October 26, 2021

Part 4: Courageous Rescues, Difficult Reunions: Heartbreaking Decisions by Parents during the Holocaust

Editor’s  Note: This blog comes from a lecture delivered at the International Seminar, Holocaust Education in the 21st Century: International Perspective, in recognition of the 25th of Yad Layeled, Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, May 2, 2021. It will be serialized in four parts. 

By Joanna Beata Michlic

Part 4: Mira (Mirka) Monet

In similar fashion to the Bickels family described in last week’s Part 3, Jack Skovronsky, the son of Eliyahu Skovronsky (Skowroński), today hopes to recover traces of the whereabouts of Mira (Mirka) Monet born in 1938.  Before the outbreak of the Second World War, Mira’s parents David Monet, born on  October 14, 1910 and Mindla Monet, born in 1906 (or 1908?) née Skowrońska, lived at no. 26 Nowomiejska Street in the central neighborhood of the prewar multicultural and multi-ethnic city of Łódź. Most likely Mira was born there.  What we know about Mira’s wartime fate is based on sketchy evidence – mostly memories of Mira’s youngest maternal uncle, Eliyahu Skovronsky, born on July 14, 1920.  

Mira Monet with her parents Mindla and David Monet before the war. (Private collection of the late Eliyahu Skovronsky and his son Jack Skovronsky)

Mira Monet with her parents Mindla and David Monet before the war. (Private collection of the late Eliyahu Skovronsky and his son Jack Skovronsky)

According to Eliyahu Skovronsky, in the summer of 1942, he was in charge of hiding Mira in a brick factory in Prądnik Czerwony, a northern neighborhood of Cracow, where he worked. However, someone denounced them and Eliyahu had to send Mira away to his cousins, the families of Rakowski and Banach in a small town Kazimierza Wielka, 45 kilometers northeast from Cracow.  The Rakowski and Banach families owned a lumberyard factory in Kazimierza Wielka. 

At their home, Mira was reunited with her mother Mindla, but their reunion did not last long.  On October 8, 1942, the Germans began a mass murder of the local Jewish community. The liquidation of the ghetto in Kazimierza Wielka lasted more than one month, and only 22 local Jews survived the daily killings. Most likely, in the midst of everyday terror, between the different actions, Mira was smuggled out of the ghetto and placed with a local Polish Christian family. According to Eliyahu, he had contacts with local Christian Poles and arranged a hiding place for Mira. It is possible that one of the headmasters of the two local middle schools, gymnasia, hid Mira in his home, and might have adopted her in the aftermath of the war. But the headmaster in question and any other witnesses have not yet been located. Both Mira’s parents perished separately during the Holocaust.

The uncle Eliyahu survived and searched for his niece immediately after the war. However, he did not encounter any traces of Mira’s whereabouts then and left Poland permanently. Nevertheless, he did not give up and continued to search for Mira in the 1960s. On January 25, 1965, from his home in the U.S., he wrote an emotional letter to the Jewish Community in Cracow asking for assistance in his search for his niece. Eliyahu passed away in 1971. Today, a Polish woman Katarzyna Szuszkiewicz of the Anti-Schemes Foundation in Cracow with the assistance of a local historian Tadeusz Kozioł, is trying to help his son, Jack Skovronsky in a hope against hope search for Mira. Mira today, if she is alive, is an 83-year-old woman who might know or might not be aware of her painful past and her family’s origins. Like Alexander Bickels, Mira Monet belongs to a group of missing child Holocaust survivors from Poland. 

(The photo of the Rakowski and Banach family of Mira Monet in Kazimierza Wielka before 1939, from the USHMM collection)

(The photo of the Rakowski and Banach family of Mira Monet in Kazimierza Wielka before 1939, from the USHMM collection)

Part 1: Anna Ginsberg and Walenty Laxander

Part 2: Esther Goldynsztajn/Romualda Mansfeld – Boot and Maria Titarenko

Part 3Alexander Bickels and the Jurdyga Family

Joanna Beata Michlic is a social and cultural historian, and founder, and former director of HBI’s Legacy Project: The Project on Families, Children, and the Holocaust at Brandeis University. She is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the University College London’s (UCL) Centre for the Study of Collective Violence, the Holocaust and Genocide, UCL Institute for Advanced Studies, and Research Fellow at Weiss-Livnat International Centre for Holocaust Research and Education, University of Haifa, June 2019 – May 2022. She is also a Research Associate at HBI, and a co-editor in Chief of Genealogy Journal. Her research focuses on social and cultural history of Poland and East European Jews, the Holocaust and its memory in Europe, East European Jewish childhood, rescue and rescuers of Jews in East-Central Europe, and antisemitism, racism, and nationalism in Europe. She is a recipient of many prestigious academic awards and fellowships, most recently Gerda Henkel Fellowship, 2017 – 2021.  

The author of this essay would be grateful for any potential information about the whereabouts of the child Holocaust survivors: Mira Monet and Alexander Bickels. Please write to  j.michlic@ucl.ac.uk

Part 3: Courageous Rescues, Difficult Reunions: Heartbreaking Decisions by Parents during the Holocaust

Editor’s  Note: This blog comes from a lecture delivered at the International Seminar, Holocaust Education in the 21st Century: International Perspective, in recognition of the 25th of Yad Layeled, Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, May 2, 2021. It will be serialized in four parts. 

By Joanna Beata Michlic

Alexander Bickels and the Jurdyga Family

In some cases, searches for missing child survivors have been continuing until the present by members of the second generation, cousins and nephews, who could only cling to fragmentary evidence and hope against hope that the lost child survivors in their families could be identified and found. Ori Bickels, born in a small green Polish town Tuchola in 1953, emigrated to Israel with his parents in 1957. Ori’s father, Józef Bickels was born into a highly acculturated and educated Polish-Jewish family and had two siblings Wiktor and Samuel.

Bickels family before second world war

Bickels family before the Second World War (Private collection of Ori Bickels)

At the outbreak of the Second World War on September 1, 1939, Józef Bickels, who before the war was trained as a veterinary doctor, was drafted into the Polish army at the rank of lieutenant. He fought in the Defensive Campaign of September 1939, and soon after was captured by the Germans and spent almost the entire war in a German POW camp, Oflag IIE in New Brandenburg in northeast Germany. 

While Józef was incarcerated in the POW Camp, his brother Wiktor experienced harsh living conditions in the Lviv ghetto where he was confined with his young family: his wife Roma Bickels, née Ratz whom he married on May 7, 1939 in Lviv, and their toddler son Alexander, already born in the Lviv ghetto sometimes in the autumn of 1942.  

On July 4, 1943, Wiktor Bickels wrote to his brother Józef a desperate letter that he knew was also his last will. Wiktor wrote the letter in the shelter where he and his family were hiding for months. The shelter was located in the house of the Polish couple of Jan Jurdyga and his wife Henryka Jurdyga, née Gwizdalska and their young three boys, the selfless rescuers of the Bickels family.  However, by July 1943, the constructed shelter underneath the entrance hall to the rescuers’ house at 359 Pieracki Street on the outskirts of Lviv, was not safe any longer. Neighbors of Jan and Henryka Jurdyga began to inquire about the origins of the toddler boy whom Jurdyga family kept “above the surface” in the house because of Alexander’s young age, in contrast to his parents who had to stay in a restricted sitting position throughout daytime in the shelter. They could only leave the shelter to stretch their legs at nighttime. One month after the liquidation of the Lviv ghetto, in June 1943, the Bickels couple asked their rescuers to arrange a new shelter for their son Alexander. They believed that Alexander could survive the Holocaust since the toddler boy was not circumcised and had blue eyes and blond hair.  The Jurdyga couple arranged a new shelter for Alexander: an unnamed Ukrainian peasant woman from a nearby village who regularly came to their house in Lviv to sell milk and butter, took Alexander with her one day. Soon after Alexander’s parents left Jurdyga’s house hoping against hope to escape to the East. But, at the same time, they were fully aware that their chances of survival were virtually nil.

In his eloquent and poignant letter, the last will, Wiktor informs his brother Józef about the scope of their family’s destruction, the death of their parents and other relatives, and expresses a wish that if he and his wife would not survive that Józef would trace Alexander and would bring him up as his own son. 

“ My dearest Józieńko, 4 July 1943.

Photo of Józef Bickels (from a private family collection of Ori Bickels)

Photo of Józef Bickels (from a private family collection of Ori Bickels)

I am writing my last words to you here. No one survived from our family, everybody has been killed. People who will give you this letter, will explain to you everything. Mr. and Mrs. Jurdygowie, they have a heart of gold. They have been sheltering us till today. They were also the couple who were looking after our boy, but we were forced to give him away into the hands of strangers. In general, please remember to help THEM (Capitalized in the original letter) and be grateful to them throughout your life, do not forget about this. If you locate the boy, please bring him up as if he was your own child. He is our only descendant. He is not circumcised, and he has blue eyes. Mrs. Jurdyga could recognize him. These are my wishes. Now I need to say farewell to you. May Almighty God have mercy upon you and the child. 

I hug you and kiss you with all my might, all my might. Yours, forever, loving brother Wiktor. Please remember about the dearest and loved people”.

 Ori Bickels 20 May 2020, Private collection of Ori Bickels

Ori Bickels 20 May 2020, Private collection of Ori Bickels

Józef Bickels received this letter only a few years before his death in 1996. Between July 4, 1943 and 1989, the letter was in the possession of the Jurdyga family, who in the aftermath of the Second World War, like many other Polish families from the Eastern Territories (Kresy), were repatriated to the Western territories in Poland. Once repatriated, the Jurdyga couple searched in vain for Wiktor and Józef Bickels through international and national Polish Red Cross. In the aftermath of 1989 when diplomatic relations between Poland and Israel were reestablished, the eldest son Edward Jurdyga felt compelled to establish contact with the Department of the Righteous Amongst Gentiles in Yad Vashem to honor his rescuer-parents who by then were deceased, and to search for Józef Bickels in Israel.  This is how Wiktor’s letter eventually reached his addressee, Józef. 

Ori Bickels still hopes that someone might know the whereabouts of Alexander who today would be 79 years old if he is alive, and might still live in Ukraine, not knowing about his Jewish roots and tragic childhood.

Joanna Beata Michlic is a social and cultural historian, and founder, and former director of HBI’s Legacy Project: The Project on Families, Children, and the Holocaust at Brandeis University. She is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the University College London’s (UCL) Centre for the Study of Collective Violence, the Holocaust and Genocide, UCL Institute for Advanced Studies, and Research Fellow at Weiss-Livnat International Centre for Holocaust Research and Education, University of Haifa, June 2019 – May 2022. She is also a Research Associate at HBI, and a co-editor in Chief of Genealogy Journal. Her research focuses on social and cultural history of Poland and East European Jews, the Holocaust and its memory in Europe, East European Jewish childhood, rescue and rescuers of Jews in East-Central Europe, and antisemitism, racism, and nationalism in Europe. She is a recipient of many prestigious academic awards and fellowships, most recently Gerda Henkel Fellowship, 2017 – 2021.  

Sources

10. Wiktor Bickels’ letter of 4 July 1943 to his brother Józef Bickels, (Private collection of Ori Bickels) Translation of the letter by the author of this essay, Joanna Beata Michlic.

Part 2: Courageous Rescues, Difficult Reunions: Heartbreaking Decisions by Parents during the Holocaust

Editor’s  Note: This blog comes from a lecture delivered at the International Seminar, Holocaust Education in the 21st Century: International Perspective, in recognition of the 25th of Yad Layeled, Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, May 2, 2021. It will be serialized in four parts. 

By Joanna Beata Michlic

Esther Goldynsztajn/Romualda Mansfeld – Boot and Maria Titarenko

The late Romualda Mansfeld – Boot, born at the end of 1939 as Esther Goldynsztajn (Goldstein) learned only in 1989 as a mature woman that her biological mother Helena Goldynsztajn (née Bohm) (1919 -1977) searched for her in vain through towns and villages in Volhyn, (today, Ukraine) for almost two years at the end of the Second World War.  In great anguish, Helena explored all possible options in search for her daughter: she was even hired as a nurse in one of the hospitals in the post-1945 Volhyn region, hoping that she would come across her daughter on a children’s ward. The Germans killed the Polish railway-man to whom Helena had entrusted her blue-eyed and blond hair toddler daughter Esther/Romualda sometime in the first half of 1943. With his death, Helena (known later as Lena) could not retrieve the next traces of her young daughter’s wartime and early postwar existence. She died in Israel in 1977, not knowing that her daughter from her first marriage was alive and living in Toruń, a charming medieval city in north-central Poland.

Romualda discovered the names of her biological parents and some sketchy details of her wartime history in 1989. Only then, she learned that after the death of her father Jakub Goldynsztajn in the Bełżec extermination center in eastern Poland, her mother pregnant with a second child, and with Romualda escaped the Brody ghetto to the Aryan side. This took place sometime in the early spring of 1943 before the final liquidation of the Brody ghetto in May 1943.  Romualda’s mother managed to safeguard a shelter for her daughter on the Aryan side before she went into hiding with other members of her husband’s family in a bunker prepared by her rescuer, a local Ukrainian man. A mixed Polish-Ukrainian and childless couple, Maria Titarenko née Kucharska and Mikołaj Titarenko took care of Romualda sometime around the Easter holiday of 1943. After the war, the couple became her official adoptive parents.  In her interview conducted for the poignant, 2015-exhibition about Jewish child survivors in Poland and their perished, known and unknown Jewish parents and adoptive Polish parents, Romualda, then a member of the Association of Jewish Child Survivors in Poland, recalls fragmentary vignettes of her postwar life and reflects about the complexities of her life as a child survivor.  In early 1946, with her emotionally cold and strict Polish mother Maria, she embarked on a new life journey to Żary near Żagań in Silesia in the first repatriation transport from the East (Kresy) where she was born. Mikołaj, the baker whom Romualda recalls as a warm and caring father, joined them in Żary later that year. 

“Mother wandered around Wołyń (Volhyn) for a year and a half, combing through towns and villages, while I was then in the Recovered Territories (Ziemie Odzyskane, Poland). I had new personal data, I did not figure on any list of recovered people, therefore my mother could not find me. Certain that I had perished, she decided to leave for Israel.  On the way there, she got to know her second husband. She had two sons (Eli Ramon) with him. After many years, in 1989, I managed to find them thanks to genetic tests. Unfortunately, my mother did not live to witness that. It was not given for us to meet”.

In a 2018- video interview for the memory project, Zapis Pamięci created by the members of the Association of Child Holocaust Survivors and their children, members of the Second Generation in Poland,  Romualda speaks with sadness about her own lack of memories of and knowledge about any Jewish organizations searching for her as a young girl in the early postwar period.  Her encounter of 1989 with Mr. Reihman, an Auschwitz survivor from Łódź and the second husband of her biological mother and her two half-biological brothers, the older one, Eli Ramon resembling closely Romualda, was a “miraculous moment” in her life.  Yet, as she recalls with stoic resignation, she couldn’t imagine moving to Israel and reshaping her entire life. Romualda’s encounter with her half-brothers and other relatives in Israel was on many levels a life-changing experience, yet at the same time, her life has been fully rooted in Polish culture and the Polish social environment. Therefore, after the emotionally powerful three-month visit to Israel, she returned to Poland where she had lived her whole postwar life and created her own family. 

Romualda’s case shows that for child Holocaust survivors like her, it is too late at a mature adult age to rebuild close and strong emotional bonds with a newly discovered biological family because of the lack of such bonds in early years and the long passage of time since the Holocaust. The sheer bad luck that accompanied her biological mother Helena in her search for Romualda at the end of the war in Volhyn was decisive for the future fate and cultural identity of Romualda.  We know from various archival and oral history sources, that Helena was not the only surviving Jewish parent who did not retrieve her child in the aftermath of the Holocaust, in spite of tremendous efforts and years of searching for both the children and their rescuers. There were also Jewish parents in Poland (and also other countries) who successfully located the whereabouts of their surviving children after the war but were not reunited with them for a variety of reasons. This is another painful aspect of the postwar history of a Jewish family that begs for a full investigation and retelling.

Joanna Beata Michlic is a social and cultural historian, and founder, and former director of HBI’s Legacy Project: The Project on Families, Children, and the Holocaust at Brandeis University. She is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the University College London’s (UCL) Centre for the Study of Collective Violence, the Holocaust and Genocide, UCL Institute for Advanced Studies, and Research Fellow at Weiss-Livnat International Centre for Holocaust Research and Education, University of Haifa, June 2019 – May 2022. She is also a Research Associate at HBI, and a co-editor in Chief of Genealogy Journal. Her research focuses on social and cultural history of Poland and East European Jews, the Holocaust and its memory in Europe, East European Jewish childhood, rescue and rescuers of Jews in East-Central Europe, and antisemitism, racism, and nationalism in Europe. She is a recipient of many prestigious academic awards and fellowships, most recently Gerda Henkel Fellowship, 2017 – 2021.  

Sources

8. Testimony of Romualda Mansfeld – Boot in Moi żydowscy rodzice, moi polscy rodzice, an album accompanying the exhibition at the Museum of Polish Jews Polin Museum in Warsaw, in April 2015) published by the Association of Child Holocaust Survivors, 2015, 42.

9. The 2018 video-interview with Romualda Mansfeld – Boot, see the online memory project, Zapis Pamięci

 

Part 1: Courageous Rescues, Difficult Reunions: Heartbreaking Decisions by Parents during the Holocaust

By Joanna Beata Michlic

Editor’s  Note: This blog comes from a lecture delivered at the International Seminar, Holocaust Education in the 21st Century: International Perspective, in recognition of the 25th of Yad Layeled, Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, May 2, 2021. It will be serialized in four parts with parts one and two featured today. 

In her poem titled, “About My Father”, Irena Klepfisz, a poetess and Polish-Jewish child survivor, pays a tribute to her father Michal Klepfisz.  The father with whom she shared the same birthday, April 17, was a vital person in her rescue from the Warsaw ghetto: “He left me on the street to be picked up by the nuns from an orphanage. He watched me from a distant doorway”.  Irena was born in 1941, two years before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 19, 1943, the first major uprising against Nazi Germany in German-occupied Europe wherein her father, a leading activist of Bund and one of the key pillars of the Uprising was killed on April 20, 1943, the second day of fighting against the Germans. 

Parents as First Rescuers

As a social and cultural historian of the Holocaust studying closely Jewish child survivors’ early and late postwar testimonies along their parents’ letters written from within the Holocaust, I am compelled to re-evaluate the role of parents as the first critical rescuers of their children, responsible for executing major rescue steps leading to smuggling the children out of the ghettoes and organizing the shelters on the Aryan side that was forbidden to Jews. Historians, of course, are familiar with accounts of Jewish parents fighting for the survival of their children in the ghettos amid everyday hunger, multiple diseases and daily deportations.  This is how, for example, one of the mothers, Mrs. Majdanowska (Majdanowa) describes, in her early postwar testimony of December 12, 1946, her ordeal to keep her baby son safe and alive during the Great Deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto commencing on July 23, 1942 and ending on September 21, the same year.  

“I wish to describe some episodes from the life of my five-year-old son, but I am not sure where to begin.  By writing about them now, I go back to these terrible days, however it seems to me that these days were just an awful nightmare. When the first Deportation (Great Deportation) took place my boy was fifteen months old and we began to hide in cellars and various ‘holes.’  Hunger was terrible at the time because bread was not baked and food shops were closed. Still, no one thought about food, but only about finding a hiding place.  No one wanted to let me in anywhere with my boy because of his cry everybody might have been killed. On the whole, the situation of a mother with a child was pitiful then.  It happened to me on one occasion that someone wanted to suffocate my boy because he started to cry during the street blockade.  If at the time I have not acted as a lioness with a desperate look on my face they might have killed him.  They got afraid of me and left us in peace”.

In the autumn of 1942 in the full swing of the Nazi German master-minded Operation Reinhard, Jewish parents, who were still alive, engaged in desperate planning of their children’s relocation to the Aryan side. Some hoped for finding a safe haven for their children in the hands of Polish friends and acquaintances, whereas others could only be hopeful to find a refuge for their children amongst strangers, praying for the strangers’ mercy and sheer luck to be bestowed upon their children. Before the children departed the ghettos, the parents often would instruct them about their new Christian Polish identities they were about to assume. This urgent, life-saving lesson, taught in haste, was often the last time the parents and the children would see each other. Therefore, this moment remained fresh in children’s memories for a long time, and they were capable of recounting it in great detail after the war. For example, Irena Grundland recounts in her testimony of 1955 her last night with her beloved mother in the Warsaw ghetto: “The last night, before my departure from the ghetto, the whole family was awake. My mother was carefully preparing my clothes. She was asking me questions about Catholic catechism and examining my knowledge of all the daily Catholic prayers. She was hugging me and kissing me the entire night.” 

Only very few Jewish parents were lucky to survive with their children together in hiding or were hiding separately, but in the close vicinity to their children on the Aryan side.  Very few surviving Jewish parents and their surviving Jewish children were able to rebuild their family’s lives intact in the aftermath of the Second World War.  Some parents had high hopes that they would be reunited with their children after the Holocaust, while many others knew that they were facing an ultimate death and could only attempt to safeguard the physical survival of their children. In such cases, they hoped against hope that after the Holocaust their children would be united with and brought up by their surviving adult relatives in Poland or relatives abroad. This was their final will, articulated in their emotional letters written with pressing urgency. However, these parents’ wishes rarely came to fruition.  They ultimately lost control over their children’s future fate in the moment of separation from them in the ghettos, forced labor camps, or on the Aryan side. The moment of separation in the history of the Jewish family during the Holocaust is crucial for our understanding of the possibilities and limitations of the reconstruction of Jewish family after the Holocaust, and about the postwar fate and cultural identity of some child survivors. In this essay, I would like to discuss five different cases of child survivors to illustrate the variety of trajectories in the lives of Jewish children who were separated from their parents during the Holocaust. I will only focus on cases revealing complexities and impossibilities of a smooth reconstruction of a Jewish family after the war and the long shadow of the Holocaust cast over surviving Jewish families, manifested in the continuous presence of secrets and missing pieces of survival puzzle, and in the mechanism of suppressed Jewish identity.

Anna Ginsberg and Walenty Laxander

In the poignant letter of June 4, 1943, written in a small, forced labor camp in Czystyłów, near Tarnopol (Ternopil), in eastern Galicia, Szymon Ginsberg addresses his three siblings living in Haifa, then Palestine. He informs them about the birth of his daughter Anna, born on April 17, 1943 and about Anna’s rescuer, Mr. Walenty Laxander, a Pole of German origin, who with the help of a medical doctor Karol Pohoriles-Buczynski smuggled the baby girl out of the forced labor camp, 16 hours after her birth. Without disclosing Laxander’s name, in order to protect him and his daughter, Ginsberg tells his siblings in Haifa that a Polish engineer whom he calls an “angel in a human body” had saved his newborn baby girl. The baby girl was given the name of Gizela Anna Zofia Darmont and was baptized immediately in order to protect her.  Szymon Ginsberg hopes that his siblings would establish contact with his daughter’s benefactor. At the time of writing this poignant letter—his last will—Ginsberg was fully aware that he and his wife, Zofia Distelfeld whom he met sometimes in 1942 in the Czystyłów labor camp, were doomed to be murdered like the rest of their families. Ginsberg knew already then about the killings of his parents and other relatives by the Germans and suspected that the Jews of the entire Tarnopol region would soon be shipped to the Bełżec extermination center. With heavy heart, Ginsberg realized that he would never see his baby daughter again and his last wish was that his siblings in Haifa would take care and adopt the “poor baby I leave behind in this world” after the war:

“I beg you, as a man who has already crossed into the next world, I beg you from the depth of my parents’ heart and my own heart that you will carry out a search for my infant girl and that you will provide her with everything that I could not: that you will become her parents. I know that you will do that. I regret, and it pains me, that this is inevitable. The world is so large, there is so much space on earth, but there is no place for us. Our tragedy is even greater because we know that the world would be transformed and that the beastly hydra would be killed. However, we will perish before that.”

Mr. Laxander was the chief manager of the construction firm owned by the German Artur Walde, wherein Szymon Ginsberg was forced to work in Czystyłów, and that’s how they had met and got acquainted. In the aftermath of him smuggling the baby girl, Mr. Laxander also attempted to smuggle Szymon and his wife out of the forced labor camp Czystyłów, but his second rescue action ended in failure.  Someone denounced the hiding place of the young Jewish couple, and they had no choice but to return to the labor camp where they perished on July 2, 1943. Mr. Laxander was sent to prison for two years for assisting to rescue them. Nevertheless, before his imprisonment, he managed to place the baby girl in a nearby Christian orphanage run by nuns. Once released from prison, Laxander brought the baby girl with him to his family and in 1947 officially adopted her.  In her letter of July 22, 1994 addressed to the Righteous Among the Nations section at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, the daughter A. Z. (Anna Gizela Darmont-Laxander) recalls that on May 18, 1952 her adoptive father Mr. Laxander gave her his brief memoir in which he revealed for the first time the secrets of her personal history. On that day Anna celebrated an important Christian ceremony: she underwent the Catholic rite of First Holy Communion. Until then she had not been aware that Walenty Laxander was not her biological father and that she came from a different ethnic and religious background. 

Not only did Laxander present Anna with his brief memoir; he also gave her a very special gift, a farewell letter from Anna’s biological father Szymon Ginsberg dated May 4, 1943. In that letter addressed to the engineer Laxander, Szymon Ginsberg expresses his regret that he could not meet with Laxander again, and thank him for everything that he did for him and his wife, and he praises him as a noble human being filled with goodness.  

Studying Laxander’s brief memoir, one can detect the reasons why he decided to disclose the girl’s origins to the then nine-year-old Anna and to present her with her biological father’s farewell letter addressed to him. Strong Catholic faith, the importance of the Catholic rite of Holy Communion, and respect for Anna’s biological parents motivated him to do so.

“During such a festive day I give you the farewell letter of your father. Let this letter, a gift of great love bestowed upon you by your parents, be a reminder of God’s mercy. Let the letter lift your spirits during the challenging days of your life and let it be a reminder of the love of one’s neighbor.

What is also clear from his statement is that in 1952, Laxander had no doubt that it was God who intervened and made the rescue of Anna possible, and that it was not his intention to conceal from Anna information about her deceased biological parents but, on the contrary, to make sure that she knew about them and cherished their memories already at a preadolescent age.  

What one can infer from Anna’s letter of 1994 is that she considered Laxander a loving, dedicated, and deeply religious parent. However, there are many aspects of Anna’s personal postwar history that remain concealed and unclear, a situation not unusual in the postwar lives of some child Holocaust survivors.  From another letter deposited in the collection of the Central Committee of Polish Jews (CKŻP) one learns, as Laxander declares, that out of a moral obligation, he indeed contacted Ginsberg’s siblings in Haifa in the early postwar period. In fact, Walenty Laxander and a teenage Anna visited the relatives in Haifa in 1956. However, Anna did not remain with her biological aunts and uncle in Israel, but she returned with her beloved adopted father to Poland. Apparently, she was too emotionally attached to Mr. Laxander, his wife, and their daughter Stefania to make the life-changing decision to emigrate to Israel and start life anew in a completely different culture and social environment. In 2015, a male representative of the second generation of Anna’s family in Haifa contacted me after I had published the first article in which I had described Anna’s history and her rescuer. From his recollections filled in with sorrow and disappointment, I learned that the conversations between Mr. Laxander and Szymon Ginsberg’s siblings did not go well during Anna’s visit to Haifa and in the aftermath, links were cut off between Anna and her remaining biological family. Mr. Laxander passed away in 1961 and received the title of the Righteous Among Gentiles on September 2, 1996 thanks to the efforts of his adoptive daughter Anna, the child Holocaust survivor. 

Jola

In a documentary film, Wyrzutki (Castaways, 2013) directed by Sławomir Grünberg and Tomasz Wisniewski, we learn about Jola who today still lives in Łapy, a small town in north-eastern Poland where she was saved as a baby during the Holocaust. Jola was one of the so-called luggage children thrown out, by their desperate parents, from trains heading for Treblinka extermination center.  Elderly Polish witnesses remember that the baby girl was thrown out of “the death train,” laid for some time in a ditch near the railways. They also remember her crying. A local Polish Christian family took pity on her, took her in, and raised her as their own daughter.  Today, this child survivor is unable to speak about the past and her identity. 

Cases such as Anna’s and Jola’s show that the first rupture caused by the murder of biological parents was a decisive moment in shaping these child survivors’ future lives.  Children like these girls, cared for and loved by their rescuers-postwar adoptive parents, could not return and recreate their Jewish identity as they could not embark on a painful and scary journey taking them back to the Holocaust. They could not embrace Jewish identity and all the pains and fears associated with it. These children and their children would rather not touch upon the subject for a variety of psychological, social, and cultural reasons. They keep their “dark, painful secrets” to themselves. Some must be painfully aware that their social environment, including spouses and parents-in-law, might not be overjoyed with having discovered a Jew in their families.

Joanna Beata Michlic is a social and cultural historian, and founder, and former director of HBI’s Legacy Project: The Project on Families, Children, and the Holocaust at Brandeis University. She is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the University College London’s (UCL) Centre for the Study of Collective Violence, the Holocaust and Genocide, UCL Institute for Advanced Studies, and Research Fellow at Weiss-Livnat International Centre for Holocaust Research and Education, University of Haifa, June 2019 – May 2022. She is also a Research Associate at HBI, and a co-editor in Chief of Genealogy Journal. Her research focuses on social and cultural history of Poland and East European Jews, the Holocaust and its memory in Europe, East European Jewish childhood, rescue and rescuers of Jews in East-Central Europe, and antisemitism, racism, and nationalism in Europe. She is a recipient of many prestigious academic awards and fellowships, most recently Gerda Henkel Fellowship, 2017 – 2021.  

Sources:

1. Testimony of Mrs. Majdanowska (Majdanowa) in Polish, of 12 December 1946, File no. 301/5289, Archives of ZIH. 

2.Irena, Grundland, (born Morgensztern). CKŻP, File No. 301/ 5543, 4, Archives of ZIH.

3.Szymon Ginsberg to his relatives in Haifa, June 4, 1943, (Letter in Polish), file no. M31/7211, Archives of Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem.

4. A slightly different version of Laxander’s rescue mission of Anna is cited in Martin Gilbert, The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust (New York: Henry Holt, 2003), 46. Gilbert bases his description of Laxander’s rescue operation on the article by Mordecai Paldiel, “A Last Letter and a Precious ‘Bundle,’ ” Yad Vashem Quarterly Magazine 26 (Spring 2002).  

5. Anna Z. wrote the letter to provide evidence in support of awarding Walenty Laxander the title of Righteous Among the Nations; see the file of Waldemar (Walenty) Laxander, file no. M31/7211, Archives of Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem. 

6. Szymon Ginsberg to Walenty Laxander, May 4, 1943, file no. M31/7211, Archives of Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem. 

7. File no. M31/7211, Archives of Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem.

Motherhood’s Vast Possibilities: Four Biblical Mothers

By Sari Fein

While the modern observance of Mother’s Day almost universally presents a one-dimensional version of what it means to be a mother, the biblical construction of motherhood shows much more diverse constructions. You certainly won’t find anything in the Bible quite like the greeting cards that declare, “When a mother says ‘I love you,’ she means ‘I’ll do anything for you,’” and “Moms do it all, and they do it with ease,” but you will find complex, nuanced versions of motherhood that resonate with us today.

The same critique can be made of the popular understanding of Jewish motherhood. Stereotypes of the American Jewish mother have persisted for nearly a century. She is frequently depicted as an overbearing “Yiddishe mama” nudging her offspring to eat, to become doctors (especially sons) or get married and have babies (especially daughters). These caricatures sometimes veer into meanness, making the Jewish mother “a universal metaphor for nagging, whining, guilt-producing maternal intrusiveness,” according to Joyce Antler in You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother. The caricatured Jewish mother appears regularly in many comedic settings, such as the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” (2007-2019), where Mrs. Wolowitz (who is only ever heard, and never seen) provides many opportunities for laughter at her expense.

In full disclosure, I’m a mother of two young daughters, and I’d happily receive the praise of the greeting card or a good Mother’s Day brunch.  But, how we imagine mothers on Mother’s Day comes nowhere near the full spectrum of mothering experiences or the actual history of the American holiday of Mother’s Day, which is much richer and more complex than contemporary practice might suggest, dating back to the Civil War era, and taking some inspiration from the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Motherhood, as we know, is much more complicated than sitcoms and cards suggest. Jewish art and literature, as far back as the pages of the Bible, provide wildly diverse portraits of motherhood, each one rich and multifaceted. They challenge our contemporary understanding of both Jewish motherhood and motherhood in general as something natural, innate, and universal. In my dissertation project, I investigate four case studies of early Jewish texts that “retell” stories about biblical mothers. These investigations reveal variant depictions of motherhood that are uniquely constructed by social, cultural, and intellectual forces. Such revelations beg the question—if depictions of motherhood throughout history are so diverse, can we open up our understanding of motherhood today to allow for alternative expressions of what it means to be a mother?

Mother as a Prophet: Hannah

Early Jewish audiences, in attempting to work through what it meant to be a mother, turned to the framework of maternal prayer. Targum Jonathan, a Second Temple-era Aramaic translation of the biblical book of Samuel and other prophetic texts, greatly expands the prayer of Hannah, originally found in 1 Samuel 2. Surprisingly, Targum Jonathan’s expansions effectively make Hannah an apocalyptic prophet. The biblical text of 1 Samuel 2 relates a prayer supposedly uttered by Hannah at the occasion of her dedication of her firstborn son Samuel at the local temple. Her prayer can be categorized as thanksgiving to God; it offers general praise of God’s power, especially God’s ability to raise up the lowly, which readers are left to assume refers to Hannah’s particular situation as she has been raised from a barren woman to the mother of a favored child. Targum Jonathan elevates the urgency of Hannah’s prayer and adds an eschatological dimension to it. It explicitly states that Hannah prays “in a spirit of prophecy,” making Hannah one of Jewish tradition’s few women prophets. Targum Jonathan also makes extensive additions (noted in bold, below) to Hannah’s prayer, in which Hannah predicts divine destruction of the cosmic enemies of Israel, which will result in a new, messianic age. She prophesies:

“The Lord will shatter the enemies who rise up to do harm to his people. The Lord will strike down on them from the heavens with a loud voice. He will execute vengeance of judgment against Gog [considered a cosmic enemy of Israel], and the armies of the robber nations who come with him from the ends of the earth, but He will provide strength for his king, and he will increase the kingdom of his Messiah.”

These changes shift the text’s portrayal of Hannah from a mother singing a song of thanksgiving and praising to the Lord, to an apocalyptic prophet predicting the arrival of the messianic age. By describing Hannah speaking “in a spirit of prophecy” and inserting additions which describe the defeat of Israel’s enemies and the rise of God’s messiah, Targum Jonathan suggests that she not only gives birth to the child Samuel, but she also gives birth on an additional, cosmic level to a new eschatological age. Targum Jonathan expands the possibilities of the maternal body to imagine the birth of a whole new world.

Mother as Activist: The Widow

Another model of motherhood in the early Jewish imagination was the maternal activist. An example of this model can be found in the wall paintings of the Dura Europos Synagogue, a third-century synagogue on the banks of the Euphrates. On the western wall of the synagogue, one painting depicts a scene from 1 Kings 17, which scholars have called “Elijah Reviving the Widow’s Child.”

Figure 2: Elijah Revives the Widow’s Child; http://media.artgallery.yale.edu/duraeuropos/dura.html

What scholars fail to capture in this naming is the important role the Widow, the mother of the child, plays in saving her child’s life. In 1 Kings 17, when the poor, widowed woman’s son falls so ill “that there was no breath left in him” (v. 17, NRSV translation), she turns to Elijah the prophet and demands “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” (v. 18, NRSV translation). It is these words that prompt the prophet to act, as he then takes the boy, performs a series of ritual actions over him, and restores him to life and health. The visual interpretation of this scene at Dura Europos expands the woman’s agency in this narrative by depicting her in active physical poses. On the left, she gives her child to Elijah, rather than the prophet taking her from him; she gazes at her child to emphasize the mother-child connection. On the right, after her child has been restored to her, she extends her arm in an echo of the Hand of God above her, suggesting that they are both partners in the miracle of bringing her child back to life. This visual “text” shows another form of motherhood in the early Jewish imagination; a mother who stood up to authority in order to protect her child—and who received divine approval for her bold actions.

Mourning Mother: Rachel

While the Widow’s story has a happy ending, early Jewish communities were also forced to confront the reality of high infant mortality rates in the ancient world, and thus another theme on which they focus in their writing is maternal grief. The rabbinic midrash Lamentations Rabbah from the fourth or fifth century CE imagines a scene where Rachel, one of the matriarchs from the biblical book of Genesis, leverages her grief over her lost children to convince God to return the dispersed Israelites to their land. Because the book of Genesis does not describe the death of any of Rachel’s children, Lam. Rab. takes as its jumping-off point a line from the book of Jeremiah: “Thus says the LORD:

    A voice is heard in Ramah,

lamentation and bitter weeping.

Rachel is weeping for her children;

she refuses to be comforted for her children,

because they are no more.” (31:15, NRSV translation)

Like Jeremiah, the rabbis imagine Rachel as the “mother” of all the people of Israel, whose land has been conquered and who are forced into exile after the destruction of Jerusalem. Rachel is not the only mourning mother in rabbinic literature with a voice—other texts describe Sarah’s grief after she hears of Isaac’s (near) death in the akedah (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayera; Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer; and Vayikra Rabbah), and Sisera’s mother’s grief as she waits for her son to return (though readers know he has been killed by Yael) (Rosh HaShanah 33b). The rabbis compare these mothers’ wails to the sounds of the shofar, the ram’s horn that is blown on solemn occasions such as Yom Kippur. Rachel seems to be unique in that she uses her grief for her children as the basis for an eloquent accusation against God. She castigates God: “How come then you are jealous of idolatry, which is nothing, and so have sent my children into exile, allowing them to be killed by the sword, permitting the enemy to do whatever they wanted to them?” God immediately responds to Rachel’s grief by agreeing to return the Israelites to their land. This text thus imagines mourning mothers like Rachel to be endowed with the power to “stand in the breach” between the divine and human realms, precisely because of the grief they feel for their children.

Valorizing Martyrdom: Mother and her Seven Sons

The aforementioned three narratives of motherhood all assume a mother’s love and devotion for her children leads to prioritizing their health and safety. The story of the “mother and her seven sons” complicates this notion in its valorization of martyrdom. In a tale which appears in 2 and 4 Maccabees and rabbinic texts such as BT Gittin and Lamentations Rabbah (but not in the canonized Jewish scriptures), we learn of a mother whose seven sons are brought before a “tyrant” and ordered under threat of torture to violate the laws of Torah. Rather than attempt to protect her children, as modern audiences might expect, their mother encourages them to stay true to their principles and even sacrifice their lives for them. The texts describe the gruesome tortures and deaths of the seven sons, which culminate in the death (described in different ways in different texts) of the mother herself. 4 Maccabees lauds the mother for these actions in flowery terms: “Yet that holy and God-fearing mother did not wail with such a lament for any of [her sons], nor did she dissuade any of them from dying, nor did she grieve as they were dying. On the contrary, as though having a mind like adamant and giving rebirth for immortality to the whole number of her sons, she implored them and urged them on to death for the sake of religion” (16:12, NRSV translation). This narrative presents yet another contrasting version of motherhood which teaches that a “good” mother is one who raises up children who are so firm in their religious convictions they would rather die than violate them—and she would even encourage her children to do so.

These four texts from the early Jewish period demonstrate that even in antiquity, motherhood was understood to encompass vast possibilities. Different ways of being a mother were valued by different communities at different times, depending on a unique confluence of social, cultural, and intellectual forces. Let us take a lesson from Jewish history and expand our understanding of motherhood to include all the ways it can be expressed. And, let us begin on Mother’s Day.

Sari Fein is an HBI Scholar in Residence, and a Ph.D. candidate in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis University.

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