I remember the hundreds of mornings my own mother brushed the tangles out of my hair as I look at this photo of my grandmother patiently plaiting my mom’s curls. I think of the mothers before her and the ritual of taming girls’ hair and of those moments together in the morning, of watching my mother’s face behind me in the mirror — the patience or exasperation or concentration knitted across her brow — and of all these quiet, quotidian practices we take for granted as the duties of mothers.
Today on Mother’s Day I am filled with gratitude for my own mother, and for my beloved Grandma Lillian who I miss every day, and for my Grandma California June who I never met, and for all the mothers who suffered and loved and brushed their children’s hair on countless mornings because that is what mothers do.
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.
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.
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.
Independence Day 1941, Chicago:
Celebrating a felt freedom, before their lives were forever changed by the war.
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.
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.
Here are the photographs from 1928 of Clara visiting her sister’s children in New York. Do you recognize these faces?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
In the 1960s, grassroots organizations across the United States began to form as a result of the hideous treatment of Jews by the Soviet Union. My grandmother was no stranger to Russian mistreatment of Jews: her parents had fled Russia in the first decade of the century as victims of pogroms. Her mother Clara suffered from undiagnosed PTSD her entire adult life after witnessing brutal murders in their shtetl.
When her closest friends Selma and Hal Light and Rose and Ed Tamler began the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews in 1967, my grandma was fully on board. She devised a magnificent filing system documenting thousands of Refuseniks and held names and faces in her head. The note at the American Jewish Historical Society (where my grandma’s papers are archived) reads: her system “became a resource for BACSJ and other Soviet Jewry organizations in the United States. Foreman helped connect Jewish families in the US and USSR with special projects such as Adopt-A-Family and Bar/Bat Mitzvah Twinning. She visited the Soviet Union in the 1970s and met with many Refuseniks and Prisoners of Conscience, including Ida Nudel and Leonid Slepak.”
Hal died tragically in 1974, but the BACSJ continued to thrive. Often overlooked by historians is the enormous impact of women driving this movement. During Natan Sharansky’s prison interrogation, the KGB itself derided the American Soviet Jewry movement for being mere “students and housewives.” But what power these students and housewives held! In the Bay Area, my grandma Lillian Foreman and her dear friends Regina Waldman, Rose Tamler (nearly 100 years old as I write this), Natasha Kats and many more, led this oft-forgotten revolution.
In the 1980s, my grandma became president of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews. She traveled to the Soviet Union multiple times, smuggling in goods that could be sold on the black market to raise money for Jews and other Refuseniks to escape the oppressive USSR. The KGB had a file on her. She put her life on the line to save strangers. My grandma’s integrity, empathy and courage inspire me every day.