To regular readers of this blog: I know I haven’t posted much lately, and this post has almost nothing to do with publishing (although there’s a book link in it!) I’m in London on my way to the Frankfurt Book Fair as I write it. I will resume more regular contributions to the dialogue about publishing and digital change, but posts may remain sparse for a couple more weeks…
Last weekend, the New York Times carried an obituary of a Polish cardiologist, socialist, and Warsaw Ghetto survivor named Marek Edelman. One untold part of his life story touched my family.
Marek Edelman was one of the leaders of what were (according to the Times) 220 armed fighters who constituted the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 19, 1943. Two of the others were a man named Friedrich (whose first name I’ve forgotten if I never knew…and, as you’ll see, I’m running out of people to ask who might remember) and another named Bernard Goldstein. Goldstein came to the US in 1948 and I knew him well in my early youth; Bernard died on December 7, 1959, which was the only day of my childhood when I remember seeing my father cry.
Friedrich was credited with being the man who followed the tracks out of Warsaw that carried the railroad cars that took Jews being removed from the ghetto to an unknonwn destination. Friedrich reported back that the destination was a concentration camp where the Jews were being exterminated. For that effort, and for his part in the doomed uprising of April 19, he was deemed a hero by the survivors after the war, particulary those in the Jewish Socialist Bund, which also claimed Edelman, Goldstein, and my grandparents on both sides as members.
Friedrich had a daughter named Elsa, born on December 18, 1936. Elsa was smuggled out of the Ghetto to live in hiding with a Catholic family in about 1941. Thus she escaped being killed when the Jews in the Ghetto were virtually exterminated during and after the uprising.
As the Ghetto was burning, Friedrich and Edelman were on a rooftop watching the final carnage. Friedrich extracted the promise from Edelman that if Edelman survived the war and Friedrich didn’t, Edelman would take guardianship of Elsa.
And, indeed, that came to pass. Elsa had been about 5 years old when she was “adopted” by the Catholic family, and although she recalled the necessity of concealing her story during the war, she was apparently happy in her new home. So when Marek came and took her away from her familiar and comfortable surroundings, honoring the promise he’d made to her father, it was a wrenching experience for a child then only about 9 years old.
The global organization of the Bund knew about Friedrich and knew about Elsa’s circumstances. They considered it anathama that the daughter of a hero could be consigned to such a bleak future, growing up in poverty-stricken, anti-Semitic Poland, even as the control of the hated Soviets (the socialists were very anti-Communist) was being established in the country.
So, using their power as a global organization, the Bund hunted for an American family that would take Elsa in and raise her in this country. My father’s parents, Julek and Helen Shatzkin, agreed to accept the responsibility. They were then in their early 50s; my father and his younger brother, Uncle Sock, were both in their 20s, married, and starting their own families. My grandparents moved from New York City, where they had lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn since arriving as immigrants in 1920, to northern Westchester. They built a house and prepared for a new life, raising a daughter in suburban post-World War II America. The political clout of the Bund found sympathetic help from New York Republican Senator Irving Ives, who sponsored the special legislation that allowed Elsa to immigrate legally to the United States.
Elsa was a girl of great talent: very beautiful and also brilliant. She was also always troubled, always haunted by the lives (intentionally plural) she had left behind. The spiritual gap between this young woman striving to be a “normal” American and my grandparents, who were culturally still very Old World, created strains. My grandmother was never particularly comfortable with the arrangement; my grandfather was smitten with his new daughter and wanted to spoil and indulge her. From the perspective of her 10-1/2 years younger nephew (which I was), Aunt Elsa was hip and pretty and virtually unapproachable for most of my childhood.
In the mid-1950s, Elsa graduated from Lakeland High School and went off to Cornell, majoring in English, from which she graduated in about 1957. She went on to study for a master’s at Columbia, where she met and fell in love with ayoung historian named Robert Dallek. They got married in about 1958. By that time, Elsa had changed her name to Ilse. I remember that Robert always pronounced it as she spelled it; she remained Elsa to the rest of us.
In about 1960, Ilse had a nervous breakdown. I remember visiting her in a mental institution of some kind (once again; I’m short of surviving family old enough to give me more details.) But she got out, ostensibly recovered; her marriage to Robert resumed. He continued to study for his PhD and she for her master’s.
Bernard Goldstein, like Marek Edelman, was a leader of the armed resistance. For the ten years I knew him in my childhood, he was much like a 3rd grandfather. My father had translated his memoir into English and it was published by the house Dad worked for, The Viking Press, as The Stars Bear Witness in 1948. (We have a copy of The Wallinscribed to Dad from John Hersey because Bernard’s book was critical research material.)
Elsa was always very uncomfortable in Bernard’s presence, which was very painful for him. He wanted to relate to her affectionately; he had known her father; to him, she was a flower that had amazingly survived the conflagration of Warsaw. But to her, he was a reminder of the beginning of her traumatic life and the loss of her real family. These perspectives could never be reconciled.
I remember spending the night at the apartment of Aunt Ilse and Uncle Robert in my early teens along with my friend,Tony Klein (now a Vermont State Legislator), after a rained-out Yankee game we had intended to go to. Ilse was then in her mid-20s. She and Robert came in from an evening out and Ilse proceeded to change into short shorts and start cleaning up the apartment. Tony was agog. This is your aunt, he said? His aunts were all old and dowdy; mine was young and vital and attractive. And tortured.
In October of 1962, Ilse committed suicide. She checked into a hotel on the upper west side, near where she and Robert lived, and took an overdose of sleeping pills. Apparently she left a note; I never saw it. My father got the task of identifying the body at the morgue. My grandfather went into an immediate depression; the pain of losing an adopted daughter he loved was compounded by the feeling of having failed in a political responsibility to the Bund. The electro-shock treatments prescribed at that time to snap him out of it were blamed by my family for the blood cancer that ensued and killed him in November of 1964.
In college, Ilse’s best friend was a woman whose married name was Faith Sale; her husband was the historian and social thinker Kirkpatrick Sale. Faith became an editor at Putnam. She died, much too young, of cancer a decade ago. Before Faith died, I had lunch with her to talk about my Aunt. This was more than 30 years after Ilse’s death, but Faith was still touched to uncontrollable tears by recalling the tragedy and pain of her friend’s existence.
In 1980, my parents’ proclivity for going where the revolutions were (a story that requires some research for another blog post some day) took them to Poland, where Solidarity was leading the change which ultimately swept across the Soviet-dominated countries. Marek Edelman, by then a prominent cardiologist, was a key player in Solidarity. He and my parents connected.
As I understood it from Dad, Edelman regretted that he had ever taken Elsa from her Polish Catholic family. He had done that to honor the commitment he had made to her father, and then he relinquished her to the Bund’s equally well-intentioned and equally ill-fated desire to find her a better life in America. He felt pain similar to my grandfather’s. He had tried to save this girl, but the demons within her played cruel tricks with those intentions.
There are few of us left to remember Elsa: my Uncle Sock’s widow; my sisters; and my cousins in Sock’s family. What we’re left with is the lesson that great tragedy can come from the best of intentions, and the fact that some victims of Hitler died two decades after he did, my aunt and my grandfather being among them.