Search our Archives:
» Opinion & Society
A Memoir: Ester bat Shmuel-Yosif v' Branah
By Tovli "Linnie" Simiryan
Rebbenu (Shlomo Carlebach z"l), taught: "We are obligated as Jews to tell the world about the Shoah (Holocaust). There are two ways of teaching about this sadness: one, the way the world likes, is to tell how bad the other side was to us; the other way is to teach the world who the six million were."
Mama sits in her big chair, the one we bought at a garage sale because she would never have accepted a new one. "Money is for saving, you never know when we might be deported." In her nineties, she looks wise, tiny and frail. When we first moved to the new home in West Virginia, several of the elders who still remembered Yiddish stopped by to introduce themselves. Of course, Mama was not accepting new friendships. Her only child, her life's most profitable investment, was all that mattered to her. She dismissed the visitors and not politely. Thankfully, she did so in Russian, not believing anyone in America would indulge the "home language" of Yiddish. No one in our new community seemed offended. The Jewish elders of West Virginia were kind and understood "old lady" behavior. They remembered their own grandmothers. Mama is what my great grandmother called, a dame. A dame is a woman who survived and gained respect and fear of the other women and her family members in the process. If I had anything to say about Ester Bat Shmuel-Yosif v' Branah, survivor of the Shoah, Stalin and various political pogroms; it would be she had learned to cultivate a bastion of respect and fear from other women her age, her family and the admiration of the neighborhood men of Bendery.
Even now, with her memory fading and strange stories of G-d dropping money from some esoteric cloud in the corner of her room as she moves her bony fingers in a circular manner; she commands a stoic presence. She becomes angry at us and we stand in silence forgetting it is anger expressed toward the shadows of dementia she is combating. Still, as she taps on her windows demanding the police pay attention to her complaints and send the KGB to scare compliance into her misbehaving, adult children, it frightens and concerns us. It is a remnant of the strong survivor of Bendery, Moldova: a woman who became a Zionist when it could have meant her imprisonment and the demise of her family; a woman who could have left before the Nazis attacked (may their names be erased forever); but stayed because she was stubborn and wanted to be sure the babies were given proper Jewish names and the old ones had traditional Jewish funerals.
She was born just before the Russian Revolution, but could have cared less. She was a Romanian. Her son tells the story that he, his parents, grandparents and great grand- parents were all born in the same town, but in different countries: Romania, Besarabia, the USSR and finally, Moldova. The world could not seem to make up its mind what to call the small country that was one of the first to offer an affirmative vote for the state of Israel in the mid twentieth century. Mama's family was old and distinguished. No matter what the political climate, they lived as Jews. They studied Gemara and Torah daily and kept its ways which included the kashrut that had been practiced for generations. They developed an underground of specially slaughtered poultry after the rabbi left the community during Khrushchev, allowing the Shul to become a boxing gymnasium in a sea of corn stalks.
Mama forgave the aging rabbi, announcing in Yiddish, "Well, the KGB needs him in Russiamazel tov!" One remarkable Friday night, half a century later, we discovered a well meaning Maggid telling a story in a New York synagogue about the rabbi of Mama's youth. In the jovial tale, the Maggid had raised the simple and politically overwhelmed rabbi to a place of incredible distinction. Mama's son turned to me and said in disbelief, "Is he talking about the old rabbi?" Speechless, I did not even have time to pinch my outspoken husband into silence before he interrupted the evening agenda by launching into an intellectual tale that approached an epoch discussion of Russian politics, the KGB and religious freedom.
Following this speech, the unprepared, sweet tempered Maggid could not recall the punch line of his inaccurate, but cute little story and reached for a bottle of Vodka shouting, "La Haim!, La Haim! The six million live!" I sat quietly, embarrassed for the poor Maggid, yet enjoying a stray gene that had taken over the roomMama in absentia, her son enjoying the safety of free speech, educating the "eager to talk", helping them understand hatred and personal fear. After all, I thought to myself, isn't Ester's life a memoir of triumph over hatred and transcendence of the fear to speak ones mind? The six million are in Shamayim following the Shoah; but the Esters and their descendants live in this world teaching us what it means to survive with a sense of humor, history, fearlessness and political relevance. The Esters and their followers own the seeds of belonging that fertilize our past, producing the gardens of our future. They sprinkle our little dirt patches with six million tears.
So it began, a young woman growing up in her family's history. There were four of them, two sisters, a brother and Mama: Fania, Sima, Yoinah and Ester. Mama's parents were Shmuel-Yosif ben Yakov and Branah bat Yoinah. Shmuel-Yosif Katzevman was a cohen and this was a source of pride. He was a gardener and the family ate well and prospered under his leadership. Branah was a seamstress and provided clothing for the best dressed of her community.
As the fog of age creeps into Mama's mind as the twenty-first century begins, she often believes she is still near her father's vineyards and asks for special grapes, fruit or tomatoes that can only be produced in this now mythical place. She cries when we substitute the fat, red, tasteless tomatoes of America's supermarkets for her father's produce. Her son reminds her, sternly, "Mama, we are not in Moldova, we are in America!"
Once, one of the West Virginia elders brought Mama garden fresh tomatoes proving, West Virginia was holy and America was a place where tomatoes and grapes can grow with taste. We thanked G-d for this person weekly. The simple kindness was a symbol of hope and propriety in a fading reality, keeping things alive and meaningful for just a few more years.
Mama's childhood was short. She was the baby. I imagine her to have not had a childhood at all. She worked hard sewing and gardening to maintain the family business. She became a Zionist. This was a courageous thing to become in her young years. She studied Hebrew in the underground and added it to her command of Romanian, Yiddish and Russian.
She fell in love with a young man her age. He too was full of life and courage and studied Hebrew and Zionism. He dreamed of immigrating to the Middle East, to participate in the building of Israel. He invited Mama to accompany him, to leave Besarabia and begin a new life as a settler in the Holy Land. She thought long and hard, but decided to stay. What would happen to the old ones, her parents, grandparents? Who would bury them and care for their graves? She wanted to see the smiles of the next generation that would take over the garden and the family home. She was the youngest, the future and the past were on her shoulders. So, the stubborn young woman stayed in Bendery. She followed the old ways; she cooked, gardened, sewed and cleaned. Her older sisters married, raised families and her brother entered medical school and studied to become a doctor.
There were times of plenty, there were times of hunger. There were times when signs appeared: "Russians on the other side of the river; Jews in the river!" It was a xenophobic existence. Strange humor appeared and special dialects of language were cultivated. Everyone had a boundary: sometimes a white picket fence, sometimes barbed wire. The boundaries disappeared into blood stained walls when those whose names should be erased attacked the morning of June 22, 1941.
Mama tells the story in a matter of fact tone as though reading from a brittle newspaper clipping she'd discovered in a scrapbook while trying to refresh old memories to keep from being bored. "Well, one day, the Germans started bombing us. It was the first day of the war. My brother Yoinah was never found. The Germans got him." It was that simple. Once you were there and then you weren't.
I could not help but recall an aging Veteran telling me a story many years ago. My brother and I had asked him about "his war." He had white hair and rosy red cheeks, a fat belly and sometimes he would be asked to play Santa Claus at the local Lions Club. He always declined stating "sorry, wrong religion." He had a wry sense of humor and proprietylike Ester. He became everybody's uncle and we called him Uncle Dewey. Uncle Dewey told us "a survivor never talks much; only those who were not there, talk. That's how ya know who is who. That's why I stopped talking and started drinking 'Squirt'!" (a west coast euphemism for Canadian Club).
Ester reminds me of Uncle Deweyminus the alcohol. One morning I tried to speak Russian. I managed to let Ester know how much I wanted to "cultivate" her story. "Mama tell me about those without names, the ones who should be erased. Tell me what you saw, what was it like; how bad were they really?" When I have these self-absorbed, inquisitive moments, she listens. She used to listen carefully, soon she began listening as an amused elder, now she threatens to have the KGB visit me and review me for potential deportation if I keep asking her stupid questions. She is not interested in telling the story of the people who have no names, who are erased. She will not permit the word Nazi in the home, not for fear, but because of assignment to oblivion. They are beyond dead. Why talk about graves that do not exist? One does not honor the memory of those who murdered or provide a home for those who invest in hatred and chaos. One does not give meaning to those who have lived without value.
Mama immigrated to the United States of America in 1992 with her husband and son. Her son approached his parents in Moldova and explained. "We have to leave. We have been accepted as refugees to America, thanks to Bush and Gorbachov. We can go to Israel, but I know a little English and they need computer scientists and mathematicians in America. America will be the best choice for now."
Ester and her husband, Haim were in their seventies and eighties, respectively. They were shocked, "where are you taking us? Only a few live well in America, everyone else lives under a bridge. At least we can starve here among familiar graves. In America even the graves are strangers. We do not even have a language there. Capitalism is only good for the few." Mama's son had to speak sternly, "I am going, and you can go with me, or never see me again." They both agreed to accompany their son as refugees to America. It was just another quiet event that would become a history never written, but lived.
When they arrived in America, Ester and Haim went to the grocery store with their son who tells the tale with a spirit of relief, as though he, thanks to G-d, Bush, and Gorbachov, did at least one thing right in his life. Haim, ten years Ester's senior, dropped to his knees and began to cry in the bread aisle when he saw so much food and choice. Mama stood near her puddle of a husband, commanding he regain his dignity immediately and act like a Jew who now lives in America. Haim had made his final Aliyah and left this world entering Shamayim the year I met Ester and her son, my husband.
Mama and her son lived in Florida. I had emigrated to this southern rain forest from North Dakota and it was too hot. I finally convinced them to compromise and move to New York, followed by our choice of West Virginia to keep us from sweating our souls away. Ester complied, not to keep me around; but to accommodate her son's wishes. Still the two of them argued in three different languages with such intensity one wondered if they did not secretly disdain the other's presence.
I am reminded of one episode that taught me not only Ester's place as matriarch of the family, but convinced me she understood the language of the six million. It was in Sarasota. Hot is not the word; it was beyond hot. The remnants of Mama's family had contacted her son to inform Mama her last living sister, Faina had died. She was older than Mama, almost 100. She could not get medical care. There were few doctors left in Russia to treat the elders.
My husband was right. Following the dissolve of the Soviet Union there would be nothing and the old ones would not have the care they needed. Mama cried, lit a memorial candle and sat Shiva. After the appropriate time passed we decided to take her to the store. She loved Publix. She loved to look at the produce; not buy it, just look at it. Her son had bought a new car. It was a cute, golden Mazda and he was proud of this car. For a Russian man to have a car?unheard of! When not in use, he kept it securely housed in the garage. We announced to Mama we were taking her to Publix. She was so excited to go that she slipped into the back seat of the Mazda before we could pull it out of its dark, windowless garage. Off we went to Publix, a five minute drive, air conditioner blasting. I was sitting shotgun, Mama in the back, her proud son driving the golden little symbol of capitalism, a continuous insult to the soviets of the past and glimpse of on-going prosperity; the family in survival mode.
We pulled into the Publix parking lot, a prelude to the symbol of plenty. I stepped out into the breath taking heat and bright Florida afternoon and reached for Mama's door. Gevaldt! I thought to myself with the sudden realization success as symbolized by a golden Mazda had been compromised. The pristine, golden little car from mid passenger door to rear bumper had been painted a streaky white.
Time turned to slow motion as I reached for Mama's thin, old hands and realized her fingers were covered with white paint. Dear G-d, I thought, she got into the paint and white-washed the picnic table after her son told her not to. Undaunted, she decided to paint the car. Dear G-d, have Rachmanis, I prayed, as her son approached quickly from the rear bumper. Suddenly, I was engaged in a stupid, vortex of co-dependant effort to get the old woman out of the car fast and on her way to the store before her son became conscious of the damage.
Ester slapped me a good one for pulling her arm as though she was an errant child. Then, behold, her son! He took one look at the golden Mazda of capitalism and his mother's white-washed hands and an international coup was launched. At the top of his lungs he scolded Mama in Russian, a language where good morning my dear can be mistaken by innocent ears as a declaration of war. Floridians in their Bermudas and tall socks were walking by with looks of interest on their faces. I recall my resolve that if I ever told this story in public I would describe the interest of the gathering crowd as Americans making note of the international, multi-lingual family assisting the matriarch of the clan as she resumed society after an appropriate moment of grief for her poor sister left behind in Moldova.
I watched as Mama realized her son and major life investment, now an American man with a car, just had his moment of awesome smelling, new car interior and gleaming paint job success ruined forever at her hands. Her eyes showed a sadness that I wondered wasn't a glimpse of some far-away loss she had experienced at the hands of those Germans and Soviets whose names have been erased.
I am constantly looking for this side of Mama, something I can cultivate into her story, her relevance. I was not disappointed. Her eyes, with the sad wisdom of her mistake haunt me to this day. She seemed momentarily lost as her son pelted her with loud Russian cracks, indignities and demands. I was furious at her son, my husband. I thought at the time, how can he be so materialistic, so cruel to his mother? But I was without language. Suddenly, I saw a spark ignite in Ester's old eyes. Her eyes snapped. Her thin, elderly lips were not smiling; but seemed like smiling lips. Then my naive, Jewish-American, sheltered spirit learned to recognize the small seed that makes an existence into a life, followed by many generations. In that moment, I learned what it meant to be a survivor and not a victim. Ester's eyes seemed to shout "Wait a minute, what is happening here! I am the MOTHER, the matriarch! You are the son!"
The crescendo of Russian insults and war-like idioms exploded in the Florida parking lot. It amazes me to this day how the old holocaust survivor began talking faster and louder and her poor son, who would and had given his life for her, now righteous in his own anger continued the battle despite the curious passer bys. It makes me laugh when I recall her offspring suddenly recognizing his multi-lingual mother had switched to Yiddish and was now pelting him with insults only Shalom Aleichem could have thought up.
I recall watching as her poor, computer programmer son, hard drive full with his recently acquired, tentative command of English, software suddenly overloaded, struggled to keep up with the Yiddish; understanding every word, yet not having the quick wit to respond using the guttural banter. So confounded was he by his mother's eloquence of curse words, that it did not occur to him he could comprehend in Yiddish and respond in Russian. Instead, he took it. As he slowly began to realize the option of a hear it in Yiddish, respond to it in Russian attack as we all stood in the staggering heat of the Publix parking lot; his holocaust-survivor mother, Zionist, having out lived Stalin, endured Russian famines, daughter of a cohen launched her final attack: she switched to the Moldovan language -- Romanian! I could see the defeat in her son's face. Just as he launched an effective attack to ward off the Yiddish bullets using his familiar Russian, out came the Romanian torpedoes.
He never had a chance. He just quit talking, and announced, "Tomorrow she goes to the nursing home" in English, with an accent indicative of Bella Lagosi. As the next day came and went, with no sign of a nursing home, he was heard to add, "I need to start studying Yiddish. I'm losing the Yiddish, the home language."
I learned a few things that day: first, as my great grandmother told, a man can have several wives, theoretically; but he has ONE mother and as a wife you might as well recognize who the Matriarch is from the outset and abdicate when appropriate. Secondly, I understood how generations to follow should teach the world about the Holocaust, hatred and racism. I learned how anger could be an unbelievably good emotion, when kept as a verb, a sword slicing through the air to carve out your place and what you will stand for and not stand for.
It had to do with people who take risks, who speak to each other from strength and without fear; then invest in what is real and know their own history without being paralyzed by shame or the need to compromise for the sake of convenience. It had more to do with understanding who you are in the world and who you have become. When Ester bat Shmuel-Yosif bat Branah teaches, I hear the whispers of the six million.
One evening, in the kitchen of the Florida home, Ester began to talk. The German government had contacted many of the Holocaust survivors and their estates. They were being forced by the world to compensate victims with monetary settlements. It was controversial among many Jewish communities. "How can they offer money, when no amount of money can compensate such loss? What an insult!" Mama and her son took another view. "If those with out names want to pay us money, we'll invest it." It was a great deal of effort and work to actually document loss and existence. Haim had not been able to keep his papers proving what he had lost. His loss was from Stalin and he carried it in his soul.
Ester met Haim after the war. All the men of her generation, who had not left as Zionists before the war for Israel had been murdered. Haim was older and from another generation. Ester married him. She had her first and only child when she was thirty-five in 1949.
Haim did not see his son until the little boy was five years old. One day, just before the birth of his only child, Haim was arrested by Russians and sent to a work camp in Siberia. He had been sentenced to ten years for making two hundred coats in one week. I had difficulty comprehending this as a crime. My husband explained, "it was trumped up. How can a man who does not know how to thread a needle make two hundred coats in one week without a sewing machine? Obviously he was framed."
I remained an American confused with this explanation, thinking who cared if he made a thousand coats, why ten years in prison? Ester put it in perspective, "Stalin needed to put a Jew in jail, simple as it was." Before she lost her sight, Ester had subscribed to a Russian language magazine. I'd watch Mama as she read every article over and over. Many articles were about Joseph Stalin and were accompanied by pictures of him taken in the 1940's. She studied these pictures closely as if she was looking for Stalin's soul or reason for existence. Once I asked her in grammatically challenged Russian, "what was it like when Haim was imprisoned?" She looked up from her magazine, and did not answer. After Stalin died in 1953, Haim showed up at the family home and the family history continued into Khrushchev. Haim had lost all his papers from the war, he refused to speak the Russian language and only spoke Yiddish in the home and Romanian on the streets. Now, even in his grave the Germans were afraid to recognize his existence, citing no paper work.
But Mama kept her papers. She had proof the family home that had stood for five generations in the same town, but different countries, once existed. She had the birth certificate of her missing, murdered brother. We wrote her story for the German government. Mama gave permission to tell her story, if it meant the Germans would agree there once was a home, a family, people with a history and she would be able to spend "their" money. It was a special time.
Mama was engulfed with clouds of memory while her son asked pertinent questions to jog the tragic stories. Being strong and opinionated, it was Mama who organized the escape for her entire family the summer of 1941. She recalled searching for a wagon with horses and told of days in a "buckboard" traveling at night and hiding by day. She explained the bombs never seemed to stop. They hid in the forests at night and finally boarded a train heading to Kazakhstan.
She reported the many times they all jumped from the moving train to hide themselves from bombs and German sympathizers before they crossed the border. Mama talked of the Muslim people who hid them and gave them opportunity to work and feed themselves in Kazakhstan. She lived among the Muslim people of Kazakhstan until the war ended and they returned to their bombed out homes and the madness of Stalin, where more atrocities occurred. But, they survived the viciousness of those days as well.
Mama studied in Stalin's new Russian education system and became what in the United States we call a Nurse Practitioner. She ran the Bendery rail road clinic for thirty years. She was a tough supervisor, respected and feared. During her tenure, newly graduated doctors were often seen scrubbing walls and floors with brushes and soap under the able guidance of Ester, the Nurse of Bendery.
As was the Russian way of life, stealing can be equal to survival and it mimics power. When the farmer, Khrushchev ordered all the vineyards and gardens be destroyed to plant corn, the crop that would save Russia, famine occurred. I was sitting with Mama and my husband one evening and they began to talk about the "year of hunger." It was the year Moldova starved. There was no food and nothing to buy in the stores. Ester had become aware of thievery going on at the clinic. People were stealing medication and selling it for money that was basically useless.
Sick people were dying because they did not have food or medicine. It was being stolen by those who wanted power. It was as bleak as the Stalin years. Ester put a stop to it, at least in her domain. So feared was Ester, the Nurse of Bendery, so sure were her subordinates and colleagues that she would turn them into the KGB if she even suspected them of taking medications, the pilferage stopped. Mama laughed as she recalled her reputation that evening. Even her son was amused with the memory.
But his memory had more commentary than nostalgia: "My mother stopped the pilferage alright. She was irritated a black market existed without her and she started her own." Sure enough, the story went on. Each morning Mama "confiscated" the medication and hid it. Later in the day, she would visit the sick of Bendery and provide them with syringes of medication, special powders and pills. She required no money, she asked for nothing; but each family often gave her a loaf of bread, eggs, and an occasional pullet that is how the family survived the time of hunger.
Mama sits in her "garage sale" chair more and more. She often falls into a strange, sudden sleep. I know her son is worried the stories will end one day; the history and memoir of this survivor will fall into a sleep and disappear among the graves of America.
We moved to West Virginia in 2002. It is a place of history, with a Jewish community that celebrates not only its history but tries to bridge the cultures and weave an understanding that is precious to all. We can not leave Mama alone anymore and when we travel, we take her with us. We bought a cabin in Pocahontas County, a place to take Mama, to see West Virginia and enjoy the summers and the mountains. While enjoying our first summer, many people living near our cabin came to visit. They were kind folks, not so different from the honest, hard working Moldavians of Ester's childhood.
Strangely, we found those who no longer have names living nearby. They flew insulting flags with swastikas symbolizing hatred and anger from their "white supremacy compound" pretending to be a people of relevancy and trepidation. My husband joked, "Leave it to us to find a dacha next to fascists." Mama no longer has vision to see these flags and souls of hate; she ignores them like they were not there and never were.
The friendly matriarch of an old West Virginia family that could trace their history back to the Civil War visited us one summer day and lamented how embarrassed the community was to have attracted people of hate to the mountain. It was a warm, pleasant afternoon with a strange wind that made us think the fall was approaching when Ester bat Shmuel-Yosif v' Branah answered this condolence of misplaced shame with her life.
Those who erase their own names with hate, spend their lives searching for a flag. Their tears do not count, their voices are pretence, their music is without melody; they have lost their "home language" and no one will mourn their absence. There is nothing of value to pass on to their children. These souls will have no more generations; unless, through our own confusion of who we are and what we stand for, we provide them with a home and allow their seeds to become gardens.
When I heard Mama's voice in West Virginia that summer and thought about her life and teachings, I felt the Ruach of the six million whispering from Shamayim, with many voices and tears, teaching the world about our joy, our losses and the Shoah. May Ester bat Shmuel-Yosif v' Branah live to be 120 years old and continue to teach the world who the six million were and may we nourish and plant our gardens with seeds that are their tears.
This memoir received an honorable mention in the 2005 West Virginia Writers Competition.
from the May 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine