My family variously made their way to America from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. My paternal grandmother’s family were from Nagyvárad, Bihor County, Transylvania. My paternal grandfather was from Minsk Gubernia. My maternal grandmother’s family came from Bessarabia in Moldova, and hinted that her own parents or grandparents came to Bessarabia from Krakow. My maternal grandfather’s family were from Kiev Gubernia when it was still a part of the Russian Empire.
Only those who made their way to America (and their descendants) lived. Those who remained in Europe perished in the Nazi death camps — all except for one, Cousin Claudica. Not my cousin, of course, but that’s what we called her.
Cousin Claudica survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, and was said to have been a “patient” of the infamous Dr. Mengele. After the war was over and the camps liberated, she attempted to come to the United States. There was at the time, however, a strict quota on how many Jews could enter the country. She ended up indenturing herself to family up in Canada in order to escape Europe. The rest of the family, by now settled comfortably in Philadelphia, eventually found out about Claudica’s circumstances. They pooled together their resources, and put together enough money to buy out Cousin Claudica’s indenture, and sent Cousin Frank up to Canada with the money to redeem Claudica, and bring her back with him to America, and to the family. He was told that he’d have to marry Claudica so as to be able to bring her into the country. “You’ll stay married for six months,” they told Frank. “Then you can divorce her. But, by then, she’ll be a citizen.”
And so, Cousin Frank went up to Canada, paid off Claudica’s indenture, married her, and brought her back to America. But after six months, instead of divorcing, they had fallen in love, and remained married for the rest of their lives.
I last saw Cousin Claudica twenty-five or thirty years ago, and I believe she was in her seventies or eighties then. But I receive little news from the Hungarian side of the family, and so I have no idea when she died, or how long she lived.
My maternal grandmother never said much about her family’s history, except she once told me that her mother walked across Europe to book passage on a ship going to America. And my maternal great-grandparents, it was said, came to America fleeing conscription in one of the armies fighting for control of Russia near the time of the revolution, and the pogroms that never even took a break even then.
I was proud of my heritage, but I wasn’t especially religious. My father came from an observant Orthodox family, though he himself was not particularly religious. At least, not traditionally so. My mother’s side of the family were Haskalah Jews, and she herself was extremely active in the Reform movement.
Growing up, I was keenly aware that we were different from the Gentiles that surrounded us. Twice each week, I went to cheder, and on Friday night and Saturday morning, the family attended synagogue.