The personal is political.

August 16, 1944

Wednesday

My darling,

How does one write a letter of this kind. How does one say my sister received a wire from the War Dept. that her husband was killed in action. To write these words down — to have finally put these words of misery on paper are almost more than I can bear. The war is over for us, Hy, when we know that when the war is over, our family circle will not be complete. To know that Harold is not coming home to Annie and Susan. Oh, my darling, how hard I prayed to God to be good to us. I pushed any other thought in the background. Don’t tell me he was in the Marines on combat duty — others have returned. Why not my sister’s husband? Oh, God. Hy, to look at Susie at 17 months and think she should never know her father’s wonderful smile and the love he has for her.

I tell Annie to keep going for Susan’s sake. We give her pills, I tell her how mistakes have been made before and can be made again — But how much longer can I bear that look in her eyes. I know her soul is dead. She only thinks it can’t be true and that is why she opens her eyes at the beginning of another day.

Monday night Annie called me to say “Lillian, my husband — is dead. They told me so. But it isn’t true, is it? No, Harold can’t be dead. Not Harold. He promised to come back to me.”

Ruthie came over and stayed with Robin so Marty, Dad and I could come over here. I’ve been here since then. Mother is taking care of Robin. I can’t go back to my house when I have so much — and Annie has nothing — nothing.

All day long they sit on the couch and talk to themselves — to Harold.

Dad is gone this time. Whatever mind he had is holding on by a thread — that Harold will come back — that somewhere a mistake was made.

If ever I asked you for anything, hear me now — Work, Hy. Finish your school and then go over there. Finish your work — not for bars and a salute, but to carry on where Harold left off. They made him a first lieutenant — do you hear that — “We deeply regret to inform you that your husband 1st Lt. Harold N. LeVine was killed…”

You know how proud we were of our lieutenants in the Marine and Air Corps — they didn’t have much chance. You give them that chance. Give them that chance, Hy. You have always done what you have set out to do. Let nothing interfere with your work. Annie is proud of you, Hy. Even now Hy, when her life has fallen to pieces she tells everyone her sister’s husband is going to Officer’s School. She tells them about Artie when they come to talk about her husband. Don’t fail her, Hy.

Don’t worry about us. Put every thought out of your mind except school. That is what I need from you, Hy. That will help me bear this misery — if ever I am to have happiness, it must be because my husband brought it to me — by hitting back in the only way he can now. God will help you, Hy. I know he will. He must.

Love,

Lillian

Annie writes to Harold every day. Give her hope, Hy. She has had enough of death. The only way she can live is to keep that hope. Nobody must take it away from her.

I love you very much.

Lillian

Sisters: Annie & Lillian
Sisters: Annie & Lillian

This was the letter my grandma sent to my grandfather 73 years ago today when her sister’s husband was killed in the Second World War.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this letter today. About Harold, an American Jew who died on the beaches of Guam, 7,364 miles away from his home in Chicago. About my other great-uncle Art (“Artie”), an American Jew who was shot down in a plane by Nazis and kept as a prisoner of war at the infamous Stalag Luft III in modern-day Poland. Art and Harold went missing within weeks of one another, and three tight-knit families in Chicago were shattered with grief.

Continue reading “The personal is political.”

And justice for all.

Independence Day 1941, Chicago:
Celebrating a felt freedom, before their lives were forever changed by the war.

july 4 41
Seated: Grandpa Hy Foreman, 26 and Grandma Lillian Brodsky Foreman, 24; Standing: Great-Aunt Annie Brodsky Levine, 22

My Russian-Jewish immigrant family came to this country to escape persecution in their homeland where they were routinely massacred by Cossacks for being Jews. They came to bear and raise children in a safe harbor so their lives could bloom beyond their wildest dreams. They took jobs in factories that killed them. They left behind their parents, friends, landscapes — their entire worlds. They were so much braver than I have ever been.

This country is built on the backs of immigrants, by the forced hands of slaves, on the deaths of native people. If we forget that we do not have a RIGHT to land, if we raise country above one another’s humanity, if we privilege the health and security of one group over others, we tarnish the struggle, the suffering, the joy, the lives of all who were here on this land before us. Do not be a complacent American. Do not forget from whence you came. Do not forget what was here before you.

A Reznikova mystery.

Grandma Lillian’s mother Clara was a Reznikov, or Reznikova, the female version of the name. We know she came from Elisavetgrad, which was renamed Kirovograd in 1939. Clara was born about 1894, and had a much older brother named David Reznikov who was born around 1872. She also had a sister whose name we do not know, and possibly a brother named Rubin, who may have traveled to South America and was killed in a May Day parade — or so the story goes. We do not know if this is true.

Clara’s sister had four children. We think this sister (whose name could have been Minnie) died of tuberculosis in Russia. Her husband brought the four children to New York to live, where he apparently remarried and had another child. If I could find out her first name or better yet her married name, that would open up a whole new limb to the family tree, as I might be able to trace her four children: Morrie, Gertrude, Helen and Joey. Gertrude married and she and her husband went back to Russia in the 1930s for political reasons; my grandma assumes they were killed. I have a series of photographs from 1928 when Clara and at least three of her children, including my grandma Lillian, went to visit these nieces and nephews before visiting her other nephew in Rochester. This nephew was Jack Ross, the son of David Reznikov, who changed his name to Ross when he arrived in Canada. More on them soon.

There is some hint that perhaps Clara’s sister’s married name was Drubachevsky but I have never been able to trace this and do not even know where this came from. It’s my hope that one day, I will be able to find out their last name and trace the descendants of Morrie, Gertrude, Helen and Joey.

What I do have is an incredible photograph of Clara’s sister and mother along with the children. I see the family resemblance strongly in both Clara and Clara’s mother, whose bone structure is similar to mine.

Reznikova Sister + Mom
Clara Reznikova’s mother, sister and sister’s children, probably Elisavetgrad, during the nineteen-teens

 

Here are the photographs from 1928 of Clara visiting her sister’s children in New York. Do you recognize these faces?

Reznikov descendants, 1928, New York
Clara Reznikova Brodsky with her sister’s children, New York, 1928. From left: George Brodsky, Morris (last name unknown), Clara, Helen (last name unknown), Gertrude (last name unknown). Seated: Anna Brodsky, Joseph (last name unknown), Lillian (Leah) Brodsky.

 

Note: In writing this post, I have discovered that just last year, Kirovograd became Kropyvnytskyi. According to Wikipedia, Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko signed a bill “banning Communist symbols on May 15, 2015, which required places associated with communism to be renamed within a six-month period. On 25 October 2015 (during local elections) 76.6% of the Kirovohrad voters voted for renaming the city to Yelisavetgrad. A draft law currently before the Ukrainian parliament would prohibit any names associated with Russian history since the 14th century, which would make the name Yelisavetgrad inadmissible as well. A committee of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) chose the name Inhulsk on 23 December 2015. This name is a reference to the nearby Inhul river. On 31 March 2016 the State Construction, Regional Policy and Local Self-Government committee of the Verkhovna Rada recommends to parliament to rename Kirovohrad to Kropyvnytskyi. This name is a reference to writer, actor and playwright Mark Kropyvnytskyi, who was born near the city. On 14 July 2016, the name of the city was finally changed to Kropyvnytskyi.”

Rose of Kalinovka, Rose of Chicago.

Mysterious, dark-eyed, great-grandma Rose, the much beloved mother of my grandpa Hy.

Of my four great-grandmothers, I probably know least about Rose. She died in 1950, when my own mother was only four years old, and the stories faded with time. Here is what I know: She loved to sing, as did my grandpa and his brother Art. I even have a fuzzy recording of her singing in Yiddish. She was born around 1892 in Russia and arrived in Chicago about 1911, likely in the footsteps of her older brother Harry Sherman, who opened a successful car dealership in Chicago. There are stories too of a brother who traveled to South America and was killed in a May Day parade.

Here is what I think I know: Her maiden name was Sherman, or Sheefman. Her father was named Ari Lieb, but perhaps his name was Pireus Sheefman — the father’s name listed on her half-sister Leah’s death certificate. Leah’s grandson Gordon, who is nearly 90, told me the family name was Sheefman, and that Rose’s mother was named Casha. She was the second wife, after Leah’s mother  whose last name was Shactman passed away. Sheefman, Shactman, and then Sherman.

Gordon told me that Rose and her family were from Kalinoka, a shtetl near Kiev. My great-uncle Art had told me that Rose was from Zhitomir. This is where it gets a bit confusing, as Zhitomir is both a town and an oblast (or province). I have been unable to locate a town called Kalinoka, but I have been able to find a town about halfway between Zhitomir and Kiev called Kalinovka, also called Kalynivka. JewishGen has a series of websites called KehilaLinks (“kehila” is another word for “shtetl”) and I was able to find quite a bit of information about Kalinovka, even if I can’t exactly locate it on a map. Gordon traveled to Kiev a handful of years ago and drove through Kalinoka/Kalinovka.

But here is the very disheartening news:

After all these years of not knowing exactly where we are from, I’ve been handed the key to finding out what became of our relativesand it is not happy news. In the summer of 1941, the entire Jewish population of Kalinovka was murdered by German Nazis and buried in a mass grave.

Apparently there were some Jews who left Kalinovka for Tashkent in early 1941. According to one witness:

“All the Jews were killed in a mass grave, except one young woman who survived. She was buried under the dead bodies of fallen victims. Miraculously she stayed alive. Naked she ran to the nearest house where she was sheltered by a local Ukrainian family. She was somewhere between 15 and 20 years old. She managed to survive Nazi occupation hiding in a Ukrainian home till the end of the war.”

Yad Vashem lists the names of Kalinovka residents who were killedI do not see any Shermans or Sheefmans, or any Gelfonds (Leah’s husband’s family), so it’s possible that our entire family was able to leave, and that Rose’s parents had died prior to the second world war. Let us hope that is the case.

Back to Chicago: Rose must have married Jacob Foreman in 1912, shortly after she arrived in Chicagobut we don’t know how they met. Their first son, Morris, was born in May 1913, and their second, grandpa Hy, was born in April 1915. Jacob worked as an automobile glazer in the Ford factory and became ill with “black lung”; a doctor told him if he continued to work there, he would die. But the family was poor and Jacob kept on working until he died in 1922, when their third son was only seven months old.

Rose was forced to put her two older sons, including my grandpa, into an orphanage for a time. I wish I knew more about this time in my grandfather’s life, but I never asked him explicit details. At age 7, he was on the streets of Chicago selling newspapers. He never breathed a word of discontent against his mother for having to put him into an orphanage. He loved her fiercely and protectively, and was heartbroken when she died in her sixties from cancer.
Rose remarried Max Lomonosoff in 1936, who was known affectionately in the family as Grandpa Nuss. After the war, they moved to California with the entire extended Brodsky-Foreman clan and settled in Los Angeles. Today they are buried in the Hollywood Forever cemetery. She would be tickled to know she is sharing real estate with Marilyn Monroe and Rudolph Valentino.

Annie who was Anna.

My great-aunt Annie, born Anna Brodsky, became Levine in 1941 when she married Harold, an enchanting, handsome lawyer whose family ran a booming luggage company. It was a faerie tale for the littlest of the Brodsky-Reznikova clan who, according to legend, didn’t speak a word until she was six. But just a few months into their marriage, a bomb dropped on Pearl Harbor and Harold clamored to do right by his country. He joined the Marines and went off to training in San Diego before he was shipped overseas to the Pacific.

Annie and her sister, my grandma Lillian, moved in together in Chicago, with their two young daughters, Susan and Robin. The details of their everyday lives are recorded in the daily letters my grandma sent to my grandfather, who was stationed in the south: what they fed the girls for dinner, when they could afford new bed linens, which grandparent they visited with over the weekend. As anxious as both women must have been with their husbands away, I can’t help but think how wonderful it might have been for the little girls to have each other and for the sisters to go through it all together.

But the faerie tale had no happy ending for Annie. On July 22, 1944, when his daughter was 16 months old, Harold Levine was killed on the beaches of Guam, 7,364 miles away from home. Annie received the news on Monday, August 14. No one would believe it. Not his parents, not his wife.

Harold’s death lingers in our family. It feeds a story of lost love, of lost hope, of neverending grief. It’s hard to explain what that generation in my family was like — my grandmother, her brothers, her sister; my grandfather and his brothers. All of them, and all of the children, and all of their parents, would vacation together, would supper together, would trade kids for the summer and go on road trips. Harold’s death must have felt like a hole drilled in her center, for her whole life. She married twice more, and her third husband was an extraordinarily kind, gentle soul who was with her until the end. But the work she had to do, compared to her sister, must have felt unconquerable.

When I was growing up, my great-aunt was a fanatic for health food and yoga, long before it was en vogue. My favorite memories of us are on the wide deck of my parents’ backyard under the mulberry tree, cross-legged on towels, her always dressed immaculately in draping white, teaching me to straighten my back and telling me over and over again to breathe.

Schandel Finkle.

This is my maternal great-great grandma in Russia around the turn of the last century. She carries her history in the lines of her mouth. I’ve seen my own mother make this exact face.

If you look closely, you can tell her pupil has been inked over; in the one other photograph I have of her, it looks like she may have lost an eye completely.

Ida Schoendel Brodsky

Her son Abraham Lazar Brodsky was the father of grandma Lillian. We are not absolutely certain of her name, but the death certificate for her daughter, who died in Chicago in 1981, lists her mother as “Schandel Finkle.” My grandma Lillian once said she thought her name was Ida Schoendel. We believe she lived in Kirovohrad (Elizavetgrad) which is whence my great-grandparents came when they left for Canada around 1911. Her husband was Lazar Brodsky and they had at least three children — Abraham Brodsky, Miriam (Mary) Brodsky (Lord) and Lillian Brodsky (Rubin). I imagine she was born some time between the late 1850s and early 1870s, as my great-grandfather was born in 1887. 

Abe traveled first to Canada where Clara joined him. After their children were born, they moved to Dayton, Ohio, where his sister Lillian had married a Rubin man. Both families eventually moved to Chicago, along with sister Mary who — legend has it — divorced her Russian-Jewish husband and married an Italian gangster, last name Lord.

I do not know if they wrote to their mother, or if their mother would have been able to read their letters. I do not know when she was born or when or how she died. I do not know if she survived the pogroms or if she lost an eye in an attack by the cossacks. I can only think how incredulous she would be to see her descendants alive and lucky, a century after this photo was taken.

Red lips, gold mirror.

My grandma loved style, and she had loads of it. Knowing how poor her family was, I marvel at how put together she always managed to be, without exception. She was a huge fan of lipstick and wore it until the day she left us at age 95. I still have a gold tube of her favorite in later years — Estee Lauder’s Candy.

My family always remarks on how much I look like Lillian, but it’s only when I put on a dark red lipstick and catch myself in the mirror that I freeze in my tracks, thinking I’ve just seen her face instead of mine.