Letters from My Great-Grandmother

Stand for Israel  |  August 1, 2019

Bubbe Esther
Bubbe Esther

When the Nazis murdered six million Jews during the Holocaust, so many of those lives were simply gone — people and their stories and gifts and love and vibrancy extinguished. But what some left behind allows us to learn more about those who were lost. Writing at The Times of Israel, Joshua Berman tells how his Bubbe Esther’s letters and the godly life she lived inspired him to visit Ukraine, where she lived and where she perished:

That’s Bubbe Esther — my great-grandmother. My heroine.

Growing up, I was blessed. My parents afforded me a yeshiva day school education, and at 13, I took on full observance. I felt proud to be carrying on a long heritage of observance. But the way I thought about the world and the lifestyle I chose made me unlike anyone else in my entire extended family. I yearned to have a connection with someone way back in the family line who had been observant, but resigned myself to the reality that I would never know anything about them. I was like a character out of the Wizard of Oz: if I only had a past.

Just a year ago, I was blessed again. Out of thin air, a distant cousin surfaced from the Ural Mountains in central Russia with a trove of pre-war letters and photographs from my mother’s family, including Bubbe Esther, my grandfather’s mother — the last observant member of my family. For a year, I pored over her photos and the translations of her Yiddish letters, adopting her as my new-found bubbe.

Bubbe Esther had a hard life. Like the previous three generations of the family, she lived in a small Jewish farming colony in the southern Ukraine called Bobrovy Kut — Russian, for, of all things, “Beaver Creek.” Her entire life was spent within a 70 kilometer radius of this place of her birth.

In her 30s, tragedy struck: the Almighty took her husband and the creditor her horse and wagon. Penniless, she struggled to raise seven orphans. I like the photo above from 1907. My grandfather (on the left) and his sister sport modern clothes and hairstyles — all seven siblings together with a whole generation drifted away from tradition — while Bubbe Esther still covered her hair as a widow. My grandfather left for Canada in 1912 with the plan to get settled and then bring everyone over. But over the next 30 years the Jews of the Ukraine were struck with a Seder-like series of plagues: World War. Revolution. Soviet brutality. Pogroms. Famine. Epidemics… Einsatzgruppen.

The letters were all that remained…

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