My Father’s Eulogy, fleshed out (part 1 of many)

I see, reading the eulogy that the gentle soul who conducted the funeral put together, that a couple of elements of my uncle’s story were incorporated into my narrative, as well as a beautiful tribute by my largely insane aunt.  So much the better for our purposes here.

The eulogy begins:

Israel I. “Irv” Widaen was born June 1, 1924 to Harry and Eva Widem in NYC.   The Widem family lived on Henry Street in Lower Manhattan for the first few years of his life. 

The family may or may not have lived on Henry Street in Lower Manhattan, it is impossible for anyone alive today to verify that.  They certainly lived in the teeming Jewish section of the slum on the lower East Side in 1924 when the baby, Azrael Irving (always rendered “Israel Irving” in English, due to Irv’s parents’ illiteracy in English) was born.  He was named for his maternal grandfather Azrael in Truvovich, a Jewish settlement in a marsh across the river from Pinsk, then Poland, now Belarus.  

In the Jewish tradition babies are not named for people still living, so we must assume that Azrael Gleiberman had gone on to his reward by 1924, allowing his name to be passed like a flame to the first born living child of his youngest child.  It is therefore likely that Azrael was long gone by the time of the massacre of his entire family in 1942 when the muddy Jewish hamlet of Truvovich was wiped from the face of the earth.

Of their life on the Lower East Side little is known, except that it was a life of misery and extreme poverty.   The arranged marriage between Azrael’s youngest daughter, Chava, and Harry “Eliyahu” Widem (streamlined on Ellis Island from Widemlansky) was by all accounts a loveless one.  It appears not to have been a lucky one either.   A first born child, a girl, had already died, shortly before or after her birth.   Another of a hundred vague mysteries here that can no longer be solved with any certainty.

Eliyahu was a man of few words, although he spoke those words, when he used English, with no trace of a Yiddish accent.  Yiddish was his main language, but he had come over by ship as a tiny child and spoke English like an American apparently.  Or maybe not.  He said little.   What little he said, he pronounced, I was surprised to learn, without a Yiddish accent.  His son, at eighty and hours from death, described him with real sympathy for the first time, “my father was an illiterate country bumpkin completely overwhelmed by this world.”  

Chava, my father’s mother, was tiny, red-haired, very religious and possessed of a ferocious temper that was apparently easily provoked.  Like my knowledge of my grandfather, the bulk of what I know about Chava was gleaned during long discussions with my father’s first cousin, a tender-hearted, plain-spoken American-born roughneck named Eli Gleiberman, seventeen years older than my father.

Eli, the first born son of Harry Aaron “Uncle Aren” Gleiberman, is a pivotal character in the story of my father’s life.  For one thing, he was Chava’s beloved nephew, and friends with Eliyahu, and he knew my father, and loved him, from before he was born.   For another, he was brutally honest, and also, just brutal sometimes.   My father loved and feared Eli.  Eli was very proud of my father and almost never scared the shit out of him.    

Eli’s father, Aren, is even more essential to this story.  If Aren had not, at 28, fled west with two other Jewish desperados, while his fellow draftees in the Czar’s Imperial Russian Army headed east to be massacred by the Japanese in 1904, there would be no Irv, no off-kilter grand-nephew born to write the biography of a father never born.

Aren fled across the Atlantic Ocean, settled in New York, worked hard, saved money and, more than a decade later, sent for his baby sister Chava.    If Aren had not deserted the Russian Army, arrived in America, succeeded and sent for his youngest sister right before World War One erupted, they would both have died, if not before, then certainly in Truvovich with the rest of the Jews rounded up in the Pinsk area between July 1941 and November 1942, when all but a tiny handful of the Jews of Pinsk were killed.

Here is what Eliyahu (for whom I am named) did for a living on the Lower East Side, before it was necessary for Aren and Eli to drive down to NYC to bring the hapless little family up to Peekskill.

(next time, as the eulogy continues)

They moved to Peekskill when “Azraelkeh” was a young boy where he grew up poor with his younger brother Paul.  Began kindergarten in Peekskill speaking only Yiddish, played sports, mastered English, graduated from Peekskill High in 1941.   At least one member of Irv’s class went on to serve as Mayor of Peekskill.

Irv was a member, as was Paul, of Boy Scout Troop 33 of the First Hebrew Congregation and they marched together in Peekskill parades under a banner representing the First Hebrew Congregation.    

Ah, my uncle at work!


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