Wednesday, August 29, 2012

And Then Everything Stopped

“I never bothered the children with the Holocaust and all that. I never told them anything,” said Hanna. 

For our interview we sat with her two daughters and two granddaughters as she told us about her escape from Germany on the Kindertransport. Her parents and brother stayed behind and perished in Auschwitz.

Hanna had a comfortable life in a wealthy family in Germany. Her father was in the grain business and the family lived in a large home with a cook and housekeeper. She talked of their vacations at the Baltic Sea and skiing in Switzerland. In our conversation she frequently came back to the wonderful life she had with her family, a life documented in photos sent by her parents and lovingly preserved by Hanna. That life began to change as the Nazis came to power.

Hanna’s children had in fact heard some stories from her that were quite vivid. They remembered her talking of the family buying her father out of a concentration camp. He went in with black hair and came out with gray hair. She had also talked about the Nazis pushing their piano out the window. Thrown out of their home they had gone to stay with a friend of her father’s so were not at home when it occurred. They lived with the friend for a year. As the climate worsened Hanna was sent to a Jewish boarding school, one she described as “for kids who don’t have parents or can’t go home anymore.” She recalled the beautiful country in which it was located, but that they closed the whole thing down at the time she left. “No Jews, so that was the end of that,” she said.

“When I was sixteen I immigrated to England. I was all on my own already. My mother packed my suitcase and whatever she wanted me to take to America later on. I went to England with the children’s transport. I went to a very nice family who needed help for their kids and taking care of the house. A Quaker family. I went to church with them on Sunday. A different life.”

It was a difficult adjustment for Hanna who mourned for the life she left. “I was very lonesome. The only person having to go from my house. Lots of other kids went too, and different ages. For me it was awful.”

Hanna also faced the language difficulties of every immigrant. While she spoke French and German, she spoke no English.

“I learned English with my dictionary. I had a German-English dictionary. I still have it. I had that with me all the time. The lady was very nice, that couple was very nice and the child, so they taught me. You learn. When you’re young, you learn easier than when you’re older.”

Suddenly she was thrust from a world where she had everything to one where she was responsible for caring for a house, a responsibility of the housekeeper in her childhood home.

 “It’s not easy living in somebody else’s house either, being the second dog….the English people are very fussy. The bricks in front of the fireplaces, they have polished bricks and they had to be polished every day.”

She eagerly awaited any word from her family which came in the form of Red Cross letters, letters sent by the Red Cross on their behalf. “You didn’t write much because you knew somebody else was in between.”

Hanna pulled out her photo albums in which she kept her Red Cross letters. She told us that her parents were very good about writing, “and then everything stopped.”

Her granddaughter asked in puzzlement, “ Did you get any news? Did you get any notice that your parents had died, your brother?

Hanna replied, “ No, I never did. The only thing, I found out because I didn’t get any more Red Cross letters.”

After three years in England she decided to become a nurse. She had a choice of nursing or working in a munitions factory, so she chose nursing. She cared for soldiers in an Army hospital in England during the war and later was able to come to the United States where she finished her training.
Her mother had a brother who had gone to South Africa. He later joined his girlfriend in Minneapolis. They took Hanna in and recreated the family she once had.

 “The couple was the best thing for me,” Hanna said. “ They took over my parents. They made everything for me. I stayed in their house for the first six months when I was here.”

When I asked her daughters what they had learned from their mother, they replied, “Survival skills. She’s a tough lady. You don’t want to be a whiner around her. She taught us to be tough. She doesn’t show her emotions really. Only, when talking about the Holocaust we don’t see any emotion from her, but in other areas the emotion comes out. She cries at weddings or somebody winning something on a game show but when it comes down to the real thing that is beneath what the tears are all about you’ll never see the tears.”

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

In America We Become Russians

One of our most interesting interviews was with Rakhil, a 94-year-old immigrant from Kiev, and her daughter Liana. I had interviewed Rakhil with an interpreter in my first series of interviews and was quite charmed by her. Even with a language barrier her warm personality came through. She had told me stories about her mother and sang me songs that her mother would lead them in at Pesach. Rakhil told me about a time when Jews lived in friendship with the Ukrainians and shared holiday treats with each other.

That all came to an end in 1933 when the Soviet government began a program of forced farm-collectives. A famine resulted, killing an estimated seven million people. This was an effort to destroy Ukrainian nationalism and the capitalism implicit in the success of small farmers. Homes and livestock were confiscated, people who resisted were deported or executed. Grain was expropriated or sold on the international market while the people starved. It is a horrific story of which I knew little.

Rakhil told me that the Jews were tradesmen and craftsmen and they survived better than did their Ukrainian neighbors. Rich Ukrainians who had shops in the middle of Kiev often hired them. Jealousies resulted and fed the anti-Semitism we often associate with the Ukraine.

During the war Rakhil and her family evacuated Kiev and worked on a collective farm. Twenty-eight members of her mother’s family sought shelter in Kiev and were killed at Babi Yar in the largest single massacre of the Holocaust.

Rakhil enlisted and worked in communications. Her ability to understand German made her valuable as a translator. She made it all the way to Berlin during the war and won many medals. Her daughter later told me that she entered Majdanek and Auschwitz with the Russian army, horrified at what she found.

On this second interview I was relying on her daughter to translate for her as well as to share her own story. I had found that the elderly Russian immigrants I had interviewed, typically came to the US to follow their children. While I knew of antisemitism in Russia, I had never talked with a contemporary about their experience.

We began by asking about their decision to immigrate in 1989. Liana talked of the antisemitism in the Soviet Union which prompted it.

 “You just kind of learn with years, you learn to live with it. You just know that you are second-hand kind of person and certain fields, certain places, you will never be able to get to.”

 She told of seeking to enroll her son in a school which specialized in English. Those who graduated received an interpreter’s certificate and it is usually for military interpretation. The director told her that while her son could enroll he would never receive the certificate. “Why?” she asked. “Because you are Jewish, don’t you understand,” replied the director. Ultimately the decision to immigrate came in search of more opportunity for their son and themselves. Her mother followed three years later.

When I asked about the family’s experience being Jewish, Rakhil replied that her mother was not religious, but kept kosher and celebrated the holidays. Rakhil was born at the time of the revolution so she knew what she learned from her mother. Liana was reliant on what her mother had learned from her mother, but could not practice Judaism. There was one synagogue for 4 million people. Generally older people who had nothing to lose attended. Attendance was monitored and penalized at jobs and universities. Ironically Liana’s daughter-in-law has since become an Orthodox Jew so her grandchildren are now being raised in the Orthodox tradition. Rakhil proudly related how the oldest grandson led them through the Pesach service.

Liana spoke of something I observed in Lithuania, that being Jewish is treated as a nationality, not a religion. If one is Jewish that is noted on your passport rather than Russian or Ukrainian. It is on line 5 so people would say, “Is your line number 5 OK?” It means, “Are you Jewish or not?” In the US we think of ourselves as Americans and Jewish. Imagine living in America, but not being considered an American because one is Jewish. This is essentially what Liana experienced in Russia.

She commented on the oddity of now being labeled as Russians because that was their geographical home.

 “You see we’ve been all of our lives Jews. In America we become Russians. We’re Russian but we’re not. We’re from Russia, but we’ve never been Russian. We’ve always been Jews. Jews here and Jews there. But here we’re Americans, American Jew. Over there we were just Jew. Period.”

I especially enjoyed the Russian jokes that Liana used to illustrate the duplicity of the then Soviet government.

 "When one Jewish man was crossing the road and it was green light and policeman said, 'you can go now,” he said,“I don’t believe them.”

"He doesn’t believe in the country he lives, it’s like a gang. So he doesn’t believe whatever they say to him. Because they say it should be one thing and their knowledge is completely different. We’ve always said, “if you want your refrigerator to be full of food, you have to plug it in the radio”. Because on the radio and on the news this (Russia) is the best country in the world."

I asked Liana if it has changed. She said she thinks so, but isn't sure how much.

When we spoke of her father’s history I felt as if I had stepped into a novel, a rather tragic one. Her father along with his brother and sister were orphaned when their parents were murdered during a pogram. The children hid, but saw the murder. They then walked through the winter to get to an orphanage. I just read the wonderful book The Little Russian where the author, Susan Sherman, paints vivid pictures of such events. I was able to visualize it all too well.

“How does one make sense of that experience, of that history?” I asked.

She replied, “It makes me look different on a situation in the country, be very politically involved, be very pro-Israel, be a huge supporter of our country. You know to feel that you can be fair citizen here, everybody treats you like equal. And that’s what I’m grateful for and appreciate so much. And like I said, have all this legacy with us. It makes us stronger, and it makes us bring different views to United States. Makes us hard workers, makes us people who not spoiled by having everything.”

Some of our lighter moments came when I asked about food and Rakhil began to describe how to make gefilte fish. A family recipe that came from Rakhil’s grandmother has yet to make it to Liana, but we witnessed the promise to pass it on. Using hand gestures Rakhil illustrated how it is made as Liana translated.

 “You bring the fish and I make it,” Rakhil told us.

 “It’s a long procedure.” said Liana. “ People don’t have time anymore. It’s better to go to Costco to buy it.”

When Rakhil came to the United States she decided she wanted to become a citizen. At age 80 she went before the official and told him her name and age in English. She then shared with us the English spoken sentence, “Me-morial Day ees holiday” that got her citizenship. Very somberly she recited the sentence and then illustrated the amazement of the judge at this elderly Russian woman.

Our visit ended with Rakhil singing Yiddish songs for us with a vigor that belied her age. Her joyous spirit affected us all and we told her we hoped to return with a Klezmer musician who will accompany her singing.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Exploring Through Story

I’ve written previously of the legacy grant  received from the Minnesota Historical Society. The state grant funded a series of oral histories with elders within a Jewish residential facility. Last year I completed a series of interviews and began to develop artwork around the stories that were shared. I’ve written of that effort in these pages and it remains ongoing.

Late last year we were awarded a second grant to do a series of cross-generational interviews and much to my chagrin I realized I haven’t written of them since. It is not for lack of activity. I just completed the last interview, finished the transcriptions and have begun the video editing. When a project is in a gestational stage, it is often difficult to write about. Whether it is painting or writing, it often helps to wait until I have a cross-section of content. It is only then that I can begin to find patterns and themes and in doing so consider my own response, all necessary steps before I can share that response in writing.

The focus of this project has been on identity and legacy. The topic is of interest to me as I evaluate my own relationship to Judaism. Growing up as a Reform Jew in a fairly secular family, I’ve never been quite sure how to classify myself. Add to that growing up in a small Midwestern town with a small Jewish population, a non-Jewish spouse and no children. For most people having children forces the question of how to raise them. Despite my casual relationship to religion I have never had any doubts about my answer to that question. Jewish it would have been. So where does that come from? Why the certainty on something which outwardly would not have appeared to be a significant part of my life. Perhaps it is much the same instinct that drew me to family history.

When I became involved with family history research I began to go down a road that connected me to many people within the Jewish community as well as my own history. And I liked the people I was meeting. I liked the sense of community even as I felt a bit outside of it. As I developed my more recent artwork, I was forced to put myself out there as someone who was not only Jewish, but talked about it when I discussed my artwork. Suddenly my Jewish identity was front and center. No more flying beneath the radar. When I want to explore something I circle around it, examining it from different perspectives. I always picture the way a dog circles around before settling into the grass, flattening it out to make a comfortable spot to settle. Perhaps it is how I test out ideas, finding my comfort zone. I don’t think it is an accident that I’ve chosen this topic to examine.

These interviews give me a perspective across historical events, lifetimes and even generations. They give me a view of those who were active in the Jewish community and those for whom it was more peripheral until their life was threatened because of their Jewish roots. So often our Jewish identity is formed out of oppression and exclusion and the spectre of anti-Semitism did indeed loom large, whether it was Soviet persecution, Nazi murder or merely the garden variety of anti-Semitism that has dogged society through time. Some quickly seek to shed their Jewish identity in the face of such trials, but for each of my interviewees, it remained a part of their identity. While they varied in their degree of religious practice, they all identified themselves as Jews, connected by religious or cultural ties. Even for those who would not have described themselves as religious, an emphasis on the values of supporting human rights and dignity was very deeply felt and lived.

My interviewees ranged from 92 to 97 so this was also an evaluation of what it is to age well. All seemed rather indestructible, but I must confess to Googling obituaries to make sure they were still with us prior to calling. Best not to assume. They all had at least one family member who seemed very present in their life and in one case were a couple who had shared many years of marriage. All of those factors were doubtless considerations in their longevity and well being. Several of them were natural storytellers and they had shared many of their stories with their children. Storytelling was an
important aspect of their life. As my work focuses on story telling, I especially appreciated that quality and found myself thinking of the role of storytelling in Judaism. We are after all People of the Book. We recite a Torah portion throughout the year as part of the weekly service, telling the story and searching it for meaning. Storytelling and Judaism are indeed inextricably connected so it only seemed fitting for that to be the mode of exploration on this journey. In the next several entries I will share some excerpts of the interviews and my reactions to them.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.