Saturday, November 10, 2018

Come From the Shadows: How my Cousin Roza Survived the Holocaust

Left: my cousin, Roza, at about 17. Right: me, at 17
This is the story of my cousin, Roza, who survived the Holocaust. It will also necessarily be a history lesson. If you know more about this history than I do, please be gentle with me. I'm learning as I go, and it's emotional stuff.

But first, before I tell you about Roza's survival, these are my relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust:

Chana
Leibe
Miriam
Alte
Mina
Riva
Rivka
Mina
Sara
Moshe
Sora
Nechama
Rodl
Israel
Aizik
Zhenia
Brejna
Henia
Ester
Etel
Leah
Sheina
Child age 6
Child age 6
Chile age 6
Child age 5
Child age 5
Child age 4
Child unknown age

Understand: these are "just" the names (when I even have names) that I've found so far. I know there will be more. These do not include anyone in my grandmother's family, not yet. This is only my grandfather's family. This list does not include these people's spouses or their in-laws. For instance, Chana, who was murdered in Auschwitz, was murdered alongside her husband and his entire family, including his parents. It also doesn't include the people I'm pretty sure are my relatives, like Beila, like Isaak, and many more. 

By the time I was ten, I'd figured out that the nazis would have come for me, but it was only recently that I started to understand the bigger picture. You see, my immediate family immigrated to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s, so for nearly my whole life, I've stupidly thought that my entire family escaped the Holocaust. Only with the rise of antisemitism in the last few years did I finally come to understand that I must have lost family in the Holocaust. Only in the last month, have I been able to put names to that reality: cousins, aunts, uncles. They haunt me now, all day and all night. 

And then, on October 27, a white supremacist entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, yelled, "All Jews must die!" and killed 11 Jews. Every Jew knows what that means. Every Jew feels the fear that comes with that. The Holocaust is etched in our collective memory, an open wound that will never heal.

But I found my cousin, Roza, or her story anyway. She and her father, Benjamin, survived. I'm telling you her story because she gives me some hope, because she amazes me, and because I'm proud that I'm actually related to this amazing woman! And also, because, unlike so many others, she was alive to tell her story, and someone wrote it down, and I found it.


An antisemitic attack on me
The above Twitter conversation started because I expressed my disgust that a white man wasn't charged with the murder of a young, Indigenous girl in Winnipeg, despite the fact that he'd confessed. A Canadian white nationalist accused me of being a "race traitor" for caring about this girl. Then, when he looked at my profile, and discovered that I am Jewish... well, you can read and see what he did. He scrawled that word - Jewish - to him a hateful word, across my profile and shared it so all his hateful friends could see it and attack me. 

It took me and many others a month to get this man banned from Twitter.

He wasn't the first to attack me for being Jewish and he won't be the last. People like him are legion. They're radicalizing each other. They're organizing. They're dangerous. I hope the murder of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh finally brings that point home.


Recent antisemitic hate, insinuating that Jews are faking our own persecution
But I fear that it won't. Following the attack in Pittsburgh, this antisemitic "cartoon" has been making the rounds online. Its meaning is obvious: Jews are faking our own persecution. This is nothing new. This is akin to Holocaust denial. This is rampant. Here. Now. And it's getting worse.

It's only been in the last three years that I've experienced the kind of antisemitism I'd only read about before. I naively thought it was all a thing of the past. I was wrong. That kind of hatred never went away. The antisemites have simply been waiting under the surface, waiting for the permission to rise above the ooze and bombard us with their conspiracy theories about us, their hateful comments about how we should be turned into lampshades, burned in ovens, and murdered en masse - again.

It is vitally important that people understand what antisemitism is. It is not an attack on faith. It is an attack on an ethnicity. Indeed, neonazis, racists, white supremacists and their ilk don't even think of Jews as an ethnic group. They think of us as a race. For this reason, antisemitism and racism always go hand-in-hand. Antisemites couldn't care less if an individual Jew is deeply religious, entirely secular, or even an atheist. They only care that we're Jewish and they hate us all equally. They want us all dead. 

In this attack on our ethnicity, not our faith, they are identical to the Hitler's nazi party.


Me and my father in about 1993. 
Are Jews a race? Are we an ethnicity? Are we white? Because of the racism/antisemitism directed against us, these are questions we have been forced to ask ourselves, and I think there are as many answers as there are Jews. I will answer them in my own way. 

Most of us are white, obviously, but not all of us; there are Middle Eastern and African Jews, for example, who are obviously not white. We are far too diverse to be a race. 

But Ashkenazi Jews are an ethnicity. Ashkenazim are Jews of Eastern European decent and are, genetically speaking, a markedly distinct group. In other words, a DNA test can detect that we are Ashkenazim. It is my belief, and not everyone will agree with me, that Ashkenazim often, but not always, share certain physical traits, like curly, dark hair, dark eyes, and shortness of stature. (We also share certain medical concerns, like a slightly higher risk of breast cancer.) Over 80 percent of Jews today are of Ashkenazi decent. So, when racists think of us as a race, it seems likely they have Ashkenazim in mind. 

It was almost entirely Ashkenazim that the nazis rounded up and murdered in the millions during World War II.



But Roza survived! I found Roza on Yad Vashem, the organization devoted to gathering the names of all the victims of the Holocaust. Loosely translated, the very name, Yad Vashem, means "to carry the names forward." I was looking for family and there was Roza, a young woman reporting the deaths of her two sisters, her cousins, her aunt, her uncle. "My God," I thought, "Who is this girl? How did she survive? And how did she go on?"


From left to right: Rivka, Mina, Chaya, and Roza. Rivka and Mina were murdered in 1941. Chaya died of natural causes in 1939.
Amazingly, I found her story. 

It seems that Roza sat down with a transcriber in 1985 and told her story. That transcriber (who I want to find!) wrote it all down, translated it, and put it online, on JewishGen.org. Thank you, Roza! Thank you, transcriber!

The two of them even included photographs!



I can see myself most in Roza's sister, Rivka. Her curly hair reminds me of my own.


Back row, left to right: Roza's father, Benjamin, her mother Chaya, and her sister, Rivka. Her sister, Mina, is in the front.
It's amazing to have photographs. In her four years of running from the nazis (I refuse to give that word the dignity of capitalization), Roza lost everything, including all her photographs. But she reunited with her father, Benjamin, in 1945, and he had two photos, just two. That's all. 

Benjamin reminds me a lot ...


Joseph, my grandfather's brother, was another long-lost family member that I didn't know existed
... of all the men in my paternal family. This is Joseph, Benjamin's first cousin. Don't they look alike?

Through Roza, I was able to learn a lot about Benjamin. His father, Wolf (my great-grandfather's brother), was, as Roza puts it, a "hard man and not very kind. There were 16 children. He did not allow his children to study. He demanded that they go to work to support him." Reading between the lines, I think Benjamin and I had something in common: childhood trauma from child abuse

I think that's why Benjamin moved to the small town of Kibart, away from his family. He wanted a different sort of life for himself and his wife and children. He seems to have been a kind, gentle, and loving father and I find myself feeling great admiration for his ability to break the patterns he had learned from his own father.

Above all, Benjamin wanted his three girls to have a good education. Roza says, "Father was very insistent that we would learn, because he had not been allowed to study. It was very painful to him. If we would bring home a bad mark, it was a tragedy. So at times there was money and sometimes there wasn’t any, but for education there was always money. On that point, my father would not give in."

I suspect that Benjamin and his wife, Chaya, also did their best to shield their children from antisemitism. "I suppose," says Roza, "that underneath the surface there was Anti-Semitism, but we did not feel it." Given how often the rules about where Jewish children could go to school changed, I know that there must have been a lot of antisemitism in Roza's town, but Benjamin and Chaya were able to shield their children from a painful understanding of the wider context of these constant changes in their schooling. They did such a good job, that Roza refers to these years as "my glowing years." 

It is true, that, shielded from an understanding of wider political currents, Roza's life did seem relatively free of antisemitism. Christians and Jews lived side by side. "We made friends with the Gentiles," she says. "At school, all of the events were held jointly, dances, parties and shows, everything was done together." 

Despite this seeming harmony, antisemitism must have been brewing under the surface because, just a few years later, Christian Lithuanians in her town collaborated in the massacre of the local Jews. Roza's two sisters were shot by Lithuanians. Roza does not talk about it, but she must have felt a sense of deep betrayal, knowing that her childhood friends and their families became her family's murderers.

But, for as long as he could, even after his wife's sudden death in 1939, even after war was erupting nearby, Benjamin shielded his children and kept them in school. 


In the 30s, Jews flooded across borders in a chaotic attempt to escape the nazis. 
His kindness extended well beyond his own family. Roza explains:

"These refugees from Germany began to flee, before the war, in ’35. They came to Lithuania and the first stop was our town. I have to praise my father, because he helped them a lot. He hid them at the house. It was a fact that he risked himself and us, because after all, it was forbidden. Had they caught him, he would have been thrown in jail. It wasn’t allowed for refugees to enter Lithuania. Lithuania didn’t accept them. Not formally and not in our town. After all they had crossed the border illegally. So they used to hide themselves in our home. Father risked himself and us by keeping them at our [clothing] workshop. In that way no one would notice them. Later on we smuggled them onwards. 

"I remember a certain incident, amongst many, in which I was the instigator. My father and I had boarded the train. The Gendarmes came. I was standing at the entrance to the cabin, and the refugees sat inside and the Gendarme asked in Lithuanian, 'Is everyone from [around] here?' I said: 'Yes, everybody is local.' And he moved on and we managed to get these people to Kovno. The moment they reached Kovno, the danger became less. I believe they had relatives somewhere in Yurburg ... and they continued onwards. That was one of the incidents I remember.


"Then there was this other incident, involving my father. He was on the train and since he went by train a lot, he knew all the officials. He saw this refugee standing by the door, without hope. He knew that he was a Jew, [and] he said, 'What’s the problem?' The man said, 'I have only one option left --to jump off the train.' ... So father bumped him, hugged him, started to kiss him and said, 'Oh, it’s good to see you, my brother, I am very happy to see you.' Father took some money from his pocket, put some Lits [i.e. Lithuanian currency] into this Gendarme’s pocket, and rescued the Jew." 

Years later, when Roza herself was a refugee, always hungry, and constantly on the run, there were those who risked their own lives to save hers. "There was," she says, "a recurrent thought. When I was in Russia and people were nice to me, I said [to myself] that’s because of father, because he had helped the refugees a lot."


The Pale of Settlement
So this was the backdrop of Roza's childhood. And yet, in the midst of all this, and for hundreds of years of systemic oppression before this, the Jewish community had grown, evolved, and thrived. 

The Pale of Settlement, which was the only area in which Jews were allowed to live in the Russian empire, included Belarus, Lithuania, and parts of the Latvia, the Ukraine, and Poland. Even these borders often shifted and Jews were often forced to move, en masse, from areas where they had once been permitted to live. Still, it was in the Pale that Jews came together, took care of each other, spoke Yiddish together, published books together, debated everything from Torah to socialism together, and, in many ways, created what we think of as Jewish culture to this day.

Around 1900, Jews in the Pale were hit by a particularly violent wave of pogroms (government sanctioned, antisemitic riots), forcing many of them to make the difficult choice to leave their families and communities behind in search of a better, safer life, and a more hopeful future for their children. Together, they formed a huge wave of Jewish migration into New York City. 

My own immediate family was part of this wave.

Without knowing it, these migrants saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of their descendants who would have been murdered in the Holocaust had their families stayed in the Pale. My gratitude toward them is beyond words.


Jewish immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in New York City
But, until a few months ago, I didn't know any of this. I really knew nothing about my family's history. I had been told that my great-grandfather was a poor, illiterate farmer from a shtetl (Jewish village) named Issyvoo. I was told that, when he had arrived at Ellis Island around 1900, his little son (my grandfather) in tow, he'd been asked his name and had answered in broken English, "I am Itzak of Issyvoo," and the officials had written down, "Isaac Issyvoo."

This family story had passed down to so many of us, so often, that we all thought it was the truth. But it was, mostly, myth. Our family's last name had been Issyvoo for many generations, long before Isaac's arrival in New York. Isaac did not arrive with only my grandfather, Henry. He was poor but not dirt poor. He was not illiterate. 


A Jewish shtetl, around 1900
And he was not from a shtetl.


Victims of a pogrom in Ekaterinoslav, Ukraine, October 19, 1905
Isaac and his family - his wife, Feige, and three children - were escaping the pogroms. That part was true. Do you know about the pogroms? Most non-Jews I've met have never heard of them, but they are deep in the blood and bones of Jewish memory. They were a series of government sanctioned, anti-Jewish riots, that, at best, left Jewish homes and businesses in ruins and, at worst, left Jews beaten, raped, and killed.

Have you ever seen Fiddler on the Roof? Remember when the Russians come busting in and do their best to ruin Tevye's shtetl? That's a pogrom. 


Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof
And, to tell the truth, for many Ashkenazi Jews, it's all they know of their heritage. It was all I knew for a really long time. 

I remember when I watched the movie for the first time. I guess I was in my 20s. Everyone looked like me ... 


My father's favourite photo of himself
... or my father. Tevye was a dead ringer for my father. 


Me, pretending to be my father
And I look like my father. So, yeah, whatever it means to "look like a Jew," my father was it. I'm it.



(And let's get this out of the way right now: Contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of Jews with auburn and red hair. Generally speaking, our hair ranges from red to black, but not always.)


Chava, in Fiddler on the Roof. I have found several women named Chava in my own family tree.
Fiddler on the Roof is nice and all, but it's only about shtetl life. I really knew nothing about the way my family had lived before immigrating to America. For example, I thought all the women wore head scarves.


Me, at about 28
Whenever I wore a headscarf, I'd joke, "Put a headscarf on me and I look like I stepped straight off the shtetl," which is just what I believed my own family had done.

What I knew was a story of persecution, hard labour, abject poverty, and escape. That's all. 



I wasn't wrong. In fact, I hadn't known how bad the restrictions on Jews were. I'd really had no idea of the deprivation this caused.

The extent of the deprivation is, I think, anecdotally evidenced in this size of the men in my family. These records are available in their military records, of which there are quite a few. Now, let's be honest: Jews are not known for our height or size. But height and size are also influenced by access to good medical care and good nutrition - or a lack thereof. 

My great-grandfather, Isaac, was 5'2". My grandfather, who came to America as a child, was 5'3". In all the records, the men of these generations never went over 5'3".


A comparison: my non-Jewish husband, Beau, at 6'1", beside my Jewish father, at 5'6"
And, then, when they came to America, where antisemitism still thrived but was less institutional than it was in Russia, they started to get bigger. My father was 5'6", still small, for sure, but not as tiny as his male forebears. My male cousin is 5'9". I suspect many families from the Pale of Settlement would find a similar upward trajectory in their family histories. Is this definitive proof of hardships in the Pale of Settlement? No, of course not, but, combined with other information, it does seem indicative of those hardships.


Vilnius, around 1900
But even in this hardship, the Jewish community thrived over the years. Of course many lived on shtetls, but many were urban too. Almost all of my grandfather's family lived in the cities of Kaunas or Vilnius, both in Lithuania. In 1900, about 40% of the population of Vilnius was Jewish. It had several Yiddish printing presses disseminating ideas and stories throughout the Jewish community in the Pale. Of course the cities and shtetls had synagogues, but they also had Jewish schools, Jewish socialist groups, Jewish zionist groups, Jewish social clubs, Jewish theatre troupes, and more. 


Nechama Krovonik and her children, in Vilnius, around 1900
Far from being a culturally, religiously, and economically static world, the Jewish world in the Pale was constantly evolving, growing, debating, studying, running businesses, running charities to help each other out, and otherwise living full, modern lives. 

It was from this world that my great-grandfather, Isaac/Isadore, and my great-grandmother, Feige/Fannie, ran to New York, seeking a better life for themselves and their children. I don't think the urban setting of New York would have been the shock to them that I'd always assumed it was. (Interestingly, I'd also always assumed that they, like so many other Jews, had initially settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, when, in fact, they settled in Harlem which, at the time, had a large Jewish population.)


Young Jews in Kaunas/Kovno, Lithuania, circa 1930s
And it was into this world that Roza was born in 1920. 


Stylish Jewish youth in Roza's hometown of Kibart, circa mid to late 1920s
Unlike most of her relatives, she did live in a small town, but it was not a shtetl. It was very modern, and, since the train ran right through it, everyone there had easy access to the larger cities nearby. 

Roza describes her town, saying, "Kibart was a Lithuanian town on the German border. It was to a certain extent, different from other Lithuanian towns, or even Polish towns ... The German influence was quite noticeable – especially among the Jewish population. Kibart was much cleaner and much more orderly, much more modern, than other towns, and it had aspects of technology and civilization other towns didn’t have at all. For example, almost all the homes had electricity, and the houses were tall and made of brick and stone. There were also other houses, farther out from the center of town, farmers’ homes, built of wood, and yet no matter where you were in town, you felt the cultural, orderly influence of the Germans."

Jews and non-Jews alike passed freely across the border between the two nations, quite openly smuggling goods into Kibart and, from there, to the larger cities. Some Lithuanian, Jewish children even went to school in Germany. 

Roza's obvious admiration for the German lifestyle is tragic, given the horror of what the Germans would soon inflict upon Lithuanian Jews.


Vinnitsa Ukraine 1941
Even as I stress that the Jewish community was thriving, and that Roza's story includes this vitality, I cannot stress enough the total, brutal annihilation that was to follow. This too is Roza's story, a story in which gentile collaborators helped the nazis mercilessly massacre tens of thousands of Jews in a mere few months. Most people believe that Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust died in the concentration camps, but many never even got that far. Many were murdered in their own cities and towns, and buried in unmarked, mass graves that they themselves had been forced to dig.

Understand that the Jews of the Pale did not know this was coming. 

Roza was a college student in Vilnius on June 21, 1941, when the Germans conquered Lithuania. Jews knew this was bad, very bad, but they couldn't possibly know how bad. They could not predict the massacre of Hitler's Final Solution: total genocide of Jews. His plan was put his Final Solution into action in late June, 1941. How could Roza know this? Who could predict evil of that magnitude?

So it is a near miracle that Roza chose to run on June 22, 1941. She never could explain why she did so. She just said, "If you'd ask me why I decided to run, I don't know. It was some sort of instinct. I don't know. I can't explain." She was not the only one to have this instinct, of course, but most didn't.


Kaunas June 27 1941 Beaten by Lithuanians
A week later, on June 27, 1941, the massacres began. Some of the victims were my relatives. I've only found some of their names. If I'm "lucky," I'll find more. If I'm very very lucky, I'll find photographs of them when they were alive.


Men led into the pit in Ponary that would soon be their grave. The size of this pit gives you a sense of the magnitude of the slaughter. There were six such pits - just for murdered Vilnius residents.
The mass murders in Vilnius began in July. By the end of the year, 50,000 people were massacred, most of them Jews. Most my relatives who were murdered are in these pits. 

But Roza survived. Roza's "instinct," and blind luck, saved her life. 



The day after I discovered Roza - and her sisters' deaths - I wore this 1940s style outfit. I wore it for Roza, and Rivka, and Mina. I didn't know what else to do to pay homage to them.



I pinned this Edwardian, Star of David, stickpin to my dress. I wanted to wear something Jewish that predated that Holocaust, something that could conceivably have been part of Roza's world before the slaughter, before hell.



I had not yet found and read Roza's memoirs, but, even so, I felt like my family's stories were finally emerging from the shadows. And I really didn't know what to do with the whirl of emotions in my heart.


Another long lost cousin
On the same day that I wore this outfit to remember Roza, I discovered two branches of my family that had moved to America around 1900 to escape the pogroms.Till then, I'd thought that my great-grandparents were the only ones in my family to have done so. 

I was over the moon: more family who had lived! Many of them had even served in the American military, fighting the nazis. I even found a photo of one of my long lost cousins, a handsome chap named William Issyvoo. 



William is Roza's cousin too. 

Roza Issyvoo, was born in Lithuania, on October 23, 1920. The very next dayon October 24, 1920, her cousin, William Issyvoo, was born in CaliforniaDuring World War II, William served in the American Navy, while Roza served in the Red Army. They both survived. I don't think either ever knew the other existed.

It's an understatement to say that my emotions were everywhere the day I made these discoveries. I was so over-stimulated - positively and negatively - that I nearly had a panic attack.


Jewish refugees, on the run
The next day, with the help of someone in a Jewish genealogy group, I found Roza's memoirs. She survived the Holocaust, but her next four years were very very difficult. She was in constant motion, sometimes by train, often by foot, with no money, no food, and very little understanding of the war, including who and where was safe.

"And so we began our journey," she tells us. "The train began to move. We thought that we would reach Minsk and tomorrow or the day after the war would end and we would be able to go home... In another cabin, I saw a family which included girls who were friends of mine. I was not very wise then... We were quite innocent. We made plans to meet in Minsk. Later, much later, I got in contact with them...

"We reached the old border and they took off all the people who came from Lithuania and western Poland. The train went on with the Communists and with the Soviets and we were left next to the border. Where, I do not really remember. Just in a field. And here began a period in which I do not remember where the places were.


"At night we crossed the border and kept going, in a disorganized manner. There were always groups that came together and broke off, and again came together. Some people became separated... I was ... alone... We managed to board the train and ride a bit and reached Vitebsk. Near Vitebsk the train was bombed. Some people were killed. We did not even look, just kept going. 


"I cannot really describe that because I don’t remember. I only know we reached Mogilov, and a family of two elderly Jews had us as their guests. I still remember that the woman gave us [jam]. She said in Yiddish: 'Children eat, I know what goes on with my children.' We went on to Orsha and were held there. People fed us on the way.


"After carrying the suitcase, I slowly threw things away, until I was left with nothing. I also did not have the brains. My money and jewelry were stolen. I got to where I had nothing basically, only a dress and a pair of underwear. 


"When we reached Orsha, they held us, incarcerated us, in the police [station] for a whole day, and then they let us go. They thought we were spies, and all that. It was a huge mess. 


"It was what you see in the movies. The one where people run and you walk and they bombard you. And you lie in the ditches. You always hide your head in an instinctive manner and when it’s over, you go on walking. There were many incidents. Once we were in some kind of a Russian village and slept there. A peasant’s wife came and told us, 'Jews, get out of here very fast, because the Germans are one or two kilometres from here.' This happened more than once that we faced these kinds of risks.


"We were once surrounded by Germans on three sides. Somehow we managed to escape, we always managed to escape. People assisted us. One helped another. 


"I remember that there was one place where I said to the guys, 'Enough, I can’t [go on] anymore. You go on. I’m staying here. I can’t go on anymore.' My feet ached, there was no strength left. So two guys got me up. Someone picked up what was left of my things. They dragged me a few metres and I was able to go on with them. They did not leave me behind. For two weeks, we went like that on foot.


"We reached a forest and found potatoes, and cooked them. Someone said, 'Put the peels in as well, [so] there would be more [to eat].' 


"By this time I had head lice. I had long hair then. We decided to have a haircut, get the hair off. Who even knew how to deal with head lice? The lice were already in the clothes. I thought if I could wash the dress in the river, then I would get rid of the lice. But the Germans started to bombard us again. Somehow we made it.


"By the time I reached Veliki Luky, I had no shoes. I had swollen feet [so badly] that I could hardly walk. 


"The authorities put us on the train and gave us food. The train took us to Kazan. There was water in the train station. Whoever had some money left or some clothes, exchanged them for food. Peasants used to sell all sorts of things near the train station...


"I met, I think, with thousands of people."


And, just to top off her misery, somewhere along the line, Roza's glasses broke and she went through rest of the war without being able to see properly.
Jewish refugees, on the run. Note that this family looks more like my old stereotypes of Eastern European Jews. Some did.
I don't know about you, but when I read about this time in Roza's life, I feel two things. Deep, overwhelming sorrow. 

And confusion. 

I hadn't thought about the chaos and confusion of war, and the impact it must have had on Jewish lives. Borders kept shifting, false and true rumours were whispered, the Russian army was in a haphazard retreat, some authorities helped Jews and some betrayed them, some gentiles were safe and some were not. Those on the run had no certainty about where they should be running, where the Germans were, and who might offer them help. They didn't know where they would sleep, if they would eat, and what would happen next.



As I read this section of Roza's memoirs, I thought over and over again of the song, The Partisan. It's about the experiences of the French partisans who resisted nazi occupation, but the lyrics perfectly reflect Roza's experience too. (And, indeed, she would later meet many Jewish partisans in Russia.)

The Partisan

They poured across the border
We were cautioned to surrender
This I could not do
Into the hills I vanished

No one ever asks me

Who I am or where I'm going
But those of you who know
You cover up my footprints

I have changed my name so often

I have lost my wife and children
But I have many friends
And some of them are with me

And old woman gave us shelter

Kept us hidden in a garrett
And then the soldiers came
She died without a whisper

There were three of us this morning
And I'm the only one this evening
Still I must go on
Frontiers are my prisons

Oh the winds, the winds are blowing

Through the graves the winds are blowing
Freedom soon will come
Then we'll come from the shadows.

I've known The Partisan all my life. It has always touched me deeply, but now I know the life described in it is one that my own cousin lived. 

What I didn't know is that the original, French, last verse has been changed. A translation of that verse reads: 

The wind is blowing on the graves
Freedom will return
We will be forgotten
We will return to the shadows

When I think of  how many people react to antisemitism with bored indifference, when I think of how many Jews know nothing about their own family's Holocaust stories, when I think of how many of us don't know the names of relatives who were murdered, when I think of how many of us don't even know if any of our relatives survived at all... When I think of all this, it seems clear to me that the victims of the Holocaust have indeed been forgotten and returned to the shadows. 

Why do we do that to them? Is it too painful to remember, even if we weren't there? I know, for myself, as I've read Roza's story, and learned about the corresponding history, I have been haunted, day and night, and it hurts - a lot.


Jewish refugees. Note that the man, like Roza, has no shoes
Certainly, forgetting is a survival mechanism for those in horrific situations. Most people who have experienced severe trauma know this. People who have been in horrible car accidents often say they can't remember the accident at all. Sexually abused children often compartmentalize their memories of the abuse until they're old enough to handle them and still survive. The process of forgetting can begin even during the traumatic events. People are able to become distanced from the trauma, as if they are in a numbing haze, and the bad things are happening far away, or to someone else. It helps trauma victims remain sane in insane, unlivable situations.

Psychologists have given this phenomenon a name: dissociation. During the war, we can be sure that Roza had never heard that word, and it's likely that she never heard it afterwards either. Yet, over and over again, she describes her own dissociation, especially when she's relating the events of the first year and a half that she was on the run, and, later, her time in the Red Army. 

These times are, she says, so lost in dissociation, that she has a very hard time remembering them and describing them to the person transcribing her story. She and her transcriber took breaks and, here, she explains to her tranc the things she started to understand during one of those breaks:

"Initially, I wanted to define [those times] as a kind of mist that seems too difficult for me to get out of. Perhaps it would be hard to understand. It seemed to me, there was some kind of a long strip, rectangular, with a cover on top and it had cracks in it. I wanted to get out of it. Each time something else came up, a fragment, maybe a small part of a whole, and I just couldn’t get to wholeness. Maybe it is hard to understand it, but it was a very odd feeling. But on the other hand it had life lessons that I had learned . For many years I had it so hard... but it made an impact for many years. I call it a 'blacking out' of a very long period."

"Where we lived depended on where we were. Once it was under the ground in an underground structure, or if we were in a city, then we lived in the houses that remained. Suddenly, I visualize this as if it were a photo. I cannot connect it to anything. 


"I can see a photo for instance of a beautiful garden in the U.S.S.R. In the army, in the middle of all the action, with the travelling, with the moving around with the army, I remember this place, a beautiful garden. We were invited to a party, with all the goodies. Something rises to the surface and ends with that. 


"I can see myself in the summer, and suddenly I see myself in the winter. It is cold, it is in the evening, we are in a very warm house, getting ready to travel. Where, for what reason, to where - I cannot remember. Fragmented pieces, I do not know where...


"What I’m trying to explain here is that this is a period that I cannot put together. These are all tiny pieces of things. I remember myself in a Zemlianka, in the winter, it is very crowded, we are all on a bunk, sleeping. If one wants to turn around everyone had to wake up. There is no water, nothing to drink. So we melted snow. I do not remember when it was. There is more and more. These are things that I just cannot, as I have said, break open the cover of the case..."


The act of telling her story seems to have made her more aware of how much she dissociated during the roughest parts of the war, and how much the "fog" of dissociation continued to obscure those periods in her own memory. Yet, she also seems to have finally become aware of how much the tough times shaped who she later became. 


"Looking back on the experiences I have related, I came to the conclusion that the periods that I did skip over, as if they had not been important, those periods, were one of the most crucial in my life. It was a time that actually molded my personality. It was a time that made me act the way I acted. There were all sorts of changes in my character... It was a hard time, a dark period in life... It was a time that perhaps subconsciously, I wanted to forget, and is why I do not really remember."

The effects of the most difficult periods of her life remained with her forever. For instance, she says, "At that time there was a very hard thing for me. I had stopped reading. I could take a book, and sit for hours facing the same page. Before I could read a book and recite the whole book, from the beginning to the end. To read a book, even today, I have to page back, in order to remember what happened before. This thing also disturbed my studies. I had it much harder during the studies, even in this country [Israel], because somehow the concentration, the memory, was damaged at that time."


Eventually, Roza made it a part of Russia where Jewish refugees were sent to live with locals and work on collective farms, not as prisoners (not in her case, at any rate), but as people contributing to the lives of those trying to help them. Conditions were rough. For a while, Roza was so hungry, she would steal her landlady's cat food.

Having been raised to believe that education, not work, was her priority, Roza was not a good worker and was not well liked by those she was supposed to help. She repeatedly regrets not having been taught how to work when she was a child. She understands why the locals don't like her, why they keep kicking her out of their homes, but she lacks the skills to remedy the problem. 

Yet it was not all bad. When someone heard her contemplating suicide, a Jewish, refugee family took her in and treated her kindly. She lived with them for a year. She even managed to get an office job. In the middle of the war, a refugee in a foreign country, she had some normalcy and comfort. She liked her situation enough that she resolved to stay with this family forever - if she could not get back to the west and her own family.
I could not find any photos of women in the Red Army that depicted the experience Roza had, but I found this photo of a child in the Red Army that I think gives a sense of how desperate things had become, and how ill-prepared Red Army recruits were.
But Roza's dream was the west, her family, her home. She knew that the (Russian) Red Army was heading west, so, still with no real understanding of the politics of the war, she joined the Red Army. 

And so began another "very hard time... We were," she says, "very hungry." The army was ragtag, with no uniforms, no shoes, very little food, and not much of plan, marching west, barefoot. Generally, they "had to set up camp in the forests, in tents." There was, Roza says, "a lot of disease and cases of dysentery." 

These "soldiers" were in such rough, physical shape that people thought they were prisoners and would slip food to them. When they were finally issued shoes, their feet were so damaged that "it was impossible to put them on." Then "it was winter and warm clothes I did not have. I had only felt boots which were dried next to the heater. So one [boot] burnt, and I went with a grey one and a black one. It was a very hard time, for the army as well."

To add to her misery, women in the army had to be constantly on guard against getting raped by the men in the army. Usually, men and women were kept quite far apart, but, at one point, they were housed close together. "Whoever wanted to [rape us]," she says, "why not? ... I probably had more luck than brains, because I was very innocent. I did not have, as they do today, any sex education. It was just dumb luck that nothing happened to me all that time." Roza escaped the war without being raped. I think we often forget how common rape is in war.

By now, Roza had again entered the haze of dissociation, but even dissociation can't fully protect us from the ill effects of trauma and deprivation. Roza was not doing well at all. "I was," she says, "in a deteriorating mental state, in every way. Not really physical, but I was in a bad shape... I was not alive. I simply existed."



When I read my cousin Roza's story, I am disgusted by my own infatuation with wartime fashion. I glamourize the styles of the period, the clothes, the hairstyles - while Roza walked barefoot and cut off all her hair to try to get ride of lice.



I pose by nature, looking all well-kempt and stylish, while Roza lived in tents in the forest, starving, and freezing with her mismatched, felt boots.

What is wrong with me?! How can I be so callous? How can I erase real history in my glamourization of fashion history?
Roza on the left, me on the right, in 1940s style
And yet, as I read Roza's memoirs, I found that my cousin and I didn't just have trauma and tenacity in common. We also shared a specific survival strategy: fashion. Roza explains:

"One day I decided: I can’t go on like this. I have to start taking care of myself. I was very unkempt. I was full of head lice. There was a time in the army in which we did not have soap to wash ourselves. But in Oryol, we received a piece of soap for bathing. And I remember it as if it was yesterday. In Oryol, I decided: I have to live again. Because I always used to say, in Russian, that I was not alive, I simply existed. I decided: I’ll start taking care of myself. First of all, hygiene, to start. Then to get rid of the head lice, to take care of the clothes, to wash them, to iron. I received very little money, but I went to the market and bought myself perfume, and decided: I am starting to be human again, and slowly I became myself again... As much as I was able to I mended the skirt, shortened it, and the shirt... [I started to] live like a human being."

This moment was so transformative for Roza, that her memories of it are crystal clear and, at one point, she refers to that moment beautifully as "one bright day." In the midst of that hell, Roza was paying attention to fashion trends, and she used them to bring herself back to life. I couldn't believe that here I was, reading my cousin's story, and discovering that, in hell, she too found style to be a form of therapy, just like I do! 


The liberation of Camp Bergen-Belsen
All this time, Roza did not know what was happening to Jews. She did not know about the massacres. She did not know about Hitler's Final Solution. 

I think it was in late 1944, she started hearing stories and rumours and "began to comprehend that the Germans had hurt the Jews... [I read that the Germans] were killing the Jews. At first, I did not believe it. I thought that it was just propaganda. Until I got to Oryol. In Oryol I started to ask people, 'What happened to the Jews?' And the answers were always evasive. They did not want to tell. So I began to believe that the articles by Erenburg [about the genocide] were not for propagandist purposes, and that something probably did happen to the Jews." 

Around this time, Roza "met [other] Jews. They were Partisans who returned from the forests... We spent quite a lot of time in Kovel [where I was staying]... We lived in the city itself. When we were not on duty, we were free to go wherever we wanted. I was in that famous synagogue. The Jewish Partisans took me in. I spent a lot of time with them." The Partisans finally helped her understand the larger context of the war and the antisemitism that fed it. 


Memorial to the Jewish men murdered in Kibart
And then, in late 1944, she learned what had happened to her family, the family to whom she'd been trying to return all this time. On July 6, 1941, a few weeks after Roza had run away, every Jewish man in her hometown of Kibart was murdered.


Memorial to the Jewish women and children murdered in Kibart
Shortly thereafter, all the Jewish women and children were murdered too. 

On July 15, 1941, both of Roza's beloved sisters, Rivka and Mina, were shot dead - not by Gestapo, but by Lithuanians. Mina was thirteen. Rivka was seventeen. 



Amazingly, Roza's father, Benjamin, had survived! I've read two, conflicting versions of Benjamin's story: the one he told Roza, and the one in a history of Kibart. My suspicion is that he protected Roza from the whole truth, which may include his being sent to Dachau. 

As I piece it together, it seems that Benjamin was spying on the Gestapo in his town and heard their plan to murder all the Jewish men. Knowing what I know about him, I know he would have gotten word to the Jewish men if he could. Instead, he remained in hiding for almost two weeks, until after the massacre. He then snuck away, ending up in an enforced, Jewish ghetto. (The Germans set up many such ghettos. They were like local prison camps.) It was here that he learned of the plan to murder all the Jewish women and children in Kibart. He sent a gentile to warn Rivka and Mina and help them escape, but to no avail.

When Roza received this news, in letters from her father, she became hysterical. Her Jewish friends could not understand why she was crying. They had become so accustomed to the death of their loved ones that they told her to "Be happy. At least your dad survived." At least, they seemed to be saying, she had someone left. Most of them had no-one left at all. 


Roza, in uniform, with her father's girlfriend, and the orphaned girl he had taken in
Roza asked for and got leave from the army and was able to visit her father for a few weeks. It doesn't sound like a joyous reunion. How could it be? Everything and everyone was gone, and the end was not yet in sight.

Upon her return to Russia, Roza's partisan friends convinced her to desert the army so she would not be trapped in the USSR when, if, the war ended. She left the army in March, 1945, and was, again, a refugee, on the run, wanted by the Russians and the Germans.

But, on May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered. Roza was, in theory, free. But she was now among the thousands of DPs, Displaced Persons, with nowhere to go. 

Thus began another long, confusing, and disorderly march, through various countries, assuming various identities and languages, aiming for Italy. There were those along the way who helped them, but there were also those along the way who tried to stop them. Things were still very difficult and uncertain. From Italy, Roza hoped to find a ship to get her to Israel, where she thought she might have family. (I've yet to find out if she did. They would be my family too.) 


Roza, just after the war, on the far left, with several of her young, Jewish friends
But things were better. And they continued to improve. Roza did reach Italy, where displaced Jews, were, for the most part, welcomed and helped. "There were refugees already in Italy," she says, "who arrived before us. They told us with great joy that there was even white bread there. It was a town in the mountains, where the Brigade held a position. From them we received clothes and food, white bread and chocolate. We continued on English army trucks with English drivers through Siena, and Venice, and arrived at Modena. Here was an enormous camp of refugees, a camp that was previously used as a military academy in Mussolini’s time. Although we lived in a crowded area, everyone had his own corner within his own group."


Roza, centre, on the day of her marriage to Tsevi, on the right.
Roza met Tsevi on that long walk to Italy, and, over time, they fell in love. While still living in the refugee camp in Italy, they married. It was January 26, 1946. To me, it is a miracle.

The next step was to try to get to Israel. Initially, doing so was illegal, so Roza describes a lot of confusing sneaking around, finding rickety ships, and hiding her pregnancy. But soon, the plight of the Jewish DPs came to the attention of the right British official ...
Roza and Tsevi, standing on the left
... and Tsevi and his pregnant wife, Roza, legally boarded a ship and left behind the land that had been their home, their ancestors' home, for centuries. That home had become their hell and I doubt they were sad to leave it.

I know very little about what happened next. I know Roza had a difficult pregnancy but I don't know if she was able to carry her pregnancy to term. I don't know if she and Tsevi had any more children after that. I don't know if they had careers. I don't know what became of her father, Benjamin. I am trying to find out, but it's hard. I'll let you know if I learn more.

Here's what I do know. Roza and Tsevi quickly settled on a kibbutz - and never left. After all they'd been through, I don't blame them. In 1947, Roza's father, Benjamin, testified before a committee documenting Lithuanian collaboration with the nazis during the war. Tsevi died in 1985, and Roza died in 2009. They are buried side by side.


Roza's tombstone in Israel. Rivka and Mina are named, in Hebrew, on the bottom.
I also know that Roza never forgot her sisters. They are named on her tombstone, on which it is written that Rivka and Mina were "shot to death by the Lithuanians." 

And here's the part that kills me, the part that makes me cry: On Roza's tombstone Mina's name is spelled Minaleh, not Mina. Minaleh is an affectionate diminutive, and is the equivalent of calling a loved one Katie instead of Kate. It is an act of love.


Me, with my shoulder cat, Ketsl, whom I call Ketseleh, because I love him
I named one of my new kittens, Ketsl, which means "kitten" in Yiddish, the Ashkenazi Jewish language, Roza's language. I call him Ketseleh - Kitty - because I love him. Minaleh and Ketseleh. We do these little things to remember, to carry forward the memories of the dead.



What would I do without my Ketseleh? What would Ketseleh do without his beloved sister, Chuti? And they're "just" cats! 

What did Roza do without her beloved sisters, Rivka, and Minaleh?



And so we come to the end of Roza's story, just one story among thousands, one story of survival amongst millions of stories of murder, including 30 of my relatives - and counting.


My grandfather, who came to America as child in 1903, and my grandmother, whose parents came to America in 1892.
Yet again, I am overwhelmed with gratitude to my great-grandparents, Isaac and Feige, and Simon and Golde, for their great courage and forethought. As one man I met online said, "I survived the Holocaust because my grandfather came to America." Me too. I am here because of them.



See that little boy in the sailor suit? That's my uncle in about 1935. I'm related to most of the children in this photo. Look at all those sweet little lives saved by their parents' and grandparents' forethought! There's the hope. There's the future. 



When I started on this process of genealogical research, I thought there were only about 11 Issyvoos left in the world. Now I know that, just in America, there are at least 100 of us! Here are two of them, my grandfather's nephew, Robert, and his son, Gary. I never knew they existed. They never knew I existed. 

Gary's son is busy preparing for his Bar Mitzvah.


Beau and I at our Jewish wedding.
Hitler's Final Solution failed. We are still here.



My rabbi friend says that I'm doing tikkun olam, repairing the world, by repairing the lost threads and fabrics of the quilt that is my family, torn apart by antisemitism of the pogroms, Soviet rule, and the Holocaust. 

I hope he's right. Because, G-d knows, I can't let their memories fade again.