The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

For Yom HaShoah, My Grandmother's Memoir of Life in Poland 1905-21


Today is Yom HoShoah, the annual Jewish Day of Remembrance for victims of the Shoah (Holocaust). I haven't done so for a while, so I'm posting a link to my paternal grandmother's memoir of her life in a shtetl in Poland. It wasn't a pleasant one. Her father died shortly after she was born, leaving her mother with five daughters, and no means of support, three of the older sisters gradually left for America, my grandmother was hospitalized for months by herself in Germany (!) when she couldn't have been more than eight years old, she was a refugee during World War I, and then her mom's small store faced an antisemitic boycott by Polish nationalists after the War.

Anyway, I'm posting this for two reasons. First, in addition to remembering the victims, I think it's important to remember the world that was destroyed. There seem to be precious few memoirs about Jewish girls growing up in Eastern Europe pre-Holocaust.

Second, my grandmother recounts being expelled suddenly from her home by the government, though she does not provide any context. I have since learned that the Russian tsar (Poland was part of the Russian Empire at the time) decreed in 1915 that all Jews living close to the front, a total of approximately five hundred thousand people, must leave their homes immediately, for fear that they would aid the enemy. The human suffering was undoubtedly immense, but the Holocaust has erased these "lesser" but still immense traumas from our collective memory. This includes not just the expulsion noted above, but the murder of tens of thousands of Jews by the White and Red armies during the Russian Civil War, Leninist and then Stalinist repression of Jewish religion and Zionism (I have several distant cousins who were deported to Siberia for religious or Zionist activities), and the antisemitic legislation and boycotts in Hungary, Romania, and Poland before World War II.

For the curious, of the relatives mentioned in the memoir, I have discovered that my great-great-grandfather's second wife Zelda Tetenbaum and her eight children all came to America, but my great-grandmother's one "full" sister, my grandmother's aunt, married a tailor, and moved to Germany. The couple were expelled from Germany just before Kristallnacht, when, in an infamous incident, Germany deported its Jews who were Polish citizens to the border with Poland. After the war, they were sent to a ghetto in Poland and eventually murdered in Treblinka. They had two daughters who wisely fled Germany in 1933, but unwisely went to Paris, where they survived the war, but their husbands were caught and murdered.