Photo Credit: Wiki
Hebrew Orphan Asylum, Brooklyn, New York

A few weeks ago my father, Harry Lumish, passed of natural causes just short of his 99th birthday.

The odds of a man born in 1920 and living to the age of 99 are about 200 to 1.


He arrived in this world in Medzhybizh, Ukraine — the home of Baal Shem Tov and the Chasid Movement — during a period of violent pogroms. I assume that many of those folks in Crown Heights are actually relatives of mine, but I do not know.

My grandfather, Beryl, fled with his immediate family, including my grandmother, Sarah, from Medzhybizh, because they were not fond of sword and rifle-wielding Kossacks. They were running for their lives. They sought legal access into the United States but were not obliged by the United States government. They were able, however, to relocate briefly to Argentina.

Shortly before the paperwork came through and my family received permission to legally migrate into the United States, my grandfather died and his daughter, my aunt Betty, was born in Argentina. Not long thereafter Sarah passed through Ellis Island with Harry and Betty in her arms on their way to Brooklyn. Before my grandmother got on her feet, they stayed at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of that borough. Family legend has it that Sarah actually scrubbed floors at that institution in the early-mid 1920s.

The rest of my father’s side of the family who stayed in Medzhybizh were slaughtered by the Germans during World War II under Operation Barbarossa, which was the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Medzhybizh was simply on the road in one of the German routes to Russia. When the Nazis arrived they separated the Jews from the non-Jews of that small town and put both populations to road building. When that task was done they had the Jews dig ditches. When the ditches were dug they had the Jews line-up within those ditches.

I feel reasonably certain that you know what happened after that. That was when my family lost the great majority of my father’s side.

His story, though, like that of many millions of other Americans, is a sort-of classic American truth. He and Sarah and Betty came through Ellis Island with nothing. My dad ran around Brooklyn as a child during the Depression. He described himself as a “wild kid” which is hard for me to grasp because the guy who raised me was a middle-class accountant and philatelist.

{And, I have to say, I have a great deal of affection for that mint Israeli stamp collection that he poured through over decades.}

Shortly before 7 December 1941, which Franklyn Roosevelt referred to as “a date which will live in infamy,” he enrolled in St. John’s College in New York. His intention was to become an accountant. Unfortunately, the world powers got in the way of that small personal endeavor and they dragged him off to the Central Pacific; Kwajalein, the Marshall Islands, Enewetak. He became a skinny twenty-year-old corporal with a rifle slung over his shoulder, sleeping in foxholes as Japanese snipers shot at United States soldiers from trees.

He lasted the duration of the American participation in the war, but he came through OK… otherwise I would not even be here.

Upon returning home to New York City, he met my mother, Rita, from the Bronx, finished his degree, built a family and moved into the suburbs while listening to Glenn Miller. He did it with practically nothing. What he had was the GI Bill of Rights which paid for the rest of his education.

And he had Glenn Miller which filled his soul.

This is for you, dad.


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Michael Lumish is a PhD in American history from the Pennsylvania State University and has taught at PSU, San Francisco State University, and the City College of San Francisco. He regularly publishes on the Arab-Israel conflict at his own blog, Israel Thrives ( Lumish is also the founding editor of the scholarly on-line discussion forum H-1960s. He can be contacted at [email protected].