Monday, 29 September 2014

Dear Brother

In July 1936, my grandfather's sister Chawa wrote from her home in Gombin, Poland, to her brother Lajzer in Tel Aviv, which was at that time in British-controlled Palestine. My cousin Bracha, Lajzer's daughter, came across the letter a year or so ago, amongst her father's effects.

The letter is written in Yiddish, which unfortunately none of us can understand. However, we have had it translated into English, and it makes pretty harrowing reading.

Lajzer had emigrated to South America in the 1920s, and then to Palestine in the early 1930s. Chawa's husband had died, leaving her with four children - Marjem (21), Laja (19), Szejva (17) and Jakub Josek (15). She was also looking after her mother Gitla (my great-grandmother), who was aged 75 and was unwell. The situation for Jews in Poland during the 1930s was difficult to say the least - there was much prejudice, many Poles refused to trade with Jews, and restrictive laws were passed. 

Chawa and her family were keen to follow Lajzer to Palestine, and she made an application to emigrate which included herself, her mother and her two younger children. The application was accepted by the British authorities; however, none of them left Poland, and Chawa and all her children, apart from Laja, were killed in the Holocaust. We do not know what happened to Gitla.

Here are some extracts from the letter, which give an idea of what Chawa and her family were going through.
Dear Brother, 
We hereby share with you that we are in good health. We wish to hear of your good health forever. 
True, my dear brother, we sincerely thank you for your dear condolence letter. You have brought joy to our sad hearts with your words of condolences. True, dear brother, you have enlivened our weak mother with you dear writing, and she prays to G-d that she will live to see you again and come to the Holy Land. 
We want to work and we work very hard, but there is nothing here for us to eat other than what you my dear brother sends and the few dollars that I receive at times from my mother-in-law. If not for this we would suffer much need and go to shame with the children. 
The Jews are now being buried. It is all going over into gentile hands. And we work carrying a heavy load but earn nothing. When we want to buy something with our earnings, they say "for this you have to pay dearly". As a result there is no income. We toil really hard and with added fear from the gentile merchants, who are dismissive of our life.  
Imagine our situation. The boycott is so great. The bitter situation is that there’s nowhere to earn, and they raise the price only for the Jews. 
In short, the hatred is big, the boycott even more so. Between all this it is not possible to live.  
Chawa suggests that it is her mother's illness that is delaying their emigration:
I have sent your letter to Warsaw and I added, ‘that since my dear mother is not well, and I do not have anyone to leave her with, I ask that they postpone the aliya (emigration to Palestine) till she is healthy.’ 
So my dear brother, our dear mother is not feeling well and she needs great care. She has gotten very weak from heartache of seeing my lot. She can not eat what we eat and needs to heal. I am doing all that I can and more, but I do not have the means. She is very weak.
She then drops a bombshell - at least, it is to us:
My true dear brother, now I am going to get married with mazal (luck) right after Shabbos Nachamu (a Sabbath in late summer).
None of us were aware that Chawa had remarried - not even her grand-daughter Ewa, daughter of Laja, the only survivor. The fact that Chawa doesn't feel the need to mention who her new husband is, suggests that Lajzer may already have known about the impending marriage.
When we will arrive there [in Israel] in peace then with G-d’s help everyone will be able to earn their own. Because everyone wants to work and is capable of working, as they say. And when it comes around they will definitely work. There should only be work to do. They can not wait to help and to be together with you. 
G-d should give you joy and have compassion on my beautiful children and on my suffering. I should only live it through in good health.
After four pages of closely packed writing, Chawa adds a final sentence written vertically in the margin:
I can not describe to you exactly how things are and my desperate situation leaves me not wanting to write at all, it is only that I must write to you. I know very well that you have a lot of heartache from us. We send you our best wishes and all kiss you and hope to be with you.
Along with this letter, Bracha also found a number of documents that Chawa must have sent to Lajzer when she was making her application. These papers give us important information about the family, confirming or contradicting what we thought we knew before, and I will be writing about them in later posts.