My Jewhood 002

I tend to think of Jewhood as a “fact”, determined by birth only; of Jewishness as a characteristic or quality that entails an acceptance of one’s Jewhood, a sense of one’s interrelatedness with other Jews past, present and future, & with whatever can be called Jewish history and culture; & of Judaism as a religion − the religion that for more than two millennia , until the Jewish “Enlightenment” and the “Emancipation” of Jews in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries as part of the general “Enlightenment” and the subsequent secularization of Western culture– was the dominant force in Jewish culture, and its official vehicle.

& if Jewhood is determined by birth, then it makes sense that it also entails certain inherited genetic features. I’ve looked at some of the latest findings on the subject, & will probably blog about that as well some other time. I mention it now merely as something to keep in mind when considering my Jewish ancestry. Of which I know very little: very little about my grandparents (almost entirely through my mother’s memoirs) and nothing at all about any ancestors before them, because I was not old enough to speak of such things with any grandparent before they were exterminated, because all my web hunts have been fruitless, (as they may have remained even if I had the resources to invest in more comprehensive searches). I’ve come to accept this fact (together with so many other realities), & am glad I have at least the information I do have.

I don’t even know my paternal grandparents’ first names. My mother didn’t mention those in the very little she wrote about them. She wrote more about her father, but not his first name either. She mentioned her mother’s first name, Ernestyna, but it was not until a visit to Warsaw to try to trace some records that I learned her maiden name, Akst, and my grandfather’s given names, Leopold Zygmunt. I think I always knew his surname, Hermelin, for that was my mother’s brother’s surname and of course her maiden name.

By their names, by the fact that they married one another, & by what my mother wrote about their life before their troubles started, I imagine he & she were from the same ethno-social milieu of quite sophisticated & culturally assimilated Jews in Western, Germanic, Poland (the parts that from 1795 until after World War I were annexed by Prussia and Austria).

I feel I know more about my grandmother than about my other grandparents, not only because my mother (naturally) wrote more about her than about her father, who died when she was 15 and who for years before that had been much less important in her life than her mother, but also because of all four of my grandparents she was the only one I had a close grandparent-child relationship with, at least for the first three-and-a-quarter years of my life, until the day my father, my mother, I and my carer drove away from her little apartment in Warsaw, leaving her there, to face the imminent German invasion alone, and never to see her again.

I have one photograph of her. I don’t know when it was taken. She was born in 1885, would have been 54 when we parted.


My maternal grandmother, Ernestyna (Akst) Hermelin

But I don’t actually remember her, & have no sure memories of the two of us together. Only one  vague one: of my parents & I standing in a dim hallway facing her — though I see only her blurred face & figure — as we are parting for the last time, and I think that in that scene she finds the framed elongated mirror in the hall cracked (because of a recent bombing?) and says its a bad omen. But not a single other memory. Maybe because I was only 3¼ when we parted, and one doesn’t remember what one left behind at that age, or because I learned early to repress memories that might make me grieve for what I’d lost. Yet a later understanding of myself has made me feel, and feel with a warmth and a certitude, that in those three and a quarter years I was a most  fortunate recipient of her love and care and that I imbibed from her so much of that in me that I can think of as my goodness or my positiveness of spirit — which i’ll be the first to admit isn’t there all the time, but, thank goodness, is still there at 76+ to help me get back from other moods.

About her love for me, my mother wrote  (only 15 lines after writing of my birth):  She loved you so much, you just can’t imagine. You were her only grandchild. Whatever you did was wonderful. She loved her own children very much, but it was nothing compared with the love she felt for you, dear. You were her sunshine.

In the next post I will introduce my main source, My Mother’s Memoirs, & will publish three sections of it that are relevant to the present stage of this topic: “Her Childhood”, “Her Parents’ Families”, and “Our Refugeehood: From Warsaw to Shanghai”. In the first two you can get a sense of how “Jewish” my grandparents, grand-uncles and grand-aunts were and also of what role Jewhood and Jewishness played in my mother’s life; and in the third a sense of how our lives (my parents’ and mine) were transformed when our Jewhood became such a determining factor.


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