It just so happens that this year Mother's Day falls on the same weekend that much of the Jewish world is observing Yom Ha'shoah, also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day (which fell on Thursday). This post started as a sort of personal history of coming to terms with the impact of the Shoah on my family. As the writing got underway, I realized that this is also a tribute to my mother and in the original spirit of Mother's Day.
Yom Ha'shoah is an occasion that I find hard to speak about. Grades 1-8 I went to a Jewish parochial school in Albany, New York, where Yom Ha'shoah was an occasion to barrage the students, even when very young, with gruesome statistics, names of death camps, images of wasted bodies, heaps of corpses, gas chambers, ovens, tales of selection lines where Dr. Mengele motioned prisoners either towards death or forced labor. . . Such experiences, common amongst American Jewish children, do not equip us with good tools for coping with and understanding our history.
I am fortunate that while commemorations at school and elsewhere in the Jewish community were along the lines of what I describe, above, my mother has had other ways of approaching the past. My mother used to teach kindergarten at the school I went to. In her class and in our home, over unfathomable death and evil she emphasized the life that was before the Shoah. After all, Europe had been home to a rich and varied Jewish civilization for roughly 1000 years before Hitler carried out his plans.
In her classroom, this meant things like teaching Eastern European Jewish children's games from The Shtetl Book and yiddish songs. And throughout the cycle of Jewish holidays, she would integrate curriculum on the life of Eastern European Jews. That may not seem so radical, but those familiar with Jewish history will know that since the turn of the twentieth century, Zionist ideology energetically promoted Hebrew over Yiddish and the Eastern European way of life it came from. For baby boomers and the next generation or so after them, negative attitudes towards the culture of Eastern European Jewry were compounded by the trauma of the Shoah.
For most, the struggle against Yiddish was rooted in a hatred of anything that was connected with the "Diaspora," considered to be marked by self-deprecation and cringing submission to non-Jews, a culture that was thoroughly second-rate, lacking in any estimable qualities, counterfeit and meretricious.In my family, my mother's passion for preserving and understanding the life of our ancestors meant that she became the genealogist and historian for her side of the family. Beginning in the early 1980s, she began interviewing her parents and their siblings and some of their cousins about the family's history. She also began collecting and cataloging family photographs and negatives. She started studying Yiddish, which her parents did not teach her to speak, though they were both fluent, and my grandfather was an aficionado of Yiddish literature. In the pursuit of Yiddish, she became a regular at Klez Kamp and attended the Yugentruf Yiddish Vokh.
This image of the Diaspora was for a long time central to Zionism. As the American historian Howard Sachar notes in his A History of Zionism (vol. I, l986, p. 718), the dominant Zionist image of the overseas Jewish community was one of "half men, or at least an inferior breed of half Jews." The original Israeli reaction to the Holocaust was also shaped by this image. The millions of victims were considered cowardly, as one Israeli scholar put it, "inferior human beings that went like lambs to the slaughter." (Dina Porat, The Blue and the Yellow Stars of David, Cambridge, Mass, l990, p. 239)
Yiddish, the language of most of those miserable "half Jews" earned equal contempt, if not outright hatred. As Benjamin Harshav points out in his brilliant Language and Revolution (Berkeley, l993, p. 157), the conventional wisdom, "first formulated most harshly by Moses Mendelssohn, [held] that Yiddish was a perverted language, reflecting the perversion of the soul of the Diaspora Jew. The revulsion from it," Harshav continues," is a recoil from Diaspora existence, from the Yiddish language--the mother tongue, intimate and hated at the same time, from the parental home of the shtetl, corroded by idleness and Jewish trading, and from the irrational and primitive behavior of the Hasidim."
My childhood community's response to the trauma and incalculable losses from Europe's genocide of the Jews was to transmit the trauma to its children. The content and the intensity with which it was conveyed made it impossible for me to meaningfully engage the history of European antisemitism until I was in well into my twenties. While I know this was true for others, in the Jewish community at large, there are also many for whom this adds up to a Jewish identity defined largely by the Shoah and support of the State of Israel.
My mother's response as an educator and within her own family has been to model a love of the life that once was and to try to find authentic continuities between the past of her grandparents and the present of her children. In many ways, my mother's family history work culminated in a trip she organized to Poland and Belarus in May, 2000. My mother's first cousin Norman, my sister Jessica and I all joined her for 20 days in Eastern Europe—ten days of mostly touristy travel in Poland and ten days of travel through the small villages and towns that had been the shtetls of my family. Because of my mother's decades of persistence, we knew the names of the towns where each of my maternal grandparents were born and where each of their parents (my great-grandparents) had lived, and where some of the generation before that, my great great grandparents, had lived.
Many of the little villages that we came to seemed mostly unchanged in the century that had elapsed since my family had lived there. It was an amazing catharsis to walk along the dirt roads and by the houses and buildings and fields and trees in places that had only been mythic names in our family lore.
Every former shtetl that we visited had at one time been 60-90% Jewish. Now they have Jewish populations of zero. The exception was the first place we went to, Radashkovitz, outside of Minsk, where my mother's mother was born. There was one Jewish woman who still lived there, a fifty-something daughter of parents who survived WWII in Russia's Red Army and then returned to Radashkovitz after the war. In Minsk, we met a man in his eighties who was born in Radashkovitz but now lives primarily in the capital city.
In the center of almost every town, was a memorial, erected in the memory of the town's Jews who had been shot and buried en masse by the Nazi's in the early 1940s, before the Final Solution was underway with its mass deportations and death camps. Some of the memorials were on the outskirts of town, by the mass graves. Unlike the one pictured here, from the town of Volpa, the memorials were usually very well maintained. (The two dark holes in the center of the monument are where the plaque stating the its purpose had been ripped off. The steel spike on top had been mounted with a decorative ornament. The concrete was broken and chipped all around.)
On a few occasions there were elderly non-Jews in town who had vivid memories of the Jews among whom they'd lived when they were young. Unlike Poland, relations among Jews and non-Jews in the Pale of Settlement (more) were reasonably good. The voices of the elderly men and women, who spoke to us through our translator, trembled with emotion. They were narrating the rending of the fabric of Jewish life, of which they had been part. Some of them remembered words of Yiddish, which my mother and her cousin Norman understood. These words, a few scattered buildings, and the cemeteries, memorials and mass graves were all that was left of the Jews who had lived there.
Very quickly, as I saw my first one of these sorts of memorials, when were in Radashkovitz, I remembered stories about other members of our family who had never come over to America. There were relatives with whom my grandparents and their siblings had corresponded up through the inter-war period. No one knows what happened to them. I realized that these memorials were to my own relatives, as well as to their friends. These were memorials to their lives, in every sense of the word.
In the knapsack I carried into Radoshkovits, with my camera and notebook, I also had instinctively decided to pack a small sized siddur, a Jewish prayer book. At that first memorial, near the center of that little village on a hill, I asked my mother to join me in reciting the Mourner's Kaddish, the prayer that Jews say to affirm life in honor their dead. We recited the Kaddish at every memorial and mass grave in each place we visited.
Though we were told by our guides that there would be Jewish cemeteries to visit, we did not anticipate that the Nazis would have left so many of them intact. Many were overgrown. Some were better maintained than others. Because the cemeteries were one of the primary vestiges of the Jewish life that had been, we often spent considerable time wandering around in them, in part to look for stones with the family names on them, in part to capture what bits of the town's life that we could in the inscriptions and in the feeling of the place.
In the shtetls, most people could not afford the sorts of stones we think of when we think of cemeteries. Many were low stones, partially swallowed up by the earth and grown over with grass. Many of the larger ones were also quite worn, and frequently difficult to read. And there were often broken tombstones, which are a terrible sight to see, but we became accustomed to them as part of the shattered Jewish landscape of Eastern Europe.
Because both of my mother's parents came to America as infants at the turn of the twentieth century (and my father's were born here), I never used to think of myself as personally touched by the Shoah. Traveling to Belarus to follow my mother's lead into the life that our family left behind was also a journey into the unavoidable reality of death which had so consumed the Jewish community I grew up in. It was, after all, the 1970s, only three decades since the Shoah.
Some of my school teachers bore blue concentration camp numbers on their arms. Many of my teachers of Judaica seemed to have a sort of frantic intensity about how they taught us Bible, Hebrew language, religious practice, and Jewish history. It was as if we, the students, represented an impossible and fleeting opportunity for them to transmit what they knew of the Jewish civilization that Europe had burned, gassed, shot, starved and bombed out of existence. In their own way, my teachers were trying to do exactly what my mother was doing.
When I was 31, my mother's approach to transmitting Jewish life came full circle to the death it had been meant to counter. Thanks to her, I have an understanding of my people deeper than I ever could have imagined.
Photos: Jewish Cemetery, Volpa, Belarus (Benjamin T. Greenberg).
Volpa is not one of the shtetls of my mother's family. We also visited a couple of places from my cousin Norman's father's side. Norman and my mother are cousins through my mother's mother and his mother, who were sisters. I include these photos at this time because most of my photos from this trip are slides, which I have not digitized. I shot the photos from Volpa on regular film, and therefore have prints that I can easily scan.