Kavannot

Throughout the Omer, we have shared stories of refugees and immigrants from within the BJ community. Religiously and spiritually, the counting of the Omer carries us from Redemption to Revelation. We tell our own stories and remember that there are those in this world still unredeemed, still awaiting even the possibility of Revelation.

We hope that they inspire you as deeply as they have us.

Embracing Freedom

By Asya Berger

We were Holocaust survivors. My father, Solomon, when liberated from Dachau, weighed 70 pounds; my mother Lea and I survived in Lithuania—she, in the Kovno Ghetto, and I, hidden from the age of eighteen months to four years by a Catholic couple. As the war was ending, my mother and I fled with false papers, wandering Europe, often staying in displaced persons camps until arriving in Munich, near Dachau, where miraculously we reunited with my father.

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Refugees & Refuseniks

By Isabel Berkowitz

My grandparents all arrived in the United States from Lithuania, Poland, and Latvia in the early 1900s. Always curious to see where they had come from, in 1987 I signed up with a group of educators who were traveling for three weeks to Moscow, Leningrad, and the Caucasus Mountains. But I had a secret goal as well: to visit “refuseniks” (Jews who had been fired from their jobs when they applied to leave for Israel) in all the cities I visited. My plan was to gather information on each person and pass it on to a lawyer here in New York who would help them leave through legal means. Read more »

Over the Border

By Susan Charney

It was 1948. I was nine years old when, on a peaceful afternoon, the bell to our apartment rang from the building’s entry downstairs. There was a knock on our front door. Two faceless men wearing dark raincoats entered our apartment. One of the men said he wanted just to talk with me “a little bit.” He had a smile on his face and proceeded to chat. I sensed a sinister presence behind the smile. He was searching for some kind of incriminating evidence against my parents. My mind spun, searching for words—what to say, what not to say. My parents had forewarned me that if I was ever questioned I was not to reveal anything. But what was “anything”? Read more »

Impressions of Talsi

By Judith Davidoff Rosen

In the spring of 2007, my cousin, Hannah Nadler, and I traveled to eastern Europe in search of our roots. My father, the youngest of nine children, was three years old when the Davidoff family arrived at Ellis Island. The Davidoff family home had been in Talsi, a small town in Latvia near the shore of a beautiful lake. There was a small synagogue nearby; it was two stories high, painted pale yellow, with several curtained windows on the upper story. The building had been converted to an apartment house, but a plaque over the entrance stated that it had previously been a house of worship. Hannah and I imagined our Uncle Louis as a bar mitzvah in that space. Read more »

Beyond Sanctuary

By Stephen Dicker

They came to America – my parent’s parents, most of their brothers and sisters – refugees from Galicia, a region of ever changing dominion.

Those who made it began arriving immediately after World War I, joining relatives who had already arrived in Brooklyn. My father’s father, Jack – the man of the family at the age of 12, after his father, Nissan, forged ahead to America, and two older brothers vanished into the dust of the warring region – along with his sisters and their mother, spent the war years avoiding pogroms and the clutch of advancing armies laying claim to any able-bodied males. From time to time, instructions arrived from Nissan, who had opened a sheet metal shop on Cook Street in Williamsburg, directing them where they could pick up the money or tickets they needed to join him in America. Jack, his mother, and sisters made it to New York, but not all at once. Two at a time, three at a time, but never alone. Read more »

Precious Freedom

By Orli Etingen Silver

My father, Maks Etingin, was born in 1927 in Vilna, Poland. He, his parents, and brother were displaced from their home by bombings in 1939 and moved into a ghetto. Their story of freedom was made possible by a righteous gentile a virtual stranger who took a great risk to shelter them in his home when the ghetto was liquidated.

This farmer, Boleslav Boratynski, owed my grandfather a debt for farming equipment purchased years before and offered to hide my father’s family. Once the family escaped the ghetto, they walked in darkness for several days to reach Boleslav’s house, where they were hidden in a small ditch in his yard. For eleven months they survived on rations brought to them every night, in a hole too small to allow anyone to move about. My grandfather would read to them, tell stories to pass the time, and try to keep away their worst fantasies. Read more »

With Love from Russia

By Frima Fox Hofrichter

Both my paternal grandparents and those of my late husband, Larry, each left “Russia” more than 100 years ago. In 2008, we decided to embark on a “roots” journey through Eastern Ukraine. Larry’s paternal grandfather, Harry, came from Gusaton and my grandparents, Frima and Joseph, from nearby Brahilov. In each of these towns, we learned that there were no Jews there any longer (people were sure of that). There were markers throughout the region of massacres by the Nazis, which took place in September 1941, 40-50 years after the major pogroms that had prompted our grandparents to leave. Surprisingly, however, both towns still had their old synagogues—boarded up, abandoned, but somehow still standing as echoes through time of what was once there: alive, vibrant communities. Read more »

The Goldene Medina

By Judy GellerMarlowe

Like a lot of American Jews, all four of my Yiddish-speaking grandparents came from Eastern Europe. My paternal grandfather, Joseph (Yosef Chaim) Geller, was the only one in his family who came here from Poland. His siblings remained in Europe and they owed their survival to Siberian deportation during World War II. Those three siblings all ended up in Israel. My paternal grandmother, Mary (Miriam) Geller, also from Russia, had been in New York since early childhood. She met and married my grandfather here. Read more »

My Zayde

By Rabbi Sarit Horwitz

My zayde, Leon Cooper z”l,  used to tell a story from an algebra class that he took when in high school. The teacher gave him a problem that offered a particular distance from home to first base and another from second to third. The question asked, “Assuming these measurements are accurate, what is the distance from home to second base?” My zayde responded quickly  to the teacher and answered the question perfectly. Then he turned to her and asked, “What is a base?”

Truth is, my zayde didn’t really know what “home” was then either. Read more »

Freedom Through Music

By Donald Isler

My mother, Charlotte Nussbaum Isler, is the only person I know who auditioned on a musical instrument to get into the United States. She and her family lived in Stuttgart, Germany, where they survived the Kristallnacht pogrom on November 9, 1938. Like most Jewish men throughout Germany, my grandfather was arrested that day, though fortunately he was released a few days later. My mother, in her early teens, was feisty then, as she still can be today when she finds it necessary. She was sent to the principal’s office he, a Nazi, informed her that he could not guarantee her safety and that she could thus no longer attend the school. Of course, that was nonsense. She was being thrown out of school because she was Jewish. My mother answered “Why? I don’t see anyone walking around the school with guns!” Read more »

Inch by Inch

By Ruth Jarmul

Every Friday night, we light our Shabbat candles on a small silver tray that says in German, “From a grateful patient, 1937.” My mother and her family were able to flee Nazi Germany on the eve of Kristallnacht because my grandfather’s brother, who lived in Chicago, was permitted to sponsor them. The tray is from a non-Jewish patient of my grandfather, who was a beloved family doctor. As I grew up, my mother rarely talked about what had happened to her in Nazi Germany before she left at age twelve. I think she wanted to move past that experience. As a proud and grateful American, she was secure in her belief that America would never allow such a thing to happen here. But occasionally, as I grew older, she shared stories of how the Nazis came to power.  Read more »

Welcoming the Stranger

By Elaine and Bob Klein

They arrived at our home on a cold night in late October, 1980, each carrying a paper bag containing all the clothes they owned. They were three survivors of the Vietnam war: Mai, 19; Minh, her 20-year-old husband; and Hung, her 15-year-old brother. Having fled Saigon in a crowded boat two years earlier, spending the intervening years in camps on the beaches of Malaysia and the Philippines, the young refugees were seeking safety and a new life in the West. Read more »

Escape to Freedom

By Amira Kohn Trattner

Growing up in “Little Tel Aviv,” my parents and I spent many warm afternoons on our terrace and walking along the beautiful Mediterranean. During those times, and at dinner with my grandparents and sister, my parents would tell the stories of how they had each escaped from Czechoslovakia to Palestine.

My mother, Ruth Kohn, grew up in Prague. Her father, Victor Kohn, an ardent Zionist, was a successful banker and leader in the Prague Jewish community. With Max Brod and Franz Kafka (my grandfather’s cousin), Victor founded the only Jewish Day School in Prague. With Jabotinsky, he established a Jewish summer camp that prepared Czech youth for aliyah, and a Jewish orphanage for refugee boys. He also served on the boards of Jewish organizations and edited the weekly publication Medina Ivrit. Recognizing the danger in Germany, he wrote articles urging Jews to leave. In April 1936, he fulfilled his lifelong dream and took his family to Palestine. Read more »

Counting Stars

By Steven Koppel

My maternal grandmother, Elsie Frohman, was not a religiously observant woman. Except with respect to one ritual, she was much more of a “cultural” Jew. Born and raised in Mannheim, Germany, she was forced to flee with her family through France and Portugal and ultimately to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She arrived on these shores intent on “Americanizing” her four children. Her youngest child, born here, was named Franklin Douglas after Roosevelt and MacArthur. Her assimilation into American life came most prominently in the form of being a two-pack a day smoker and an avid baseball fan. Read more »

The Story of My Parents

By Lorraine Korn

The story of my father, David Korn

My grandfather emigrated from Komarow, Russia (now Poland), to New York on July 25, 1911, where he worked to purchase tickets for his family. His oldest son arrived on June 27, 1914, with the plan that the rest of the family would follow. On July 28, 1914, World War I began and the rest of the family was unable to leave Komarow due to the fighting in Europe and the halt on passenger ships crossing the Atlantic. The small town was subject to fighting and cavalry battles between the Russians and the Austrians. After the war, there was a pogrom by the Cossacks, who broke into my family’s home and stole their valuables, including their tickets to the United States. Read more »

A Brother an Ocean Away

By Emily Lefton Goldstein

My maternal grandfather, Louis Lefton, A”H, grew up in a small shtetl called Andrzejewo in Eastern Poland. He was the youngest of seven children, and his mother died when he was three years old. When my grandfather was still very young, his oldest brother Hymie left for America. Hymie became successful in business and eventually brought another brother and sister to America. By the time my grandfather was in his twenties, only he and his brother Anschel were left at home with their father. Read more »

Roots

By Malka Margolies

By an accident of fate, I am a first-generation American on my father’s side, born in Brooklyn and raised in Kansas City. But that is a far cry from my beloved father’s roots. My father, Rabbi Moshe Bezalel Margolies z”l (Americanized, much to his chagrin, to Morris B.), was a seventh-generation Israeli on his mother’s side, born in what was then Palestine. Read more »

400 Miles to Freedom

By Avishai Mekonen

400 Miles to Freedom is my personal point-of-view documentary film that was completed in 2012. The film explores how my family and my larger community, the Beta Israel (a secluded 2,500-year-old community of observant Jews in the northern Ethiopian mountains), fled a dictatorship and began a secret and dangerous journey of escape out of Ethiopia and into Sudan, where we hoped to one day reach Jerusalem. Read more »

My Refugee Story

By Anne Millman

When my parents returned to Warsaw in 1945, they were among the 200,000 refugees returning from the Soviet Union territories, where they had fled to escape the Nazis. They had hoped to find their families and resume the life they had just barely begun as newlyweds in 1939. They quickly discovered that their families and friends were gone and that the Poles were ready to intimidate, and sometimes kill, any Jew who came back expecting to stay. Moreover, the Communists were now in charge and their secret police, the NKVD, made normal conversations and interactions fraught with danger. Intellectuals and other potential “enemies” of the Communists were disappearing and there seemed to be no end in sight. This was too much for them to bear after the years of running, hiding, and trying to survive the onslaught of the Nazis. Read more »

A Love of Learning

By Allison Mishkin

Like many millennial Jews, my grandparents were Eastern European refugees. My grandpa, Eli, left Poland in 1938 to attend University in Palestine. He was lucky to have left when he did—the rest of his family perished, while my grandpa went on to receive the Technion’s first-ever PhD. Similarly, in 1940, my grandma, Esther, left her family in Kovno for college in Vilna. This separation set in motion a course of events ensuring her survival, if not her family’s.  Read more »

Next Year, in Southern Italy

By Alex Nacht

April 21, 1941 was a Sunday morning a week before Pesach. My parents, Arnold and Pauline, had finished studying medicine in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. They were from Lemberg (Lvov), Poland, but couldn’t do medicine there because of the numerus clausus (religious quotas). Instead of waking up to the sound of church bells, they woke to the sound of explosions.  Read more »

A Shared Story

By Bob Owens

My late parents always referred to themselves as refugees. Passover was not just Moses’ and the Children of Israel’s story, it was very much their own story, too. From our earliest years, my brother, sister, and I can remember the way our mom and dad choked up when they set aside the formal text to recount their own trials getting out of Hitler-occupied Austria alive, and the good fortune they had found in their promised land, America. Read more »

Seeking Asylum in Tel Aviv

By Maya Rackoff

For the past four years, I have been volunteering in a gan (kindergarten) in South Tel Aviv where Sudanese and Eritrean refugees live. In 2008, the earliest asylum seekers started escaping from their countries because of war and dictatorships. Read more »

Survivor Sisters to American Dream

By Gail Ressler

My mother, Bella Najman, was born in 1928 in Nowe Miasto, Poland, to an observant Jewish family consisting of her grandmother, parents, sister, and four brothers. With the invasion of Poland in 1939, the relative freedom they enjoyed came to an end.
Nowe Miasto was enclosed as a ghetto in 1941. Bella and her family moved into her grandmother’s home, crowded with people from neighboring towns. The ghetto was liquidated in 1942 and the Jews were transported by train to Auschwitz. Most of the family perished upon arrival or soon thereafter.

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Hotak's Story

Written by Kate Rice, BJ Refugee & Immigration Committee Member

Small decisions can change the course of a lifetime. And so it was when Turyalai Hotak, 19 years old at the time, decided to learn English. The young Afghan man was already busy going to school and working in his father’s body shop on the outskirts of Kabul. But he saw opportunity in learning English, the lingua franca of the world. Read more »

The American Dream

By Ilene Richman

My paternal grandfather came to America in the early 1900s from Kaments-Podolsk in the Ukraine. It was a time of pogroms and he was a young married man who, like many of his friends, made the decision to go to America. His journey began, hidden from sight, in the back of a horse-drawn cart. When asked if he was hiding from the police, he answered, “No, from my mother.” An imposing woman, she knew her son’s leaving meant she would be unlikely to ever to see him again. His wife and infant child were left behind, but he had plans to bring them over as soon as he was settled.

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Grandma and Mama's Stories

By Judith Rosenbaum

My bedtime stories were often of my grandparents’ lives back in the Old Country.

Before WWI, my grandfather Max was in America, looking for work and intending to send for my grandmother Molly and my aunt Ruth. When World War I began, Grandma Molly and Aunt Ruth were stuck in the shtetl of Goniondz in what my mother always called Russia-Poland; part of what is now Belarus.

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Return to Turmstrasse 17

By Susan Sanders

On November 21, 2016, I traveled to Essen, Germany to visit Turmstrasse 17, the last address of my mother and her family before their deportation. I was there to lay the Stolpersteine (memorial stones) for my grandparents and to commemorate their lives and the happiness they shared before their fate took a dark turn.

My mother saw the US as a beacon of hope and a new beginning, free from the nightmare she had experienced under the Third Reich. Despite the horror of her early years, she found the strength to make a new life. My mother attended Beth Israel School of Nursing and, with her kind and compassionate manner, brought solace to many. Read more »

Great Great-Aunt Celia

By Ellen Schecter

My grandmother and her sisters all had red hair: Sarah’s was auburn, Rosie’s reddish-brown, and Celia’s the color of carrots. Their father, Wolf Davinsky, had a red beard and was a dairy farmer in Fastav, Ukraine—a village so small that the nose of a horse would be leaving town while the tail was entering. In 1903, pogroms became so brutal that Wolf left for America, promising to bring his family as soon as possible.

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From Immigrant to Proud American

By Peninnah Schram

My mother, Dora Manchester (née Markman), came from Vitebsk Gubernia in White Russia. In 1923, her father, already in America, sent for his wife and daughter. Together, my mother and my grandmother began the journey to America. However, when they arrived in Cherbourg, France, to take a ship to New York, the quota for immigrants had already been established. Jewish immigrants had to wait for openings to continue their journeys. It was 1926 by the time the Markman family was reunited in America, where they lived in a railroad apartment in Harlem. My mother got a job in a tie factory and went to night school to learn English. Read more »

Return to West End Avenue

By Daniela Sciaky

My parents, Isaac and Isabella Sciaky, escaped Salonika in 1943 or 1944, after the Nazis took over from the Italians. In Athens they were hidden by righteous gentiles until the day someone told the Nazis. They escaped and eventually ended up in Palestine but, with the prospect of war, my parents returned to Greece. In Greece, a civil war was also looming. They had had enough of war and made plans to join my mother’s brother in Colombia. In 1948 they traveled to the US, staying in New York City with my mother’s sister. My mother was six months pregnant. My father, who had been a lawyer in Greece, became a jobber in the garment center. My mother took care of me and was offered a position to teach languages. They moved to an apartment on West End Avenue, just four blocks from BJ. In 1955 they self-deported to Colombia, trying to preserve any chance they had of returning to the US. Read more »

From Hessen to South Dakota

By Carl Stern

I was born in 1928, in Nieder Ohmen, a village in Hessen, Germany. My father served in the German Army in World War I, and the Stern family can be traced back to this German town as early as 1750. The town had about 2,500 residents, of which approximately 100 were Jewish. The synagogue was situated in a building attached to our home and owned by my parents. In 1936, the town passed an ordinance restricting Jewish children from attending the public school. My sister and I were enrolled in a Jewish boarding school in Bad Nauheim.

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A Family Roots Visit to Germany

By Stephen Stulman

In May 1939, at the age of five, my late wife, Elga, came to New York from the city of Kassel, western Germany, together with her parents. Over 36 of her family perished in the Holocaust, including three grandparents—two in Theresienstadt and one in Breitenau Prison.

Her parents were both physicians. Her father’s family, Kron (from Kohen), had lived for more than 200 years as merchants and shopkeepers in the nearby small medieval town of Wolfhagen where the citizens voted 52% for Hitler. Jews constituted no more than 1% of the population of the town in 1932. Read more »

Hello Refugees!

By Susan Thal

“HELLO REFUGEES!” This was my father’s emphatic greeting upon entering many social gatherings, gatherings that were almost exclusively composed of other German-Jewish refugees, most of whom had been able to leave Germany in the 1930s. As a child in Washington Heights, it seemed that we were all refugee families. The neighborhood was bursting with robust, upwardly mobile young families who gathered in the playground or at the beach in the summer. Read more »

Immigration and a Typical Jewish Family

By Susan Viuker Lieberman

When Jewish families left Russia and Poland at the turn of the 20th century, they knew they would almost certainly never see their homelands or their families again.

My grandfather Samuel left Vilnius in 1905 because of the military conscription and the Kishinev pogroms, which were spreading through the country. In fact, he had a tattoo (quite rare in a Jewish family) on his arm showing that he was one of the Vilna protesters against the pogrom. He walked, hitched, and finally made his way from Hamburg to New York where an unknown aunt lived. He never saw his parents again, but in 1960 he visited his two younger siblings in Argentina (they couldn’t enter the US in the 1920s due to strict immigration rules). His sister was five when he left and his brother had not yet been born. Read more »