Living in Brooklyn: The Jewish Experience
Explores life in an urban immigrant Jewish neighborhood, Brownsville, Brooklyn, experiencing cataclysmic world events through the prism of the American Jewish lens – from World Wars, the Cold War and the Holocaust to Saturdays at the Loew’s Pitkin and the desertion of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
BROWNSVILLE: THE JEWISH YEARS
Celebrating Hope, Hard Work, Tolerance and the Triumph of the Human Spirit, By Sylvia Siegel Schildt
These excerpts of Ms. Schildt’s memoirs are reproduced with the permission of the author.
Chapter 7: From Holocaust to Herzl Street
Shortly after the war ended, my mother was walking down our street, when she heard someone call out her name, the name she was known by in the Old Country. Emma. Emma Basson. Running to her from across the street was a tall woman with reddish brown hair topped with a crown of braids. Her name was Sarah Medansky and she was a distant relation, a Holocaust survivor from her home town of Vilna in what is now Lithuania. They embraced and laughed and cried together. What a sight it must have been – our plump little mama, no bigger than 4 foot 7, hugging this gaunt woman of about 5’8”. And what tragic news Sarah Medansky carried with her.Over a cup of coffee in our tiny kitchen, Sarah Medansky brought sad closure to years or worry and fear over the survival of her large family – father, stepmother, brothers, a sister (two others had long emigrated to Canada and South Africa), their spouses and children, and an army of cousins and friends. They family had all been rousted out of my grandfather’s apartment and slaughtered. Why had she survived when all the rest had perished? She told us that she had worked in the German army kitchens and was not in the ghetto when the roundup occurred.
Afterwards, when Sarah returned from work to the ruins of the Vilna ghetto, she looked in on our grandfather’s apartment and found all the furniture overturned – they had struggled and not gone to their deaths like sheep. She also said it was Poles and Lithuanians who did the rounding up, not Nazi soldiers.
Somehow she made it through, and in the wartime aftermath, landed in the DP camps in Germany. There she married a nice quiet man and they produced a little daughter, Chanele, on whom they lavished unusual love and care. And in a unique twist of fate, Sarah Medansky, found herself living on the same street as our mother.
I later learned from the sole-surviving nephew that they had been shot at Ponar, a former military fort and later a place for picnicking that had been turned into a site for mass shootings and burials of Vilna’s Jews. I later learned this last roundup, the final one, took place on September 23, 1943 and my family perished along with thousands of other Jews from the Vilna ghetto. Vilna, the Jerusalem of Europe, site of learning and Jewish culture, reduced to nothing. Its Jews, shot, starved, or murdered in the ghetto and death camps. I try to remember to light a memorial candle on September 23 every year.
It’s important to know that to us in Brownsville, the disclosures about the 6,000,000 who perished, the camps, the ovens and the tragic remains were very personal, not just the statistics and horror stories we saw in our newsreels and newspapers. Many of the surviving remnant found their way to the DP camps of Germany, and the HIAS, Joint and other organizations issued daily lists of these people as they passed through their gates. My father became totally immersed, even obsessed, in scanning these lists, mainly in the Yiddish Forward, for family, townspeople, anyone he or my mother might have known. A remnant of about 250,000 Jews found themselves in these UNNRA camps, their movement stalled by quotas and red tape in potential host countries such as the US and Canada.
Father found a few unrelated survivors from his home shtetl of Malat, north of Vilna, to whom he reached out, and one day, came upon the name of my mother’s nephew, Eliezer Basson. He had escaped, along with a brother, and had served in the Russian army. His brother was killed in the fighting, and Eliezer, known in the family as Leizer, had lost an eye. Upon returning to Vilna after the war, he saw the ruins, and understood that this was no longer his home.
One Yiddish song, also sung in English, was very popular in Brownsville. It poignantly expressed the national Jewish feeling of uprootedness.
Vi Ahin Zol Ikh Geyn
Music: S. Korn-Tuer
Lyrics: O. Strock
Der Yid vert geyogt un geplogt The Jew is chased and persecuted.
Nisht zikher iz far im yeder tog No day is sure for him.
Zayn lebn iz a finstere nakht His life is a dark night.
Zayn shtrebn alts far im iz farmakht His striving is blocked at every turn.
Farlozn bloyz mit sonim kayn fraynt He is left only with enemies, no friends.
Kayn hofnung on a zikhern haynt No hope without a secure today.
Vi ahin zol ikh geyn? Tell me where can I go?
Ver kon entfern mir? Who can answer me?
Vi ahin zol ikh geyn? Where can I go?
Az farshlosn z’yede tir Every door is closed to me.
S’iz di velt groys genug The world is big enough
Nor far mir iz eng un kleyn But for me it’s crowded and small.
Vi a blik kh’muz tsurik I If I try to return
S’iz tsushtert yede brik Every bridge is closed.
Vi ahin zol ikh geyn? Tell me where can I go?
When my father found his name, Leizer was in one of the DP camps. Father alerted the Basson clan in the Bronx , my mother’s family, which had an active cousins’ circle. They offered to bring him to America and set him up. Leizer refused – there was only one home for him – the Jewish homeland, Eretz Yisrael, then called Palestine and still under British rule. And to Palestine he went, where after helping the Haganah to rescue Jewish refugee children, he became a shepherd in a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley. He married a survivor from Bulgaria and they built a family together. I always felt the lack of a place, a cemetery, a headstone, something to stand by and physically mourn the loss of my bobe/zeyde, grandmother and grandfather, indeed, the entire European Basson family. Decades later, I was able to visit my surviving cousin Leizer at his kibbutz – and there in a memorial garden, in a kibbutz filled with aging survivors, was a plaque honoring the families that had perished. And there for the first time, the only time, was something concrete to stand in front of and weep. Yes, the Holocaust is a very personal experience.
I have always envied those who got to know and have a relationship with their grandparents. History denied this to me and my siblings. But Tante Brokhe and Uncle Moishe substituted for grandparents in our lives and I shall always be grateful for this.
I became friendly with a refugee of my age named Bronya Zatz. She was the youngest of five and had four brothers, along with very religious parents. They were from Poland, but had escaped to Russia under harrowing circumstances. There they were eventually captured and separated. She got through the war all alone. Little red-haired, pale-skinned Bronya made a vow – that if by some miracle her entire family were to survive and be reunited, she would become super frum, super religious, just like her parents. She wound up, after the war, in a DP camp in Frankfurt and after some effort by the Allied authorities, located them all, safe and sound. And Bronya kept her promise – her faith intact. As did her parents. Her four older brothers however, emerged secular, unbelieving and cynical. Same outcome, different conclusion. They all lived together in a Brownsville apartment. Their home was strictly observant, her mother always wore a wig and a scarf, and her father had a thick gray beard. Many of our best talks happened while we were taking long walks along Pitkin Avenue on a Sabbath or Jewish holiday afternoon.
I also had the pleasure of linking up, in French class, with three girls from France, originally from Poland, also DP’s. They taught me current French slang and culture, and it went a long way to helping me shine in learning that language, while I helped them in learning about how things worked in Brownsville.
My fluent Yiddish opened many doors to me with the newly arrived refugee survivors, my mother used to call them “di grine”, the greenhorns. On the far corner of Herzl Street, at No. 8, there lived a settlement of grine, all from the city of Lodz, which had been a center of the garment industry in Poland and in which many Jews had been involved at every level from sweat shop laborers to owners. These were mostly young men, some single, a few married with Polish nicknames like Anyush. The youngest among them they humorously called Junior – he was now about twenty-one.
They spoke Yiddish and Polish among themselves and they had accepted me easily into their company as we gathered in front of their building some evenings. They spoke about the Lodz ghetto and individuals they knew. And also about their mutual time in the concentration camp of Auschwitz. One of the most chilling things I heard was that when they first entered the camps, it was the fatter people who died first. They concurred among themselves that food deprivation hit the obese the hardest.
The married couple at No. 8 once asked me to babysit their newborn for a special evening out. I remember feeling there was something odd, something missing in the apartment. There were newly bought tchatchkes, gimcrackery, a few prints on the wall, new curtains and appliances, there was a fresh coat of paint of the walls. And they had left me food in the refrigerator to nibble on if I got hungry. There was a wedding photo, taken in the DP camp where they met, in a small frame on a mahogany lamp table – but still something was missing.
And then it hit me. There were no family photos – no pictures of grandparents, relations, childhood pictures. There was no history to clutter up their décor. These people had come from rubble and bones and were starting all over again from nothing. It made me shudder.
But there was a dark side to this new influx of people to Brownsville. As the postwar boom allowed some residents to move to richer neighborhoods, these “grine” moved in. Some of these moves helped remove rent control guards so landlords could raise the rent. Various refugee organizations helped subsidize their housing, found them work, helped furnish their homes.
But what rankled many old-timers was that the very landlord improvements which had eluded them most – new appliances, upgrades in plumbing and heating, painting and plastering – the refugees got it all. There was anger and resentment.
There were a number of dark allegations that emerged – someone like Sarah Medansky survived because she must have consorted with the German soldiers. Those boys who survived Auschwitz, survived because they did dirty things to survive. Maybe they ratted on their fellow prisoners or did Sonderkommando tasks, (sorting remains, gold teeth, spectacles) with the crematoria.
These suspicions lurked in the very atmosphere.
On the other hand, these survivors were initially “damaged goods” – they had undergone such traumas as the human mind, body and soul could barely tolerate.
So they did not come hat in hand, overflowing with thanks to their American rescuers and sponsors. They had baggage – personal memories of betrayal by long-trusted neighbors and even fellow Jews. They had been physically and psychologically abused for over five years. And had lost everything, everyone that meant anything to them.
And liberation had been no picnic – they encountered virulent anti-Semitism if they tried to return home. Their first experiences after liberation from their camps and hiding places, shell-shocked and almost dead, had been to be herded into DP camps in of all places, Germany. There, under seemingly interminable detention, barely different from concentration camps, they awaited an uncertain fate.
It’s not that America’s Jews were unsympathetic to their plight and tragic history – but many felt the refugees believed the world now owed them a living, while they the old-timers, continued to toil under the old conditions and no one was cutting them a break.
This was particularly true in Brownsville, where poor housing had been a longstanding sore issue about which nothing was happening but lip service.
One set of grine that became very important to our family was a young man who, together with his sister, had been separated from their parents in Holland and hidden by Dutch citizens. Orphaned like so many others, Arnie and Theo van der Horst were found and brought to the States by their aunt and uncle. And when Arnie met my sister Lakie almost a decade later, they meshed and became a couple, married and raised two sons. For decades, Arnie spoke little of his wartime experiences and traumas as a hidden child, but recently, he began to speak out in public and is now sharing what happened to him with a whole new generation.