In translating Yiddish letters, an entire heartbreaking history comes back to life
For many years these letters were quietly lying dormant. First they were in my parent’s three-story walk up in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Their bedroom faced the street and gave proper homage to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” — a giant magnolia tree in front of their window, heralded all the seasons. Wafting through the air was the scent of the furniture polish my mother used on their dark, rich mahogany bedroom furniture.
These letters were safely nestled within the warm wooden confines of the night table next to my father’s side of the bed, not too far from the pack of Camels he used to smoke.
Many of these letters written with a fountain pen in Yiddish have transformed over the years because of the frailty of parchment. Some are so fragile and diaphanous, I’m afraid, that they look like they’re about to disintegrate.
The vast majority are from my paternal grandma, Freyda, who was murdered in the Holocaust, along with my father’s only step-sister, Feygele.
I’ve always thought about my grandmother. I’ve seen her photos and I was named for her.
As I lay these letters and envelopes on my kitchen table and carefully push aside my sloshing coffee cup and torn packets of Splenda, I can’t help feeling the incongruity as an emotional tsunami washes over me, thinking of the journey and life they have taken over the past seven or eight decades. That this same piece of paper, probably written on a wooden table by candlelight in Krasnobrod, a small Polish town, now finds itself in my suburban kitchen is both staggering and humbling.
The majority of these letters date from the late 1930s to the early 1940s, until the Nazis, disregarding life and all else, decided they would do the same with the Nazi-Soviet “non-aggression” pact. Up until April 1941, Poland and the U.S. could still exchange mail. That these letters made it here in the first place is amazing to begin with.
After numerous attempts, I found a remarkably erudite gentleman, who could not only translate the letters, but also expound on their historical time and place. And, most important, I believe was the fact that he miraculously captured my grandma’s voice, one I never knew, only imagined, confirming that even though she disappeared, along with my father’s stepsister, under the most horrific circumstances, her existence is not lost, but rather permanently etched in my heart, my head and I strongly believe, the universe.
In my mind, I can’t help but imagine my 42-year-old grandmother kissing her 23-year-old son (my father) goodbye before boarding the ship that would dock in London and continue onto New York. Perhaps the day and time reflected a blushing fiery gold sunset as Freyda hugged her son for what would be the last time. Her wavy, cinnamon color hair capturing the glint of the sun; her preoccupied eyes starring into his very turquoise ones; her arms tightly hugging my father. Most likely, he was wearing the scratchy, long-boiled woolen coat that I’ve seen him photographed in.
Now, older than both my father and grandmother were at that time, I see myself in a corner of this picture, rooting for them to be reunited in “the place,’” which was how she referred to “America,” a word so hard to utter that it almost seemed divine and sacrosanct.
Almost all of these letters are written to my father, Khemye, or endearingly, Khaymele and to Freyda’s daughter-in-law, my mother, Rokhele.
In America, Khemye and Rokhele’s names became Nathan (Nat) and Ray, but I much prefer hearing my grandmother’s voice addressing them her way.
To backtrack a bit, my mother first came to America in 1932, then returned to Poland in 1936 to marry my father. She returned to the U.S. shortly thereafter, but my father had to wait over a year for his visa, and finally arrived in New York in March 1938.
Out of a group of envelopes, one particularly stood out. It had three postmarks on its back, and traced a two-month journey, beginning in Poland, traveling by rail to Russia, then by sea to of all places, San Pedro, California, finally arriving to its final destination, a humble Brooklyn street in “Ameryka.” The envelope and its contents seemed to travel the globe, with the determination and tenacity of a marathon runner.
“I think that when my letter arrives, Khemye will be there in a good hour. May he arrive in health, happiness and grace. May I have much ‘ naches’ (pleasure) from you in great measure,” Grandma wrote.
Her enthusiastic tone is contagious as she lists the items sent with my father to distribute among all the relatives. For my mother, six silver goblets; for the other relatives, featherbeds, cologne, underwear, and the revered staple of Polish cuisine — the mushroom, sent in the form of garlands. The one intended for my mother was made up of small white mushrooms bound in white thread, packed separately, as if it were a treasured, hand assembled jewel. Along with this came a bit unsolicited mother-in-law advice, cautioning my mother to make sure my father doesn’t drink anything cold while sweating because he might, G-d forbid, catch cold.
Along with these letters were a bunch of sepia-colored postcards from embassies and consulates spanning Poland, Unites States, Latvia and the U.S.S.R., in a desperate, futile attempt to get my grandmother and her daughter that elusive and tantalizing visa, always just out of reach:
“Now, my dears, yesterday Nogit’s daughter-in-law left Krasnobrod. She will travel by sitting on a ship! The tears in my eyes did not dry. I imagined that I might live to see such a day.”
I suppose because of the scarcity of paper, all of grandma’s letters name and offer greetings “honorably and lovingly” to a long list of relatives fortunate to be in New York. Back then, I believe it was common practice for family members to gather and hear the letter read out loud.
Like an oil painting, frozen in time, it’s easy to envision a group of relatives assembled, and I’m hoping for a brief moment, those words saturated all those huddled in the room, possibly making that wide ocean gap between them, momentarily disappear.
In her letters, incidents were often punctuated, not by dates, but by Jewish holidays, by rumblings of war growing closer. In one, she describes scraping up some money to visit the doctor about some health problems that had been bothering her for a while, but holding off on going until after Purim.
Then Passover. My great aunt in America had written to my grandmother how she had fainted upon seeing my father disembark the ship in New York, in March 1938, and in the same letter, she wrote of celebrating my father’s first Passover on these shores. Grandma said she read this letter out loud — “and everyone joined me in sobbing.” She was probably fantasizing she might be there, too, next to Elijah’s glass of wine at the Seder.
The last day of Passover was Saturday and on Sunday, my father’s younger sister, Feygele went to study and then play with her friend. Upon returning home, she slipped on a snowbank near the front door and broke her “little arm.” Her “cries reached the skies” as she was carried into the house. Once again as I read this phrase, I hear it in my head in Yiddish, and it is so much more poignant. And, who were these neighbors, long gone, traipsing into the house, melted snow dripping from heavy boots carrying my crying young aunt? The following day my grandmother took Feygele to the hospital where an operation was performed under a “sleeping potion” to set the “little arm.”
How relieved and overjoyed she was to hear from a friend who had crossed the Atlantic in reverse to hear my father was doing well. She thanked my father for the little jacket he sent along that fit her perfectly, along with a small amount of money he was able to accrue, as well as a small amount from grandma’s father, Shimon, who had emigrated years earlier and lived on the Lower East Side on Allen Street. How deliriously happy she must of felt, especially clutching that precious jacket.
“God alone knows what is happening in Poland – I believe you hear it from the newspapers,” she wrote with mounting anxiety. “Hope dashed, and an iron gate blocking every turn.” The blue ink is scrawled in frustration and disappointment as she tried to obtain that elusive visa.
Then, the mystery begins. Streaming through many of these letters is an unfamiliar man’s name. From the tone, this person is very significant and more importantly very much loved and desperately missed by my grandmother.
As a child, I vaguely recall hushed whispers, sadness and a name that often came up when we spoke of grandmother.
My paternal grandfather was lost in World War I. I never thought to ask my father who his sister’s father was. For whatever reason, it was not discussed.
In the many letters addressed to my parents and to this man, there is a sense of desperation. I can only envision her shakily dipping the pen into the inkwell and then onto the paper, pleading for a response.
Only in one letter is there a glimmer of hope. She writes of going to the post office every day to see if any mail arrived: “Finally, they gave me the letter. I opened the letter and could not see the way home, soaked by my tears.” He had promised he would leave from New York to Cuba and hopefully she might be able to somehow emigrate there first and then onto America.
In almost all the other letters she’s frantic with worry having not heard from him:
“What is the reason for your not writing? I am in no way wise enough to be able to understand,. I come close to madness by thinking….I beg you to write me the reason for your silence.”
“I know you are thinking of doing this. First, may God help that the world be still peaceful,” she writes, attempting to reassure or convince herself that he is still being proactive and working to facilitate getting the necessary documents for her.
“Dissolving in weeping,” is her current state as she writes that she hasn’t heard from him all winter long. Perhaps, he’s not working, working in another city, or worse, doesn’t care.
Married according to Jewish tradition, she was never registered according to civil law. As I shuffle through the letters, there are large voids. Perhaps the Consulate does not believe she is married. Also, it appears that her “husband” might have come to America under the guise of being single, complicating matters even more. In the meantime, my father has received the papers for her from Washington and is waiting for the visa. Bureaucracy and the mail are the big bullies, dictating and yet, unaware of the ultimate life and death decisions they are unknowingly complicit in.
Becoming sick, weary, and watching her household grow bare she carefully monitors the few zlotys she keeps for food and emergencies, as her life continues, mired in poverty.
Even though I’m unable to read Yiddish, I was finally beginning to recognize my grandmother’s and father’s handwriting when I came across two more letters with a distinctly different style — very angular with all the words spaced tightly together, as if trying to get three pages condensed into one. The writing was not my grandma’s, nor was it the very neat and well-spaced style of the ones my father wrote to my mother, his bride, during that year he had to spend in Poland before obtaining his visa.
The name, once again, totally unfamiliar, turned out to be that of my grandmother’s father-in-law.
Oftentimes, I’d sit on my knees, laying out these letters, side by side on the carpet trying to fill in the blanks, and attempt to weave together the story, underlining names and events, playing the role of amateur detective. The letter, written to my parents from my grandmother’s father-in-law wants to know how his son died. He wants to know details and of course, recite Kaddish. Apparently gleaning information, it appears my father had already written to him at some point with this horrible information. However, the circumstances surrounding the death is yet another mystery.
Another year has gone by and Passover has arrived again. My grandmother and Feygele are staying at her father-in-law’s house. Imagining the shock and despair of learning of her husband’s death, he writes to my father how unrecognizable my grandmother is now, so transformed by grief. No doubt, the little jacket that once upon a time, fit her perfectly, no longer does. And the child, (Feygele) probably around 10 years old, is so bereft, confused and bewildered that she no longer has a father. She wonders if perhaps she did something “sinful” to have contributed to her father’s death and somehow deserves this fate.
While reading the English translations, I am transported to “hearing” them in Yiddish, aware of words and connotations that can’t be translated, but deeply felt.
Even referring to Freyda as ‘grandma’ seems a little incongruous, the word catapulting her into too much of a modern time, so different from the one these letters transport me to.
My maternal grandmother, Pesce, who lived with us when I was little was always called “Bubbe.” Perhaps, I should refer to Freyda as Bubbe, too. But, Bubbe wore a “sheitel” and was very Orthodox. In all the photos I’ve seen of “grandma” she dresses a bit more modern and doesn’t wear a wig.
Bubbe and grandma, aside from each being the mother of my parents also happened to be cousins, and knew each other their entire lives.
Somehow, I feel that by touching and holding these precious letters, grandma will never disappear, and she will forever remain alive through her words. They will never be lost, just like the fragments of her DNA still on the back of those postage stamps on all those worn envelopes.
Her thoughtful salutations at the ends of her letters still share warmth and love above all else. “Greet in my name everyone to whom my greeting is meaningful,” she wrote. “Kiss everyone warmly in my name. Be happy and content your whole lives long.”
Fredda nee (Rubaschek) Nightingale is a wife, mother and grandmother living in Westchester County, New York.