Editor’s Note: This is the fourteenth and final monthly installment of a multipart series on the life and times of the author’s grandmother, Freida Sima, who as a young woman came to America on her own in the early 1900s and made her way in a new country.
When Freida Sima Eisenberg Kraus died in June 1984, she left behind a daughter; a son-in-law; a granddaughter and her family in Israel; stepsons and their families in California; and a sister, brothers, and sisters-in-law in New York and Israel.
Four weeks later, her sister-in-law/cousin Minnie passed away. From the time Freida Sima returned to America from Israel in 1981, she and Minnie had spoken daily by phone. Freida Sima’s daughter, Shirley, remarked to Minnie’s daughters that their mothers were obviously unable to live more than a month without calling each other.
The wry humor that characterized many family members accompanied my grandmother throughout her life. When someone complained of boredom, she would retort: “You’re bored? Lein Krishma [recite the Shema prayer], zug Viddui [say the Confession prayer]; there’s always something to do!”
Now that wry approach expressed itself through her siblings. At Srul’s grandson’s wedding dinner, men and women were separated by a wooden mechitzah. When the sisters-in-law expressed dismay that they couldn’t sit with their husbands, Freida Sima’s brothers, 84-year-old Benny and 77-year-old Elish, put their shoulders to the mechitzah’s last section, “dancing” it to the music until it was perpendicular to the rest. The family then pushed together tables and spent the wedding together. Religious services aside, nothing would keep the oldest Eisenbergs away from each other during a long wedding dinner.
Over the next decade, Freida Sima’s remaining siblings and their spouses passed away. First it was brother Benny and his wife, Betty. Then Freida and Anna, the wives of Freida Sima’s brothers Leibish and Srul. Then brothers Srul, Elish, and Leibish. Elish’s wife, Lola, passed away in 2004. Only her sister Sheindl remained.
The next Eisenberg generation remained close to Sheindl. After Freida Sima’s daughter Shirley broke a hip at eighty and said she felt old, Sheindl laughed. “Old? I am old, you are still young!”
But years earlier, after Elish’s death, Sheindl confided to Shirley that it wasn’t easy being the youngest of ten. “First I was in ovel [mourning] for my parents and sister Marium; then for my husband, Shaja; then for my second husband, Naftula; then for brothers Tuleh, Avrum, dayn Mameh [your mother]; and Benny, Srul, Leibish, and Elish. If you outlive everyone, you spend your last years in ovel instead of being happy you’re alive.”
Sheindl lived until ninety-six. The water from the family well, which her brother Tuleh had brought back from Mihowa forty years earlier, was poured over her grave, a symbolic link to her European home. Sheindl’s tombstone proclaimed her a “Holocaust Survivor” and “Keeper of the Family Lore.”
Now the next generation would keep family memories alive.
* * * * *
The desire to keep my grandmother’s memory and voice alive inspired me to write an article about her for The Jewish Press. I approached the paper’s senior editor, Jason Maoz, with the idea, and his enthusiasm motivated me to write not just a stand-alone article but an extended series, chronicling Freida Sima’s life and that of her family, and through them much of the 20th century Jewish world.
Starting in October 2015, these articles have appeared as a monthly front-page feature. The stories touched people’s hearts, inspiring them to recall their own ancestors. The series generated responses from all over the world, strengthening my feeling that I was doing something worthwhile, not only in my grandmother’s memory but for everyone’s grandparents who deserved to be remembered.
The articles were just the beginning. I wanted to do more. With my family’s encouragement, and the helpful comments and support of Mr. Maoz, I decided to expand the series into a book about my grandmother. This was the culmination of a lifelong venture of getting to know her and my extended family while learning more about the world in which they lived.
Throughout my youth I had known about a big Scharf-Eisenberg clan to which I belonged, but I rarely experienced it en masse. I envied my mother’s and grandmother’s stories of growing up enveloped by layers of family. I yearned for a family that was a community, like my grandmother’s stories of Mihowa: five hundred Jews, fifty families – but only ten last names, as all were related.
The writing of the series became a project of family reunification. Each article put me back into the world my grandmother and mother described, when the tantes and uncles lived down the block, always going in and out of each other’s homes. Only now I “virtually” went in and out of my cousin’s homes and lives with late night e-mail questions to the Family Circle list or individual cousins, exchanging pictures and electronic chats.
Almost all responded to my questions with alacrity, love, and support.
“You’ve done us a great service, because you have forced us to reflect on the past and its importance in our personal lives,” wrote one.
“It is a privilege and honor to give you as much info as I can about our past. Thank you for creating a written memorial for our entire extended family to enjoy now and for generations to come. Bless you for what you’re doing,” wrote another.
For months I obsessed over the project, recalling incidents I wanted to add to a particular chapter, already impatient to begin working on the next one. Two years earlier, my cousin Norman Eisenberg, in revitalizing the Family Circle, wrote to its e-mail group: “Life is much more complicated today, unlike when the majority of the family lived within walking distance. My hope is that we continue sharing history and enjoying together even if only once or twice a year.”
I felt charged to write in order to help the family share that history. What began as a project for my enjoyment now became a mission for my entire extended family.
As I continued writing, the family became even more extended. Almost by chance I stumbled across an entire branch of Enzenbergs, descendants of Zaidie Nachman’s brothers, scattered around the world. Soon I could count over 400 second, third, and fourth cousins on my Baba Freida Sima’s side alone – almost the entire population of Mihowa when she was born there 120 years earlier.
I spent days and nights finding those still alive, putting some in touch with each other. Today I am in contact with many of them, some on an almost daily e-mail basis. Finally, we are again a family that is a community, albeit a 21st century-style geographically far-flung yet close community.
When I began writing, I thought I would be taking a journey into the familiar territory of my grandmother’s history to reconstruct her life. But how does one reconstruct a person’s life? What do people leave behind to enable us to reassemble the components of their identity?
There is the person’s factual description, photographs, recordings, memories, stories. And then there is the person’s essence, the most difficult dimension to capture.
My resources were varied: Documents, passenger manifests, passports, citizenship papers, census records. Some sources were painful in their absence. None of my grandmother’s letters to Europe survived the Holocaust. And she kept only two letters her father had written her during all those years.
“Why only those, Baba?” I wanted to ask, but there is no longer anyone to ask.
There were family artifacts making people real, even if I had never met them. I inherited one artifact that survived the family’s European cataclysm – Baba Devorah’s sheitel that Sheindl had kept in Transnistria after her mother died. To these I added my grandmother’s remaining possessions, such as the nail kit she received for her “sweet sixteen” the year she came to America and gave me for my sixteenth birthday decades later.
My extended family added their memories and stories to my reconstruction efforts. Stories also mean challenges. What should one write about unpleasant family incidents? One cousin reminded me: “Few, if any, would be comfortable with the less than pleasant things about their families being revealed. It’s not worth the risk.”
Taking this to heart, I walked the tightrope of the fine line between telling the truth and not hurting anyone. I hope I succeeded.
There were also memories of previous generations that we “inherited”: A song my grandmother sang to me as a child, bouncing me on her knee, which she had learned from Baba Malka who had learned it from her mother, Baba Chantzel. From whom had Chantzel learned it? From my great-great-great-great-grandmother, whose name Baba Malka never mentioned to her granddaughter and was lost to me forever. But the song lives on.
There is also the way I hold my hands while benching lecht, as did my mother, grandmother, Babas Devorah, Malka, Chantzel, and so on. And there’s the inflection and tune my cousins use making Kiddush, which they learned from their fathers, who learned from Zaidie Nachman, and he from Zaidie Srul. The essence of ancestors can indeed live on in our performative traditions and gestures even if we’ve never met them.
A last resource for reconstructing my ancestors’ lives was their final resting places and tombstones. Many were buried in the Family Circle Plot, but it took months to find others, buried around the world. When going through my grandmother’s documents I saw a yahrzeit calendar listing dates of her parents’ deaths, giving English dates from 1945 and onward on which to light memorial candles.
As the calendar ran only until 1984 I once asked her: “What will you do after that, Baba?”
“Let’s first see if I’m still here” she replied.
Was she prophesizing her own fate? My grandmother died in June 1984, her life ending together with the last of the dates listed on her parents’ yahrzeit calendar.
* * * * *
Life is often described as a circle with a beginning and an end, one that opens and closes, ending just as it began. Let us end the tale of Freida Sima as it began, with her names.
Throughout my grandmother’s life she had many names, each expressing a different part of her life and essence. By which name did she think of herself when alone?
“Baba what’s your name?” I once asked her.
“Whaddya mean ‘what’s my name’? she said, looking at me strangely. “My name is Bertha Kraus!”
“That’s not what I meant, Baba,” I responded.
“Oh. you mean in Jewish? My real name? Freida Sima. My name is Freida Sima.”
Does that mean she thought of herself as Freida Sima? I will never know. But she considered it to be her real name, “the real McCoy,” to use one of her favorite American expressions. It was, however, a name she rarely remembered anyone using during her lifetime.
In 1974, the year my grandmother moved to Israel, the Israeli poetess Zelda wrote about the different names people are given throughout their lifetime:
Everyone has a name, given to him by God, and given to him by his parents.
Everyone has a name, given to him by his stature and the way he smiles, and given to him by his clothing….
Everyone has a name, given to him by the sea, and given to him by his death.
My grandmother had many names and wanted to be sure she would be given the correct name at her death – her “real name,” her Jewish name, the one she was given at birth. It was the name she reminded us more than once we should put on her tombstone – the last time, she assumed, it would ever appear.
Life is full of surprises. When I first contemplated the idea of writing her life story, I thought of a suitable title even before composing the opening pages. From the first moment, the title and the series (and soon-to-be book) were one. My grandmother was Freida Sima, and no matter what other name she went by at a certain time, it was how I would refer to her throughout her life story.
Two years after my grandmother’s death, I named my second daughter after her. At the time, I thought “Freida” to be too old fashioned, and chose a Hebrew equivalent. Thirty years after her death, I had matured enough to realize the name’s beauty and significance, and to understand the subtle subtext behind each occasion when my grandmother reminded me her real name was Freida Sima.
I hope I have done justice to her life story and that of her family, the entire extended Scharf-Eisenberg clan. And I hope that by writing it, I have finally given her back her name.
During her lifetime, my grandmother Freida Sima belonged to herself. After her death, her memories and stories belonged to her friends and family. And now she belongs to you as well. I thank The Jewish Press for having allowed me to share her story with you, dear readers, and I thank you for having joined us on this journey through her life and that of her family.
Oh – and we finally have a publication date for the book. It will be out in December from Peter Lang Publishers with the title My Name is Freida Sima: The American Jewish Women’s Immigrant Experience Through the Eyes of a Young Girl from the Bukovina. It’s available through Amazon (it’s already on Amazon’s website and can be pre-ordered) or directly from the publisher.
This installment of the Freida Sima series is dedicated to the memory of Freida Sima’s Aunt Sadie and Uncle Joe, who picked her up when she came to America – Sheina Sara bat Avraham (Sadie Scharf Korn), whose yahrzeit is 13 Cheshvan (which fell this year on November 14) and Yosef ben Avraham (Joseph Scharf), whose yahrzeit is 3 Kislev (December 3 this year).