One of the great pleasures of my life was sitting around Grandma Hilda’s kitchen table listening to her stories.
In between rowdy games of Gin Rummy for pretzels, latkes and her yummy glazed carrots, Grandma spun tales of the: orphanage in Montreal, being a ballerina in NYC or the day she met and fell in love with Grandpa Frank.
During a two week visit to Grandma’s in July thirty years ago, NYC was boiling, but Grandma’s thoughts turned to a cold night when she was five, nearly a hundred years before.
Grandma seemed far away and a little blue. I asked her what she was thinking about?
Evela, Grandma said “I am thinking about a night of courage and terror. The night Uncle and Auntie escaped from our village in the Ukraine and brought us all to Romania ”
The year was 1919. Grandma was five years old. That year there were nearly 800 pogroms, massacres of Jews. 200,000 Jews lost their lives that year. The Jewish people in the small villages got caught in the middle of the Bolsheviks and the Ukrainian rebels. This was 22 years before the start of WWII. Just a warm up for what was to come.
Grandma didn’t know if it was the Red Army or the White Army, she just knew her father Benjamin Mott died from his injuries from one of these brutal attacks.Her mother Hanna Zigman Mott had passed earlier from Typhoid Fever which was running rampant in the area. Both Grandma and her brother Max were stricken with Typhus but survived.
After the death of her mother and father, Grandma’s Great Uncle on her Mother’s side Fishel Zigman and his wife Frima decided to leave. Fishel was on the same deathlist Benjamin and Fishel’s only crimes were that they were business owners and were Jewish.
In the dark of a winter’s night, with just the clothes on their backs and what they could carry, Fishel and Frima,the young couple (29) made a life and death choice.
They carried the children in their arms over a river. Not just their children but Ben and Hanna’s children as well: Hilda, Max, Annie. They weren’t sure if everyone was going to make it. So each of them carried little ones in their arms. Uncle Fishel carried Hilda and Toby. Grandma remembered crying in her Uncle’s arms. He had to muffle her cries with a quiet but firm “Hush.” They could have all been stopped and shot at any point. Grandma said she could still feel the trembling of her bones and the shattering of her teeth in the bitter wind that night. The closeness to her uncle and her cousin Toby under his other arm helped her relax and feel safer. “Hush, my dear ones.” Sleep now. Grandma couldn’t sleep.
The wind bit the cheek and howled past the moon. The river ran strong. Rivers don’t freeze in Winter. They walked quickly and carefully in the parts where they saw animal tracks along the riverbank. Solid. Snow-flakes were falling. Boots stomping in heavy snow. Whispers, cries and hushes were the words spoken. The temptation for snowball fights and ice-skating was put aside for silence, safety and freedom.
The family of eight walked for hours before Fishel saw the promised light in the window of a safe house on the other side of the river in Romania. Fishel knew what he had to do. He carried his young family through the rapids. The children first and then his wife Frima. Together they made it the safe house before dawn.
Many Jews were saved by kind Romanians who provided safe warm shelter. From Romania our family eventually emigrated to Montreal.
Grandma smiled as she finished the tale. I could see the sparkle in her eye and that five year old in her smile.
I’m glad Grandma shared part of her story with me. It was her story. It was our family’s story. It is my story. Uncle and Auntie saved my life too. I honor them tonight.