Monday, April 15, 2013

The Secret of Priest’s Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story by Peter Lane Taylor and Christos Nicola 2007

"[T]his is a unique and absorbing addition to the library of Holocaust testimonials written for younger readers." from a review in Kirkus Reviews, 4/1/2007.

This large format book, with material interesting to adults as well  as older children, is a compilation of narrative and photos written by two “cavers.”  In exploring extensive underground caves in the vicinity of Korolowka, Ukraine, part of what are called the Gypsum Giant cave system, they heard from local Ukrainians that Jewish families had survived in the section of a caves called Popowa Yama during World War II. At a length of 77 miles, it is the ninth longest cave in the world.
It took a number of years and a number of trips into the caves, searching for and interviewing Ukrainians who could tell them more, and searching for and interviewing the Jewish survivors, many now living in Montreal, to get a fuller picture of the life lived by 38 Jews. They were mostly members of a large extended family who lived underground for the better part of a year. The writers of this volume also relied on the privately printed memoir of the matriarch, Esther Stermer, who, in 1960, wrote "We Fight To Survive" about their experience.
It is common knowledge, of course, that many Jews went into hiding during the war – in attics, in barns, in holes in the ground. But this instance of hiding was quite remarkable. Thirty-eight people lived as best they could in an underground cave as a community, carving out living space, assigning chores, sustaining each other through the deprivation: darkness, cold and limited food, as best they could. We learn about the heroic efforts of some of the men who went out under cover of darkness to buy supplies from a few trusted Ukranians and to “appropriate” food from the fields. One son of Esther Stermer carried a 150 pound millstone back to the cave on his back so that they could grind wheat into flour.
This book uses short excerpts from the memoir as well as many photos of the family from their early lives until today as well as maps of the area and of the section of the caves where they hid. It also has photos of the contemporary cavers exploring the caves and photos of the objects that they found in the caves that had been left behind by the hiding family members, including the millstone.
 An afterword explains that Peter Lane Taylor published an article about exploring these caves and his interviews with the surviors in the June 2004 issue of National Geographic Adventure which generated a lot of interest in the press. In August of 2006 Nicola escorted some of the survivors and descendants of some of the survivors back to the cave and is spearheading an effort to preserve the caves for their historic value. A documentary entitled  “No Place on Earth” which contains interviews with survivors as well as re-enactments was released in April of 2013.

To see a segment on the Today show generated by the interest in the original article published in the National Geographic Adventure magazine, click here.
To see a trailer for the film "No Place on Earth" click here.
 Zeida and Esther Stermer
             Chana Stermer – married Joseph Richter
             Henia Stermer – married to Fishel Dodyk
                         Shunkale Hochman – daughter of Henia and Fishel
                         Pepkale Stermer – daughter of Henia and Fishel
 Shulim – married Czarna
                                    Erin Grunstein – granddaughter of Shlomo  
             Shlomo – married Bella
                         Lila – daughter of Shlomo and Bella             
             Etka Stermer – married Abe Katz
 Choncia Dodyk
             Mendel Dodyk – son of Choncia; married to Yetta
                         Regina Dodyk – daughter of Mendel and Yetta
             Fradel Dodyk – daughter of Choncia
             Yossel Dodyk – son of Choncia; married to Pepcia
                         Nunia Dodyk – son of Yossel and Pepcia (adopted after parents’ death and became Norman Kittner
             Meimel Reibel – daughter of Choncia
                         Mania Reibel – daughter of Meimel
 Dortcia (Dorothy) Karpf – daughter of Mania
  Mundek (Marvin) and Luzer (Louis) Reibel; sons of Meimel
             Etcia Goldberg – daughter of Choncia
                         Mania (Mariya) Gritsiv – daughter of Etcia
  Dunia (Daniel) and Marek Goldberg – sons of Etcia
 Ulo and Frida Barad – siblings; nephew and niece of Yetta Dodyk (see above)
Mayer and Hersch Kavelek – cousins of Fishel Dodyk (see above); exact relationship unclear
Siomo and Karl (Ziundi) Kurz – nephews of Esther Sturmer; exact relationship unclear
Leiche Wexler – sister of Esther Stermer; married to Munie Wexler
            Sol Wexler - son of Leiche and Munie 
                 Ed Vogel - son-in-law of Sol
            Lonchia Wexler – daughter of Leiche and Munie
Shimon Kittner
Leib Kittner – brother of Shimon
            Shunia Kittner – son of Leib
Usher Metzger
Shancie Kimelman – sister of Esther Stermer
Popowa Yama (Priest’s Grotto) , Ukraine
Verteba Caves, Ukraine
Korolowka, Ukraine
Bilche-Zolote, Ukraine
Myshcoff, Poland
Montreal, Canada

Monday, April 1, 2013

Wedding Song: Memoirs of an Iranian Jewish Woman by Farideh Goldin 2003

"Memoirs like ... 'Wedding Song' by Goldin teach us as much about the history of Iran as they do about the authors by addressing larger themes of war, coming of age, veiling, immigration and alienation." from a review by Erika Meitner in the Jewish Daily Forward 12/29/09

Ferideh Goldin immigrated to the United States from Iran in 1976 when she was 23 years old, eventually married an American, and gave birth to three daughters. She says in the Prologue that she has written this memoir for her daughters to explain to them what growing up in Iran had been like.

The daughter of a mother from Hamedan and a father from Shiraz, Ferideh Goldin tells the story of growing up in a family where age-old customs prevailed. The theme of her memoir is marriage and family, and although the story focusses mainly on the marriage of her parents, it moves backward several generations and forward to her own marriage as well as to thoughts about what the future holds for her daughters.

What the author emphasizes is that women in Iran were chattel, married off when they were quite young, at which point each settled near or in the home of her husband’s family. Daughters from poor families were a particular liability. Each was another mouth to feed and marrying them off lessened the burden in a typically large family.  When the author’s mother was given over to her father, she was passed off as being fifteen, the legal age when girls could be married in Iran. She was actually only thirteen. Her father was 23. Two years after their marriage in 1951, at the age of fifteen she gave birth to her first daughter, Farideh.

The marriage came about because of hardships on both sides. The mothers of both the bride and groom were widows with large families. The bridegroom, obligated to help support his mother and younger siblings, took a bride whose role it would be to help her mother-in-law keep the household running. Young, far from her mother in another city, the bride never fit in, was labeled a peasant and made to feel inferior. She was depressed and angry.

The author describes many heartbreaking scenes that reveal that her father’s loyalty was to his family, not to his wife. When the author wanted to go to high school and college, her father acceded to her insistence on an education, but throughout her years in school her family looked around for an appropriate husband for her. She held her ground, refusing all suitors, eventually leaving for America over her father’s objections.

This family drama is played out against the background of the growing turmoil in Iran with the rise of Muslim fundamentalism. The rich detail the author provides about her Jewish family and their day-to-day customs reveals how much their lives were like their Muslim neighbors before Muslim extremism held sway. But when many Iranian Jews fled to the United States or Israel, her family chose to stay in Iran, finally fleeing when the Shah was overthrown. The author makes a point that throughout his life her father at increasingly great emotional cost maintained the cultural tradition of keeping the extended family together, and that his personal tragedy was that all this came to an end when members of his family scattered as they fled a hostile government in their homeland.

To read a review of a book about the history of Iranian Jews written as the catalogue to accompany an exhibit illustrating that history, click here.

In the last section of this memoir Ferideh Goldin explains that in writing this memoir she did not want to publicly criticize members of her family so she has changed names. I think it is reasonable to conclude that she uses the original names of the members of the earlier generations, especially those pictured with their names attached to the photos reproduced in this memoir. And from the page of acknowledgements it seems clear that she uses the real names of her immediate family. It is most likely that she has changed the names of members of her father’s family, many of whom the author portrays as being particularly uncharitable to her mother. In any case, she provides no last names except for women in very early photos on her mother’s side. I have included below only those names I am reasonably certain are the actual family names, but for the most part they are only first names.

Author’s mother’s family
Adina Sabba
    Dina Salem – daughter of Adina
        Touran – daughter of Dina
             Rouhi – daughter of Touran; married Esghel
                  Farideh – daughter of Rouhi and Esghel; married Norman Goldin; author
                      Lena, Yael, and Rachel Goldin- daughters of Farideh and Norman
                 Nahid Gerstein – daughter of Rouhi and Esghel
                 Freydoun – son of Rouhi and Esghel
                 Farzad – son of Rouhi and Esghel
                 Niloufar – daughter of Rouhi and Esghel
           Avi – son of Touran
           Shekoofeh – daughter of Touran
           Fereshteh – daughter of Touran
           Beejan – son of Touran
     Aziza – half sister of Rouhi
           Mohtaram – daughter of Aziza
                Parveez, Eshagh, Jamsheed, Maheen, and Farzaneh- children of Mohtaram

Hamineh Saed – mother-in-law of Dina Salem

Author’s father’s family
    Tauvous – daughter of Bibi
         Esghel – son of Tauvous; married Rouhi (see above)

Hamedan, Iran
Shiraz, Iran
Tehran, Iran
Virginia, United States