A hundred years ago today, she arrived, at a dock at the foot of Washington Avenue on the Delaware River in Philadelphia. The newspapers of the day were not concerned with her arrival, but they were full of another story: the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Veterans from both sides of the battle converged on the small Pennsylvania town 100 miles west of Philadelphia, for remembrance and reconciliation. My grandmother never told me about her arrival, so I have to reconstruct it from short accounts from others.
Here is what my uncle Si had to say about it: I cannot remember my own arrival at the Pier. I was just a tot being carried in my mother's arms. My father had come here about a year ahead to get things ready for the rest of the family. I'm told that Mom couldn't recognize the Old Man. For horror of horrors...the yeshivah bocher who left Vitebsk with a luxuriant, black beard had shaved it off. When this "stranger" took us in his arms and murmured "meine kinder", we cried. We'd never seen this beardless character before!
And, if all goes well, on the hundredth anniversary of my grandmother's arrival in Philadelphia, I will be walking the streets of Velizh, the little town where she was born. (I have written this post ahead of time, as I anticipate no internet access for a few days.)
I am not expecting much in the way of historical finds related to my family, since Velizh was directly in the path of the brutal German invasion of Russia in 1941. I once asked my father if he still was in contact with relatives in Russia. He replied that there were some letters up to 1941, but nothing after that. And according to a 1942 dispatch from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, any relatives left behind in Velizh were probably murdered by the Germans:
Only Seventeen Jews Escape Massacre by Nazis in Russian Town of Velizh
September 9, 1942
A harrowing account of how the German occupation forces in the town of Velizh, in the Vitebsk district, used machine guns, the noose and fire to murder all but seventeen of the 1,440 Jewish residents of the village is related in a letter from one of the seventeen – a young half-Jewish girl – shown to this correspondent today.
The letter, written by Lida Grigorieva to her father, a Red Army man at the front, tells how the Germans drove all the Jews of the town into a ghetto as soon as they occupied Velizh. Nine hundred of them were confined in a pigsty. Every day groups of Jews were led to the outskirts of the town and shot, while others were hanged in the town itself, Miss Grigorieva writes.
When the Nazis were forced to abandon Velizh, they locked all the Jews in the pigsty, sprayed kerosene over it and set it afire, the letter discloses. Those who tried to escape were mowed down by machine guns. Only seventeen Jews remained alive.
My grandmother probably found her new life baffling and difficult. She had to adjust to new customs, a new language, and a new name. (Upon his arrival, my grandfather had his name arbitrarily changed to "Shaltz" by a confused immigration agent. With an anglicized first name, my grandmother then became "Celia Shaltz".)
My grandmother and my uncles and aunts were fortunate to leave when they did. I am very grateful to their determination to find a better life in America; I only wish they had told their stories in more detail. I have only been able to reconstruct a pale shadow of their experiences and journeys.