It’s a book about the invisible hand of fate, extending its fickle finger here, tickling a cooing baby there.
In 1921, or possibly 1923, Yetta Marchbein, Yetta “Marrowbone” (her father was a butcher), about 20 years old and full of ambition and idealism (the Bolsheviks billeted in her home during the Revolution had been gentlemen and also inspired her), crossed the Atlantic Ocean from some European port, having made her way there, alone, far under the deck, terrified for life by the rats who walked the partitions there between the bunks. She, alone, of her large family in a muddy little shtetl in the Ukraine called Vishnevitz, would be alive twenty years later. The rest disappeared without a trace into the nightmare that was Hitler’s fondest dream. In the U.S. she’d take the Americanized name of her cousins, Miller, and two years later, long before the slaughter of her family and town, marry her strong, frightened fiance Sam Mazur, also from Vishnevitz, who followed her to the U.S. on a ship that embarked from Bremen during the presidency of Warren G. Harding. The Mazur family, Sam’s six brothers and sisters, father, mother, extended family, was murdered along with the Marchbeins and the rest of the Jewish town of Vishnevitz. There is a monument in the cemetery in Queens, behind the gates of the Vishnevitz Benevolent Society, where Sam and Yetta are buried, commemorating the slaughter there.
Sam and Yetta Mazur were my mother’s parents. They had one child, a girl they named Helen, who, as soon as she was able, changed her name to Evelyn. Evelyn grew up on Eastburn Avenue in the Bronx, a once thriving street with one end at the stylish Grand Concourse. Eastburn Avenue, at some point in my mother’s childhood, was cut in half, literally, and its neighborhood destroyed by Robert Moses and his Cross Bronx Expressway. In that apartment house, where the Mazurs lived on the first floor, a family named Stamper also lived. Yetta and Dinch Stamper (who called each other “Mazur” and “Stamper”) became lifelong friends. There is a great photo of the Mazurs and the Stampers, probably from before they had children, relaxing on the grass somewhere, in front of dense trees, dressed in the style for going out on Sunday in the early 1920s.
Dinch Stamper had been born Dinch (Diana) Gleiberman in a town in Belarus called Truvovich, a Jewish hamlet about 300 km. north of Vishnevets. The Jews of Truvovich met the same terrible fate as their landsmen in Vishnevets, wiped away with barely a trace, Truvovich now erased from the map. Dinch had come over by ship years earlier with a cousin named Chava Gleiberman, youngest sister of my father’s Uncle Aren. Aren had arrived here a decade earlier from Canada after fleeing involuntary service in the Czar’s army and the Russo-Japanese War. Chava, a good-looking, deeply religious red-headed Jewish girl, had her hopes for a happy marriage dashed when Aren’s wife broke up a romance with a Jewish postman in Peekskill who’d fallen for Chava. When Chava’s indentured servitude to Aren and his wife ended a marriage was arranged hastily with a man named Harry Widem, a man my father described on his deathbed as “an illiterate country bumpkin completely overwhelmed by this world.” What my father probably didn’t know about were the routine beatings, with club-like boards, that young Harry had received daily from his step-mother in the mud-floored farmhouse in Connecticut where he was raised. What I didn’t learn until recently was that Harry spoke English with no accent, unlike Yetta and Sam whose Yiddish accents and inflections spiced my childhood. I never met Harry and Chava, both died before I was born. I am named after my father’s father Harry (Eliyahu in Hebrew) and my sister after Chava. What is now well-known is how much Chava despised her husband, and that she whipped her oldest son, Israel, without mercy, from the time he could stand.
The hand of fate, gentle reader, spared these two couples, Sam and Yetta and Chava and Harry, my grandparents, while the rest of both of their large families (several of Harry’s siblings and half-siblings in the US survived to produce families, as did Chava’s brother Aren, who has dozens of descendants here and in Israel) disappeared into the night and fog the world remembers hazily as World War Two. The good war America fought against unequivocal Evil.
My parents met, of course, in that apartment building on Eastburn Avenue in the Bronx where my father, and his younger brother Paul, would visit their cousin Dinch and her family. During these visits my future father spied my future mother, the beautiful, dark-haired, popular and completely haughty, Evelyn Mazur. She had an active social life, many boyfriends, and considered the shy, skinny guy from Peekskill a laughable hayseed, and besides, he was clearly poor as a church mouse. In time she would agree to go out with him (to get the insistent Yetta off her back) and would watch, amazed, as he transformed himself from hick to urbane, witty, increasingly sophisticated boyfriend, fiance and later husband. They would build a middle class life together, she’d come to think of him as the most secure and brilliant man she’d ever known and he would (when not making her cry) give her all the credit for transforming his life into one worth living and striving to improve.
If Yetta, Chava and Sam had not left Europe before the slaughter of everyone they knew (Chava lost her brothers Yuddle and Volbear and her sister Chaski as well as the rest of her family in Truvovich), had not Harry (who came to the US as an infant) survived the passage and a childhood of blows to the head with whatever wooden truncheons came to hand, Evelyn and Israel would not have been born. If they had not come to be, and meet, and procreate, neither would I have. If the bleeding my mother endured one frightening day late in her time pregnant with me had been worse, if this, then that.
The hand of fate, gentle reader, including its fickle, tickling finger. More details to follow, perhaps, if fate and the spirits will it.