It’s Happening Again

Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we hear little on the news except what is happening there. No more talk of Covid or the January 6 investigations. Nothing but the disgusting, horrific atrocities happening against the Ukrainian people. The news has taken me back to my book, and in particular, when Grandpa’s parents and siblings were forced from their homes after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

As a researched and wrote my book, I could only imagine what they went through as I read the history books, my aunt’s diary, and the letters they wrote to my father. Now I am watching it on live television.

Today I am going to take some time reminding us all what happened to our family as a means of understanding what is currently happening in Ukraine. The following is a brief account of what happened to them. Although this story occurred eighty-one years ago, it sounds similar to what we are seeing and hearing about on a daily basis.

As I watch what is currently happening in Ukraine, it reminds me about what happened to my dad’s family when they were pushed from their homes and forced to evacuate close to two thousand miles away from their homes eighty-one years ago. I could only imagine what they went through as I read my aunt’s diary, the letters they wrote to Dad, and the history books. Now I am watching it on live TV. For anyone interested in reading my family’s story, I am making it available for free beginning tomorrow through Wednesday. https://amzn.to/3I5tLbA

While the evacuations of some cities were organized in the beginning, hysteria and confusion often ensued as the stations became more crowded. It was not unusual for there to be thousands in a single station pushing and shoving as they tried to squeeze onto a train.

People were crammed inside like ants in a nest, sitting on suitcases or bedrolls for days and even weeks at a time as they waited for their time to finally board a train. It was nearly impossible to sleep because of the noise of the nonstop chattering of people and crying babies. Those who could not inch their way inside would be forced to sleep outside, which became increasingly difficult as the nighttime temperatures began to dip.

When it became apparent that it could take a very long time to find seats on the trains, people began leaving on foot, carrying as many of their possessions as possible in suitcases, trunks, wheelbarrows and carts. It was not uncommon to see men, women and children trudging along with their belongings strapped to their backs.

My Uncle Pete and Aunt Nancy, along with their spouses, left via the Volkhov River. They were responsible for taking most of the bulky items which could not be easily transported by train or on foot. This included household items such as linens, dishes and pots and pans. My grandparents and two other aunts intended to walk until they could reach a train station. They piled a wagon to nearly overflowing with blankets, pillows, nonperishable food, and carried the remainder of their belongings in suitcases or strapped to their backs. They believed they would all rendezvous within a few days. 

The first night, they slept in a barn in a nearby village, eating raw potatoes and cucumbers stolen from a nearby garden. With the constant sounds of aircraft thundering overhead and bombs exploding nearby, they were fearful that their lives would come to an abrupt end if they ventured outside. They remained hidden there for over two weeks until they felt it was safe to move again.

Each day they continued advancing, staying wherever they could find a place to hide where they would not be in danger. Sleeping was difficult with the roars of the military aircraft rumbling overhead throughout the night. On the twentieth day, they were chased out of their current shelter by some military men who cared little about my grandparents’ age and weakened condition. The soldiers tossed all their bundles from the wagon, taking the empty cart with them. It was a time of war, and civilians were simply inconvenient hindrances.

They spent the days trudging along wet, muddy roads in weather that grew more miserable with each passing day. They trudged along awkwardly for about six miles that day, knowing that, soon, the roads would be impassable.

For anyone who has not yet read my family’s story, I am making it available for FREE beginning tomorrow, March 12, through Wednesday, March 17. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07L356G8M

Only One Survivor

Dear Family,

When Dad’s grandmother arrived in New York City with her husband Misha on November 23, 1923, she was a twenty-five-year old bride of almost two years. They married in her birth city of Lodz, Poland. She stated upon arrival that she had been an actress. That was an interesting discovery. Since Misha was a musician, perhaps they met via their work in the arts.

Grandma Esther- In her younger days

Jeska Brawerman, known to us all as Esther, was the youngest of at least four children: two sisters, Luba and Marja, and a brother Aron. Before her marriage, she was living with her mother and three siblings. Her father Isaac had died several years prior to her marriage.

As far as I know, Esther never saw her family again after she left them. Their trip to America included a stopover of unknown length in Berlin.

ID Papers to come to America

Seventeen years later, her family was forced into the Lodz Ghetto along with 140,000 other Jews. This ghetto was a small section of the city of Lodz surrounded by barbed wire and guards, where the Jewish citizens were forced to live. There was no running water, sewer system, and little food. Residents were forced to work in German factories, making clothing for the German military. The conditions in the ghetto were so terrible that twenty percent died of starvation, and the remainder were transported to various concentration camps.

Esther’s oldest sister, Luba, worked as a dressmaker. Her sister Manya/Maria/Manja (uncertain which is correct) was married, so both she and their mother, Faiga, are always noted as being “housewives.” Manya’s husband, Rywen, worked in an office. I imagine that Luba probably continued to work as a dressmaker (likely making uniforms), but I can’t imagine that Aunt Manya or Grandma Faiga did nothing. The Germans put everyone to work.

Brawerman family and Marja’s spouse in Lodz Ghetto. (lines 6-9)

I have not been able to find out how Grandma Esther’s family died. Did they starve to death in the ghetto, or were they killed, gassed, or shot in a concentration camp? In any case, Esther was not ignorant to what happened to her family. The world knew of the atrocities. As for her brother, Aron, I have been unable to find any clues regarding what happened to him. I only know that he did not survive. Only his baby sister Esther lived.

The world has its eyes focused on the evil coming out of Russia’s President Putin directed at Ukraine. What happened during World War II must not happen again.

Banker to Engineer? Hmm!

Dear Family,

The Manhattan Project was the name given to the American government’s research and development initiative, which was to build an atomic bomb during World War II. Two Russian brothers started a company in New York called the Canadian Radium and Uranium Company. The company supplied the uranium to two scientists who were working at Columbia University on nuclear fission experiments, and these experiments eventually lead to the Manhattan Project.

What is the relevance to our family, you are probably thinking? It turns out that Great Uncle Dan was employed as an engineer at the Canadian Radium and Uranium Company, for at least two years, from 1942 and 1943. I have to wonder how a former banking clerk (as of the 1940 Census) was suddenly employed as an engineer two years later.

But as Grandpa always said, “I have the papers to prove it!”

Some People Should Not Marry

Dear Family,

Today I am veering away from the Holocaust as I introduce you to Dad’s great uncle Daniel Bobrow. I know you all like a good mystery, so Uncle Dan’s story definitely has a mystery attached to him.

Most of my research on Uncle Dan revealed that he was a man who should never have married. I will first tell you why I came to that conclusion, and then will end with my discovery of his fascinating job at the time of his draft registration.

Meet Uncle Dan

Let me tell you about his marital woes. His first marriage was to a young woman from New Jersey, which ended in divorce five years later. He had been employed in a bank like his two brothers—Dad’s grandfather Misha and Uncle Yasha.

His second marriage was to a woman fifteen years his junior. I never noticed until today that he was employed as an engineer at the time of that marriage. The specifics of that job is a tale for another day. Anyway, that marriage also ended five years later with the death of his twenty-eight-year-old wife, who died of “natural causes.” What could be considered “natural causes” at the age of 28? Apparently this means a death caused by something natural such as a disease rather than an accident or a murder.

Uncle Dan should have stopped marrying at this point, but he did not realize he was unlucky in love. Three years after the death of his second wife he tried again, this time marrying a woman 23 years his junior. He sure did like to marry young woman!

His third marriage also ended with the death of his wife, but this time, the circumstances were anything but natural. In fact, they were quite mysterious. It seems that Uncle Dan had gone to work one cold March morning in 1958, and at that time, he had a home-based printing business. His wife was a chemist. On the day in question, he went off on a business trip and left his wife at home. Shortly after he left, one of his neighbors called the police because they noticed that his house was ablaze.

After the fire was extinguished, the police sifted through the remains of the house, but found no evidence of a body. Dan’s wife’s car was at home and there were no footprints in the snow. A thirteen-state missing person alert ensued, but five months later, the police still had no conclusive evidence that the bone fragments found in the rubble were Uncle Dan’s missing wife.

At an inquest in August, Dan stated that he had done nothing himself to locate his wife nor had he contacted her family. I assume he never contacted them because the father had stated in an interview that he had tried to discourage the marriage because he believed his daughter had not known Dan long enough before the two decided to elope. I guess the relationship with his in-laws was on thin ice.

Reading through the news reports 64 years later, it is difficult to believe that it took the police so long to come to a conclusion. As we all know from crime shows, the husband is always the first suspect. Dan was questioned repeatedly and given a lie detector test. In the end, it was decided that it was not murder. It was just an unfortunate tragedy.

Wife number three was his last wife! Next up will be the story of his work as an engineer during the forties and the fascinating job I discovered.

Recognition

Dear Family,

After the war, Maria was able to immigrate to the United States. She stayed with her sister, Sally in Ohio. Maria learned that Sally had been a concentration camp survivor. Maria’s relationship with her cousin Severin (the Army Intelligence officer) made the move easier. Sally arrived in April, Maria in June, and Severin in November of 1947.

Maria eventually relocated to New York City, where she met and married Dad’s Uncle Yasha (aka Jacob or Jack) in 1953. She traveled to Germany several times to testify against some of the war criminals, and in 1963, she submitted an affidavit through the German consul in New York against three Nazi’s accused of the Rovno murder of 2400 Jews.  

New York Daily News- 1963

According to her obituary, in 1999, she received the German Medal of Honor for her wartime efforts, and in 2000, a German film company made a movie about Graebe and Maria and their work in saving hundreds of Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis . Uncle Yasha had died in 1984, so he never knew of his wife’s honors. Nor did her third husband, Victor Levy, who died in 1990. Maria died in 2000.

Fritz Graebe wanted to remain in his homeland to watch the rebuilding of Germany, but he and his family ultimately moved to the United States after repeated threats against their lives. For a while, his stories of the atrocities against the Jews were not believed by his countrymen.

In 1965, he was named by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Center in Israel, as a Righteous Among Nations individual. His mother would be proud of her son.

Secret Angels

Dear Family,

Over the next few years, Aunt Maria was involved in helping Graebe set up remote field offices to which they sent Jewish workers as a means of keeping them away from the killing—“Actions” as they were called. They would create false documents, orchestrate the movement of people and supplies, and do whatever it took to keep their activities hidden from the Germans.

Maria would send secret codes to inform Graebe of the safe arrival of a Jewish family or help to keep the German staff members away from anyone with false papers. Maria communicated by switchboard regarding the operations, and the fact that she spoke so many languages made her key to its success.

Graebe had to convince the Germans that Maria was not a true Jew. He did this by making a fake baptismal certificate and fabricated a story that she had previously spoken of herself as Jewish only because she had married a Jew. The story that Graebe told was that Maria had been born a Catholic so she was not a Jew. Thankfully, that lie was believed.

Graebe’s construction company accepted more contracts than they could physically handle, and even set up a secret satellite office hundreds of miles east where there was no actual work simply as a means to move and protect his Jewish workers in a location that could not be easily scrutinized. He paid for their food and living costs from his own savings. Maria ultimately asked to be sent to the remote office because she worried that her duplicity about being a Catholic would be discovered.

Graebe continued his work until the end of 1944, when he decided to evacuate with Maria and some other refugees. With them were crates containing Graebe’s diaries and papers documenting the names of every Jewish worker and victims of the “Actions” that he could accurately list, including their birth dates, the names of their family members, and death dates if known. They eventually met with U.S. Army Intelligence officers, who interviewed them separately and listened to their stories of the atrocities they had all witnessed. Coincidentally, one member of the Intelligence was Aunt Maria’s first cousin, who she had not seen in seventeen years.

Graebe, with help from Maria and another secretary, Elizabeth Radziejewsha, was able to draw maps showing the locations of all the massacres they witnessed.

He worked for the International Military Tribunal, detailing the crimes against humanity that he witnessed. Graebe was the only German who saved any Jews. I never mentioned that Graebe had a wife and young son that was among those he had to protect—because although they were not Jewish, there was always the concern that his activities would be discovered and his family would be punished for his deeds.

He told the author of Moses of Rovno that he was worried that one day his son would ask him, “What did you do in that time when people were in danger?” His actions, which put him constantly at risk, would enable him to look his son in the eye and tell him the story of how he saved so many lives.

What happened to Maria and Graebe after the war? Stay tuned for the rest of their story.

*Details of this story are from the book, Moses of Rovno by Douglas Huneke and stories on the site Yadvashem.org.

Time to Take Action

Dear Family,

Aunt Maria knew nothing of the background of her boss, Hermann (Fritz) Graebe. She was not aware that he was a disenchanted member of the Nazi party, who was briefly imprisoned after publicly criticizing the party for their treatment of Jewish businesses. Maria did not know that Graebe was raised by a deeply religious mother who emphasized independent thinking and compassion for one’s fellow man.

One evening, one of Graebe’s carpenters, Franz Rosenzwieg, came to him, explaining that his wife and baby were going to be deported from the city of Rovno where they were living. When Graebe learned that Rosenzwieg was requesting permission to pick up his family, Graebe offered to get them himself.  Upon arriving at the entrance to the city, Graebe learned that Rovno had been sealed off by the German military. In the quiet of the evening, Graebe could hear the gunshots and screaming of the people. Nearly 5000 men, women, and children were murdered in Rovno.

The anguished Graebe told Aunt Maria what had happened and was furious that she knew that the Germans had been killing the Jews. Although Maria had told Graebe about her husband’s death at the hands of the Nazis, he did not believe her until he was a witness to the Rovno murders.

Next, he went to speak to the German in charge, George Marschall, and was stunned when his request to reunite the carpenter with his family was denied. Graebe explained that he had work to do, and he did not care about the religion of his workers. He only cared about the deadlines given to him from the Berlin office. The response: “We all have our orders; besides, only half of the Jews were killed. You have plenty left, Herr Graebe.”

Graebe left Marschall’s office, passing the distraught carpenter on the way. The incident in Rovno was the catalyst to what he did next. He asked Aunt Maria and a second secretary, Claire, for help. He could not sit idly by and watch these atrocities continue to happen. It was wrong. That was not how his mother had raised him. Aunt Maria and Claire could not refuse.

*Details of Maria’s story from two books: Moses of Rovno by Douglas Huneke and Courage to Care by Carol Rittner and Sondra Myers, and the the testimony of Hermann Friedrich Graebe on 3 October 1965 at Yad Vashem.

A Heroic Woman

Dear Family,

I decided to discuss Dad’s Uncle Yasha/Jack, since he was the first of Grandpa Misha’s siblings to come to America, and he because he has a fascinating story attached to him. The story is regarding his second wife, Great Aunt Maria, whose story is so compelling (and also unknown to Dad) that it may take several posts to tell it all. I hope I have piqued your interest.

Maria arrived in this country in 1947 from Frankfurt Germany. She initially went to Ohio to live with her younger sister, Sally, but then moved to New York where she married Great Uncle Yasha in 1953. The story that I want to tell begins in Lodz, Poland in 1941.

Maria and her first husband left Lodz to distance themselves from the war. They ended up in Zdolbonov, Ukraine where they hoped to find work. After learning that Jewish men, in particular, were being targeted by the Germans, Maria insisted that her husband remain hidden in their home. Maria eventually move him to a basement, where she believed he would be safer, but she was mistaken. He was discovered, removed from the house, imprisoned, and then shot and thrown into a mass grave with about 200 other Jewish men. Maria was in shock and now all alone.

Aunt Maria was determined that her husband did not die in vain. Somehow, she would find a way to save other Jews from suffering a similar fate.

All women between the ages of 16 and 65 were required to work. Maria was fluent in German, as well as Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish, which was what brought her to the attention of Fritz Graebe at the Jung construction company. Although Maria had been trained as a teacher, as a Jewish woman, she was no longer permitted to teach. She was hired by Graebe and put to work translating engineering forms from German to Polish.

Despite the kind treatment of Graebe to his Jewish employees, the office workers were suspicious of him because they feared he was a member of the Gestapo. His kindness toward them must be a trick. Nevertheless, they had no choice but to remain cordial with their boss.

How long could this continue before something terrible happened to them? After all, Maria and her coworkers were known Jews working for a German company at the dawn of the Holocaust.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more next time.*

*Details of Maria’s story from two books: Moses of Rovno by Douglas Huneke and Courage to Care by Carol Rittner and Sondra Myers.

Grandpa Misha

Dear Family,

Today I’d like to tell you about Dad’s grandfather, Misha Bobrow. When he and Dad’s grandmother came to America in 1923, his immigration statement at Ellis Island declared that he was a musician and his wife of nearly three years, Grandma Esther, was was an actress.

Misha 1921

Grandpa Misha and his two brothers played in the Russian Balalaika Orchestra in Boston. I was able to find a notation in a newspaper showing them playing on a local radio show the following year. The balalaika is a Russian triangular-shaped musical instrument.

By 1927, he and Grandma Esther had moved to the Bronx in New York, joining his brothers and mother. Why did they leave Boston? Misha and Daniel arrived too late to see either of their grandparents, but their sister, aunts, and cousins remained in the Boston area. Perhaps they had difficulty finding employment. That is my only answer to that question.

In New York, Grandpa Misha began work at Merchants Bank of New York as an accountant. They had a son—their only child—Dad’s father. Misha moved up in the ranks, becoming a bank manager at the Diamond District branch and a Merchants Bank Vice President. I wonder if Misha and his brothers joined the music scene in New York City.

Dad recalls fishing with his grandfather and driving trips to Miami, where his grandparents liked to go during the winter. Misha retired from the bank in 1961, and he and Grandma Esther moved to a small rented apartment in Miami Beach, Florida that year. In all their forty years of marriage they never owned their own home.

Sadly, he did not get to enjoy much of his retirement. He died the following year of a heart attack. That death, coupled with the deaths of Dad’s parents at young ages, is why Daddy decided to retire at a young age. He has now been retired for more years than his mother, father, and Grandpa Misha combined.

Work hard, but still, take time to smell the roses.

Together Again in Boston

Dear Family,

Let’s continue with the family in Boston. Perhaps a lot can be surmised about why the family was not very closely knit by examining how they traveled to America. There were four adult children and their mother. They all came beginning in April 1921 and ending in November 1923. None of the siblings or their 53-year old mother came together. It was a long and lonely voyage. I wonder why they each came separately. All of them had been living in Lodz, Poland, although one brother had stayed briefly in Berlin.

Great Uncle Jacob (Uncle Yasha according to Dad’s family) came first. He showed up on the doorstep of his grandmother’s sister’s son, Morris Leventhal. Yasha arrived on April 9, 1921. He had never met these relatives. His grandfather died 5 days later in Boston. Did Uncle Yasha arrive in time to say goodbye to GG Grandpa Harris?

Precisely one year later, 15-year old Uncle Dan arrived. He did not go to Cousin Morris’ house but instead, dropped his baggage off at his Great Uncle Abe and Great Aunt Mary’s home. Great Aunt Mary was his mom’s sister, who he had also never met. He was so young for this voyage, but sadly, this was not uncommon at that time. Today, I am always worrying about my children when they travel, yet communication is usually so easy. (Unless my calls are ignored!)

Eight months later, in December 1922, 26-year old Great Aunt Sonja arrived. Her case was interesting because she was coming to join her fiancé, who had lived in this country since 1909. How, I wonder, did Sonja become engaged to someone she had not seen since she was fifteen? Was it an arranged marriage or had they been childhood sweethearts?

It was another eight months before Great Grandma Leah arrived. By this time, her husband had died, and when she left, she was leaving behind her son Boris. She was planning to stay with her sister Mary and husband Abe. Where were Yasha and Dan living at that time?

Finally, Dad’s grandparents, Misha and Esther, rolled into town three months after Mama Leah. Their plans were to stay with Misha’s sister, Sonja. Hail, hail, the gang was, at last, all together!

Yasha, Misha, Daniel