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Bashert: A Granddaughter's Holocaust Quest

Andrea Simon
Copyright Date: 2002
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Haunted by her grandmother's Old World stories and bigger-than-life persona, Andrea Simon undertook a spiritual search for her lost family. Her sojourn, a quest for truth, gave her tragic answers.

    On a group tour of ancestral Jewish homeland sites that had been crushed in the Holocaust, she makes a riveting detour to her grandmother's village of Volchin, in what is now Belarus, where the last known family members had lived. There, she followed the trail of the death march taken by the village Jews to the place of their slaughter by Nazis and Nazi collaborators in the fall of 1942. During the same period, in Brona Gora, a forest between Brest and Minsk, some 50,000 Jews were shot. Simon was in one of the first American groups to visit this little-publicized site.

    Bashert, the Yiddish word for fate, guided her through the arduous quest. With newly translated archival records, she peeled back layers of clues to confront the mystery. This story of her momentous odyssey reveals the terrible fate of her kin.

    Mass shootings of Jews, particularly in the Soviet Union, have not been addressed with the same focus given to concentration-camp atrocities. Yet Simon's research reveals that Nazis killed nearly fifty percent of their Jewish victims by means other than gassing. In the historiography of the era, comparatively scant reference is made to the executions at Brona Gora. Thus Simon fills a significant gap in Holocaust history by providing the most extensive report yet given on the executions at Brona Gora and Volchin.

    As she interweaves tragic narrative with evocative family anecdotes, Simon writes a story of life in czarist Russia and, within this frame, of her family's flight from pogroms and persecution. From a unique vantage Simon's memoir discloses her dogged genealogical search, the newly perceived Jewish history she uncovered, and the ramifications of the Holocaust in the postwar generation.

    Andrea Simon is a freelance writer and photographer in New York City. She has been published inMondo Greco,Sanibel Captiva Review,The Acorn,Fine Print,Arizona Jewish Post, and two anthologies.

    Visit the author's website,

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-592-5
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. A Note about the Text
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Prologue
    (pp. xv-xviii)

    My grandmother’s spirit haunts me still. “Mamaleh, it’s not over,” she calls from her grave. Her croaky voice, heavily layered by cigarettes, bitterness, and the fractured intermingling of Yiddish, Polish, Russian, Hebrew, and English, reaches through my skin, pinching my heart. “Bless yourpupik[navel],” she bellows in an imitation of herself, “there’s more work to do.”

    I know she’s right, because even now, shortly after my trip to Poland, Belarus, and Russia, I learn more about my lost family. I’m happy—thrilled—to make new contacts, to discover what seem like facts. But I also know that these facts...

  6. Chapter 1 Bashert
    (pp. 1-43)

    Frigid blasts seem to belch from New Jersey smokestacks, catapult like cannonballs across the Hudson, gathering momentum through the narrow branches of barren linden trees, and burst through my poorly sealed Riverside Drive windows. As always, my fingertips are the first bodily parts to feel the cold, and I’m tempted to put on gloves as I sit at my computer, facing what I often think is the windiest spot in the world. I flex my fingers, trying to restore normal circulation, and lay them in proper position on the keyboard; and as I begin to write, a voice—that voice—...

  7. Chapter 2 Protest
    (pp. 44-59)

    I always loved getting mail. When I visited my grandmother, Masha, in her apartment in Brooklyn, I often sifted through the opened correspondence she collected in a large black ashtray. There I found thin blue, airmail envelopes and those fold-up air letters that are impossible to open without destroying some essential last-minute message. The letters had smudged handwriting; addresses with slashes through the sevens and number ones that looked like sevens; postmarks from Tel Aviv, Paris, Berlin, and Riga; and signatures from Luba, Shoshana, Michel, Boris, and Frau Schwanke. Each letter elicited a different emotion; each offered a different invitation;...

  8. Chapter 3 Connection
    (pp. 60-80)

    It’s time to meet Hanna Kremer. On a bright, crisp fall day, on the train to Long Island, I consult my notes about the interview. I try to memorize my questions; I don’t want to flip through my loose-leaf while we’re talking. Doubts begin to cloud my comprehension. I read the questions over and over. I recognize the letters, but I can’t form them into words. Maybe Hanna won’t want me poking into her carefully compartmentalized memories. Maybe she won’t welcome my camera, my tape recorder—or me. After all, she mentioned that twice she had refused to record her...

  9. Chapter 4 Disappearance
    (pp. 81-102)

    For the first time in my life, I’m beginning to understand why some people still believe that the Holocaust never happened. If history books, tourist guides, and government-sponsored investigative reports show scant or no reference to an entire race of people, then it’s safe to deny their presence. It’s like that age-old conundrum: How can I be an atheist, for to deny God is to recognize its existence? If one even rejects the slaughter of six million people, then there is some discussion about a group, fictional or not. The only solution is to erase mention of anything or anyone...

  10. Chapter 5 Longing
    (pp. 103-118)

    The closest I ever came to shtetl life was my exposure to Woodridge, New York, in the Catskill Mountains. During the Depression, my grandmother, Masha, suffered from respiratory problems. Her doctor said she was literally choking to death in Brooklyn and prescribed “country air.” The Catskills were already a popular destination for those with tuberculosis, a vacation retreat, and one of the few American rural regions with a concentrated Jewish population. The plan was to find a house big enough to accommodate Masha’s family, as well as provide business opportunities.

    In Woodridge, Masha’s family found a three-story house that was,...

  11. Chapter 6 Collaboration
    (pp. 119-151)

    The mail once again doesn’t let me down. I receive the English translations of Shmuel’s impressions and of his taped interviews, originally conducted in Russian and translated into Hebrew. My translator, an Israeli woman, says the job was complicated as Shmuel often interspersed Russian and Yiddish words. When I sift through the work—109 handwritten pages—I notice caked blobs of white correction fluid, notes in parentheses, crossed-out words, neat printing, brisk script, assorted inks, formal stationery, loose-leaf pages. This material was labored at, taken to work, discussed, and consulted about. In short, the translator lived with the work and,...

  12. Chapter 7 Isolation
    (pp. 152-185)

    Chances are that years after a flower is planted, a weed will sprout. The flower may have bloomed for a season, or even for many; but, sooner or later, a weed will overtake its spot—a reminder that beauty is transitory, that tampering with nature can backfire, that some roots are buried deep and their sheer power can impel them through any barrier.

    And so I am learning.

    Fifty thousand Jewish citizens can’t be buried in a forest without a trace. As with Volchin, sooner or later, a bone pokes out from the spring thaw. Sooner or later, a voice...

  13. Chapter 8 Annihilation
    (pp. 186-198)

    Little by little, I have been preparing myself to present detailed eyewitness reports about Brona Gora. I managed to gather personal material on ghetto life and subsequent liquidation; I got to the point of train arrival at the forest site. Then, I skipped to opening of the pits in 1944. I even tackled the horrific slaughter of my own people in Volchin. Somehow, in my unexpressed thoughts, I kept putting off the inevitable Armageddon. It was one thing to witness the murders in an isolated village; one could always rationalize that this was an aberration. But the premeditated annihilation of...

  14. Chapter 9 Response
    (pp. 199-215)

    After Dave Miller’s death, Masha traveled to Europe and Israel, often luxuriating on ocean voyages, wining and dining with the ships’ captains and other international characters. In Israel, she made lifetime friends and, of course, visited her relatives, Dina and Shoshana, the wife and daughter of Masha’s stepson, Jack. Masha was finally in her element—the vivacious and enviable American widow, ever on the lookout for adventure and romance.

    In 1950, she was in Tel Aviv, staying with friends who convinced her to spend the evening at a nightclub owned and managed by a pal of theirs, a handsome Russian...

  15. Chapter 10 Atonement
    (pp. 216-230)

    The primary motivation behind my pilgrimage to Volchin was to find something that would help explain my grandmother’s dominating and provocative personality. Instead, I found troubling facts, overbearing tragedy, and little of what remained from Masha’s time. Though I now have a sense of the physicality of her village, the distance between towns, the lifestyle and values of Isar and his contemporaries, I learned little more of the background that shaped Masha’s early years. But with my enhanced visual context and by meeting people of her next generation, I can use more of my imagination to fill the gaps.


  16. Chapter 11 Survival
    (pp. 231-262)

    About 25 years ago, my friend, Penny, and I embarked on a minivacation to the city of Quebec to break up the monotony of our then-single lives. I don’t remember what month it was, only that the weather was wet and raw. At the airport, something had delayed our flight; I have vague memories of a rainstorm. I don’t remember much of Quebec itself except that to escape the downpour, we went to seeGone with the Windand were amused at the southern Americans dubbed into French. What I do recall in vivid detail is my wait at the...

  17. Epilogue
    (pp. 263-266)

    It’s fitting that I get an answer on this day, June 22, the anniversary of the German invasion of Russia and a year after my trip to Eastern Europe. It’s fitting—or more likely, it’sbashert.

    I receive a response to the letter I wrote Anna Gagarina, the former classmate of Hanna Kremer. The letter, of course, is in Russian. It is neatly written, not one crossed-out word. The bold script seems to flow, filling two sides of a graph-paper sheet and half of another. I scan the lines as if, after over a year of receiving material in Russian,...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 267-272)
  19. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 273-278)
  20. Index
    (pp. 279-288)