn’t tell me I couldn’t dance in a Christmas parade. I guess this wasn’t something We Didn’t Do, but it wasn’t exactly something We Did Do either.

Now I’m older, and engaged to a non-Jew. My blond-haired, hazel-eyed sweetheart of Swedish descent, who formerly self-identified as a “Jesus freak.” Though he’s no longer particularly religious, he grew up very connected to the Protestant Christian faith and his family has many lovely Christmas traditions that they continue to keep.

As we work to weave together our two lives and traditions, he has lovingly embraced my areligious Judaism. He lights Chanukah candles with me, has fasted on Yom Kippur, and enthusiastically supports my quest to host Passover Seders in our small apartment. He loves the questioning nature of the Jewish faith, and the outward emotionality and warmth of many Jewish people. He has managed to embrace a set of traditions, an ethnicity, an identity that isn’t his without feeling like he has lost or diluted himself. It is a shining example of being a partner.

For some reason, it feels harder on my end. This is the second Christmas I have celebrated with his family. They are such wonderful people and have welcomed me so warmly. I feel unendingly lucky to be marrying into this loving, generous, and kind family.

But.

(There’s always a but, isn’t there.)

Christmas feels uncomfortable.

We gather in a house with a beautiful wreath on the door and single candles alight in each window. Late on Christmas Eve, we pile the presents under the tree, and set up the nativity scene on the mantle. Christmas morning we grab a cup of coffee and unwrap fabulous gifts. And only after the whole room seems fully blanketed in an array of colorful paper and ribbons, do we clean ourselves up for Christmas dinner with family friends.

None of this is particularly religious. I’d even go so far as to say it’s quite fun! But a small voice within me continues incessantly: this Isn’t Something We Do.

What do I do with that voice? That itchy feeling?

And why is it so easy for my fiancé to bring new traditions into his ken, and so much harder for me.

I know there’s an easy and obvious answer, but it isn’t really an answer at all. When he celebrates Chanukah or Yom Kippur or Passover with me, he is not at risk of being unwittingly assimilated into a dominant Jewish culture. There is literally no chance that if he’s not careful, there won’t be anyone who continues to celebrate Christmas or carry on the Christian tradition. After all, the American tradition is, by and large, a Christian one.

It’s not the same for me. My family made it through the Holocaust by the skin of their teeth. In my particular branch of the family, there are four grandchildren. That’s it. Two boys, and two girls. If things go traditionally, that means only the boys are carrying on the family name, and it is all on their shoulders to keep that alive. What a terrible and strange burden. We survived all of that only to… just kind of get swallowed up by American life?

And if part of how we define ourselves as Jews is by the things We Don’t Do, then will my children really be Jewish if they do those things? Is that the first step on a gradual slide into losing our Jewish identity?

And whether or not that’s true, do these questions fundamentally insult the many people out there (family members of mine and otherwise) who consider themselves meaningfully half-Jewish? As if their connection to the religion and tradition does not pass some purity test because they also observe some Christian traditions?

I’m really not sure where this leaves me. At the moment, I’ve been treating it all like a mosquito bite: the best remedy is not to scratch it and let it be, and trust that my body will eventually take care of itself. If I just let myself participate in these traditions, then maybe over time I’ll learn that I have not lost any of myself at all. In fact, I’ve gained a beautiful connection to my new family’s traditions. That would be a holiday movie-worthy ending.

But for right now, I don’t have that certainty. I’m just doing my best not to scratch and trusting in the knowledge that my fiancé and I can figure it all out together.

Culture Clashes Real and Imagined

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I admit it: I was a New York snob (maybe I still am). My worldview was like the famous New Yorker magazine cover (above) that shows New York City looking west from Ninth and Tenth Avenue, where the city is a bustling metropolis and then the rest of the United States is a vast empty space, devoid of anything interesting. It was with that mindset that I moved to Pittsburgh in 1982. I was 23 years old, engaged to Gary.

The late December morning dawned gray and cold. Good weather for driving. We, my parents and Gary, were standing in front of the house in Canarsie, getting ready to say our goodbyes. My Dad pulled me aside. “How bout you go to a justice of the peace when you get out there? You can still have the wedding, as planned, in July. But this way you’d be married.” Dad looked at me with his big blue/gray eyes, questioning, hopeful. I was sorry to disappoint him, but said, “Dad, we aren’t going to do that. There’s no reason to. It will be fine.” I turned to put the last few things in the back seat of my cobalt blue ’72 Toyota Celica.

He didn’t want his baby girl ‘living in sin,’ even if it was only for six months. It was six months too long for him. Fortunately, he didn’t pursue it further. We all hugged, and Gary and I got on our way.

We drove to Pittsburgh with high hopes and some anxiety. Gary had successfully completed his first semester of medical school. Now I was going to join him. I needed to find a job. I had some savings as a cushion, but I was hoping I wouldn’t have to drain it.

Pittsburgh was slowly on the rebound from the collapse of the steel industry. The landscape bore the scars of it. Buildings were soot stained. The Carnegie Library, down the block from our apartment, was gray sandstone heavily streaked with black, but the inscription, Free to the People, was still quite clearly etched over the main doors. Hulking mills, some vacant, some producing steel at reduced capacity, lined the river. The city remained the headquarters for a number of large companies that inhabited gleaming skyscrapers downtown.

Pittsburgh had the feel of the Midwest to me. I didn’t know geographically how it was characterized, but culturally it didn’t feel like an eastern city. The influence of its immigrant history, largely Polish, Germanic and Italian, was imprinted on the stores, restaurants and, most importantly, churches that dominated. Unlike New York City, which certainly had ethnic pockets but the sum of which was a hodge-podge; Pittsburgh felt more homogenous. It felt like there was a dominant culture and it was defined by the Catholic Church. While there was a Jewish community, it was quite small, and it felt small. This took some getting used to. After all, other than Israel, New York City is home to the largest Jewish population in the world.

After five months of pounding the pavement, I was about to register for secretarial work with a temp agency when a solid job opportunity came through. I had nearly exhausted my financial resources when I got a job with the city’s Finance Department.

There were some noticeable differences between the New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Operations, where I worked before I left, and the Finance Department. The first was the air quality. I worked with several men who chain-smoked through the day. Offices and conference rooms didn’t usually include windows and there was nothing I could do to disperse the fog that permeated the air. Somehow there weren’t nearly as many smokers in New York City’s Mayor’s Office.

Another difference: when we went out for a drink after work, I could not keep up with my new colleagues (not that it was a contest)! People would take turns buying rounds. I almost never got a chance to buy (and it wasn’t a strategy to avoid it). My drinks would be lined up on the bar.

Aside from air quality and drinking habits, there were actually more important differences. I worked with very few women, and there was only one at the management level. Many of the employees were only high school graduates. I was an outsider by virtue of my age, gender, education, religion and, of course, as a New Yorker. Sometimes it felt quite lonely, but there were some interesting conversations, too, especially about religion and faith.

Some of the cultural differences were more imagined than real. Gary and I invited one of his classmates, and his fiancé, to dinner at our apartment. Budgets being what they were, we didn’t eat out often and most of our socializing entailed going to each other’s apartments, eating, watching football or basketball and playing games like charades. Alcohol may have been involved.

As I recall, Ron and Ann were the first people we invited over. They were both Pittsburgh born and raised. I planned a menu after considering various possibilities. I worried that Ron and Ann would think the food I prepared was weird.

Gary and I kept kosher in our apartment (we didn’t when we ate out), so we didn’t mix meat and dairy. I was worried if I prepared a meat dish they might ask for parmesan cheese. I was worried if I made a vegetarian dish they wouldn’t be satisfied. I thought they wouldn’t know what it meant to keep kosher. I settled on making a ratatouille with ground beef (no cheese) and then worried that they wouldn’t know what it was.

Turned out Ron and Ann were more worldly than Gary and I, which in retrospect wasn’t saying much. Ron had gone to Dartmouth as an undergraduate and, if I remember correctly, majored in art history! Ann had been an English major and worked as an editor. I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of Gary’s classmates weren’t science majors as undergrads. Turned out Ron and Ann were quite comfortable eating my ratatouille. We had a great time, it was the first of many meals and laughs shared.

I realized I shouldn’t make assumptions about people based on where they came from, or any other single characteristic, for that matter. Of course I should have known better. When I stop and think about it, my Zada, who appeared on the surface to be a common laborer, was a self-taught Shakespearean scholar with the heart of a poet. Why would I buy into the stereotype implied by that New Yorker cover? But I did, and to this day, I need to check myself.

More Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

A Very Different Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tragic Turning Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zmigrod Stary 11/21/1945

Dear Mr Leon,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best regards,

Priest Juljan Beigert

Zmigrod Stary

District Jaslo, Rz.

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

_________________________________________________________________

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

Samuel Birger

 920 Riverside Drive

  New York 32, NY

What are you?

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

“What are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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