Monday, March 29, 2010

Everyman by Philip Roth, 2006

Won the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction in 2007

This short, tightly constructed novel’s main subject is illness and aging, but on another level it is a story of a New Jersey Jewish extended family growing up in America. The ghostly first person narrator reminiscences at his own burial in an old somewhat neglected Jewish cemetery in New Jersey near the border of Elizabeth and Newark. This cemetery was founded in 1888 by a burial society started by the narrator’s immigrant grandfather who had owned and run a boarding house in Elizabeth. The novel includes several vivid descriptions of the cemetery.

There is a description of the narrator’s father who had first worked for a jeweler on Springfield Avenue in Irvington, but who then bought his own jewelry store in Elizabeth which he owned from 1933 to 1974. There are evocative scenes of the-day-to day business including a discussion of the tools of the trade like their stock of watches, discussions of his father giving credit, descriptions of their receiving visits from Hasidic diamond merchants from NYC and bus trips to Newark to take diamonds to the setters and sizers on Frelinghuysen Avenue.

This short novel is in many ways “typical” Philip Roth. Because Roth imbues his fiction with such loving, evocative detail, his fiction feels autobiographical- it feels real. This is especially true of the geography of his novels which are often set in New Jersey where Roth grew up. But it would be a mistake to assume that the novel is thinly veiled autobiography.

Click here to listen to an NPR interview with Philip Roth and to read an excerpt from Everyman

Frelinghuysen Avenue, Newark
Springfield Avenue, Irvington

Thursday, March 25, 2010

This Has Happened: An Italian Family in Auschwitz by Piera Sonnino 2006

"I have read any number of overwhelming and despairing works about the Holocaust, but I don't think I have ever read anything so simply structured, so clearly composed--so heartfelt a tragedy, especially from the pen of someone who never considered herself a writer--as the one that unfolds in this brief memoir."--Robert Leiter, Jewish Exponent

This spare, movingly written memoir was written in 1960 by the daughter of a Jewish family who had deep roots in Italy. Both sides of her family emerged from the ghetto in Rome in 1870 when its residents were allowed to live elsewhere. Piera Sonnino notes that in the space of two generations her family went from liberation in Rome to annihilation in Auschwitz. She tells the story of her parents and their six children who moved from Genoa and went into hiding in Sampierdicanne outside of Chiavari. They then fled to Pietranera where they hid in an abandoned inn; expelled, they ended up back where they started: in Genoa where they were eventually picked up by the police and transported to Auschwitz.

In the memoir the author describes the details of their escape route, the relationship of the family members to each other, and then what happened to each family member once they were transported. This is a tragic story of a family dismembered and destroyed, with interesting sidelights about the goodness of many Italians who tried to help them.

There are family photos and maps as well as four accompanying essays which give us more information about the memoir. They are:
A forward by David Denby who discusses the literary value of the memoir.
A translator's note by Ann Goldstein who presents us with a "brief historical background" to World War II and the Italian Jews.
An epilogue by Giacomo Papi who describes how the manuscript came to be first published in Italian in 2004.
An afterword by Dr. Mary Doria Russell, an anthropologist who has done much scholarly work on "the Italian response to the persecution of the Jews," and who describes her work in the context of this memoir.

Ettore Sonnino - author's father
Giorgina Milani - author's mother
Their children: Paulo, Roberto, Maria Luisa, Piera (author), Bice, Giorgio
Anna Milani - Giorgina's sister
Rosselli - surname of Giorgina's maternal grandmother
other Sonnino relatives


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba by Ruth Behar 2007

"To capture and share such intimate stories while preserving their tellers’ dignity requires artistry. Behar has it, and her readers are the luckier for that." From a review by Joel Streicker in the Forward of 5/22/08

Ruth Behar, an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan and a receiver of a MacArthur (“genius”) award, has written this fascinating memoir/history/photo-journalism account of returning to Cuba, the place of her birth. Behar discusses her own family’s history as a thread of a larger migration pattern and uses her expertise as an anthropologist to document signs of the former thriving Cuban Jewish community as well as to document the remnant of the Jewish community that remained in Cuba after the revolution when most Jews fled to America or Israel.
Highly readable, Behar's book also traces the arc of the Jewish presence in Cuba, the influence Cuba has had on its Jewish population, the influence the Jewish population has had in Cuba, and the relationship that Jewish institutions outside of Cuba have with today’s Cuban Jews.

This book includes about 200 photographs by Humberto Mayol of Cuban Jews who posed in their homes and institutions.  It also includes interesting footnotes, a bibliography for further reading, and a very useful chronology of the history of Cuba interwoven with the history of the Jewish presence in Cuba.

Click here if you'd like to see three-minute video of Jewish Cuba, narrated by Steve Kastenbaum, a CNN reporter who visited Cuba, the home of his grandparents.The video includes old family photos as well as some highlights of his trip.

Author’s family on her mother’s side
Maximo and Esther Glinsky – author’s maternal grandparents
    Rebeca – their daughter; author’s mother
Moises and Zoila Levin, author’s maternal great-uncle and aunt
    Henry and Alma – their son and daughter

Author’s family on her father’s side   
Isaac Behar and Rebecca Maya - author’s paternal grandparents; immigrated from Turkey
    Alberto – their son; author’s father
    Ida  – their daughter

Some of the Jewish Cuban residents mentioned, past and present, many photographed
Many named Behar (Bejar), not related to author
Many named Mizrahi
Many from Turkey or descendants of Turkish immigrants: Najmias, Mechuam, Nassy, Esquinazi, Benador, Yaech, Eli, Levy, Tacher, Leon, Soriano

Many from Poland or descendants of Polish immigrants: Gudstadt, Prinstein, Bender Solzstein, Grobart, Oltuski Olsaki, Gutwert, Nudelfuden Perelmuter, Berezniak, Sarusky

Samples of other family names that are a part of the story she tells: Barlia, Cohen, Zagavolov, Grinberg, Tannenbaum, Weiner, Asis, Maimon, Altshuler, Ledierman, Radlow, Zaitman, Mandel, Lapidus, Wolfoicz, Nissenbaum, Braitman, Saul, Miller, Gans, Grin, Friman, Zilberstein

Prominent Cuban Jews
Adela Dworin – president of Jewish Community Council (2007)
Saul Yelin – founder of Cuban Cinema Foundation
Enrique Oltuski Osacki – highest ranking member of Castro’s government

Places, including some photographs
Jewish cemeteries in the following towns:
Guanabocoa; Camajuani, Santa Clara, Camaguey, Santiago de Cuba, Banes

Havana synagogues: The Patronato, Sephardic Chevet Ahim, Centro Hebreo Sefardi, Adath Israel

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Ritchie Boys - A Documentary released in 2004 directed by Christian Bauer

Shortlisted for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2005

This very interesting documentary was originally made for German TV, but was circulated widely. It is about a little known elite group of World War II Jewish American soldiers who were recruited because they had been born in Germany. These well-educated young soldiers were then secretly trained at Camp Ritchie in Maryland to conduct psychological warfare against the Germans. The film is made up of newsreel footage as well as current interviews with the ten survivors who are the focus of the documentary. They tell their stories, discussing their feelings about being refugees from Germany in the U.S. army helping the Allied cause against Germany, and they talk about their recruitment, their training at Camp Ritchie, their deployment and the strategies they developed to help the Allies win the war against Germany. To add to the complexity of the situation, some of the Ritchie boys still had family in Germany.

Many soldiers were trained. The movie focuses on the following ten:
Werner Angress
Victor Brombert
Fred Howard
Philip Glaessner
Si Lewen
Rudolf Michaels (formerly Michaelis)
Morris Parloff
Richard Schifter
Hans Spear
Guether (Guy) Stern

Click here to see pictures of the ten Ritchie boys featured in the film. By clicking on each picture you will see a biographical sketch which includes their assignments during the war and their post-war accomplishments. Many of them became very prominent members of their various professional communities. The documentary is available on DVD.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Jacob's Cane: A Jewish Family's Journey from the Four Lands of Lithuania to the Ports of London and Baltimore by Elisa New 2009

“Elisa New provides a model for grasping the way in which the great historical forces of modernity – mass migration, technological innovation, war, genocide, capitalism, democracy – realize themselves not in heady abstractions but in the grainy details and the half-hidden trajectories of families.” Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard University

This memoir by Harvard University literature professor Elisa New tells the story of the Levy and Baron families, their origins, and how they became intertwined through marriage and through business. Jacob Levy (1850-1929), who was Elisa New's great-grandfather, married the niece of Bernhard Baron (1850-1929). Then three of Jacob Levy's sons left Baltimore having been lured to London to make their fortunes with their uncle by marriage, Bernhard Baron. Once in London and achieving success in Baron’s business, Carreras Cigarettes, each changed his last name from Levy to Baron.

Both Jacob Levy and Bernhard Baron first emigrated in the nineteenth century from Eastern Europe. Although Jacob died before Elisa New was born, the author knew and admired her great-grandfather's daughters, her great aunts - the proper, comfortable Phildelphia widows, Jean, Myrtle and Fanny. These women, who had worked with their father Jacob in his successful fabric shrinking businesses in Baltimore and Philadelphia, were a font of family lore, but also promulgators of a family mythology that New eventually realized obscured the family’s impoverished origins in Eastern Europe. New had seen Jacob’s hand-carved cane in the possession of a relative and wondered about its provenance and the significance of its carvings- the initials of her grandfather and his three brothers, Max, Isaac, and Paul and three cities: Riga, Siauliai, and Raseinai. The mythology conflicting with the mysterious information on the cane spurs the author to investigate her family’s origins.

This is a very ambitious memoir that covers a lot of territory. In telling an interesting family story about Jewish immigrants who succeed economically, the author contextualizes the family story by providing extensive historical background material woven into the family story. New traces the Levy and Baron families by making visits to relatives in the U.S., England and Israel, and she does extensive research in libraries and archives everywhere. In this memoir you will learn about the family origins, but you will also learn much social and cultural history about the rise and importance of tobacco and tobacco processing as an American and a European Jewish industry. You will also learn about the history of Baltimore, its significance as a port in commerce, trade, and immigration and its politics. New also discusses entrepreneurship, inventions, and manufacturing. Besides her travels to London and to the Eastern Europe hometowns of her ancestors, we travel with New and her daughter to the unmarked graves of her great grandfather’s  brother, Max  and his descendants and the descendants of Jacob's brother Isaac who never left Europe, and who(all but a few) were killed by the Nazis.

 The memoir includes a family tree in the front of the book and a multi-page “Selected Further Readings” list in the back that divides the research into nine categories such as “Jews in Eastern Europe” and “Tobacco, Baltimore, and the Chesapeake.”  There are a few photos, including a picture of Jacob’s cane which is reprinted on the cover of the hardback edition of the memoir.

To read an excerpt from the memoir dealing with Jacob Levy's run for Congress as a member of the Socialist party, click here.

To read an interview with Elisa New where she talks about the writing of this memoir, click here.

There is an extensive family tree at the beginning of the memoir. The names below are excerpted from that tree. 
Levy family
Jacob Levy - author's great-grandfather; married Amelia Elfont, Bernard Baron's sister's daughter.
     Their children
     Edward (took the name Baron); married Bernhard Baron's granddaughter, Bertha.
     Robert (took the name Baron)
     Jean (married name Adler, then Jaffe)
     Myrtle (married name Rosenstein)
     Fanny (married name Goldman)
     Paul Levy
     Theodore (took the name Baron)
     Emil Levy (author's grandfather)

Jacob Levy had three brothers: Max, Isaac, and Paul.
His brother Paul married Bernhard Baron's sister Sarah.

Baron family
Bernhard Baron - author's great-uncle (married 1st Sarah, then Rachel)
Bernhard and Sarah had four children
       Amelia (married Jacob Levy)
       Sadie (married name Wakefield)
       Louis (married Elsie)
       Fanny (married name 1st Caplan, then Guggenheim)
       Chaim Frankel
        Leibe Lifshitz

Associated with Bernhard Baron
Rostov-on-Don, Russia
Brest-Litovsk, Belarus
London, England

Associated with the Levy's
Siauliai, Lithuania(Shavli)
Raseinai, Lithuania
Riga, Latvia
Rumbula Forest, Lithuania
Kuzhai, Lithuania
Zagare, Lithuania
Baltimore, Maryland
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Memoirs of Gluckel by Gluckel of Hameln written in 1691-1692

"We bless this cup of wine in memory of Glikl. We celebrate the vision,creativity and confidence which led her to write, making visible a part of Jewish experience which otherwise would have been forgotten." From, offering alternative dedications for blessings on the cups of wine during the Passover seder.

Gluckel (1646-1724), the German Jewish writer of this memoir, is a force to be reckoned with. Originally written in Yiddish for her ten surviving children who by the time she is writing, except for the youngest, are all married, this memoir invites us into the world of the German Jewish elite – Jewish merchants, bankers and tradesmen, many of them court Jews to various princes and dukes in German principalities. 

The rewards gleaned from reading this memoir are many: Gluckel narrates an engrossing story about her early marriage, the births of her children, the various advantageous matches she made for them, and the trips she took to attend their betrothals and weddings. She also describes the many business trips her husband and his associates made to trade fairs in other cities to buy and sell jewelry and precious stones. Widowed at 40 with many children to raise, she carries on without him, buying and selling, marrying off her children and training her sons in business. We get a fascinating look at how her children’s marriages were arranged, and how dowries were negotiated. We see how tenuous life was – there is always fright about disease, especially, the plague, and worry about robbers on the road.

Gluckel and her family are observant Jews; the dates she uses to mark an event are from the Hebrew calendar, and on her many trips, she plans with the Sabbath and other Jewish holy days in mind. She is proud of her relatives who are scholars of the Talmud. We see how tenuous life was for the various Jewish communities because of anti-Semitism. For example, she talks about frequent arbitrary expulsions that forced Jews to move and settle elsewhere

You will see when you read this memoir that surnames are quite fluid.  Many men she designates by the city where they come from or where they live. For example, her husband is Chayim Hameln, there is an Abraham Metz, a Judah Berlin. To add to the confusion, one man is called Moses Bramburg, and then is referred to as Moses Brillen of Bramburg. Also, this naming system causes fathers and sons to have different “surnames.” Her husband Chayim Hameln’s father’s name she records as Samuel Stuttgart. And there seem to be informal and more "public" names. The man who Gluckel calls Lippmann Behrens the editor footnotes as Liepmann Cohen.  Gluckel records this man’s son’s name as Jacob Hanover.  This naming is of great historical interest and quite a challenge for genealogists.

You’ll notice how many names listed below, which is a who’s who of the seventeenth century German Jewish community, are intertwined through marriage. It is a dizzying web of relationships, from a distance, difficult to sort out and keep straight.

Click here to go to a site describing a memorial in Altona in memory of the Jewish community deported during World War II created by the American artist Sol LeWill. The site includes an informative history of Jews in Altona.

Gluckel’s mother’s family
Nathan Melrich  – author’s maternal grandfather;
Mata – his wife; author’s maternal grandmother   
    Mordechai – married
        Judah and Anschel – orphaned sons
    Gluck – her mother’s sister; married to Jacob Ree
    Ulk (Ulrika) – her mother’s sister; married Elias Cohen, son of Reb Hanau
    Bela – her mother

Gluckel’s  family
Judah Leib – Gluckel’s father
Reize – his first wife
Bela – his second wife (Gluckel’s mother)
Their children
    Unnamed daughter married to the son of Calman Aurich
    Glikl bas Judah Leib (1646-1724) -  author
    Hendele – married to the son of Reb Gumpel of Cleves
    Elkele - married to Joseph
    Unnamed daughter married to Model, the son of Herschel Ries
    Wolf –  married to the daughter of Jacob Lichtenstadt
    Mata  – married to Elias, the son of Rabbi Model Reis and his wife Pessele
    Rebecca – married to Samuel, son of Chayim’s brother Loeb Bonn (first cousins)

Gluckel’s husband Chayim’s family
Her father-in-law Joseph Hameln; his father was Samuel Stuttgart
Her mother-in-law is Nathan Spanier’s daughter
    Their children and grandchildren
    Abraham - married in Posen, to daughter of Chayim Boas.
        Sarah – their daughter
        Samuel – their son; married to his father’s brother, Chayim’s (and Gluckel’s) daughter Hannah (first cousins)
    Yenta – married to Solomon Gans, son of Sussman Gans; second marriage to Leffman Behrens (editor’s note: Liepmann Cohen)
        Jacob Hannover – their son
    Samuel – married to the daughter of Rabbi Sholem of Lemberg;
        Judah Berlin (editor’s note: Jost Liebmann) – married to Samuel’s daughter
    Esther – married to Moses Krumbach, son of Abraham Krumbach
    Loeb Bonn
    Chayim - Gluckel’s husband

    Gluckel and Chayim’s children
        Zipporah – married to Kossman, the son of Elias Cleve (editor’s note: Eijah Gomperz) and Miriam
        Nathan- married to Miram, the daughter of Elijah Ballin
        Hannah – married to Samuel, son of father’s brother Abraham (first cousins)
        Mordecai – married to the daughter of Moses ben Nathan
        Esther – married to Moses Krumbach, son of Abraham Krumbach
            Elias – son of Esther and Moses
        Loeb – married to the daughter of Herschel Reis, the brother of his  mother’s sister Mata’s  husband  Model Reis;
        Joseph – married to the daughter of Meir Stadhagen
        Samuel – married to the daughter of Moses Brillen of Bramburg;  has  daughter who is brought up by      her grandfather
        Moses – married to the daughter of Samson Biaersdorf
        Freudchen – married to the son of Moes ben Loeb Altona
        Miriam – married to the grandson of Hirz Levy (Gluckel’s 2nd husband)

Hirz Levy (editor’s note: Cerf Levy) – widower; Gluckel’s 2nd husband
Freudchen – Hirz Levy’s sister
    His children and grandchild:
    Unnamed daughter – married to Isai Willstadt
    Rabbi Samuel Levy – his son; married to Genendel, daughter of Abraham Krumbach
        Unnamed daughter of Samuel Levy married to son of Moses Rothschild
Other relatives, friends and business associates of Gluckel and Chayim
Feibisch Gans
Chayim Furst – wealthiest Jewish resident of Altona
    Solomon – his son
Nathan Spanier – first to get permission for Jews to settle in Altona
    Esther and Loeb Hildesheim– his daughter and son-in-law
        Unnamed daughter married to Elijah Ballin
            His daughter Miriam, marries Gluckel’s son Nathan
        Unnamed daughter married to Moses Goldzieher
        Moses – their son
        Lipman – their son
Mordecai Cohen and Loeb Bischere – Gluckel’s relatives   
Abraham Stadhagen – Gluckel’s husband’s uncle and Moses Kramer, his son
Abraham Cantor  and Issachar Cohen – employees of Gluckel and Chayim
Reb Mendele -  son of Michael Speyer – friend of Gluckel’s husband; son-in-law of Moses ben Nathan
Loeb Goslar, Moses Schnauthen, Isaac Kirchain and Feibish Levi – friends of Gluckel’s husband Chayim
Isaac Vas – Sephardic businessman
Dr. Abraham Lopez – Sephardic physician
Hirz Wallich –physician
Benjamin Mirels – uncle of Hirschel Reis; has son Wolf Mirels
Solomon Mirels; has son Wolf Mirels
Abraham Metz - wife, Sarah, the daughter of Gluckel’s relative Elias Cohen
Aaron ben Moses
Samuel Heckscher, son of Meir Heckscher
Mendel Oppenheimer – son of Samuel Oppenhiemer
Chayim Cleve – Moses’ father-in-law
Samson Biaersdorf  (editor’s note: Samson Solomon ben Juda Selka)
    Loeb Biber and Wolf – his sons
Bela, a cousin of Gluckel, married to Baer Cohen; Baer Cohen’s second wife: the daughter of Tevele Schiff
    Mata – Bela’s niece; married to Anschel Wimpfen
    Rueben Rothschild– Mata’s brother;
Febisch Cohen
    Selig – his son; married to the daughter of Hirz Hannover
    Gluckcshen – his daughter; marries a son of Judah Berlin
Jacob – son of Abraham Krumbach
Gabriel Levi – Jewish banker
Lemle Wimpfen – employee of Hirz Levy
Jacob Marbug –

Rabbi Gabriel Eskeles;
    Rabbi Berich – his son; married daughter of Samson Wertheimer
    Loeb – his son
Rabbi Aaron –
    Son married to granddaughter of Rabbi Gabriel
Rabbi Abraham Broda
Rabbi Samuel Orgels
Rabbi Mann of Hamburg; has son Reb Simon
Rabbi Samson Wertheimer – brother-in-law of Moses Brillen of Bramburg
Rabbi Mendel Rothschild

Court Jews: Judah Berlin, Samuel Oppenheimer, Samson Wertheimer, Samson Biaiersdorf, Leffmann Berhens, Samuel Levy, Hirtz Levi (Gluckel’s second husband)

The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman first published in 1946 (in Polish), in 1999 in English

Named one of the Best Books of 1999 by the Los Angeles Times

This riveting memoir by a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto was originally written in Polish right after World War II by the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman who grew up in Warsaw in an intellectually and musically gifted family. Szpilman (1910-2000), who considered himself a member of the cultural elite, worked as a pianist on Polish radio. Through his powers of observation and the power of his writing, he paints a portrait of the Jewish community as it becomes the subject of increasing stress. He gives us an inside view of the various strata in the Jewish community and we follow his own desperate efforts to survive in a ghetto that was liquidated and leveled before the Germans fled. After the war Szpilman remained in Poland, the only surviving member of his immediate family, where he continued as an esteemed pianist and composer.

Note: This is not a memoir about family and family background. Other than telling us that his father came originally from Sosnowiec and describing how he and his immediate family managed in the ghetto before they were all, except for him, put on a transport, there is no family information. The focus of this memoir is on a first-hand look at the Warsaw ghetto and how it functioned, from its beginning to its end. Some friends and some Jewish administration officials are named.

The original Polish version was suppressed by the communists.The current edition in English includes a few photos. (The German edition includes many more.) The English edition of the memoir also includes a short foreword by Szpilman’s son Andrzej, an epilogue by a close friend, Wolf Beirman, who writes about Szpilman’s first manuscript and its initial reception in Poland in 1946, about Szpilman’s later career, and about Szpilman’s post-war search for the German officer who helped save him. The English edition also includes an excerpt from the journal of the German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld.

A movie of this memoir, also called The Pianist, directed in 2002 by Roman Polanski (born in 1933) was nominated by the Academy of Motion Pictures for Best Picture. Adrien Brody won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Szpilman and Polanski won the Oscar for Best Director. Polanski was himself a Jewish Polish citizen who was hidden by Catholic Nuns during the war. To watch a trailer for the movie which is available on DVD, click here.

If you want to explore an interesting Wladyslaw Szpilman website where, for example, you can see photos not in the memoir, listen to some of his music, and read more about The German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, click here.

(unnamed) Szpilman – author’s father, violinist; home town - Sosnowiec
Wladyslaw Szpilman – author
Henryk  - author’s brother; scholar
Regina – author’s sister; lawyer
Halina – author’s sister

Places – all in Warsaw
Sienna Café
Szutuka Café
Café Nowoczesna
Umschlagplatz – where Jews were gathered before being put on transports

Monday, March 15, 2010

Dough by Mort Zachter 2007

 Dough won the 2006 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award in Creative Nonfiction

Mort Zachter is the only son of a mother whose two immigrant parents had owned the Ninth Street Bakery on the Lower East Side in New York City at 350 E Ninth St. since 1926. His mother Helen and her two single brothers Joe and Harry continued running the bakery until the 1980’s. This is the story of a workaholic family that amassed millions of dollars but lived like paupers. It’s an extreme version of an immigrant family story. Besides revealing interesting details about the retail bakery business and about how the family ran it, there are evocative descriptions of how they lived, as well as some discussion about the family’s involvement in the Romanian-American Congregation on Rivington St. on the Lower East Side.

The Marketing Director at the U. of Georgia Press which published the hardcover version of this memoir conducted an interesting interview with the author which you can access by clicking here.

Author’s family on his mother’s side
Max and Lena Wolkirmerski – emigrated to US in 1913 from Zetel in Belarus; changed their name to Wolk.
    Joe and Harry Wolk - their sons born in Europe
    Helen Wolk Zachter - their daughter, mother of author

    Other family members
    Philip Zachter – husband of Helen Wolk, author’s father; his father’s name Jacob
.         Mort Zachter – their son, the author
        Nurit Roshin – author’s wife
    Ellen and Daniel Roshin– Nurit’s parents
        Cherie Roshin-  Nurit’s sister; married to Charlie
            Eli – their son
    Lou Sweedler – author’s first cousin on father’s side
Mordechai Meyer, rabbi of the Roumanian-American Congregation on Rivington St.

The Lower East Side of NYC
30 Clinton St. in East New York, Brooklyn – where the first generation of Wolks lived
Hegemann Avenue in Brooklyn – where family lived after Clinton St.
40 First Avenue on the Lower East Side– where Harry and Joe lived
The corner of Allen and Stanton – site of first family bakery
350 E. 9th St. named Ninth Street Bakery. (still there under different ownership)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Dream by Harry Bernstein 2008

"Bernstein describes their struggles and his mother's perseverance without a trace of self-dramatization or self-pity, in quiet prose that sometimes touches poetry." Juliet Wittman, The Washington Post

This memoir, a sequel to The Invisible Wall (subject of the previous post) which was published in 2007, is an interesting portrayal of the life of a Jewish immigrant family who in 1922 came to Chicago from Stockport, England when the author was twelve.  They are coming to the States to join Bernstein’s father’s family who had immigrated some years back. Confident that they will be leaving poverty behind, Harry’s mother, in particular, is shocked to find that many people in America struggle to survive. They suffer the same fate. It seems no easier to survive in the new world, than in the old.

In the early chapters we are introduced to the large, almost larger than life Bernstein clan in Chicago: the domineering grandmother, the very eccentric grandfather and the many siblings and their spouses who come to meet the new arrivals. Because life in Chicago isn’t easy, when Harry graduates from high school the family, except for his sister Rose, follows his older brother who had already moved to New York. First they live in Brooklyn and then in the Bronx. Of course they hope to do better, but the country is in the throes of the Depression. Eventually the author makes a life for himself without the college degree he yearned for. The memoir ends on the sad note of the death of his mother who never saw her way out of poverty.

This follow-up to Harry Bernstein’s The Invisible Wall has a very interesting Dickensian-like cast of characters who help flesh out for us what it was like to be an immigrant in America and to struggle and survive the Depression. In The Invisible Wall being observant Jews in the small English town where they lived is a prominent theme. The family's Jewish identity does not play much of a role in The Wall. Of course their experiences as immigrants mirrors the experiences of many Jewish immigrants.

There have been many discussions in the press about Bernstein's vivid memory. He wrote both memoirs when he was in his 90's.To read the first chapter of The Dream, click here.

Added 6/7/2011: To read the New York Times obituary for Harry Bernstein who died at the age of  101 in June of 2011, click here.

Author’s immediate family:
    Yankel Bernstein – his father
    Ada Bernstein – his mother
    Their children:
        Joe Bernstein
        Rose Bernstein –  marries Jim Morse
        Harry Bernstein (author)
        Sydney Bernstein

Chicago Bernsteins:
    Grandparents not named
    Their children:
    Barney Bernstein – married Rose
    Morris Bernstein – married Leah
    Ada Bernstein – married Louis
    Dora Bernstein
    Lily Bernstein – married Phil;  married Peo
    Sophie Bernstein – married Sam
    Abe Bernstein – married and divorced Lizzie
    Saul Bernstein – married Estelle; had son Irwin
    Eli Bernstein
    Yankel Bernstein - author's father

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein 2007

"Mr. Bernstein, with great economy and skill, maneuvers an extensive cast of characters onto his small stage and lets their stories play out within the larger historical and social context." William Grimes, New York Times

This mesmerizing account of growing up Jewish and poor in a Lancashire mill town outside of Manchester, England in the early years of the 20th century through WWI has all the hallmarks of a literary tale beautifully told. Here the Jews, mostly immigrants from Poland, worked as tailors; the Christians mostly operated machines in the textile mills. Bernstein gives the reader a detailed view of the living conditions of his family and their financial struggles, and he also describes scenes of the working lives of the Jewish tailors.

The author, born in 1910,  describes the daily life of both the Jewish and Christian communities of his youth. Living on opposite sides of the street, the two communities, despite blatant anti-Semitism, formed tense but often mutually beneficial relationships. The memoir ends when the author is 12 and the family (all but his sister Lily) leaves England for Chicago to join his father's family who had already emigrated. Bernstein subsequently wrote a second volume, The Dream, that picks up where The Invisible Wall leaves off. (The Dream is the subject of the next post.)

The Invisible Wall, which got rave reviews, made a splash because it was received so favorably by the critics, but also because the author was in his 90’s when he wrote it. It challenges the memoir form in that it reads like fiction – full of dialogue between him and others, and dialogue overheard by him that he couldn’t possibly be remembering word for word. He also quotes from letters he helped his mother write to his father’s relatives in America. That being said, this beautifully rendered portrait of an early 20th-century Jewish community in North England that disappeared long ago plumbs deep truths and is a very satisfying, informative read.

Includes family photos.

For a very interesting interview with the author that covers topics like anti-semitism in  England and his views of the difference between being Jewish in England and America click here.

Added on June 7, 2011: To read the New York Times obituary on the death of Harry Bernstein in June, 2011, click here.

Yankel Bernstein – author’s father
Ada Bernstein - author's mother
Their children:
    Joe Bernstein
    Saul Bernstein
    Lily Bernstein
    Rose Bernstein
    Harry Bernstein (author)
    Sydney Bernstein

Stockport, England

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Night by Elie Wiesel 1960

Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

In some ways the 100-page Night is the iconic Holocaust memoir. In spare and powerful prose, Weisel documents what he observed and what he experienced when he was an adolescent.

When Hitler comes to power, the Jewish community of Sighet, in Transylvania (modern Romania) where Wiesel comes from, does not believe the worst can happen. They are shocked to see the Germans invade their town. They consult amongst themselves. They must obey the Jewish police, the local police, and the Nazis who give orders to everyone. They must surrender their possessions. They prepare for the worst. They obey orders once all other options have been exhausted.  Family members cling to each other. They are forced to leave their homes and they are herded into a ghetto in an area designated by the Nazis. They are then forced in groups into cattle cars to other destinations: work camps and extermination camps. Different members of the community suffer different fates and families who have tried to look out for each other are split up. In Weisel’s case he and his father are together, and they work at keeping each other alive as they are moved from Auschwitz to Buchenwald. In the course of this movingly written memoir, Weisel recounts resourcefulness, good luck, bad luck, generosity, selfishness, hope, despair, brutality, hunger, fear, exhaustion, sickness, death.

Night, which was originally rejected by many publishers because they did not think it would sell, has now sold over ten million copies. Like The Diary of Anne Frank, Night is taught in many different school settings. It is, of course, a different story from Anne Frank’s in many ways. The Diary of Anne Frank is the story of families in hiding. Night is the story of life and death in the concentration camps, but they are an interesting pair nonetheless. Both authors were adolescents during the war and you see what is happening in their world through the eyes and their innocence which serves to magnify the horror.

Talks and interviews with Elie Wiesel are easy to find on the internet. Click here to watch a talk he gave which also includes a question and answer period at the University of California at Santa Barbara in February of 2008.

If you would like to read a scholarly article about British Prisoners of War and their reaction to the Jewish inmates at Auschwitz published in the Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies  click here.

To read a 2/18/11 New York Times article on current thoughts about the need for new kinds of exhibitions at Auschwitz written by Michael Kimmelman, click here.

Hilda, author’s oldest sister
Bea, author’s sister
Eliezer (Elie) Wiesel, author
Tzipporah, author’s youngest sister
Batia Riech – a relative who was living with the Wiesels
Reizel Stein – a relative who lived in Antwerp – she and her children killed
Akiba Drumer – was at Auschwitz with the author
Hersch Genud – was at Auschwitz with the author

Sighet –  author’s home town; in Transylvania
Forest near Kolomaye, Galicia
Auschwitz (Buna)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Apricots on the Nile: A Memoir with Recipes by Collette Rossant copyright 1999

(Published previously as Memories of a Lost Egypt.)
The author was a nominee in 2000 for the award for Literary Food Writing from the International Society of Cookbook Professionals.

Collette Rossant, born in 1932, describes in loving detail the daily life of a large, affluent Sephardic Jewish family living comfortably in Cairo, Egypt during the late 1930’s through WWII. The author, whose father died when he was young and whose mother more or less absented herself, was raised both by her maternal grandparents in Paris and by her paternal grandparents in Cairo. Most of this memoir is about family life in Cairo – what it was like to live with a large extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins and a staff of servants. A good part of the story is taken up with food preparation – the meals prepared at her grandparents’ house in Egypt. It is clear from the writing that the child Collette found much solace and pleasure spending time with the cook and other servants as they prepared meals for the family and for guests.

The memoir also includes some chapters that take place in Collette Rossant's adult life. It opens with a scene in the hospital room of her elderly and ill mother that reveals the difficult relationship the author had with her mother, and toward the end of the memoir, she describes a trip she took as an adult to her old Cairo neighborhood and to the house where she was raised by her grandparents.

Collette Rossant has made a professional life writing about food, having published a number of cookbooks. In this memoir you'll find a number of Middle Eastern recipes that have become part of the author’s repertoire.

Author’s father’s family name: Palacci – Rossant states that her paternal grandparents living in Cairo were both from families who after the expulsion from Spain settled in Istanbul and then migrated to Cairo. There is a wonderful early but undated photo of the Palacci clan spread over two pages in the beginning of the memoir. No one in the photo is identified. There are other family photos included.

The Palacci family who appear in this memoir:
 Vita Palacci and his wife Marguerite - the author’s grandfather and his wife. Her grandfather, who owned a department store in Cairo, was one of ten children. The only one of Vita’s siblings mentioned is his brother Albert who had a son Vita. That son immigrated to England where he practiced gynecology.

The author’s grandparents, Vita and Marguerite, had nine children including the author’s father who was a buyer employed by his father. The author does not give us her father’s his first name. However, several of his siblings are mentioned by name: her father’s brother Clement, and sisters Fortune, Lydia, Marise, and Monique. Fortune had three children; one named is Alice. Lydia is the mother of Meg (who married her tutor Pierre) and Renee. Other cousins, Zaki and Henri are mentioned, but who their parents are isn’t clear. In 1952 many of her father’s side of the family moved to Paris from Egypt.

Author’s mother’s side of the family
The author was born in Paris to Marcelline, daughter of James and Rose Bemant, but Bemant was not her grandfather’s original name. No information about the original name is provided.  The non-Jewish-sounding Bemant name proved advantageous during WWII; while the author was in Cairo living with her paternal grandparents, her maternal grandparents and her brother Eduard with much difficulty managed to remain in Paris and avoid deportation. 

The author married an American, James Rossant, and moved to NY in 1965. They have four children: Marianne, Tom, Cecile, and Juliette. Her grandchildren are Matthew, Julien, Celine, Luca and Oliver.

Places: Paternal grandparents’ address: 22 Ismael Pacha St, Garden City section of Cairo. Description of the Khan-al-Khalili market.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn 2006

Winner of the National Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award; translated into many foreign languages; made many best-seller lists in the United States and Europe

Daniel Mendelsohn, a grandson of an immigrant from the Polish town of Bolechow (currently Bolekhiv in Ukraine), where his family had lived for 300 years, seeks to learn as much as he can about the fate of his grandfather’s brother and family who lived in Bolechow and were killed during WWII. The author, who has a PhD in the classics and is a journalist and literary critic, uses his great literary skills to create this vivid, riveting memoir.

Mendelsohn, born in 1960, became interested in family history as a youngster, primarily because of his grandfather’s stories about the lost world of Bolechow. He started his research before the internet became a common tool, then gravitated to the internet. He traveled to many countries, interviewing the last surviving Bolechowers, and went to Bolechow more than once to interview surviving Poles and Ukrainians. The memoir is a piecing together of a fascinating, heart-breaking story.

This memoir can be seen as a case study: the systematic destruction of the Jewish residents of Bolechow is a stand-in for many such Eastern European towns and their Jewish residents. It’s also a significant case study in the process of genealogical research. It is not a specific how-to, but rather the record of a process that required dedication, preparation, curiosity, resourcefulness and collaboration. Mendelsohn does not spend a lot of time discussing his early research. He mostly deals with his travels: who and what he finds, what they say and show him, and what sense he makes of what he sees and hears.

Finally, it is the story of today: The memoir reveals how the legacy of the Holocaust lives on in the lives of those who survived and their descendants.

Includes a Jager family tree and photos taken by the author’s brother Matthew who is a professional photographer and traveled with him.

The author’s Jager family tree (his mother’s family), includes the family of Shmiel Jager, the author’s maternal grandfather’s brother, who along with his wife and four children, perished in the Holocaust (the six lost referred to in the title).
The family names on the tree are: Jager (Jaeger, Yager, Yaeger), Kornbluth, Mittelmark, Schneelicht, Rechtschaffen, Konig, Beispiel, Cushman, Mendelsohn.

Other family names: Erlich, Katz, Spieler.
Family names from Latvia: Beleiter, Hauser, Seinfeld

Others from Bolechow:
Survivors who immigrated to Australia:
Jack Greene (former Grunschlag) and his brother Bob Grunschlag,
Boris Goldsmith
Meg Ellenbogen Grossbard and her brother-in-law Salamon Grossbard

Survivors who immigrated to Israel
Shlomo Adler and his wife Ester
Josef Adler, a cousin of Shlomo and his wife Ilana
Solomon (Shumek) and Malcia Reinharz

Other survivors:
Jakob and Klara Schoenfeld Freilich who immigrated to Stockholm
Anna (Klara) Heller Stern who immigrated to Argentina, then Israel
Adam (Bumo) Kulberg who immigrated to Copenhagen; and his wife Sofia
Eli Rosenberg who immigrated to NY

Other residents of Belechow mentioned:
? Zwiebel – Anna Heller’s mother’s brother
Pepci Diamant – perished
Dusia Zimmerman
Yulek Zimmerman – Dusia’s brother; shot
Dunka Schwartz
Gedalje Grunschlag – Jack and Bob’s brother; perished
Dovcie Ehrmann – uncle to Grunschlag brothers - shot
Lonek Ellenbogen – Meg Grossbard’s brother; shot
Bumo Halpern
? Gartenberg – shot
Mundzio Artman
Yetta Durst
Shymek Samuel
Ignacy Taub
Dyzia Lew – survivor
Naphtali Krauthammer
Josef Feuer - survivor; called last Jew of Strvj

The author includes a translation of testimony from 1946 filed at Yad Vashem given by a Rebeka Mondschein that describes the 1st Aktion in Bolechow. Some names are included. He also includes testimony given in 1946 by a Matylda Gelernter describing the 2nd Aktion where some names are also included.

First Bolechower Sick Benevolent Association, Mt. Judah Cemetery, Queens, NY
Bolechow, Poland (Bolekhiv, Ukraine)
Stryj – town close to Bolechow

To read more about The Lost, to read an excerpt, to see some family pictures, or to hear an interview with Daniel Mendelsohn on NPR's Fresh Air conducted by Terry Gross, click here.