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We Are 1

A Family of the ...

 A Blog and Vlog

on the Parallels Between Refugees Now

and During World War II

We Are 1: A Family of Asylum-seekers

In May, 1939, my mother and her mother went to the dressmaker. Usually my grandmother's clothing was the reason for such an errand, but that spring my 14-year-old mother was to be fitted with new dresses. At the seamstress, my mother noticed that the seams and hems were generous and could be let out, if necessary. Nevertheless, that night she dreamt that she had nothing to wear, just a thin blouse and a skirt.

After the German invasion of western Poland the following September, my mother and her parents fled Kraków for southeastern Poland. They arrived in Tarnopol, the last stop on the railroad line, where a Jewish family took them in and gave them a room.


Then the Soviets invaded in May 1940. They gave the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from the west the option to return to German-occupied Poland, or to become Russian citizens. But they were not allowed to live in large cities or anywhere within 100 km of the frontier. My grandfather was an officer of the Polish Army reserve, so returning to the west was not an option. Instead, the family went to Zloczów where they lived with another Jewish family on the outskirts of town. And my mother had nothing to wear but a ragged shirt and a skirt.

Jewish refugees who opted to return to western Poland were eventually sent to Siberia, where they had a better chance of surviving than those who remained in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland because the Germans invaded in June 1941.


We Are 1: A Family of Asylum-seekers

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Yom HaShoah 2019 WeAre1: A Family of the Bereaved

Monument of Abraham Finkelstein, my great-great-grandfather, in the New Jewish Cemetary, Krakow.

WeAre1: A Family of the Bereaved


Last weekend, my husband and I attended a concert at Lincoln Center. The program included the American premiere of a symphony by Austrian composer Thomas Larcher called Kenotaph. The title is the German word for cenotaph, he explained, an "empty grave" commemorating "people who disappeared." In his work he honored the tens of thousands of refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean since the early 2000s, "while Europe did nothing." Other Austrians debated immigration, but Larcher felt terrible about the refugee crisis and also powerless. Kenotaphis is his response.
On this Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day 2019, it is heartening to contemplate an Austrian's empathy and desire to do something on behalf of refugees.


I think of my great-great grandfather Abraham Finkelstein (1824 – 1899) and his wife Laja, who were buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in Kazimierz, the old Jewish section of Kraków. I visited the New Jewish Cemetery during my 2016 trip to Vienna, Kraków, and Lwów to do research for HOW FAR https://www.authorsguild.net/services/sbx/sites/karen73/pages/1021/edit. With the help of the cemetary attendant, we found Abraham's monument in the third row from the front, but Laja's monument was missing. My husband and I placed stones on Abraham's monument. I cannot say I visited his grave, though, because when the Nazis occupied Kraków, they vandalized the cemetery. They collected flat gravestones to pave streets and threw larger monuments, including Abraham's, into a pile. Then they used the cemetery as a shooting range where they held regular target practice.
It is now the task of the attendant to try to match these monuments to the burial plots according to a registry and map of the cemetery. My ancestor's remains continue to lie separate from his monument, lost as they turn to dust.
And yet, Abraham Finkelstein was lucky. The location of the remains of his granddaughter, my maternal grandmother, Teofila Finkelstein Goldberger, were never known. All we know is that despite having bought false papers and posing as a Catholic, in July 1943 while walking on a street in Lwów she was denounced to be a Jew. Murdered. A person who disappeared. Nor do we know much of the fate of her husband, my maternal grandfather Isidor Goldberger. A friend told my mother that Isidor jumped from a train bound for concentration camp, also in July 1943. My paternal grandmother, Mechla Frankel, swallowed cyanide when the Gestapo came for her. I don't know the year.
There are not even cenotaphs for my three grandparents.
But my paternal grandfather rests here in New York. I'll tell you about his escape to freedom another time.
WeAre1: A Family of the Bereaved

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