Editor’s Note: This is the tenth 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. The ninth part (“Freida Sima’s Family and the Holocaust”) appeared as the front-page essay in the June 24 issue; part eleven will run in August.
On May 8, 1945, hundreds of millions throughout the world celebrated V-E Day, marking Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces. As droves of rejoicing New Yorkers filled the streets, Freida Sima Kraus stood at her window with the three blue stars, symbolizing her three stepsons in the American army, and blessed the Almighty for keeping them alive and well throughout the war.
Soon the boys will be coming home, she thought, and life will begin anew. Soon we will hear from the family in Europe, and bring those who survived to America. Untying her apron and hanging it behind the kitchen door, she decided to make her way over to her brothers, uncles, and aunts to celebrate with them.
Maybe Shirley wants to come along, she thought, walking toward the living room where her daughter had been earlier. Instead of rejoicing, the sixteen year old was now sitting in a corner, silently weeping.
“The war is over, Mama, but who knows what’s going to happen in the world!” she tearfully said. “Nothing will ever be the same again!”
Taking her daughter’s hand, Freida Sima once again rued her husband Mordche’s communist polemics and political pessimism that Shirley had grown up with.
“No, my Shirlinkeh, nothing will be the same,” she answered quietly. “Some circles will close but others, maybe better ones, will open.”
* * * * *
Over the next few months a number of circles indeed closed, but there were also new beginnings. One by one the Kraus boys came home from the war and began new lives. After being engaged for years, Harry married his Shirley and the two moved out to California where the other brothers were living. Stewart and Ben married as well, and the next generation of Krauses began to grow in California.
In New York as well, the family went through changes as cousins came back from the army. For many of the older generation – to which Freida Sima, now fifty, belonged – it felt as though they were living in two dimensions at once, mourning their relatives lost in Europe while celebrating their soldiers’ safe return.
This interplay of sorrow and joy was strongly felt and played a major role in the gala celebration the Scharf-Eisenberg family circle held to mark the war’s end and the safe return of the cousins who had served in the military.
The next generation, the small children who had sat on the floor in the family portrait taken when Baba Devorah had visited the U.S. (“Freida Sima’s Mother Comes to America,” Jewish Press, April 8), was growing up as well. Mordche had been working full time since the war began, and there was enough money for Shirley to finish high school instead of going to work at sixteen as her older brothers had.
Freida Sima was thrilled when her daughter decided to attend Brooklyn College and become a language teacher. It was compensation for Freida Sima’s not having been able to complete her own formal education. Knowing her daughter’s socialist tendencies, she had feared that Shirley intended to join her aunt Rose, Mordche’s older sister, on an extended visit to the Soviet Union the older woman was planning. After all, this was the daughter whose high school yearbook opened with her homeroom teacher’s parting note: “Come the revolution, Shirley, don’t forget to take care of me.”
Abie’s daughters, Sheila and Muriel, were also growing up. Unlike their socialist cousin Shirley, they had joined the Zionist Betar youth movement and even attended its summer camp. Muriel took her Zionist indoctrination seriously, and at the end of her second year at Hunter College made plans to sail to Israel and fight for the Jewish homeland. In early May 1948 she packed a bag and pretended to go out with a girlfriend. Instead, she secretly boarded the export liner Marine Carp, along with sixty-nine other Americans, and sailed for Palestine.
When Abie learned what his daughter had done, he swore to send a telegram to the authorities and have her taken off the boat, as she was underage. Cousin Abe Scharf, the immigration lawyer, counseled against it, but Abie was too incensed to relent.
Finally, Freida Sima, who had come right over as soon as she heard of her niece’s disappearance, locked Abie in the bathroom, refusing to let him out until he promised to send Muriel a very different telegram – one that expressed love for his daughter and support for her choice.
Muriel fought in Israel’s War of Independence and eventually married one of her Camp Betar leaders. Her husband, Moshe Arens, would go on to become one of Israel’s most outspoken and respected defense ministers.
* * * * *
As she entered her fifties, Freida Sima’s life was changing. Mordche was making a living and she no longer needed to run a boardinghouse to support the family. One by one her boarders left until only “Rosie,” the elderly Mr. Rosenthal who had no family in New York but was like an honorary member of the Kraus household, remained.
At eighteen, Shirley finally had her own bedroom instead of sleeping in the corner of the living room as she had done since she was seven. Catering to his beloved youngest child’s fantasies, Max painted the ceiling black and pasted tin stars on it, which at night reflected the streetlights coming through the window.
One evening, having fallen asleep on her daughter’s bed while waiting for her to return from college, Freida Sima opened her eyes in shock. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven!” she recalled, laughing about it years later.
Now that the boardinghouse had closed, Freida Sima not only had free bedrooms, she had free time. For a change she could allow herself the luxury of sitting and reading to her heart’s content. But years of caring for others had taught her that life was more than self-indulgence. The war, and especially the fact that she hadn’t been able to save her family, still weighed heavily on her mind. She and her brothers had been instrumental in participating in the Bukoviner relief committee that sent packages to survivors, including her own family, now in Bucharest, but she wanted to do more.
The kitchen had always been Freida Sima’s kingdom and she was known as one of the best cooks in the family. She decided to put these skills to use and volunteered to cook and serve lunch at a local yeshiva, whose student body and faculty included Holocaust orphans and survivors. For several years Freida Sima spent three mornings and early afternoons each week cooking and serving delicious food to the students and staff, often sitting with the younger children to tell them stories while they ate and acting as a mother figure to those in need.
Meanwhile, the Enzenberg family (as the Eisenberg family was called in Europe) was on the move. Elish, Lola, and Max came to America in 1948, right before Muriel left for Israel, and changed their name to Eisenberg to match the rest of the family. Working at first in his brother Benny’s butcher shop, Elish soon moved into the tie business, eventually opening his own store on the Lower East Side.
A year and a half later, the rest of the European Enzenberg clan joined the first wave of Romanian immigrants to Israel. Initially sent to various immigrant tent camps around the country, the family coalesced in the central region and moved into tzrifim (shacks) and more permanent housing.
* * * * *
Around that time, Freida Sima announced to Mordche that more than anything else she wanted to visit her family in Israel, to meet the brother and sister she had never seen, and to become reacquainted with the two brothers who had been small children when she left for America.
And so Freida Sima left for Israel laden with food and presents for everyone she was to meet. Unlike her journey to America by boat forty years earlier, this time she traveled by plane. The trip to Israel took almost three days, with refueling stops in Greenland, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Greece. A cousin who accompanied her to Israel recalled, “By the time we got off the plane in Lod, seventy-two hours later, everyone on the flight had become good friends.”
Sheindl and Tuleh had never met Freida Sima; Elish had been eleven months old when she last saw him; and Srul had been five (he had a faint memory of what Freida Sima looked like as a girl).
Sheindl remembered her excitement when she greeted the sister who was more than twenty years older than her. “All along I used to say, ‘I have a sister on paper whom I have never seen,’ and now I finally met her!”
Unlike her American brothers, who for years had called her “Boitee,” their pronunciation of “Bertha,” these siblings called her Freida Sima, the name Nachman and Devorah had used for their eldest daughter. Only years later, after Tuleh and Sheindl moved to America, did they begin calling their sister Boitee as well.
The contents of Freida Sima’s suitcases caused a minor sensation when she arrived in Israel, which was still in its tzena (austerity) period, with all the rationing and deprivations the word implies. Trying to think of what the family might need and enjoy, Freida Sima had packed her suitcases with food, clothing, and small luxuries.
Brothers Abie in the dry goods store, Elish in the tie business, and Benny in the butcher shop had done her proud. Out of one suitcase came shirts, pants, ties, socks, and underwear for the men and boys; out of the other, skirts and blouses for the girls and dresses and cologne for the women. From her hand luggage she pulled out numerous salamis, which had given the plane a distinctive and unforgettable odor, familiar to anyone taking the long flights to Israel in those days, along with chewing gum and candy for the children.
The Enzenbergs were always a very emotional family, easily shedding tears at both sad and happy occasions. Sure enough, no one’s eyes were dry when they got together for a festive gathering at Sheindl’s little house. After eating, the entire family went to take pictures to send to America, just as Freida Sima and her brothers had done in New York before the war, when they sent pictures to family members still in Europe.
After initially posing in different groupings, everyone came together for a full family portrait, similar to the one the American family had taken when Baba Devorah had come to visit. Unlike that picture, for which all had worn their best dresses or suits, this one was more informal, taken outdoors in the summer heat. Nevertheless, Srul, Tuleh, and Leibush dutifully wore the ties and crisp new white shirts they had received from the family in New York.
* * * * *
Freida Sima’s six-week stay in Israel passed like a dream, and much too soon it was time to begin her three-day flight home. Before leaving, she reiterated what Abie had already told his siblings when he visited them: life in Israel was very hard and the family would help any of them and their families come to America.
Tuleh was the first to express interest, and the family soon brought him, followed by his wife and daughter, to New York. Later on he was joined by Sheindl, followed by her daughter and Naftula, whose daughter had married and decided to stay in Israel. Tuleh became a butcher, like his brother Benny, and changed his name to Eisenberg, while Naftula found work as a baker. Srul and Leibush and their families remained in Israel, although Srul’s older son moved to New York and married an American girl.
By the early 1960s, six of the eight siblings lived in New York, five in the Bronx, not far from one another. Fifteen years after the war’s end, Freida Sima’s dream from the end of the First World War had come true. She, together with Abie and Benny, had finally managed to reunite most of the family in America.
And there were always new dreams. Soon after Freida Sima returned from Israel, Mordche turned sixty-five and could retire from painting.
“Don’t get too comfortable, Mordche,” she told him when he sat down in a living-room chair with a cigarette the first morning of his retirement. “I have a list of things I’ve been waiting for us to do for years!”
Their adventures in the years that followed were more than even she had dreamed of, but that’s a chapter of their lives that requires its own installment.
(This installment of the Freida Sima series is dedicated to the memory of Freida Sima’s brother Abie Eisenberg (whose yahrzeit is 15 Tammuz, which falls this year on July 21), and his wife, Freida’s sister-in-law and first cousin Minnie Scharf Eisenberg (whose yahrzeit is 13 Tammuz – July 19 this year).