Monday, July 26, 2010
This is a wonderful immersion into the life of a large, colorful, multi-lingual Sephardic family who moved from Constantinople, Turkey in the first decade of the twentieth century to Alexandria, Egypt where they lived a rather prosperous life until mid-century. The story, told by the author who was a child growing up in Alexandria amidst his parents, two sets of grandparents and many aunts, uncles and cousins, takes us to the end of their stay when the last members of the family were expelled in 1965 and moved on to Europe and America. Most of the story takes place in Alexandria with a few scenes in Paris and in Venice where some of the exiled family members resettled.
The author illustrates how his family members seemed woven into the fabric of the city, owning businesses and thriving financially until the status of the Jews in Egypt changed radically with the end of the monarchy and the rise of Nasser, nationalism, pan–Arabism and anti-Israel sentiment. The established Jewish community no longer felt safe and was no longer welcome. Andre Aciman was thirteen when he left with his family for the United States.
Caveat: As in some memoirs, Aciman has not included most of the surnames of members of his extended family, I assume to protect the privacy of their descendants. He does not give us the surnames of either his mother’s or his father’s family, except in the case of his paternal grandfather whose name in Alexandria was spelled Adjamin, not Aciman. This was discovered by an internet source who went sleuthing. Unfortunately, Aciman does not alert us to the fact that he changed at least one important name, that of an uncle who figures prominently in the story. Samir Raafat published an article on the internet stating that the uncle Aciman calls Vili, whose “real” name Aciman says is “Aaron,” was actually Maurice George Levi who changed his last name to Lee. So we can assume the surname on his father’s mother's side is “Levi.”
Given what we know about this name change, it’s possible that other names have been changed as well, so a list of the names as they appear in the memoir is not included. Unless you’re trying to trace the family name Levi from Cairo and Constantinople, this memoir is best read as an evocation of the life of a Sephardic Jewish family in Alexandria, how they spend their time, how they live their lives in the first half of the twentieth century. And it is certainly well worth reading.
To read an op ed piece in the New York Times written by Andre Aciman in May, 2009 objecting to President Obama's failing to mention the expulsion of the Jews from Egypt after World War II in a speech Obama delivered in Egypt, click here.
George George Lee (Levi)
Alexandria - (Rue Memphis, Rue Esnah, Rue Delta, Avenue Ambroise Rally in Ibrahimieh, Grand Sporting, Cleopatra, Stanley Beach, Sidi Bishr, Smouha, the Corniche, Boulevard Saad Zaghloul, Vue Cherif, Rue des Pharaons, Rue Toussoum, Rue Phalaki,Rue Djabarti, Montaza Place, Place Mohammed Ali, Delices, Hannaux, Athineos, La Cote, Hotel Cecil, Victoria College.)
Monday, July 19, 2010
Martha Quest, the first in a series of a thinly-veiled autobiographical novels collected under the title Children of Violence by the Nobel-prize-winning author, Doris Lessing, covers her early years growing up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in between World War I and World War II. Written shortly after World War II, the author looks back at a moment in time, at life before the war, through the eyes of someone who knows the tragedy her generation is about to confront.
Lessing, born in 1919, creates a character much like herself, named Martha Quest, who is inquisitive and observant, disturbed by the racism and class divisions she sees in her daily life. Although the author is not Jewish, her second husband, Gottfried Lessing, was a German Jewish immigrant who fled from Germany in 1938. (They eventually divorced and he later became the East German ambassador to Uganda and was killed in 1979 during the revolt against Idi Amin.)
Jewish residents in Rhodesia are prominent characters in the novel. Cohen family members are an assortment of merchants, lawyers, Zionists and leftists.The Cohen brothers and their extended family are role models of intellectuals and professionals who actively help point Martha toward a life beyond the life on her British parents’ farm. Another character, Adolph King, a violinist at the fancy Sports Club, is portrayed as an insecure young man, the son of East European immigrant Jews who has anglicized his last name. Martha is encouraged to join the Left Book Club, which actually was founded in London to promote socialism, and it is where the author met her Jewish husband, Gottfried Lessing.
This novel is worth reading for the flavor of life in Zimbabwe with its diverse community of immigrant whites and their relationship to the native black population. This white population included a small Jewish community mostly living in the capital of Salisbury.
To read about the history of the Jewish community in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, click here.
Peter Lessing - his son by Doris Lessing
Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe),
Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe)
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Be forewarned: This memoir deals only in small measure with the author’s Jewish roots. Peter Godwin is a journalist who was born in Zimbabwe (the former Rhodesia) and now lives in New York City. In this memoir he chronicles his frequent trips to Zimbabwe from 1996 through early 2004 to visit his aging parents, and the book is mostly about the political/social/economic situation he found in Zimbabwe. In 1996 his father was suffering from diabetes exacerbated by a heart condition, and Godwin narrates his deterioration as he reports on the deterioration of the country under the dictatorship of Mugabe.
During one trip Godwin returned to his parents’ home and noticed a photo on the wall that had never been displayed before. When he asked his father who the people were in the photo, his father revealed for the first time that he was not a native Englishman, but rather a Polish Jewish refugee, the son of the couple in the photo. This was, of course, shocking news to his son, and the author followed it up with many questions, all of them extremely painful for his father to discuss. His father did his best to send his son lengthy e-mails, trying to fill in his family story.
Some of what Peter Godwin learned was that George Godwin was an assumed name; his father’s real name was Kazimierz Jerzy Goldfarb. His grandfather was an assimilated wealthy shipping agent living in Warsaw whose wife and daughter (the author’s grandmother and aunt) were transported presumably to Treblinka. The author’s father had been sent in 1939 to boarding school in England and never saw any of his family again although he heard from his father frequently from Warsaw where his father returned after the war and lived under an assumed name.
The author starts thinking about his own Jewish identity. He notes the small Jewish community that lived in Zimbabwe, mostly immigrants from the Baltics who were turned back from South Africa because of quota restrictions. And he mentions the Lemba, an African tribe who claim to be one of the "lost tribes" whose DNA confirms Jewish roots. He also remarks on the Jewish section of Pioneer cemetery that has 2000 graves.
The author also started reading contemporary Jewish history and attempted to find out the fate of his grandmother and aunt. He has gained a new understanding of his father, who always seemed somewhat remote and taciturn. And he understands the crowning irony: His father and his family were vilified in Poland because they were Jews, and he thought he’d made a secure future for himself and his family when we started anew in Africa, only to end up being vilified for being white and becoming fearful for his life and the life of his family, yet again.
This memoir includes photos.
To read about the Lemba in Southern Africa, click here.
Maurycy Goldfarb (assumed the name Stefan Golaszewski) - married to Janina Parnas
Halina - their daughter
Kazimierz Jerzy Goldfarb (assumed the name George Godwin) - son of Maurycy and Janina; married Mary Helen Godwin Rose
Peter Godwin - son of Kazimierz and Mary Helen - relation ship with ?; author
Holly - his daughter
Joanna Cole - married to Peter Godwin
Tom and Hugo - their sons
Jain - daughter of Kazimierz and Mary Helen
Georgina - daughter of Kazimierz and Mary Helen; married to Jeremy
Xanthe - daughter of Georgina and Jeremy
Sophie Parnas - sister of Jenina; author's great aunt
Alexander and Jeannette - children by different husbands
Monday, July 12, 2010
This very interesting novel about an immigrant family from Poland who settled on Hester Street on the Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th century was written by a Polish immigrant whose family settled in New York and is frequently included in college courses. For example, it can be found on American Literature, American History, Jewish Studies, Women Writers, or Women’s Studies syllabi.
Yezierska has created the Smolinsky family who live on the Lower East Side, a family much like her own. The narrator is Sara, the youngest and most independent of Reb Smolinsky’s daughters who constantly locks horns with her father who spends his time studying Torah and who expects his wife and daughters to support him and to do his bidding, including marrying the men he chooses for his daughters. Defying her father, Sara moves out and works to put herself through school and becomes a teacher.
This novel recreates in much detail life on the Lower East Side – the tenements, the poverty, the pushcarts, and life inside their tiny apartment where their father has the best room for his studying and where one of Sarah’s sisters announces to the family that in America everyone has his or her own toothbrush and towel. We are pulled into a “war” between generations, between the old ways and the new, between duty to one’s family and a need to strike out on one’s own.
In telling this story, Yezierska creates authentic-sounding Yiddish-inflected dialogue. It is easy to recognize that the issues she raises are the ones many immigrants encountered as they made their way in a new country, the children often leading the way.
Click here to find many links for historical information and literature about the Lower East Side of NYC.
The Lower East Side, New York City
Hester Street, New York City
Elizabeth, New Jersey
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Masha Gessen, a journalist who was born in 1967 in Moscow, immigrated to the U.S. when she was fourteen, but then moved back to Moscow in 1991 as a foreign correspondent. When she returned to Moscow she was reunited with her grandmothers, Ester and Ruzya, who have been friends since shortly after World War II. The author is intrigued with their lives, since they had lived through some of the most turbulent decades in modern European history, and she interviewed both of them extensively for this book. They both are accomplished, and multi-lingual and held responsible jobs that went a long way toward supporting their families through difficult times.
This fascinating memoir is the story of these two women whose lives were shaped by the forces of history. Ester, her father's mother, was born in Bialystok, Poland and when Hitler started exercising his power, she left to go to school in Moscow. Gessen recreates her childhood in Bialystok and writes extensively about her father Jakob who was a member of the Judenrat in the Bialystok ghetto and died at the hands of the Nazis.
Her grandmother Ruzya, her mother's mother, was raised in Moscow. Her young husband died in the war when she was pregnant, and she managed to land a job with the NKVD as a translator and censor that supported her and her daughter. But the job exposed her to the harshness of Stalin's regime and its purges and through her eyes we see the toll it took on the lives of citizens of the Soviet Union.
The details of their lives are very engaging. But the most interesting and perhaps vexing sections of the memoir are the ones in which she focuses on the potential moral dilemmas of members of her family. She investigates the life of her father as a member of the Judenrat in the Bialystok ghetto by doing extensive research, including reading privately printed memoirs written by survivors of the Bialystok ghetto where her father's name is mentioned frequently. Was he a potential savior? A dupe? With the information she gathers, she tries to sort out all of the angles.
The same is true when she talked extensively with her grandmother Ruzya who worked as a censor. Her grandmother feels culpable. Should she have held a censor's job? How does that implicate her in the evils Stalin perpetrated? Geffen has carefully researched this topic as well and integrates her research into her discussion seamlessly. This allows us to contemplate the situation in its complexity.
Throughout the memoir is a discussion of anti-Semitism, both obvious and covert. Beyond the rationing, the paranoia, the constant worry that you might be denounced for any reason, real or imagined, was the added burden of being targeted because you were a Jew. The author forcefully conveys all of this by discussing the lives of her family members, most especially two remarkable women who survived those years in large part due to their own resourcefulness and whose accomplishments are celebrated in this memoir.
There are some pictures at the beginning of each section.
For more information on the NKVD, Stalin's People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs, click here.
Jakub Goldberg – married to Bella; author’s great grandparents
Ester – their daughter; married Boris Gessen; author’s grandparents
Sasha – son of Ester and Boris; author’s father
Helena – Bella’s sister; author’s great great aunt
Arnold Gessen – married Miriam; author’s great grandparents
Boris – their son; married Ester Goldberg;
Sasha (Alexander) – their son; marries Yelena Minkin; parents of author
Masha – daughter of Sasha and Yelena; partner with Svenya; author
Kostya (Keith) – son of Sasha and Yelena
Leonid – son of and Ester Goldberg and 2nd husband Sergei
Moshe Solodovnik – married Eva; author’s great grandparents
Ruzya – their daughter; married Samuil Lvovich Minkin; author’s grandparents
Yelena (Yolotchka) – daughter of Samuil and Ruzya; marries Sasha Gessen
Yasha – their son
Boris – their son
Semyon Zenin – Ruzya’s second husband
Alik – author’s 3rd husband
Lev – Eva’s brother; author’s great great uncle
Lev Minkin – married Batsheva; author’s great grandparents
Samuil – their son; married to Ruzya Solodovnik
Yelena – daughter of Samuil and Ruzya; author’s mother (see above)
Zhenya – daughter of Lev and Batsheva; author’s great uncle
Friends, Acquaintances, and Sources
Chaika Grossman – married to Meir Orkin
Malka Orkin – sister of Meir Orkin
Max and Lusya Akivis
Places and Institutions
Dzerhinsky, Soviet Union
Yekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk), Russia
Pietrasze Field, Poland
Majdanek labor camp
Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee
Monday, July 5, 2010
Erin Einhorn’s mother’s story of having survived as a hidden child in Poland during World War II is the subject of this moving memoir. The author is curious. Her mother, who was born in 1942, says she remembers very little beyond that her own mother was killed and when pressed, wants to avoid talking about the past. She knows who took care of her, but never made contact with the Polish family who kept her during the war or the Jewish family in Sweden who took care of her after the war.
The author, who is a journalist, senses an interesting story and takes a course in learning to speak Polish in preparation for an extended stay in Poland. What she finds when she arrives in Poland is a disturbing story that she hadn’t anticipated. In knocking on the door of her mother’s old house, she finds the family of the woman who had saved her mother’s life, but soon she is enveloped in a convoluted real estate nightmare having to do with the house where her mother was raised and the descendants of the woman who saved her mother.
Interwoven with that track is the story of Einhorn’s search through archives in city halls and other repositories of old documents in Bedzin and elsewhere where her family had lived. She wanted to document the lives and deaths of her ancestors and to see if she could confirm family stories that had been passed down to her. Here she had many experiences familiar to researchers – specifically those working in the area of genealogy. For example, she found records she didn’t even know to look for, while searching for others she never found. She corroborated some information she had learned from her mother, but to her surprise, disproved parts of stories told to her as fact. She found some people very helpful; others stood in her way. And throughout, she makes observations about a country whose large Jewish population was wiped out, leaving behind abandoned cemeteries and burnt out shells of synagogues. She talked to Poles of all ages, trying to get a read on their views of the past as well as their current attitudes.
This memoir includes an extensive family tree and photos. Included in the list below are the names of descendants except for recent generations where the author has only included their first names.
To hear stories about other hidden children, click here.
Pinkhes Frydrych – author’s maternal great great great grandfather; married Zlata
Sura – their daughter
Fraydela – their daughter
Shmil- their son; married Liba Mari Henkos; author’s great great grandparents
Yisruel –their son; married Zisl Paserman; author’s great grandparents
Faygl – their daughter; married Chaim Weindling
Moyshe – their son; married Minnie
Shloyme – their son; married Rudl Ester
Laybish – their son; married Tillie Gold
Yankl – their son; married Heltsha
Abramek and Gutsha – their children
Duvid Oyzer – their son; married Baltsha Gold
Beresh (Bernard)– their son; married Sura Leah Rozenblum; author’s grandparents
Irena (Irene)– their daughter; married Brian Einhorn; author’s parents
Derek – their son; author’s brother
Erin- their daughter; author
Fela (Faye) Brystowska – Beresh’s second wife
Harold – son of Beresh and Fela
Liba; youngest daughter of Yisruel and Zisl; married Shmil Biber
Avrum – son of Shmil and Liba
Yitshok – son of Shmil and Liba; married Pesela Najman
Sukher (Sol) – son of Yitshok and Pesela married to Luba Tryszynska
Moyshe – son of Yitshok and Pesela
Natan Paserman – author’s great great great grandfather
Yankl – his son
Raysl – his daughter
Moyshe – his son; married Rachel Getal (author’s great great grandfather)
Chana – their daughter
Zisl Paserman – their daughter; married Yisruel Frydrych; author’s great grandparents
Sally Einhorn – author’s paternal grandmother
Brian – her son; married Irene Frydrych; author’s parents
Friends and Acquaintances
Benjamin and Shprinsa Keijler
Fannie Adolffson - their daughter
Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp
Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland
Thursday, July 1, 2010
Joseph Berger, a journalist with the New York Times, writes an engrossing memoir about immigrating to America with his family in 1950 from a DP camp, and what it was like growing up the child of Holocaust survivors steeped in a refugee/survivor community in New York City: the loving but overprotective parents, the insular community. We see the author and his friends who are the sons of immigrants helping their parents negotiate the geography and culture of America as they find their way in a new country and city, try to adapt to a new way of life, learn English, and scramble to feed hungry mouths.
In writing his memoir, Berger was especially lucky to have a memoir his mother wrote to draw from in which she detailed what it was like growing up in pre-war Poland, what it was like surviving the Holocaust, living through the war, living in a DP camp, and then immigrating to America.
The author quotes extensively from her memoir, so, as a result, two generations have their say: parent and child. The immediacy of his mother’s prose has a far greater effect on the reader than if Berger had merely used it as background material, or had summarized or paraphrased what he learned from reading her memoir.
This memoir contains many photos.
To learn more about Otwock, Poland, click here.
Author’s mother’s mother’s family:
Israel Zelig Olszewski – the author's maternal great grandfather
Chana Leah - his daughter
Sheindele Oszewski – his daughter
Peseh Tutel Olszewski - his daughter; married Joshua Galant; author's grandmother
Rachel – their daughter; author’s mother; married Marcus Berger
Joseph (Israel) - author; married Brenda
Annie- their daughter
Joshua Solomon – author’s brother; married Fay
Evelyn – author’s sister; married to James Hartman
Jacob Solomon and Alisa– children of Evelyn and James
Ivor Shapiro – brother-in-law of author (Fay’s brother?)
Simcha Warszawiak– Peseh Tutel’s son from 1st marriage; Rachel’s half-brother
Freyda Leah – Peseh Tutel’s daughter from 1st marriage; Rachel’s half sister; husband Leo
Yasha Golant– son of Peseh Tutel and Joshua Golant; Rachel’s brother; wife Anne
Benny,Joey, and Esther – Yasha and Anne’s children
Yossie (Yosef) – son of Joshua Golant’s 1st marriage; Rachel’s half brother
Author’s mother’s father’s family
Binyomin Golant – author’s paternal great grandfather
Joshua Golant – author’s grandfather; married 3 times (see above)
Bluma Golant – Joshua Golant’s 3rd wife; cousin of his late wife Peseh Tutel
Esther – daughter of Joshua and Bluma; author’s mother’s half sister
Chana Leah – daughter of Joshua and Bluma; author’s mother’s half sister
Shimon – son of Joshua and Bluma; author’s mother’s half brother
Noma – widow of Bluma’s brother;
Deborah Golant – Joshua’s sister; married to Shmuel
Sarah Golant – Joshua’s sister
Jonah Feigenbaum – married to Sarah Golant; 2nd marriage to Kyla
Samuel, Abraham, and Rachelke – their children
Yossel Golant – Joshua’s brother – married Fredzia
Yudel Golant – Joshua’s brother; married to Fela,
Schmeil and Blima (Barbara) – their children
Marcus Berger – author’s father; married Rachel Golant
Morris Eisman – author’s father’s maternal uncle; married to Tessie
Fanny Lessen – Tessie Eisman’s sister; married to Sydney Lessen
Friends and Acquaintances
Mordchale Weinberg – married to Saba
David Weinberg – their son
Clara and Jackie – his daughters
Simon Cooperman and Norma Cooperman
Sol and Charlie – their sons
Moishe Erlich and Shayve Erlich
Sam and Fela Herling
Simon Herling – son of Sam and Fela
Fred and Gerta Levy .
Susan Levy – their daughter
Rabbi Samson Brodsky
Rabbi Macy Gordon
City College friends: Clyde Haberman, Sue Solet, Ralph Blumenthal, Ralph Dannheiser
(all future journalists)
Places and Institutions
Brest Litovsk, Poland
Nalewki St, Warsaw
Schlactensee DP canp in Berlin
Ponary outside Vilna
The Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 50’s:
The South Bronx, 62 102nd St.
Alabama Ave., Brownsville section of Brooklyn
Manhattan Day School
Loeb Home, Rockland County, NY
Ohab Zedek, W 95th St, NYC
Tifereth Beth Jacob, the Bronx
YMHA day camp, 165th St
Cejwin Camps of Port Jervis
Bronx High School of Science
Yeshiva Univ. School for Boys
Catskill bungalow colonies
City College CUNY