My mother, Eita Latkin, who lives in Fair Lawn, tells me a lot of stories. I know that I should write some of them down, but I usually don’t. This morning, though, was different.
She was telling me a story that I know I have heard before, but suddenly I realized how relevant it is to what is going on now. So now I have written down one of them, so I can share it with you.
The year was 1947. My grandmother’s first cousin, Bernard Page (changed from Buchbleter, which might mean “page” in Polish, as the story goes) had just arrived in the United States from Cuba. He had survived the war because he was first in the Polish army and then in Siberian labor camps, and he lost his entire family to the atrocity of the Nazis, but still initially he was denied entrance to the United States. So he went back to his Polish hometown, near Lublin.
A neighbor in that town told him that he’d heard rumors of an impending pogrom, and that he should leave. He did leave, right away — and it turned out that the neighbor was right. The pogrom happened the next day.
Somehow, my cousin Bernard was able to escape to Paris, and soon afterward he ended up gaining entrance to Cuba. He was an incredibly brilliant man. He knew the entire Torah by heart. He spoke fluent Spanish, Russian, Polish, and Yiddish.
A total side point to this piece is that I will always think that one of my biggest accomplishments in life was getting Bernard to tell his story to the Spielberg Foundation. For nine hours on a hot August day, in Bernard’s apartment in Queens, he was able to speak in all of those languages as he shared his story of survival with a very patient woman who also spoke many of those languages. He lived to be 104. But that is a whole other story. Back to this one.
My grandmother was born in Poland but left before the the first World War. The story goes that my great grandfather Benjamin (yes, that is who I am named after) was Bernard’s uncle, and he finally was able to sponsor him so he could get into the United States. He also started him in his own thread business, which ended up being very successful. Anyway, my mother, who was in second grade at the time, was recovering from scarlet fever, and there also was a fear of an outbreak of smallpox, so she remembers my grandmother telling her that she had to stay in her room when she let Bernard in.
Bernard was coming to the house for the very first time. My mother was 7 years old. I cannot even imagine what that was like for everyone in that house. A relative, whom they have either never met or barely knew, a relative who had escaped the Nazis, was coming over — and my mother wasn’t even allowed to meet him.
(As a side point, and not plague related, Bernard and his second wife Sarah, who never had children, were a huge part of my life; my maternal grandparents died relatively young. After Sarah passed away, my parents took care of Bernard like he was their own father.)
As my mother retold me this story for the zillionth time, I finally keyed in on the part about smallpox. I asked my mother about it, and she told me although there was a vaccine, and everyone had been vaccinated, the higher ups were not sure how long the immunity would last. They said that people had to get revaccinated. There was panic. People were scared. They were really scared.
Since my mother had scarlet fever, which turned into rheumatic fever, my grandmother had to keep her home to recover. Since my mom had been so sick, she hadn’t been able to get vaccinated for small pox, so my grandmother kept her home for six months or so. My mom missed the second half of second grade. My mom told me that my grandmother went to a local toy store and bought practically everything in it to occupy my mother.
I asked my mother if other children also were missing school because of the smallpox thing, and she wasn’t sure. So this just might be a case of my grandmother being highly overprotective of her daughter, and becoming the first woman to homeschool her child — because remember that there was no Zoom in 1947.
My mother always said that the reason why her penmanship looks just like my grandmother’s is because she taught her how to write while she was home. My siblings and I do not have beautiful penmanship, so take from that what you will.
In any event, this time my mother’s story really got to me. I thought about how scared my grandmother must have been. The family even cancelled my uncle’s bar mitzvah party.
Every generation has its own challenge — war, famine, plague. And yet, somehow, we manage to survive and even thrive, and with God’s help, we live to tell the stories.
Banji Ganchrow of Teaneck writes the Frazzled Housewife column for the Jewish Standard.