Monday, May 30, 2011

The Heavens Are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod by Avrom Bendavid-Val 2010

"Thoroughly researched, this book brings the mythical town to life, wonderfully preserving a memorable segment of Jewish lore." from Publisher's Weekly, 3/28/10

Avrom Bendavid, whose father had been born in Trochenbrod, a town that was sometimes in Ukraine, sometimes in Poland, depending upon the historical moment, has written an engaging, informative memoir about a town that is no more. Bendavid lovingly recreates Trochenbrod through interviews he conducted with former Trochenbrodians who now live in South America and Israel as well as the United States, through independent archival research, and through a number of visits he made to the fields where Trochenbrod once stood and to neighboring towns and cities.

Bendavid starts with Trochenbrod’s history and demonstrates how unique it was. He contextualizes it as an outgrowth of the edict that created the Jewish Pale of Settlement as well as Russian rulers who encouraged Jews to farm. Trochenbrod became a fairly isolated Jewish farming community where the first baby’s birth is recorded as having taken place in 1813. It was not easy. The land was marshy. Jewish pioneers had to learn about farming through trial and error, but soon each piece of property had its own plot. The residents bought cows and other livestock and they survived. Bendavid, through his research, was able to document that though it started slowly, its residents developed as a community and worked together for the betterment of Trochenbrod. For example, they formed a dairy cooperative – each home would contribute milk that several of the Trochenbrodians took to neighboring towns to sell. As they prospered, they sold eggs and other produce.

Bendavid then moves on to discuss Trochenbrod in the twentieth century. As isolated as they were, world events took their toll, and it took the better part of a decade for residents to climb out of the hole created by a combination of World War I, the Russian Revolution, a typhus epidemic, and border changes.  But by the 1930’s the town was doing well, having moved past farming as a way to support themselves. Instead there was a gradual shift to commercial ventures like those tied to the leather industry. The author includes a list of the many small businesses of Trochenbrodians.

But because Trochenbrod was isolated and members of the community thought of themselves as doing well, they paid little attention to what was going on in the outside world. Relatives who had left Trochenbrod for America earlier who came back to visit expressed shock at their primitive equipment and primitive ways, but most Trochenbrodians saw no reason to leave. Their naïveté cost them their lives. In 1939 there were 5000 residents. The Germans invaded the area, marched in and wiped them out. It’s estimated that 60 survived.

Although this memoir is about a specific town, a reader can learn a great deal about shtetl life in Eastern Europe by reading about Trochenbrod. Survivors describe farming life, food preparation, the thriving commercial district, Sabbath and holiday celebrations, weddings, schooling, and youth groups, both Zionist and Communist.

This memoir includes an introduction by Jonathan Safran Foer whose novel Everything Is Illuminated is a fictional account of his own trip to find Trochenbrod. It also includes photos, maps, and a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms. The author has also created a useful chronology that integrates Eastern European Jewish history with the birth and death of Trochenbrod. The chronology starts in 1791 when the Pale of Jewish Settlement was established and ends in 1950 when a survivor reported that Trochenbrod no longer existed.

To learn more from a site dedicated to the community of Trochenbrod past and present, click here.

Moshe David Plesser (changed his name to Pearlmutter, then Beider) – married Bella
    Israel Beider - son of Moshe and Bella
    YomTov (Yonteleh) Beider (changed his name to Chagai Bendavid) - son of Moshe and Bella
        Marvin Bendavid - son of Chagai Bendavid
        Avrom Bendavid-Val – son of Chagai Bendavid; married to Leah
Naftali Bendavid – relationship not clear
Oren Bendavid-Tal – relationship not clear

Acquaintances and Sources
Ruchel Abrams
Elke and Michael Antwarg
        Miriam Antwarg Ciocler – granddaughter of Elke and Michael
Yitzhak Aronski
Jacob Banai
Avrum Bass
Laura Beeler
Marlene Berman
Charles and Marilyn Bernhardt
Eliezer Burak (changed to Barkai)
    Henia Katzir – daughter of Eliezer Barkai
Shoil Burak
        Alyn Levin-Hadar – granddaughter of Shoil
Yaakov Burak
Tuvia Drori
Shmilike Drossner
Esther Safran Foer
Shaindeleh Ruchel Gluz (became Jeanne Glass Kokol)
    Irving Kokol – Jeanne Glass Kokol’s son
Peshia Gotman (Peshia Gotman)
Phyllis Grossman
Hirsch Kantor
Morton Kessler
Nahum Kohn
Ida Gilden Liss
        Andrea Liss – Ida’s granddaughter
Marvin Perlman
Yehezkel Potash
Ellie Potash
    Basia-Ruchel Potash (Betty Gold) – daughter of Ellie
Shmulik Potash
Laura Praglin – cousin of Geri Wolfson Fuhrmann
Moshe Hirsch Roitenberg
Szoel Rojtenberg
Gad Rosenblatt
Nachman Rotenberg
Label Safran
Machli Schuster
Moishe Sheinberg
Meylakh Sheykhet
Anshel Shpielman
Wolf Shuster
    Morris Wolfson – son of Wolf Shuster
            Geri Wolfson Fuhrmann – Morris’s granddaughter
Bert and Ellen Singerman
Thomas C. Spear – distant cousin of Irving Kokol
Evgenia Shvardowskaya
David Shwartz – married to Miriam
Motel Shwartz
Hanna Tziporen
Chaim Votchin
Anne Weiner
Ida-Sarah and Isaac Weiner
        Miriam Weiner Bernhardt – granddaughter of Ida-Sarah and Isaac
Chaim Veitzblum (Albin Ostrovsky)

Trochenbrod, Ukraine
Lozisht, Ukraine
Kivertsy, Ukraine
Yaromel Forest, Ukraine
Givatayim, Israel

Monday, May 23, 2011

Fiorello's Sister: Gemma La Guardia's Gluck's story by Gemma La Guardia Gluck, originally published in 1961, reissued in 2007 with new material, edited by Rochelle Saidel

"Rochelle Saidel, who edited this new edition with care, has given us a portrait of a remarkable woman who persevered through tragic circumstances. Gemma La Guardia Gluck’s story, written the year before she died, is her legacy, fulfilling the promise she made to herself during her dark days at Ravensbrück." from a review by Gloria Goldreich in Hadassah Magazine Feb. 2008 

Gemma La Guardia (1881-1962) and her famous brother, Fiorello who became a much beloved mayor of New York City, were born in New York City to Italian immigrant parents. Their mother, Irene Coen, was a descendent of the prominent Jewish Italian Luzzatto family. When the children were still young, the family returned to Italy. Years later Fiorello moved back to New York when Gemma and Fiorello were already young adults. Gemma met her future husband, the Jewish Hungarian Herman Gluck, in an English class she was teaching, and after they married, they moved to Budapest.

After the author has filled in this background she fast forwards to 1944 when she was already 63, a prosperous banker’s wife, mother of two adult daughters, one of whom had moved to the United States. She and other Hungarians thought they would be able to sit out the war, but in March of 1944 the Germans occupied Hungary and in incremental steps the life of its Jewish residents became more and more restricted and precarious. Gemma La Guardia became a target of the Germans because of her famous brother who was outspoken against the Nazis. They arrested her, first sending her to Mauthausen with her husband, then later sent her on to Ravensbruck, a camp of mostly women, many of them political prisoners.  As the Allies pushed east, the Germans moved women prisoners from Polish camps to Ravensbruck, further straining its capacity and resources.

The author was considered a special prisoner because of her relationship to Fiorello La Guardia. The Nazis were afraid to kill her because of her connection and their fear of retribution against German prisoners-of-war, but she found out later that they were also hoping to use her in a German prisoner-of-war exchange. Her status at the camp meant that she was not subject to the backbreaking work of most inmates, so she had more of a chance to observe the camp, its inmates and its administrators. She was a valuable eye witness. She called Ravensbruck a kind of industrial center and recorded details of the set-up of the camp and the routine of its inmates as well as specifics about deprivation, illness, slave labor assignments, punishments, medical experiments, relationships amongst inmates and their guards, and clandestine resistance activities.

Gemma La Guardia learned when the war was nearly over that her daughter and grandson were also interned at Ravensbruck. Neither she nor her daughter knew that the other was in the camp. Eventually they were reunited and freed. With nowhere to go in the chaos of post World War II Europe, they remained in Germany, trying to learn about the fate of Gemma and her daughter's husbands. She eventually was able to make contact with her brother who worked on getting them to the United States. The author writes about her difficulties in Berlin finding a safe place to live, and describes the difficult process of registering, claiming ration cards, and the like. When she finally got to the United States her reunion with her brother was brief; he died a few months later.

This new edition of the memoir includes family photos and documents as well as:

The Preface to the original edition by S.L. Shneiderman in which he provides an overview of the plight of Jews in during World War II and then talks about the contents and value of this specific memoir.

A Prologue and an Epilogue to the new edition by Rochelle G. Saidel in which she discusses her particular interest in Ravensbruck as a woman's prison, her search for Gemma La Guardia's original manuscript, the value of the memoir as a historical document, and Gemma La Guardia's family in America.

An Appendix which consists of letters between Gemma La Guardia Gluck and her brother Fiorello LaGuardia, July 1945 - May 1947.

Gemma La Guardia Gluck dedicated her memoir “to the martyred women of Ravensbruck, the thousands who perished and the few who survived.”  She was one of approximately 17,000 of about 132,000 who were interned at the Ravensbruck Concentration camp who survived and lived to tell her story. To read an essay on the history of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp written by Rochelle G. Saidel, click here.

Author's family on mother's side
Fiorina Luzzatto Coen - author's grandmother
    Irene Coen – daughter of Fiorina; married Achille Luigi Carlo La Guardia;
        Gemma La Guardia – daughter of Irene and Achille; married Herman Gluck; author
            Yolanda La Guardia - daughter of Gemma and Herman
                Richard Denes -son of Yolanda
            Irene La Guardia – daughter of Gemma and Herman; married John Andrew Roberts
                James Roberts – son of Irene and John
                Gladys Roberts McMilleon – daughter of Irene and John
                Clifford Roberts – son of Irene and John
        Fiorello LaGuardia - son of Irene and Achille
        Richard Dodge La Guardia –  son of Irene an Achille; married to Mary Kozar
            Richard Jr., Irene, and Marie Gemma La Guardia – children of Richard and Mary
                Marie – Richard’s granddaughter (unclear which of Richard’s children is her parent)

Friends and Acquaintances
Isidore Selig Cohen
Franzi Kantor
Joseph Shubow
Lotte Lehman Silbermann

Trieste, Italy
Fiume, Italy
Budapest, Hungary
St. Louis, Missouri
New York City, NY

Monday, May 16, 2011

Turbulent Souls: A Catholic’s Son’s Return to his Jewish Family by Stephen J. Dubner 1998 (re-issued as Choosing My Religion: A Memoir of a Family Beyond Belief 2006)

"I think readers of this wonderful book will rather hope that a continued measure of unsettlement inspires him to write more." from a review by Jonathan Wilson in the New York Times 11/8/1998

Stephen J. Dubner (b. 1963), the youngest of eight children, was born into a family whose parents, Paul Dubner and Veronica Greenglass Dubner, had converted to Catholicism before they married. It wasn’t until Dubner, a writer, was a young adult that he really began to question and investigate his parents’ backgrounds and their motives for converting.  He divides this very interesting memoir into three parts.

In part I Dubner describes the result of his research into his parents’ early lives in Brooklyn and their converting to Catholicism. His mother had been born Florence Greenglass. When she converted to Catholicism she took the name Veronica. His father, born Saul, began looking beyond his Jewish upbringing before he met his future wife, but didn’t officially convert until after he met Veronica at which point he changed his name to Paul. Abandoned by their families, they married and eventually moved to upstate New York where they raised eight children and became very active in a local Catholic church.

Part II’s focus is on the author’s early and young adult life. He remembers large happy family meals, constant exciting chaos, and devotion to church and religion. But life diminished after Dubner’s father died of a heart attack when the author was ten. By then many of his siblings had moved away from home and away from the church. Dubner, who had been an altar boy, had his own questions brewing, despite or maybe because of his mother’s insistent and absolute religious beliefs and practice.  After college when he moved to New York he found himself ready and eager to explore his Jewish heritage. 

In Part III Dubner describes his investigation into his parents’ lives in order to understand them better and in turn to gain better insights into his own feelings about them and their devout Catholicism. He interviewed his mother, his siblings, and many members of his father’s family - a large family he never knew existed, we are scattered around the globe. The entire time he was investigating the life of his parents he was on an emotional roller-coaster, exploring his own feelings about his upbringing, about his parents having converted, about his own emotional pull toward Judaism.

Dubner’s memoir raises interesting questions about spiritual and religious inheritance, spiritual and religious experience, and family connection. In his quest to understand his parents, he talked to rabbis and priests who helped him come to terms with his parents’ decisions as well as his own.

To read the original 1996 New York Times Sunday magazine article that Dubner wrote that became the seed for the memoir click here.

Author’s mother’s family
    Harry (Herschel) Greenglass – married Esther Bernstein (first cousins)
        Della Greenglass – daughter of Harry and Esther
        Florence Greenglass – daughter of Harry and Esther ( changed her last name to Winters); married Paul Dubner (see below); changed 1st name to Veronica
            Joseph Louis Dubner – son of Paul and Veronica
            Mary (Mona) Rose Dubner – daughter of Paul and Veronica
            Martha Mary Dubner – daughter of Paul and Veronica
            Ann Stella Maris Dubner – daughter of Paul and Veronica
            Peter Harry Joseph Dubner – son of Paul and Veronica
            David Gerard Joseph Dubner – son of Paul and Veronica
            Elizabeth (Beth) Mary Dubner – daughter of Paul and Veronica
                Lauren and Danny – Beth’s children
            Stephen Joseph Dubner – son of Paul and Veronica; author
    Barney Greenglass – brother of Harry; married to Tessie
        Ethel Greenglass – daughter of Barney and Tessie; married Julius Rosenberg
            Michael and Robert – sons of Ethel and Julius
        David Greenglass – son of Barney and Tessie; married Ruth Printz
        Bernie Greenglass – son of Barney and Tessie

Moishe and Sorah-Rukhel – Esther’s parents; uncle and aunt of Harry Greenglass (above)

Author’s father’s family
David Dubner – married Shayna Frayda Rozenowicz
    Gittel Dubner – daughter of David and Shayna Frayda; married Shepsel Dubner (they were cousins with the same last name)
        Nat (Nachman) Dubner – son of Shepsel and Gittel; married Dottie Lautenschlager
            Mickey Dubner –son of Nat and Dottie; married to Harriet Telson
                Vicki and Matthew Dubner – children of Mickey and Harriet
        Fannie (Fageh) Dubner – daughter of Shepsel and Gittel
        Morris (Moishe) Dubner – son of Shepsel and Gittel
        Bess (Peshe) Dubner – daughter of Shepsel and Gittel; married Sam Einbinder
            Gloria, Carol, and Harriet Einbinder
        Solomon (Schloime, Paul) Dubner – son of Shepsel and Gittel; married Florence Greenglass (see above)
        Martin (Mottel) Dubner – son of Shepsel and Gittel; married Irene Domber
            Kevin Dubner – son of Martin and Irene
        Bernard (Baruch) Dubner – son of Shepsel and Gittel
    Liba Dubner – daughter of David and Shayna
    Shepsel Dubner – son of David and Shayna
    Peshe Dubner – daughter of David and Shayna; married Avraham Kalb
        Lou (Leibl), Sarah, and Rose Kalb – children of Peshe and Avraham
     Yidis Dubner – daughter of David and Shayna
    Chaya Dubner – daughter of David and Shayna

Moishe Silberman – distant relative, relationship not clear; Montreal branch
Martin Dubner – cousin, relationship not clear
Reba Tarkoff Dubner – distant cousin; relationship not clear
Moti Cooper – distant cousin; relationship not clear; Israel branch
Elana Eden – distant cousin; sister of Moti Cooper
Odi (Cooper) Dori – distant cousin; relationship not clear
Nimrod Dore – relationship not clear
Solomon Dibner – distant cousin; relationship not clear; Buenos Aires branc
    Nora Dibner – Solomon’s daughter
Barbara Koltuv – relationship not clear

Friends and Acquaintances
Ellen Binder
Simon Jacobson
Ivan Kronenfeld
Adam Reingold
Jonathan Rosen
Ilene Rosenzweig
Barry Singer
Mychal Springer
Jankel Syzc

Dubno, Poland
Sedletz, Poland
Pultusk, Poland
Brownsville, Brooklyn, NY
Midwood, Brooklyn, NY
Brooklyn, NY
Northport, NY
Duanesberg, NY


Monday, May 9, 2011

For You Mom, Finally by Ruth Reichl 2009

"Ruth Reichl gives an honest look into the life of her mother and the lives of the women of her generation." from a review by Margaret Oleksa in the Richmond Va Examiner, 5/4/2010

Ruth Reichl, cookbook writer,  former New York Times food critic, and former editor of Gourmet magazine, has written a short, thoughtful memoir that is a tribute to her difficult mother, Miriam. In the process she writes about her mother’s generation – women born in the early decades of the twentieth century whose lives were seemingly pre-determined; their life’s work was to be married, have children and keep house, no matter what their inclinations or talents.

This is not an explicitly Jewish story, although the main family members in this memoir are Jewish. In its broadest terms it is the story of the descendants of immigrants finding their way in America. Ruth Reichl’s grandparents, Emil and Mollie Brudno, were both the children of immigrants who came to America in the 1880’s and settled in Cleveland. They were upwardly mobile – Reichl’s grandfather was a doctor and Miriam’s goal was to be a doctor like her father, but both her parents discouraged Reichl's mother from pursuing a career in medicine.

Ruth Reichl’s experience of her mother was of a deeply unhappy, unfulfilled woman who only found contentment late in her life. Reichl’s reaction was to leave home as soon as she could, to stay away, and to be as unlike her mother as she could be. Later in her own life after her mother’s death, Reichl reassessed her mother’s life. This was precipitated when she found a box of old letters and notes that her mother had kept that reach back into her mother’s childhood, revealing to Reichl the full trajectory of her mother’s life. And the result of reading what was for Reichl heart-wrenching material is that she came to realize that in her own way her mother had released her from the expectations that she felt had crippled her own life and the lives of many in her generation.

Previously published as Not Becoming My Mother, the Penguin paperback edition has an Afterword where Reichl writes about the impassioned discussions that often took place amongst audience members when she was on her book tour promoting this memoir.

To read an interesting interview with Ruth Reichl  in Jewish Women International where she talks about her Jewish identity, click here.

Emil and Mollie Brudno
    Ruth Brudno
    Miriam Brudno – married Ernest Half; divorced; married Ernst Reichl
        Robert Half – son of Miriam and Ernest Half
        Ruth Reichl – daughter of Miriam and Ernst Reichl; married Douglas Hollis; second marriage to Michael Singer; author
            Nicholas Singer – son of Ruth and Michael

Cleveland, Ohio
New York City, NY

Monday, May 2, 2011

All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein 1957, reissued with additional material 1995

"Mrs. Klein bears witness memorably." from a review by John O'Connor of an HBO special called "One Survivor Remembers" in which Gerda Weissman Klein tells the story that she has written in her memoir.

All But My Life, one of the first post-war Holocaust memoirs to have been published, is a book often assigned by high school teachers to students studying the Holocaust because of its embedded history and its lucid, moving prose. It has a lot to offer readers of all ages.

Gerda Weismann was born in 1924 into a middle class family who lived in the prosperous Polish town of Bielitz. Because her father, who was part owner of a factory, suffered from a heart condition, she and her parents and her older brother Arthur were still in Bielitz in the fall of 1939 after many other Jewish families had run ahead of the invading Germans.

Part I of this three-part memoir starts with the author's early privileged life at home in their house which is where her mother had been raised. Once the Germans occupied their town, their lives were restricted: Jews had to give up items like autos, bicycles and radios, then they were forced to wear arm bands, then her family was ordered to move out of the main house into a two-room apartment in the cellar. The worst blow was when her able-bodied brother Arthur was ordered to board a train. Part I ends in 1943 when, after the family members were separated and sent to different locations. Eighteen-year-old Gerda was alone and did not know what was in store for any of them.

In Part II we travel with Gerda as she was moved from one labor camp to the next. An early move to the Kramsa labor camp in Bolkenhaim was fortunate because there she was taught to weave on a loom and although it was very difficult work that required her and the other girls to stand on their feet all day and inhale textile particles that damaged their lungs, the living conditions were not terrible. They had enough to eat and good enough sleeping quarters. But as the war progressed conditions deteriorated and eventually there was no more raw material to work on, the looms were silenced, and she and the other inmates were moved from camp to camp. In the war's final months she and the girls who were still alive were forced on a 350-mile death march. The author and her fellow survivors ended up in Vovary, Czechoslovakia where the Germans abandoned them and they were liberated.

Part III deals with her recovery and her future. At the time of her liberation she weighed 68 pounds and was hospitalized for many months. She had to re-learn how to walk, how to live, whom to trust, what it meant to be free. When she was liberated she met an American soldier, Kurt Klein who helped her through her rehabilitation. They married and he brought her to America.

In the 1995 revised edition Weissmann includes an epilogue which brings us up to date. She tells us that she and her husband settled in Buffalo, had three children and eight grandchildren. In Buffalo she volunteered with the Jewish Federation and Hadassah and early on she started speaking about her Holocaust experience to both children and adults. Eventually she and her husband moved to Arizona where she was still intent on giving back, of showing her appreciation for the life she was given in the United States.

This memoir includes family photos.

To see and hear Gerda Weissmann talk in November, 2010 about her being chosen to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, click here.

Julie Muckenbrunn
    Helene Muckenbrunn – daughter of Julie; married Julius Weissmann   
        Gerda Weissmann – daughter of Julius and Helene; marries Kurt Klein; author
            Vivian Klein – daughter of Gerda and Kurt; married Jim Ullman
                Alysa, Andrew and Lindsay Ullman – Vivian and Jim’s children
            Leslie Klein – daughter of Gerda and Kurt- married Roger Simon
                Julie, Melissa, Jessica Simon – Leslie and Roger’s children
            Jim Klein – son of Gerda and Kurt- married Lynn
                Jennifer and Alexa Klein – Jim and Lynn’s children
        Arthur Weissmann – son of Julius and Helene
    Leo Muckenbrunn – son of Julie

Anna Weissman – Julius’ sister; married to Aaron
    Miriam and David – Anna’s children

Ludwig and Alice Klein – Kurt’s parents
        Barbara – Kurt’s niece

Friends and Acquaintances
Malvine Berger
Escia Bergmann
Abek Feigenblatt
Paula and Lola Feignblatt – Abek’s sisters
    Lonek – nephew of Abek, Paula, Lola
Gerda Feldmann
Ilse Kleinzahler
Kitty Kleinzahler – Ilse’s sister
Suse Kunz
Mala Orbach
Mary Reichman
Rita Shanzer
Ruth Singer
Leisel Stepper
Gretel Teichner
Herta Teichner – Gretel’s sister

Bielitz, Poland
Burgberg, Germany
Freising, Germany
Kramsta  Labor Camp, Bolkenhain
Landeshut, Czechoslovakia
Munich, Germany
Sosnowitz, Poland
Buffalo, New York