Sixty-five years ago, my father and I stood hand in hand on the third-floor balcony of our three-level row house in Washington, D.C., watching a large house fire raging somewhere beyond the alley. I was 9 years old, and I still remember how tightly he held my hand and how deeply engrossed he was. He seemed oblivious to me, engaged only with the fire. For years I wondered what he might have been thinking of, what he could have been remembering.
At the time of my father’s death in 1999, my brother hired a disposal company to clear the place out. Everything. Except for the samovar in the living/dining room. Everything except for the contents of his office, the door to which my brother locked, assuring me no one would enter until I arrived.
Tossed into a garbage truck then must have been the brass canteen that belonged to my uncle who had died while serving in the tsar’s military and the pair of small round convex wooden discs depicting Russian winter scenes in red, black and white that had always resided in one or another corner of the homes my father lived in. The few items I would have liked to own — already tossed.
Still, beyond the now unlocked door, in addition to a wall of books, were his files. In particular, there was one file drawer of many letters written in Russian and in Yiddish. My brother said I could take my pick of those since I could read Russian, having learned it in college and used it in my professional career. I packed them all up along with some books.
When I returned home, one item wrapped in tissue paper stood out: a small diary (3 inches by 4 inches) in Russian, about 40 pages. Here was a diary my father had written when he was 12 years old, traveling in 1922 with his mother and four of his five elder siblings across the Atlantic to the United States to join his father Elijah who, I later learned, had emigrated to Delaware eight years earlier. Everything my brother had tossed was no match for this jewel.
I spent hours figuring out the handwriting, translating it, mapping my father’s singular journey. Such joy. I could have been right beside him!
By train from Moscow to Riga and on to Libava; from Libava by ship to Danzig and Copenhagen, then six days on the open seas on the way to America. Too weak and too seasick to celebrate, he writes, “Finally, we saw electric lights. Land! Then a handsome little boat all lit up came aside our big ship. It couldn’t at first get close enough for us to let down a ladder from our boat to it in order for the Port Navigator to climb up. But soon he did. His job was to steer our ship into port, for which he was paid $200. Imagine that. Just to steer the ship into port! I could’ve done it myself! There’s the shore. Here we are. A turn of the wheel and that’s it!”
My father became a widower nine years before he died. By then, I had settled in Seattle and was busy building a career serving Russian and American business interests. Whenever travel allowed me, I would stop to see him. At the time of those visits I was unaware of the diary or the trove of letters but I was aware of my intense desire to connect with him more deeply.
We had lost a connection after my parents divorced when I was 16. But now we had much in common. My father seemed proud of my career and on occasion he’d make a request of me.
“Boobala,” he’d say, “see if you can find a Russian volume of Isaac Babel’s stories while you are there. Babel wrote in Russian, you know, not Yiddish. See what you can find.”
Once when I was visiting my father, he had placed a letter on the dining room table, handwritten in Russian, dated November 13, 1915. A pad of paper and a sharpened pencil lay nearby. We spent a wonderful morning together deciphering the difficult handwriting. In that letter Manya, my father’s mother, was writing to her husband in America about the difficulties of keeping her six children fed, warm and clothed.
“Even after I received your 60 rubles, I can not get what the children need,” she wrote. “It will be difficult to make ends meet this winter. Firewood at 23 kopeks per pud. Instead of a coat for Isor I am buying wood, and also galoshes for Iosif (3 rubles, 40 kopeks). Our Isor will have to go around in an old winter coat. Coats for the three younger boys, I have sewn from your clothes.”
Feeling we had achieved something, my father and I went to a deli for salami, rye bread and pickles, and after a game of Scrabble, settled on the couch in his cottage. Winter howled outside the window. Trees rocked. Every branch was bare but for three cardinals refusing to budge. So we sat as my father told me about the pogrom that killed his grandmother, and how the pogromshchiki cut off the tongue of his cousin Simeon.
My father never made a fuss about his experience as a child nor did he ever make a fuss about any exclusion and ostracism he faced when he came to America. Yet, in a winning essay published in the Forward on January 11, 1931, when he was a 21-year-old college student, he wrote about his Jewish identity: “The heretic, the radical, the questioner — everywhere, from time to time, I find that my ideas are different… In short, I am not one of ‘them.’ I feel it; they feel it; and when they look about for a classification for me they find that I am a Jew. And when I, feeling that I am not quite one of them, look about for a classification for myself I find that I am a Jew. I feel my Jewishness poignantly.”
Both of my parents were born to Jewish families in the tsarist controlled, Russian-speaking lands of Ukraine and Belorussia. Yet for many years of my life, I was deaf and blind to this past. I was not a Jew. I was not Elisa Brodinsky, daughter of Ben Brodinsky, granddaughter of Elijah (now Eli) Brodinsky, great-granddaughter of Liev Issakovich. I was “Lisa B.” Or, that is what I’d write whenever someone asked me to fill out a nametag.
I did not have a bat mitzvah. When I was 14 or 15, my father invited a rabbi friend to our home to talk to me, I ran into our attic to hide and didn’t come down until after the rabbi had left.
When I was 23, I heard the word Holocaust for the first time. I was attending a yearlong immersion course in the Russian language. An elderly professor came over to me after class one day asking if I wanted to attend an evening event commemorating the Holocaust. Embarrassed, surprised, ignorant, I deferred.
For several years after my father died, I thought his diary was enough of a gift, but time finally allowed me to organize the large collection of letters and postcards that I had also brought home with me.
The letters began in 1914 when my father was 4. He was 12 when the last letter was posted in 1922. All the letters were sent to Elijah (Eli) Brodiansky (sic), my father’s father, at 1019 W. Fifth St. in Wilmington. From the very first letter I learned that Eli had left in May 1914 and the family, so the plan went, would follow soon.
A huge project now fell into my lap: to parse events; to piece together a family’s story; to understand that, rather than joining Eli shortly after he left, eight long difficult years of war, revolution and famine intervened before that day came.
The letters between 1914 and 1918 were full of details of the family Eli had left behind. Full, as well, of encouragement and prayer for a reunion that was in fact postponed again and again. Meanwhile Eli was growing his dry goods business — from peddler-on-foot to horse-and-cart and finally to storefront. During the years before 1918 after which communication was lost for three years, Eli must have written letters to them about being both depressed and sick, but aside from the admonitions to drink milk and eat well, the letters his wife and eldest son sent to him in Wilmington always urged him not to despair. “I beg you to buy a delivery horse and cart,” his wife writes in February 1916. “Buy a horse to make things easier.” And later, his eldest son writes, “Dear Papa… I ask you not to give out so much credit to your customers. Try to get at least some down payment. Yes, giving credit is part of trading but still you can give out too much credit and the more you have out in credit the less money you have for buying more goods.”
Many times, at the bottom of a letter’s last page, space was left for the children to write. And there he was again, my dad: “Dear Papa, I am alive and well. Come home. I do not want to go to America!” (Exclamation point his.) Each time I read my father’s words, I shivered with joy. We were together again! Arm in arm. Just like the times in the last years of his life when we would take walks in Connecticut’s lovely Devil’s Hopyard State Park, find a patch of warm sun and warm grass, open a can of sardines, and with bread and a bottle of beer, talk about a Pushkin poem we might read together.
In a 1915 letter, my father’s older brother Meyer announced he would soon turn 13 and would have to wear tefillin. “Should I wear Max’s or could Mama buy me one at the cost of five rubles?” he asked.
I couldn’t find the word tefillin anywhere in my Russian dictionaries. Eventually, I learned that tefillin is a Hebrew word. And so my project became my Jewish project.
The letters were demanding, calling me thither. I was rejoining my father’s family. I wanted to know everything. I wanted to know what my father’s shtetl (in the town of Gorodische near Kiev) looked like. I wanted to know more about the Russian Pale of Settlement. I wanted to know how Gorodische fared in the military campaigns and escapades of World War I’s Eastern Front.
All of the Russian-language letters I read were sent to Eli in Wilmington from his family marooned in Ukraine. Yet I found one letter from Wilmington to Gorodische postmarked August 6, 1918. Eli had penned a note to my father on the occasion of his eighth birthday. “I grab this moment to write you,” Eli writes, “for who knows what tomorrow will bring. Be healthy and with joy and be a Jew with all your heart.” This letter saved neatly in its envelope must have traveled in my dad’s pocket all the way to America. He kept it his whole life.
“Be a Jew with all your heart.” What does that mean to me? I asked myself. And why does it matter? I couldn’t have contemplated the question at the age of 23. Now, 40 years later, I could.
Given my father’s singular story to me before he died, I expected to discover in the letters something about the pogrom he had told me about. But details were missing: “We’ll spare you this for now”; “There isn’t enough paper and ink to describe”; “When we are all together, we will then tell you.” I would have to find the details on my own. I wanted to know if the pogrom that killed my great grandmother in Gorodische in 1919 was recorded anywhere. And I wanted to place all this. So names became places, and places became pins on a map. Places became individual histories. And it was clear: Had I been living in the first decades of the 20th century in Ukraine, I would have been the target of a pogrom — either hacked to pieces by Cossacks serving in any of the multiple armies fighting during Russia’s civil war; or raped; or gang-raped; or forced to witness the destruction of the family home. I might have survived or somehow evaded these monstrous acts — by hiding, concealed and disguised. Still, however, would I have ever healed?
But I was born in Washington, D.C. in 1941, the year Hitler’s armies entered Ukraine on an unimpeded march toward the Volga. From June 1941 to February 1943 (when the assault was finally turned back), special German forces, Einsatzkommandos (and their subgroups, Sonderkommandos), executed every Jewish person they could find. Sometimes, they rounded us up before killing. Sometimes they did it on the spot.
Perhaps a killing occurred the same day I was born on November 5. Perhaps I have been destined to carry on a life that was cut short. I located all the towns that suffered pogroms in 1919 based on reports from the Red Cross. Now I wanted to locate all the killings by the Germans, Romanians and Ukrainians of Jews in the districts around Kiev around the time I was born.
‘What does it mean to me to be a Jew and why does it matter?” I wonder as I re-reread my father’s words. Maybe it doesn’t. I have lived in America as an assimilated Jew. My married name became Miller. No one seems to care much what I am, as far as I can perceive. Many folks, upon meeting me, haven’t a clue, unless I tell them. True, my daughter Rachael had her bat mitzvah. And my son Amos, his bar mitzvah, but I really didn’t participate in temple activities. I was lukewarm to the whole thing.
But, what if the situation changed and intolerance and persecution ramped up against my people? What if the Nazi horror repeated itself? Would I stand up, move forward and say I am a Jew and be taken? Or would I say to myself, better to stay alive, steal away, and perhaps find a way to help. But this isn’t the situation now. I do have choices. I can choose to be Jewish. I can choose to be my father’s daughter.
“We’re Jewish,” my granddaughter Tillie told me on the occasion of her fourth Hannukah.
“Yes, we are,” I said.
Today, I choose to read and study, to record— Jewish yearnings. I see now I’ve always been a Jew. I made a career for myself bringing Russian and American businessmen together to make deals. That’s the old world’s Jewish commerçant: the trader, the intermediary, the interstice. The one who bridges two different worlds, who can speak two different languages.
I don’t have that much to teach my granddaughter in the strict talmudic sense. I have just recently learned the Hebrew alphabet. I cannot read Hebrew. Yet, I can be Jewish. It is not the faith or the teachings, but rather the actions I take. When I see the miscarriage of justice, I can ignore the folks who say it’s none of my business. I can say to them, “No, it is my business, it is exactly my business.”
“Yes, Li’l Til,” we are Jews.
Now, again, I remember the night when I was 9 and my father and I were watching the fire across the alley. He must have been watching his own house burning after their last pogrom — the day long ago when his family fled their shtetl forever. I can imagine it: How they climbed through the back window, fleeing the pogromshchiki. He was only 10 at the time — just about the same age I was when he and I were standing together. The family lost their home in that pogrom and for two years after roamed from relative to relative. “We are scattered everywhere,” wrote Uncle Mokha after three years of silence, in a letter dated December 26, 1920, “and there is no way we can help one another.” Aunt Klara wrote in 1921, “We are all hungry, naked, with nothing.”
I didn’t know then what my father was reliving as we watched the fire, but I know it now. I couldn’t have said it during those times we had together before he died, how I was moving toward him. And all the letters I translated after his death, all that translation was an act of embrace. All the Jewishness in the letters was an embrace too. I am my father’s daughter and I owe it to him to answer the question, “What does it mean to me?”
I now live on an island in Washington state. We have a group here called Jews of Whidbey Island. I’ve never joined. I still carry the fear of the pogromchik. But at the same time, I want to be buried in the Jewish section of Fountain Hill Cemetery in Deep River, Connecticut. The cemetery sections are owned by Temple Beth Shalom, the nearby temple my father helped to create. I want to be buried next to him, in the section where my father, my stepmother and my mother have gravestones.
We three children of my father broke the rules and buried him on the Sabbath. My father, to my mind, broke the rules when he put a Jewish star on the casket of his beloved Christian second wife who predeceased him. I broke the rules when we cremated my mother’s body, and then asked for a gravesite for her in the same cemetery as my father and stepmother. And yet I have petitioned to be there too.
I want my gravestone to say: Elisa Brodinsky, mother of Amos and Rachael. Grandmother of Tillie (Taliya) Hope and Liev Aditieh.
Elisa B. Miller, PhD., lives on Whidbey Island, Washington. She authored four editions of ‘The Russian Far East, A Business Reference Guide.’