The birth of a child is a blessing for any family, but for our family my son Joshua’s birth was also an affirmation. He was the first child to be born a citizen of the United States of America to a family whose personal history was marked by pogroms, labor camps and displaced persons camps, the legacy of persecution. We gave Joshua the yiddish name, Yankif Yossel, in memory of his great great grandfather at the request of my father David.
Although he was reluctant to talk about his painful past, my father often spoke of that memorable day when Yankif Yossel gathered the large Zejerman family together in the small Polish town of Sarnaki. A wise and righteous man, Yankif Yossel realized that war was imminent but he was too old to fight and too frail to leave so he blessed each member of the family, said good-bye, closed his eyes and died. He was 104 years old.
Student of survival
My father’s family were expert cabinetmakers who constructed most of the buildings and furniture in Sarnaki but in his youth my father also studied to become a rabbi. The war forced him to become a student of survival as well. He was the sole member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust. My mother, Devorah Berger, was more fortunate. She had her brother, Moshe. With their family murdered and their town of Uchanie destroyed, it was only their devotion to each other that sustained Moshe and Devorah and enabled them to endure and overcome unimaginable hardships during the nightmare that followed.
For many who were left homeless and orphaned, the war was the shatran– the matchmaker- that brought couples together. And so miraculously, the victims of a cruelty beyond comprehension managed to find the strength to marry and create new lives and new families. My brother Milton and I were born while our parents languished in various displaced person’s camps in Germany. Immigration quotas kept us in limbo for several years, citizens of nowhere, until we were finally permitted to immigrate to America in 1951.
The clapboard boarding house
HIAS found us a home in a clapboard boarding house on West 2nd Street, on the edge of Coney Island. As my family prospered, we moved to a tenement on West 3rd Street, opposite P.S. 100. When I started kindergarten, “ich obe giret bloyze Yiddish,” (I spoke only Yiddish). But by the end of the year I had a new language and a new name.
The school dentist had suggested to my parents that they give me and my brother names more appropriate for an American child. And so Mordecai, (named for our maternal grandfather) was renamed Milton after a popular ‘50s television entertainer. And Chaya became Helen. When we officially became American citizens in 1956, my parents changed the spelling of their last name from the Polish Zejerman to Zegerman which was easier to pronounce.
My father David took advantage of the opportunities here using his ingenuity and his craftsman’s skills to rebuild his life by rebuilding Brooklyn. With his golden hands he was capable of constructing a tiny cradle for my doll and years later, a large home for my growing family. When he was well into his seventies, my father finally revealed to me that he deeply regretted that he was unable to continue his education and become a surgeon.
Fulfilling a dream
My father-in-law, Abraham Schwimmer, also aspired to be a doctor. In the 1930’s, when religious quotas kept him from receiving a medical education here, he attempted to attend medical school in Europe. But the threat of war brought him back home where he became a pharmacist instead. And so along with the antibiotics and the cold remedies, he also dispensed a generous dose of TLC to anyone who walked through the door of the Prospect Pharmacy in Garfield, New Jersey.
Joshua’s grandfathers were not present to see him fulfill his dreams and theirs. But his grandmothers, Frieda Wiland Schwimmer and Devorah Berger Zegerman, were in the audience the day that their children’s child received his degree from the University of Rochester School of Medicine, As he descended from the stage of the Eastman Theater, Yankif Yossel cradled in his very capable hands a single sheaf of paper that spoke volumes.
Helen Zegerman Schwimmer is the author of the acclaimed anthology, “The Wedding Gown That Made History & Other Stories,” available from amazon.com