The Lost Tribe of the Andes traces three generations of a Jewish family, from the 1800s in Eastern Europe to America in the present. In the aftermath of the death of her father, author Jane Genende began her search for meaning in her family's genealogical story. In the course of her research Jane uncovered a wealth of personalities as she traveled throughout Europe.
In this memoir and family history, Jane explores the challenges her family faced in the course of emigrating from Europe to America before World War II and assimilating into American culture; she also recalls the conflicted process of separation and individuation from a traditional Jewish family that she and her three siblings experienced during the 1960s. Her story deals with themes that are at once personal and universal: being the only girl, feeling like an outsider, struggling with her Jewish identity, assimilating into American culture, coping with the death of a parent, and raising a family of her own.
Jane's story is one that touches on the immigrant experience in America and presents a heartfelt and inspiring journey of self-discovery through family history.
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The Lost Tribe of the AndesA Jewish-American Family's Struggle with Assimilation
By JANE GENENDE
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Jane Genende
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFamily History
Moshe Binyamin was the first child born to a young couple in the late 1870s. His father died when he was a boy, and his mother remarried. Moshe was a rambunctious young child, and unfortunately, his stepfather did not take a liking to him. He insisted that Moshe be sent away and raised by his maternal aunt. This separation from his mother coupled with the loss of his father only served to worsen Moshe's behavioral problems. From that point on, Moshe was shuffled around like an old suitcase filled with hand-me-downs from one relative to the next. Each time he was deemed to be too much trouble, he was tossed off to another relative until he finally ran out of relatives and was sent as a young teenager to apprentice and live with a blacksmith and his family.
Life as a blacksmith's apprentice was no better. He was mistreated, overworked, and underfed, but he remained there till he was old enough to marry and live on his own.
Moshe married and had four daughters. His first wife died, leaving him with his four daughters, Gertrude, Ethel, Rose, and Margaret. Sometime after that he met and married Hanchu Leah Klein, bringing three of his daughters to his second marriage. Rose had died at an early age.
Hanchu Leah, born in the 1880s, was also raised in a blended family. Her mother died when she was a young girl, and she was raised in a family with her father, stepmother, siblings, and stepsiblings. According to my Aunt Elsie and my cousin Barbara, Hanchu's stepmother was a loving and affectionate parent to her children and stepchildren.
Dad was the sixth of the eight children—five girls and three boys—born to Moshe Binyamin and Hanchu Leah. All together my grandfather had twelve children: Gertrude, Ethel, Margaret, and Rose from his first marriage and then Shirley, Martin, Elsie, Hinda, Arnold, Joe, Rhoda, and Hermione from his second marriage. Growing up, I knew my aunts and uncles by their Yiddish names as well as their English ones. My Aunt Hinda's name, which is Yiddish in origin, remained unchanged because she remained in Europe and died in the Holocaust. Therefore, she never received an English substitute.
Dad's family was from a small border town between Hungary and Czechoslovakia located in the Sub-Carpathian region in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains called Ilosva. Despite the fact that his family never moved from their home, their nationality changed several times. Before World War I, their town was known as Ilosva and was part of Hungary. Between World War I and World War II, power and control over the area shifted, borders were redrawn, and Ilosva was renamed Irshava and became a part of Czechoslovakia. After World War II, when borders were once again redrawn, Irshava became a part of the Ukraine in the USSR. Today Irshava is a small village in independent Ukraine.
As a boy, Dad spoke Yiddish at home and could read and understand biblical Hebrew. He also spoke both Czech and Hungarian. By the time he was of age to attend school (about 1927), the region had changed from a Hungarian to Czechoslovakian territory, and Dad was enrolled in a Czech school. Dad's accent—his way of pronouncing certain words that contained the letters V, W, and TH—was a curious mixture of Yiddish, Hungarian, and/or Czech. It was a less harsh and guttural sound than the usual stereotypic Yiddish accent, having an extra roundness or mushiness to specific consonants. When Dad spoke, his articulation of V and W seemed to be a battle between the two consonants. Oftentimes they were reversed or interchanged. For example: "Vell I don't know," or "Wery vell, dank you."
Dad's idiosyncratic way of speaking idiomatically was a funny byproduct of having learned English as a young adult in a classroom from textbooks and literature. When we left too many lights on or didn't turn off the light when leaving a room, he'd say, "De lights are blazing. Vhy do you leave the lights blazing like dat?" Oftentimes as he was giving one of us a lecture, he would repeat, "You are not following a straight and narrow path." Last, if he was unhappy about the state of affairs at home or on the news, he might express his frustration by stating, "The vorld has gone topsy-turwy."
Dad's upbringing was that of orthodox Jews. His family kept kosher and observed the Sabbath and religious holidays. His father was a blacksmith and a subsistence farmer. In addition to the house they lived in, they had a barn that served as his father's smithy shop. The smithy contained a furnace and a large bellows, as well as other necessary tools of the trade. They had a second house or a spare room, depending on who was telling the story, that was leased to tenants.
In describing his home life, Dad often made statements like, "It vas a harsh existence, liwing on vhatever animals ve raised. Ve had a cow and chickens, de earnings from Father's small smithy, and de rent from tenants."
Then he would pause, his eyes pensive. Seeming to try to search his memory, he might add more details: "Ve ate vhatever Mother grew in her wegetable garden. Ve vould sometimes barter for goods and serwices. Father vould fashion or fix a tool for someone, and instead of being paid in money, ve vould trade items."
During one of these conversations, he paused, thought for a moment, and then added, "Ve had an outhouse and vell vater. Our house had a real floor, not a dirt one, vhich was better than our neighbors had."
When I was a child living in the Bronx, one of my favorite rainy day activities was to rummage through my parents' old photos, which were kept in a drawer in Mom's vanity. This drawer was a treasure trove of old family photos that had not been put into our family album. I would hold up an old photo, perhaps a group photo with Dad in his army uniform, and ask Mom, "Who else besides Dad is in this picture?"
She would stop whatever chore she was doing, and glancing at the photo she'd reply, "Oh, that's a picture of Dad and his army buddies, taken in 1943, when he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands." Or I would hold up a baby picture, and she would instantly be able to distinguish between my older brothers, Barry and Jerry, which I never could.
One of my favorites is a photo of Dad's family taken in 1920s capturing most of the clan standing in front of their house. From left to right stood Grandfather, Granny (as we called her), who was pregnant with her youngest child, Hermione, Margaret, Shirley holding Rhoda, Elsie, Hinda, Arnold, Dad, and Martin. Dad was about three years old. His hair was long and curly, and he was wearing a long smock over his clothing. His pants were tucked into his boots, like his father and brothers.
In another picture Dad was about eight years old, posing with his Chader, an all-boys Talmud torah class. I never noticed until I started to write this chapter and took a closer look at this photo that the boys in the front row are all barefooted, and the stern-looking teacher is holding a switch, presumably used to enforce discipline.
I was, and still am, fascinated by our collection of old photos, particularly that old photograph of Dad's family. I would stare at it and wonder about each one of the characters. I wondered what their daily lives were like. Dad described the interior of his house as being dominated by "one large central room vith other smaller rooms off the main one, a kitchen vith a stove, and a bedroom for Mother and Father." They had a hearth for cooking and heating, and all family activities took place in that large central room. In addition to the main house, the property consisted of an adjacent barn structure for the smithy, an outhouse, a vegetable garden, and a patch of land for chickens and various animals to graze in. All this was surrounded by a wooden picket fence.
As a child, I sometimes joked about this family photo. Actually I was embarrassed by it. "They look like a Jewish version of The Beverly Hillbillies," I'd say—which, incidentally, was one of Dad's favorite television shows. It was a comedy about the Clampetts, a family of poor mountain people who struck oil on their property and moved to Beverly Hills. Dad was not offended by this humorous connection. I know that he too must have seen the correlation between the two families. Jed Clampett did not have a beard but was reminiscent of my grandfather with his old hat and careworn clothes, and the actress who played the role of Granny was petite and short in stature like our granny.
When my parents took us, for the first and only time, to see a Broadway play—the 1964 production of Fiddler on the Roof—I felt as if I were seeing my fantasy and Dad's family brought to life. I was mesmerized! Suddenly, it was as if everyone in our photo came to life. The people on the stage looked like the people in the photo! My grandfather looked uncannily like Tevye, the main character in the play. They both had a full beard and wore long boots with their pants tucked inside. They kept their heads covered. In our photo, my grandfather was wearing a large, floppy hat that looked like a worn-out fedora and the traditional prayer shawl under his shirt, just like Tevye.
Granny looked like Tevye's wife, Golda, wearing a wig, called a sheitel. Granny's dress was long, the hem just above her ankles.
Whenever Dad spoke about the past, he would repeat variations of the same story, sometimes adding a little more if prodded or saying less when he felt disturbed by my questions and the subsequent unearthing of unpleasant memories. He was very circumspect about the details of his life in Europe, but over time, I have been able to cull together stories that are a blend of facts and family folklore. One of my favorite stories involved my grandfather.
Moshe Binyamin Feuerstein had traveled alone to the United States in the early 1900s, hoping to find a place where he could build a better life for himself and his family. During his short stay, he witnessed a streetcar accident in which a pedestrian was killed. The shock of this incident was the final blow to any thoughts of sending for his family and staying in America.
Dad recalled, "Fathers aid dat he felt out of place in America. He called it a Godless country dat vas not Jewish enough."
He returned home to his European village. Years later, in 1935, he died of kidney disease in his fifties. Dad was only thirteen, just past his Bar Mitzvah, when his father died, leaving a widow with eight children of her own plus a stepdaughter, to fend for themselves. Dad had been attending school but had to drop out in the eighth grade to help support the family. He began as a carpenter's apprentice. This was a natural occupational choice. It was Dad's habit on weekday afternoons on his way home from school to visit the village carpenter's shop and watch him work. He had always been interested in carpentry, and as a young child, he liked to carve wooden animals.
In the 1920s, Dad's older sister, Gertrude, emigrated to America. She lived with her husband, Ignatz, in Yonkers, New York. After she received the news about their father's death in 1935 in the form of a letter from the family, Gertrude knew that their situation was dire. Her stepmother was now a poor widow with little means to support eight children. She began making arrangements for the family to come to America. From the time of my grandfather's death in 1935 until 1939, with the help of Gertrude's sponsorship, the family left Europe in stages as their emigration papers came through.
I don't know how and when Dad's older siblings left Czechoslovakia, but he, Arnold, Rhoda, Hermione, and Granny were the last to leave. They went by train from Czechoslovakia to Genoa in September of 1939. In Genoa they were scheduled to embark on the steamship the SS Conte di Savoia in October of 1939 to America. However, Aunt Rhoda and Aunt Hermione, the youngest, were not permitted on the ship because their papers were not in order. They were still minors and did not have their birth certificates. They had to stay behind for several weeks in the care of a Jewish family until they received their birth certificates, and then they were approved to make the voyage from Genoa to America.
There are a lot of missing details to Dad's descriptions of his life in Europe and his emigration story, but whenever I became curious and asked anyone in the family, like Dad, they always gave abrupt answers and were reluctant to go back to that time in their lives. They would say things like, "It was so long ago, who remembers?" Or when I would ask my uncles, they would respond, "Ask your Aunt Rhoda or Aunt Elsie. They remember," or "Well it was a hard time for us. That's really all I want to say."
My Aunt Hermione's recollections focused on the peasant foods they used to eat and how much she liked them. They were foods that sounded horrible and usually involved animal parts or organs like liver and onions, lung and rice, or chicken feet.
Aunt Rhoda, who is about three years younger than Dad, and it is interesting to note, does not have an accent, gave me the most details.
"Life was good while Father was alive. We had enough money and food, but when he died, everything changed, and we were very poor and desperate for help. When we left the country, Hermione and I had to stay behind until we obtained our official birth certificates. We said good-bye to Mother not knowing when we would see each other again. That was hard. It was so long ago. We were lucky that we were able to get out. Others like Hinda were not so lucky. Oy, it's too hard to look back. It was a different time."
When Dad came to New York in 1939 at the age of eighteen, he completed high school at night and applied for citizenship while working during the day in a furniture factory. For as long as I can remember, Dad always made an effort to expand and improve his command of the English language. I can still see him sitting at the dining room table reading the Herald Tribune, or later when that went out of print, the New York Times, with a dictionary beside him in case he came across a word he did not know. He would look it up and sometimes proudly share with whoever was nearby that he had learned a new word.
His accent seemed very exotic to me, a constant reminder that he was from another place and time. Interestingly, as the years passed and we both got older, it seemed to me that his accent lessened and I heard less of his idiosyncratic pronunciations. Or perhaps I had become so accustomed to it that the sounds no longer registered for me.
I was aware of the Holocaust at an early age, having grown up surrounded by adults who were European, many of whom were survivors of the war. Some of my friends' parents who were survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp had numbers tattooed on their forearms. However, what I knew then was a sanitized version of the events that actually took place.
On occasion I had school assignments and projects like a family tree that required obtaining detailed information from Dad abou this family. I remember this being particularly difficult for Dad. Forced into divulging details, he would become cold and distant, answering with curt snippets of information as a way of protecting himself from the memories my questions stirred up. It was his reluctance that made me want to know more. I wondered why he was so mysterious. He never spoke easily about his past, his father's death, and his brush with the Holocaust.
"Dad, how come you spoke Czech and lived in Czechoslovakia but Aunt Elsie speaks Hungarian, and how come you don't speak Czech or Hungarian anymore?
"Oy, so many questions."
"Well I need it for," the magic words, "my school report. I have to do a report on our family history and make a family tree."
"Okay, vell our town vas right on the border of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Russia in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. It kept changing hands vhenewer dere vere vars or political disputes about boundaries. First our border town vas part of Hungary and ve spoke Hungarian, but that vas before World War I. Ve spoke Yiddish at home, and Mother and Father could speak Hungarian and Czech. Martin, Elsie, and Shirley learned Hungarian, but vhen our border town became part of Czechoslovakia, I vent to Czech public school vere I had to speak only Czech. I vent to Chader after school to learn Torah and Hebrew. Dere ve spoke to each oder in Yiddish."
Dad paused and then added, "Vhen I left dere I was glad to leave. Dere is no good reason to remember the Czechs, Hungarians, or deir language. Now I'm American, and I speak English."
Excerpted from The Lost Tribe of the Andes by JANE GENENDE Copyright © 2012 by Jane Genende. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter I: Family History....................3
Chapter II: The Outsider....................25
BOOK II: THE BRONX....................35
Chapter I: A Room of My Own....................37
Chapter II: A Year of Sundays....................41
Chapter III: The Fearsome Foursome....................48
Chapter IV: Summer Camp Refusenik....................51
Chapter V: Pants Week....................58
Chapter VI: The Porch....................64
BOOK III: PASSOVER....................69
Chapter I: The Seder....................71
Chapter II: Assimilation....................88
Chapter III: Passover Revisited....................116
Chapter IV: House for Sale: DNR....................119
Chapter V: A Full-Circle Moment....................123
BOOK IV: HOME....................127
Chapter I: Pilgrimage Parts I & II....................129-137 Chapter II: From Manhattan to Suburbia....................149
Chapter III: From Rockaway to Westhampton....................152
Chapter IV: Closure Parts I & II....................156-162 Bibliography....................191
About the Author....................193