Last week my granddaughter in eighth-grade asked me if I could help her with a family report for class. Of course, I agreed, as I have been contributing to, if not actually doing, these types of school assignments for decades—my own, my children’s, and now, in some instances, my grandchildren’s.
This report was about the roots and history of her family on my side and my wife Esta’s side. It took about a half-hour of sharing recollections of a multifaceted family, but the next day I found myself still reflecting on the details of what I shared with her.
Essentially, she wanted to know about our parents. You know, where they were born—whether in Europe or here in the U.S.—when they arrived here if they were born over there, and so on. For an eighth-grader, those were just details of a report for school. For me, it was an opportunity to think about and dwell upon the evolution of a family that she, as the oldest grandchild, is such an important part of. And at the same time it occurred to me that I do not reflect upon this history often enough.
First she asked about my mother, Rosalind (Sora Rosa), and the first thing I shared with her was that Bubby Gordon, as she was known in the family, was born here in New York in 1921. I was thinking the same thought that Tehila articulated when she said, “Wow, that was a hundred years ago.”
My mom passed away just about four years ago at the age of 95. Her birthday was at the end of November, which usually fell out on the calendar on or very close to Thanksgiving Day. This coming November would have marked her 100th birthday.
Of my parents and my in-laws, she was the only one of the four who had the distinction of being born here in the United States. She was born and raised in the Bronx and attended public school there. Her parents came to the U.S. in 1914 from Romania. I was not privy to the thought process or details that precipitated my grandparents leaving Europe for the U.S. at that point in history.
Earlier this week we observed my grandmother’s 44th yahrzeit. She passed away in 1977 at the age of 87. For many years, my grandparents lived diagonally across the street from us. They were in our home often, and when my brother Yossy and I were young—like teenagers—we spent many Shabbos meals with Bubby and Zaide.
If I took my granddaughter that far back it probably would have become increasingly difficult for her to imagine. I mean, taking her back to the early 1900s is probably far enough. The 19th century may have been a bit too much to explore.
As for my father, I told Tehila, he was born in a small Chassidic town in Belarus in 1918. His father, Yochanan Gordon, was the shochet in the small town, but he picked himself up in 1932 and made the trek to New York. He didn’t make that decision in a vacuum. Two of his brothers left the same town with their young families about ten years prior. His wife and four children stayed behind for two more years until 1934 when he felt financially able to bring them over to the U.S. and properly provide for them.
So my father arrives here as a 16-year-old, the oldest of four children. He attended Yeshiva Torah Vodaas where he eventually received semichah from R’ Gedalia Schorr. His writing ability was recognized to an extent as he transcribed many of the shiurim of R’ Shlomo Hyman, also his rebbe in the yeshiva. Many years later, after my dad passed away in 1989, I received calls from talmidim of R’ Hyman or classmates of my father’s who wanted to know if I had copies of those notes. I didn’t.
My parents met at a friend’s wedding and married in 1944. My father had already begun writing for a Yiddish newspaper and over the short term he became a full-time employee of the Day-Morning Journal, a Yiddish newspaper that published daily here in New York. He later worked at the Algemeiner Journal as well as for several other publications. He also ghost-wrote several books in Yiddish for Holocaust-survivor families. Communications at that point were quite primitive compared to modern times. Perhaps simple is a better characterization. But as a young child, I have to say, I was always enamored at the way people stopped my father to discuss his latest column or ideas.
When I met Esta in 1978, I was introduced to a family dynamic that I had certainly heard about and had been aware of but had never lived it up close. I was able to observe that over the last four decades.
Her parents were sole survivors of Polish-born families that were decimated in the Holocaust. That meant that the family I had been accustomed to for all of my young life was completely absent from her life. There were no grandparents, no aunts, uncles, or cousins … just two people who managed to survive and began rebuilding here in New York.
I tried to explain that situation as delicately as I could to my granddaughter who was charged with writing a report on family history for school last week. I told her that all of her great-bubby’s and great-zaide’s families were murdered by the Nazis, but I don’t really know how much of that her young mind in this 21st century can effectively absorb. How do you calmly communicate genocide of that magnitude?
All these decades later, I think it is still very difficult for us, as adults, to fathom the catastrophe and immense tragedy that the Holocaust was personally for so many of our families. Sure, many people who survived are still alive today, but time is running out. Presently, there are approximately 300,000 survivors of the Holocaust living scattered around the world.
And those two people—my father-in-law, who passed away almost four years ago, and my mother-in-law, may she live and be well—did not experience what they did in an isolated way. That type of immense trauma gets passed down and is present in some form in subsequent generations. Of course, it’s difficult to place your finger on it exactly, but it is there somewhere and always present to some degree.
That they lived through those years and we are challenged with talking about it and trying to explain it presents quite a conundrum. How do you explain something like that to a young child? Do you say that there was just no one left and no one around? Or do you have to offer an orientation on what it is to have evil in the world and have that evil seemingly triumph over so much goodness? It’s just impossible to explain.
As I was researching this piece last Sunday, I asked some people who might have known the answers to some questions and I actually found out several things about my mother’s family that I never knew before.
The first was that my grandfather, Aaron Berger, came here alone after he married my grandmother in 1914. She followed him, along with his sister, Rachel, about six months later. Apparently, at the time, it was easier to be sponsored for entry into the country as a single and then call for the rest of your family to join you.
I still don’t know what possessed my grandparents from my mother’s side to pack up and leave Europe at that period in time. My grandfather was 28 and my grandmother was 24 in 1914. After they arrived in the U.S. they had two children, my mother and her brother, who is 96 years old and lives in the Bronx.
Here’s something else that I found out about last week. My grandmother Chaya Malka’s father was named Dov. My grandmother, according to records, passed away on February 27, 1977. Our son Dov, who was named for someone in my father-in-law’s family, was born on February 27 about a decade later.
And one more thing that Tehila might want to put in some future report: Dov’s wife was Sora Rosa, and my mother was named for her. Today we have three grandchildren who are either Sora Rosa or just Rosa. Two are called just as my mother was, Rosie. The other is Sorah. Still, it’s the same name of people who lived over the last 100-plus years and made our lives possible.
Even though I did not give Tehila all this extensive detailed information, she should, I hope, get an A+ on her report, and I suppose that is the important thing.
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