I thought I was done thinking about it all, but then I came across an article on the Internet about Minsk that made me remember my maternal grandparents again. And wonder.
It took a good chunk of the twentieth century to teach my grandparents how small the world is. Their own ancestors had wandered from Iberia towards Germany after the Inquisition and had stopped wandering when they found a safe base in Hamburg. They never considered wandering again. Certainly not as far as Minsk, which, in the early 1930’s when the Josephis considered themselves firmly settled in Hamburg, was a large, predominantly Jewish city in Belarus a continent away. Nor did they learn from their heavily censored newspapers that Stalin’s Russification strategies had shrunk the Jewish population of Minsk to just 30% of the population by 1939. Shocking as it is to us, in retrospect, that Stalin was methodically killing Jewish intellectuals whose views did not coincide with his, the murders did not bring Minsk to their attention.
Truth be told, my grandparents might well have felt no sympathy for those distant Russian Jews. From the sample they confronted in their own city, they knew eastern Jews to be unsympathetic characters: dirty, uneducated, vulgar, garlic eaters, Yiddish speakers who could not speak the German language properly and were generally un-Germanic in their habits and customs. That was perhaps the worst thing, that in their dark and gloomy clothing reminiscent of seventeenth-century shtetl life, they could never be fully assimilated into the sophisticated modern country in which they lived. As it was, their appearance made it likely that real Germans might misapprehend them as representative Jews, typical of their co-religionists. And that was bad for everybody.
Barely in the middle class, the Josephi family never had much money, which deficit did not stop them from having cultural and social aspirations. My grandmother especially admired the lifestyle of the upper classes, both Gentile and Jewish, and tried within her means to emulate it. If one did not have the money to buy books, one could, after all, still read reviews and be knowledgeable. If one could not afford theater tickets, one read the plays themselves. One tried to fit in and not make trouble.
During the same years that Stalin was decimating his Jewish community, that notorious fourth decade of the last century, the Germans were also – was it in the air? — implementing their own anti-Jewish bias by means of restrictive laws so my grandparents had more than enough antisemitism in their own neighborhood to have to worry about what was happening to the far-off Jews in Minsk. But things got worse in Germany. There were arrests of Jewish men on the streets, followed by violence against Jewish shops and institutions, and, then, far worse things.
My grandfather, reading the handwriting on the wall, packed his old leather suitcase with his toiletries and other necessities and stationed it at the door to be ready when the dreaded knock at the door sounded for him. He was realistic. He knew they would come for him. He may have feared the worst, but I think not. He did not have so cruel an imagination, so black a worldview, nor so evil an intellect as to be able to imagine the fate that awaited not only him but both of them. He may have thought of a labor camp outside the city, slave labor in a war plant or perhaps a concentration camp in Poland — just across the border from Danzig. But Minsk, Minsk? That could not have entered his mind. Being pushed alive into a mass grave, he and his beloved wife together with hundreds of other poor souls, before being shot to death, or, worse, not to death? Certainly he could not have imagined that! He waited for the knock on the door but it did not come. They feared and hoped. They tried to make the best of the situation. In the long run, God would protect them, they believed.
We, by then safely ensconced in America, could not know even the little he knew about their situation. We could only worry and be fearful. As the years went by, we learned from official sources the dates of deportation and death for both of them, and later we learned from ordinary people who had been with them some of the gory details of the tragic endings of their life stories. So we knew of their deportation from Hamburg and their transport to Minsk. We knew from one person that my grandmother had peeled potatoes in the sorry kitchen that served the captive Jews and, from another, the facts about the execution at the gravesite. It was enough to know. I didn’t need to know more. Eventually I stopped thinking about the cattle cars into which they were crowded for that horrendous caravan to the fields of death in Russia.
But then, almost accidentally, I garnered more facts. I was myself in Hamburg when I learned that the knock on the door to arrest my grandfather was a pure figment of my imagination. There was no such private invitation offered. It turns out that by the end, the apartment building in which they lived was turned, along with its neighbor, into a ghetto for all the neighborhood Jews, all of them cramped together in limited space. I don’t know the absolute numbers, so I can’t imagine the population density achieved there, but it was not good for anyone; that I know. When the day came for their deportation, there was only one summons barked at all of them, and they all obeyed. As would we all. I don’t kid myself about that.
From the web article on Minsk that I stumbled upon, I learned about the then-existing Jewish community and the institution of a Jewish ghetto in July of 1941 after the city surrendered to the Germans. The Nazis filled it with local Jews and then started killing thousands of them before the importation of fresh German Jewish fodder for their death machine. So they were ready in November when my grandparents arrived in one of the first transports.
It was reading this article that made me realize that my grandparents may have spent time in this ghetto before their execution. I have no way of knowing how speedily their execution followed their arrival, though, of course, I am hoping it was fast, speedy and efficient. But if it was not speedy, if my grandmother, the culturally and socially ambitious aspirant who was so beloved by her daughters to the very ends of their lives, if she had to actually mingle and live and peel potatoes and worse within the degraded population of the ghetto, was she able to make the best of that situation? Was she able in that environment to overcome her prejudices against the Yiddish speakers? Did she stop caring about what people looked like or sounded like? Did she give up her defenses when they proved themselves to be utterly useless? Did she stop thinking altogether? Did she perhaps lose her mind, little by little, or all at once? As I would have? As I surely would have?
These are the questions I have now. They are enough.
I need no more answers.
[January 11, 2012]