The Meemah

Once upon a time there was a small village called Klimentov in what is now southeastern Poland, about halfway between the Bug and Vistula rivers.  In 1913 this village was part of Russia and did not actually become part of Poland until Pilsudski in 1921.  But when it was still Russia, in 1913, there were two brothers who lived there.  One of them was my great-grandfather.  I never met him.  I never knew him.  I never knew his first name.  My mother never knew his name either.  She called him Zaydie which translates loosely as “little grandfather” although she remembered him as a large man with big rough hands that would pull hot potatoes out of a fire and break them into little pieces for her to eat when she was six years old.  His younger brother’s first name has also been lost but I did know him…in Rockaway, New York, in the 1950’s and I always called him The Zaydah, which translates as the “big grandfather” although he was a tiny man and not really my grandfather.  His wife was called The Meemah which means The Aunt, so go figure.  It totally makes no sense but that’s what they were called by everyone who knew them, no matter what their relationship and no matter what their generation.

In 1913 The Zaydah and The Meemah decided to leave Klimentov and emigrate with their five sons and two daughters to the United States.  My great-grandfather with the big rough hands was furious.  He was very religious and declared that “In America the stones are treif (unclean)!”  He pronounced his brother dead and never mentioned him or spoke of him again; or ever acknowledged the man or his family had existed.  My mother grew up with no knowledge that her Zaydie had ever had a brother or that she had relatives living in America.

In 1939 the Germans came into Klimentov and when she was 12 years old, my mother was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp with her older sister, Dora.  Six months later, Dora was beaten to death for falling asleep on an assembly line and my mother lost the last living member of her immediate family.  She stayed in Buchenwald until she was 16 years old when the Russians invaded Poland near the end of the War.  Interestingly, she was finally liberated by a brigade of Italians.  A little-known footnote to history is that there were a number of “free Italian” brigades that revolted against Mussolini and joined the Allies to fight Germany.  She stayed with these Italians and eventually ended up in an international camp in the Russian sector of Poland.  Eventually she found her way to the city of Lodz where she met my father.  She was immediately attracted to him because he wore baggy pants stuffed with potatoes.  They were married and found their way to the American sector of Germany where I was born in December 1946 in a displaced persons camp outside Munich in a town called Turkheim.

The following Spring their plans to emigrate to Canada were dashed when my father was robbed of the $500 relocation fee they had been saving which was required for passage.  This was their lowest point and they were in despair.

Then a miracle happened.  My mother got a letter from New York.  It was from the HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, USA.  The letter was brought by old man Goldvassar who distributed all the mail in the camp.  He was followed by 15 or 20 girls who wanted to know why Luba Eisenberg would be getting a letter from the HIAS and what could possibly be in that envelope.  What was in the envelope was a very short letter written by Meyer Silverstein, the eldest son of the Meemah and the Zaydah who had left Klimentov in 1913.  The letter was in Yiddish and it always makes me weep when I quote it because it is so simple and so profound and had such a lasting effect on the lives of my parents and me.  The letter started, “Ich wunde mich, as die veist nisht as die hast a grosse familia in Amerika!”  “I’m surprised you don’t know that you have a large family in America.”

Then everything changed.  We came to America.  My father earned a dollar a day for not smoking cigarettes on the boat and, adding that up to the 21 dollars he had saved, brought him to Boston Harbor with his wife, his now three-year-old son and $28 American dollar bills in his pocket.

We were met by Meyer Silverstein.

I called him Uncle Meyer for the rest of his life but I’m sure you can appreciate his exact familial relationship to me was never precisely defined.  Be that as it may, we moved into an apartment with the Meemah and the Zaydah in Rockaway, New York for our first year in America.   I think my father’s first job was breaking in new shoes for relatives and friends who paid him a dollar a day to walk the streets of Brooklyn until the leather softened enough to make them comfortable.  He eventually found work in a dress factory and we moved into a small apartment of our own in Borough Park in Brooklyn.

I don’t remember much about our days in Rockaway but know the Zaydah was a very small man and very quiet and very old.  I also know the Meemah was very religious and wore a sheytl (wig).  She taught my mother how to keep a kosher kitchen and how to cook and how to care for a family.

They had seven children who had grown successful in America.  Meyer ran a paint contracting company, Joe owned a hotel in Atlantic City, the others were established with their own families and businesses in and around New York.  When the war ended, the Zaydah ordered his sons to find all the surviving residents of their village, Klimentov, and bring them to America.  In total, they found 68 survivors and over a period of several years sponsored and brought all 68 to this country.   They paid for passage and expenses.  They found jobs for the men and nurtured and cared for the women and families and watched over the years as those 68 survivors grew into a thriving community of Klimentovers in the new world.

Every summer they would host a huge gathering in their backyard in Rockway.  The Meemah and her daughters would cook and prepare a huge feast and go from table to table cooing over the babies and talking and laughing with the parents.  I remember for us children how special it was to hear this old lady tell us about the grandparents we had never know, whom she remembered well and could describe in minute detail.  She described the village and the life and the world from which we came that no longer existed.  The Zaydah would sit by himself watching and smiling.

I stopped going  to these gathering as a teenager but went to my last one shortly after graduating from college.  By this time the Zaydah was gone.  He had died right after his 107th birthday and everyone said it was a shame that he was taken so soon.  But he had lived a good life.

The Meemah was now 98 years old, living alone in her third floor walkup.  She hadn’t seen me in years knew me instantly.  “You’re Leibish the baker’s grandson,” she pronounced and then sat with me telling me about how my grandfather  was a foolish man for baking pastries and cakes in a town where people could barely afford bread.  She told me how she danced at my grandmother’s wedding and what a beautiful bride she had been.  The Meemah did all the cooking but relied on her daughters Sarah and Gloria to prepare and pass out the food.  “I’ll have Gloria  clean up, I’m getting to old.”

I was living in Baltimore at the time and a few weeks later I got a phone call from my father.  I heard his voice say “Larry….”  Now this was a surprise.  My father never made the phone calls.  He expected us to call, or else my mother would call and talk and at the end she’d say something like, “I’ll put your father on the phone.  But this time it was his voice.  “Larry, we have to say goodbye to The Meemah.”

What happened?  What happened was The Meemah was cooking dinner for herself, frying up something in a skillet and the skillet turned over and spilled hot grease, setting her house dress on fire.  She rolled herself up in a rug, put out the fire, then walked down three flights of stairs out onto the street where she hailed a taxi to take her to St. John’s Episcopal Hospital.  Why Saint John’s?  It was the closest and she didn’t want to pay the extra fare to take her to Mount Sinai.

So she checked into St. John’s and was put into intensive care with second and third degree burns over 60% of her body.

So we went to say goodbye to The Meemah.  She was breathing softly; she couldn’t speak but was able to smile at us with recognition.  And we said goodbye to the Meemah.  But we weren’t the only ones.  For two solid weeks people came from all over the world to pay their respects and say goodbye to this dear lady.  They came from every major city in the U.S.  They came from Canada, from England, from Israel, Australia; from Argentina and Brazil, from Russia.  Doctors and lawyers and politicians and scientists; and farmers and professors and people with great accomplishments; all coming to say goodbye  because she had touched all their lives.  A generation of people connected to her and her family and to a small village in southeastern Poland.  For two solid weeks there was a constant stream of humanity washing into the halls for St. John’s Episcopal Hospital to pay homage to The Meemah.

And then she got better.

The doctors couldn’t believe it but she survived.  She went to live in a big house with her daughter Gloria and rested comfortably for almost an entire year before she passed peacefully in her sleep.


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