Of Burdens and Trophies; or, How I Got Here

I’m sure that everyone has someone in their family who was, at one time, at least a little famous. Maybe not a parent, child or sibling, but perhaps a cousin, or a uncle, or a great-aunt. What value does such proximity to fame hold? In most cases, about zero. So what if your second cousin, thrice removed, was in that TV commercial for Preparation-H; not only did that get you no free hemorrhoid relief, but it didn’t even garner you the additional attention you desired.

On the other hand, I’ve lucked out. No, my relative is not some actor. She’s not even very famous for that matter. But she was well-known in her day…at least in certain circles. Dairy circles, that is. But that’s not what concerns me. What is even better is that she authored an autobiography, called The Burden and the Trophy. For someone like me who is always trying to get more detail about the ancestors who came to these shores from the Old Country, this is a treasure trove.

Don’t get me wrong: the book isn’t exactly a bestseller.  That’s putting it mildly.  My Great-Aunt Maete was known for the Watertown Dairy farm and the big house in Watertown on Grove Street around which the farm was based.  Aunt Maete’s goals are pretty much summed up in the Foreword:

I trust when you turn the pages to read my story you will derive as much pleasure from it as I did writing it, and that you will be proud of your Grandma Shick. (Emphasis added.)

That is, I’m not sure she envisioned anyone beside her grandchildren reading the book.  Maybe she would be delighted that her great-nephew read the book 40 years after her death.  No matter: this book is really of interest to descendants of the characters in the book.  Which means, for me, my grandfather Leo (Lajzar in the Old Country), her younger brother by 18 years. (!)

(Sidebar: Maete was born in 1885, I was born in 1970, just after she died.  Her being my great-aunt may have you scratching your head; stay with me.  Maete was 18 years the senior of Grandpa Leo, born in 1903 [and 108 next week].  Leo was pretty old when my Dad was born in 1945, my Dad being the youngest of four by a country mile.  Maete’s grandkids were older than my Dad, her nephew.)

The book itself is really two books: growing up in the Old Country, and making a life for herself here in the Boston area.  As far as giving you an objective impression of the book as an autobiography, well…OK, I’ll try.  I think the strength of the book lies in its structure; the two separate parts represent the clean break Maete had when she left her family in Europe.  Maete manages to answer the basic questions a descendant of hers has: why did she leave Europe in 1908?  Why Boston?  I wish she said more about my grandfather – he is only mentioned three times – but he gets more of a billing than other siblings (9 kids in the Gordon family) and I am able to understand a bit of his life in conjunction with what my Dad has told me.

That said, despite what the publisher, Pageant Press, says all over the jacket, this book is really only of interest to her descendants and maybe to Watertown historians.  The book itself is very hard to plow through at first.  The writing seems subpar; I identified grammatical and usage mistakes throughout.  This is likely not Aunt Maete’s fault: she wrote the book in her mother tongue, Yiddish, and Pageant had the work translated by one Mary J. Reuben.  Ms. Reuben could have used a better editor for sure.  Other things, however, lie with the original writing.  The story is difficult to follow: Maete’s mother is pregnant a lot, for sure, but one can never be sure when she is or isn’t.  Siblings are introduced and are rarely heard from again unless something happens (one dies).  Times are very difficult to track: the chapters seem to spill beyond each other.  Only the fact that this story was about me in a way made me scour the text for logical connections; without such a fundamental motivation, I wouldn’t bother.

That all said, the book is worth its weight in gold – way more than that – to me for what it is: a document of my ancestral heritage.  OK, 1/4 of my ancestral heritage, but the one with my namesake.  This is a big deal.  You may have stopped reading long ago, I don’t know; nevertheless, I am going to put down what I have learned so far about my heritage.

First of all, some perspective on a topic that has always been confusing to me.  My grandmother Lillian (Liza in the Old Country), Leo’s wife, grew up in Vilna, which is now known as Vilnius, the capital of Lithuanian.  Yet Lillian spoke, with my grandfather, Polish. (Yiddish also, of course.)  This always confused the shit out of me and I never got a decent answer to my questions until recently, when the book forced me to think hard about Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th Century.

So, Maete was born in a town called Lubyotka and her family settled in another, larger town called Vassilishok.  Now, a naive soul googles “vassilishok” and gets babkes.  Did it disappear off the map?  No, no, although, as you can imagine and I will mention below, it may as well have.  What I found via the site JewishGen is that Vassilishok was the Yiddish name for the current town Vasilishki, Belarus.  Belarus!  Leo was born here in Vasilishki, and he, as far as anyone knows, never spoke a word of Belorussian.  Not because he only spoke Yiddish; he spoke Polish, as did most Jews who, as opposed to stereotypes, did interact with the greater non-Jewish population.

The reason for the weird language thing is that, in the 19th and early 20th century, these areas (Vilnius and Vasilishki, as well as Belorussian cities like Grodno and Lida) were a part of Poland.  Poland, as some of you may know, was taken over by Germany and Russia between 1795 and 1945 more times than one cares to count.  The region we understand to make up Poland, Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine today was the land under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  It turns out that this Commonwealth was very progressive and allowed different peoples to flourish, Jews included.  Much of this area became heavily Jewish and Jewish life and culture thrived here.

The Commonwealth ceased to be in 1795.  The modern borders of Poland, Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine were established after WWII.  In between, up until WWII, are details I will leave to my reading of Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999; let’s just say that national myths were created, and peoples and their respective languages dominated the land inside the borders.  None of this, of course, bade well for Jews living in this region; Snyder called this region of the Commonwealth the Bloodlands.

What I did learn about Vasilishki during WWII was this:

The ghetto was surrounded on May 9, 1942, and no one escaped.  On May 10 prisoners started to be taken out to the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town in groups of 60 people.  The graves were already prepared.  They ordered people to undress and stack their clothes in piles.  They were then pushed into ditches and shot.  This continued until May 11.  The total number of those shot over those two days was 2,159.  A total of 2,865 of all nationalities died in Vasilishki and surrounding region during the years of the occupation, and 598 were sent off to Germany.  A special group of the SS from Lida took an active role in the pogrom under the command of the headquarters officer Windish and his assistant Vasyukevich, together with the gendarmie and Gestapo of neighboring regions.

The Belarussian police, headed by commander Yezhevsky, and aided by Tubilevich, Vitold Schmigger and Nikolai Zhurun — who distinguished themselves with particular cruelty – provided significant aid to the Nazis.  The Aid Commission of the [acronym for a State Committee] of the USSR of the Vasilishki Region put together a list of 616 families from the peaceful population who were victims.  The majority were Jews.

Now, I’ve read loads of Holocaust horror stories, but when you know that your extended family was subjected to this inhuman Hell, it hits you like a gut punch.  When I found the above, I just stared at the text as a whole block, afraid to read the words for a while.  I know I lost distant family in The War, but placing a name on the town and seeing numbers like that makes my flesh crawl.  My task now is to find names; some of those doubtless will be Maete’s siblings and their kids – my cousins once removed.

Then I found this little gem:

In 1967 an obelisk to “Soviet citizens” was erected to those killed by the Fascists.

And people want to know why Jews wanted to get the flock out of Soviet Russia from the 1960’s on.

OK, back to Maete.  Her father (my great-grandfather) was a cattle trader named Mordechai Isaac Gordon; her mother was Chaye Reva der Brashkier Gordon.  Maete, as I alluded to above, was the oldest of 9 children.  (My grandfather Lajzar was the 8th.)  Anyway, the first part of the book details living conditions for Maete growing up.  They were the equivalent of middle class, which in absolute terms in America means dirt poor, but they had a house and could support an army of kids, so, as the Yiddish parable says, it could be worse.

Maete is “modern” in the sense that she knows she is a looker (although, from the blurry photo on the jacket, you’d be forgiven for wondering what happened in her old age; of course, I inherited these looks, so perhaps I should just shut up now), and wants to follow her heart.  This is, of course, the Old Country, so…never happen.  Maete is fixed up with Isaiah Shick, a native of Vassilishok just back from Buenos Aires, having worked there for a brother in his hat factory.  Maete is none too pleased at the arrangement when she learns that Isaiah is illiterate, but relents to preserve her family’s reputation.  (Actually, Maete breaks off the engagement, but her scheming parents make Maete and Isaiah godparents to my just-born grandfather; the godparent-to-my-future-grandpa-thing works its charm and the wedding is set for, like, 2 weeks after my grandpa’s bris.  Good G-d!)

Now, this is late 1903.  Maete and Isaiah are trying to figure out what to do; my great-grandfather Mordechai forbids them to go back to Argentina.  (A big “whew!” on my part.)  Maete and Isaiah start to plan to settle in Vilna.  But, history intervenes in the form of the Russo-Japanese War.  (Vassilishok, and Poland generally, is under the rule of the Tsar.)  Isaiah is at extreme risk of being drafted into the military to fight, so he quickly makes a plan to haul ass somewhere where he and Maete could plausibly start a life.  It turns out that Isaiah has yet another brother, Feive, who tells Isaiah that coppersmiths (which is Isaiah’s trade, I guess) are in high demand in Boston in the USA.  (A big shout out to the Russian and Japanese empires, as well as brother Feive.  Thank you all; without you, I would not be here.)  So, after an interlude in Paris, Isaiah travels to Boston, leaving his pregnant wife behind.

Maete and her new daughter stay back in Vassilishok for four years before they make the move to Boston.  (Yikes.)  Nonetheless, she comes; the reunited family settle in a shoddy apartment in the West End.  Maete is humbled by how much they will struggle even in modest circumstances on Isaiah’s pay, so she decides to go into business.  Based on her father’s trade, she decides to try dairy farming.  (!!)  After a humble beginning, Maete eventually moves the works out to Watertown, a ten-cent cab fare from the West End; the growing family moves to Watertown permanently as the business and family grow.  The book chronicles the struggles of running the farm in the face of vicious competition from the likes of Hood (who messed with her bottles) and myriad state regulations which made dairy farming an expensive business indeed.

What’s interesting to me, ultimately, is any information I can glean about my grandfather Leo/Lajzar.  (BTW my Hebrew middle name is Lazar; my grandfather was very much alive when I was born.  So what gives?)   I know that he and my grandmother essentially eloped in 1930 (Lillian’s mother had a stroke soon after, so I am told) and came to Boston, ostensibly because Maete had work for Lajzar.  I believe they arrived in 1931, but the text seems to imply that Lajzar was helping Maete’s son Hyman with milk routes in 1929 or so.  I don’t know, but this is why I found the book a little frustrating; some immigration records would help sort this out.

Anyway, Lajzar gets a third mention toward the end of the book as Maete talks about his taking on a major route in Roxbury and Dorchester because all of her customers from the West End have moved to those places.  This makes perfect sense, as my grandparents settled in Dorchester (well, “settled” is not a great word; my grandfather was somewhat ornery and moved the family a lot due to battles with landlords).

At long last, this takes me through the family history I have gleaned from reading this valuable book.  Thank you Auntie Maete for having the patience and guts to write a book that, while not exactly something to be paraded in the NYRB, is something which maintains a link between your generation and ours.  The book is a lifeline, and is your permanent imprint.


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Ron Gordon

Math nerd in his early 40's who seems to have an opinion about everything and an inability to keep it to himself.