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Remembering the Simple Life in Eastern Europe

This past March, three weeks before she passed away, my bubbe, Charlotte Friend, celebrated her ninety-ninth birthday. On that day, as on every other birthday she’d had over the last twenty or so years, she received several phone calls from her Russian friends — women (and a few men) to whom she had taught English as a second language in Forest Hills, Queens. A former Hebrew school tutor, she liked to teach English by teaching American history, and not by rote grammatical study. Though she devoted thousands of hours of her “retirement” to her adult students, one class in particular always stood out to her.

It was sometime in the mid-nineties, near the anniversary of VE Day, known to Russians as Victory Day (and celebrated a day later, on May 9th). Charlotte, who lived in Queens nearly all her life, was a New York City social worker for several decades, and she focused on serving immigrants. Hoping to encourage her students to use their English speaking skills, she asked them to share their memories of the war. Though they had been in primary school during the war, each sharply recalled the pain and horror of those years: losing their fathers and their food security, receiving only news of the systematic destruction of Eastern European Jewry. They began to weep, and some could hardly speak by the end of the class.

My bubbe told me that she was horrified — it had not occurred to her that the depth of their suffering had been so great. That anniversary of Victory Day was a chance for my bubbe to engage the personal stories of her Russian students. But in remembering their childhoods, the Russian students had accessed only deep pain. Was it worth it?

Seventy-five years ago, on June 22nd, 1941, the World War II began in Russia. Four million German soldiers invaded the Soviet Union along a front that bridged the Baltic and Black Seas. It is not a widely commemorated date on our side of the Atlantic, but for the Jews of Eastern Europe it marks the true beginning of the Holocaust.

The memories of that dark time weigh heavily on those who lived through it. Due to the efforts of Centropa, a non-profit Jewish historical institute based in Vienna, dedicated to preserving the history of Central and Eastern European Jewry in the 20th century, we have, in the survivors’ own words, a record of how the horrors unfolded. You can explore Centropa’s oral history project here.

On Monday night, June 20th, at the Miller Theater at Columbia University, four actors read a series of excerpts from interviews with Lithuanian Jews, adapted from Centropa’s database by actor and playwright Ali Viterbi. Introducing the performance, Edward Serotta, the founder of Centropa, stressed that the institute does not focus only on the experience of the Holocaust — its concern is the story of the entire century of European Jewry.

And such was the scope of the performance. Although the lives of those interviewed each warped around the black hole of the Holocaust, the evening began and ended with stories of the simple pleasures of life and love. The people interviewed had grown up in small towns and city centers. They spent their childhood days lavishly attended by governesses, or otherwise worked in fields or as the apprentice to a local tradesman. Perhaps their furniture was shipped directly from Berlin, or they walked about on dirt floors. On Passover they were dressed in the finest clothes their parents could buy, whether that was lace and velvet or simply unsullied cotton.

After the war they pursued degrees, started families, and made new homes, or none of the above. They kept and left the faith. They had children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. They lived long, and lived to see a new Europe.

I was — as I always am when confronted with stories of the Holocaust — stunned by what these people had been through. It requires a significant mental adjustment to absorb the magnitude of destruction and death perpetrated by the Nazis and their eager assistants.

Yet, in listening to the stories of the Lithuanian Jews, what struck me was something I hadn’t expected: the simple, elegant dignity of their daily lives. I had prepared for the familiar evil of barking dogs, traitorous neighbors and hastily dug pits in the woods. What I left with was something different: a portrait of an old world like a Klimt painting, in which a thousand modest symbols and shapes coalesce into something larger — something that shines like gold.

So often when we think of Judaism in Europe in the 20th century we bend to the gravity of the war, and forget to look at what came before or after it. No doubt the war is what draws us in, but there is real beauty to be discovered in the lives lived before and despite of the great catastrophe of the modern world. This is what Centropa has dedicated itself to, and they have built something monumental: an empathic archive to restore the luster of simple human dignity to a people systematically stripped of it by the Nazis.

Exiting the theater I thought of my bubbe and her Russian students. She often regretted having asked them about the war — the act of remembrance had clearly been so painful.

When my bubbe died, we received many calls from around the world — and over a dozen from her former students, now elderly women themselves. They told us that Charlotte had been their American mother, their dearest American friend, their beloved teacher for close to two decades. A woman who really understood them, and knew what they had been through.

Could such closeness, such love and affection, have come about without accessing the students’ painful memories? The memories were a way in, and they led to something so rich.

On June 22nd we commemorate the beginning of the end for Eastern European Jewry as we once knew it. But the pain of remembrance is an opening to something much deeper: a connection with a world that hardly exists except for in pictures and interview transcripts. And from simple words and images, that world glows anew.

Contact Ari Feldman at [email protected] or on Twitter @aefeldman

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