Her Parents’ Families (from My Mother’s Memoirs), &…

Of course my primary reason for publishing My Mother’s Memoirs in this blog is to at last put it online – as another document of a person’s life in those times & places, to be accessible to all readers & particularly to my own family & descendants, & also as a part of a broader section of my blog, which I may call “Where I’m Coming From”, of which other sections, such as “My Jewhood &”, & others I plan to add, will be parts.

This section of her memoirs contains short descriptions, with only very little (but precious) information – first, and most briefly, about my maternal grandfather & his two sisters, and then, in slightly more detail, about my maternal grandmother’s four sisters and five brothers and their families. To read it, click Her Parents’ Families.

In this post I will relate only to what it tells me about the first subject I’ve chosen to focus on in this blog, my Jewhood, through what it says about the Jewhood of my maternal ancestors.

There are not many references to Jewish matters in this section, but what there is is revealing. So too is what is not there, like the fact that not one of my mother’s aunts and uncles or their spouses or children had a Jewish name.

My mother adds only one remark to what she wrote in Her Childhood about her maternal grandfather. “He was an exceptionally good-looking man. Very tall, and by this time, of course, gray. All his sons were exceptionally good-looking men. They were all about six feet tall, some even a bit taller, and all the daughters were beautiful, blond, with blue eyes.” This is not an explicit reference to anything Jewish, but it strikes me each time I read it (my mother, too, had blue eyes, & so do I). Now I find myself thinking of its implications about genetic aspects of my Jewhood (I take this up on a separate page. To view, click Are Jews a Race?).

About her grandmother, all my mother wrote was: “I remember her well only as an old woman and I think she was religious and kosher, at this time anyway. We used to come there every Friday night, the candles were burning, and all the family came there for supper.” Nowhere in her memoirs does my my mother suggest that her mother too lit candles on a Friday night. She herself never did. The first time I learned about Shabbes candles was in my teens…

She makes only one other mention in this section of any actual Jewish religious observances, when writing of her aunt Genia’s husband (and widower) and his sons, her close cousins Sevek and Fredek: “Uncle Marcus was religious and he made them pray and believe and always used to take them to synagogue up to the time they grew up. After he died they did not pray any more, and how strange it was for me to hear after the Second World War that both of them, lawyers for a long time and with some other diplomas too, holding positions in the Polish government after the war, had got baptized with their families.”

So: two of her maternal cousins converted to Catholicism, “got baptized”. So did four of her ten maternal uncles & aunts — & probably some more cousins.

There’s the dramatic story of her Aunt Roma: “I think she found company which absorbed all her unmarried years, and it was company that was unwanted in the family, because it was the company of Goyim. She fell in love with a Goy and she was the first to change her religion. My grandmother was still alive, and it was a terrible blow to her. She fought as hard as she could, poor woman, but she couldn’t do a thing. She gave no permission, she said she never wanted to see Roma again in her life, and the last words she said as Roma was leaving the house were that she wished that Roma would never have any children. Actually I’m putting it too mildly, I should say that she put a curse on her that she shouldn’t have children. The whole business was too much for my grandmother’s mind, something went wrong, and very soon after she died.”

Then (I don’t know in which order they converted), her Uncle Max: “I don’t know much about him because he also got baptized, and then kept to the baptized part of the family, while we were in close contact only with the Jewish part of the family.”

Her Uncle Julek: “During the war he too got called up to the Russian army. When he returned home, he lived in our place for some time, but he also fell in love with a Polish woman and got baptized. However, he used to keep in close contact with my mother, and I heard that during the Second World War and the time of the Ghetto he took care of her and tried to delay the moment of her being taken to the camp as long as he could, but the time came when he could help no longer.”

Her youngest Aunt, Hela , the Socialist: “After my grandmother died she moved in to our apartment and lived with us, and we used to share with her what little we had during those war years. But one day one of us found a cross with Jesus on it on the floor next to her suitcase. She had no other reason for changing religion at that time except belief. I don’t know if or what my mother said to her, but soon after that she went to live with our Aunt Roma, who was already a Catholic at this time.”

So it seems that my mother remembered only two Jewish characteristics (or perhaps two aspects of a single characteristic) that seem to have been shared by “the Jewish part” of my maternal grandmother’s family: an opposition to intermarriage with non-Jews & to conversion to Christianity, and a sense of identification with their Jewhood, of a kind of deep connection, a kind of solidarity — even with no visible cultural or behavioural signs — with Jews as such. The first of these is evident in the stories of the four conversions, and also appears even before any references to conversion, in my mother’s description of her (eldest) aunt Frania’s youngest son Heniek: “He had a non-Jewish girlfriend for many years. My aunt didn’t allow him to marry her, so he lived with her in an apartment without marriage, and never brought her to his mother’s house.” The second is expressed in my mother’s statement “we were in close contact only with the Jewish part of the family.” This, I think, was the essence – and the main (but not negligible) extent – of my mother’s conscious Jewishness or Jewish consciousness. As it probably was of my father’s too, but he must have observed some Jewish religious practices in his childhood or youth, as will emerge when I come to tell the strange story of how I was introduced suddenly to the Jewish religion, Judaism (thus beginning my move from mere Jewhood to a conscious Jewishness) when I was about 6 or 7.


In a comment to my Ongoing page, Moti Vidan wrote: I can already tell you, talking about “Jewhood”, that I’m having trouble with the term “Jew” itself. It is linked to me by either a religion I have nothing to do with or by a legacy of genocide. And what is this word anyway? What’s wrong with Judeans?

To which I replied: Moti, I can sympathize: I too don’t particularly like this word, & some of its connotations, but I don’t think we have a choice either of how any language expresses the Hebrew word “yehudi”, or of whatever “legacy” goes with that name. But I thank you for your two questions: trying to answer them has sparked me to start a new page, which I’m publishing with my next post. To view the new page, click What Is This Word “Jew”?


4 thoughts on “Her Parents’ Families (from My Mother’s Memoirs), &…

  1. Richard, do you know or think there is any other cultural or ethnic entity which is so puzzled by who it is and what defines it? Moti is right. It is not currently relevant to define Jewhood through identification with a religion or fear of persecution certainly for those of us who have no religion and have never been persecuted. But still there is an inescapable identification with Jewhood and given the irrelevance of the above the passionate search for what this means. The greatest dilemma of my life. Hope you will shed some light on this.


    • Jenny, I totally agree with you. & Moti rightly picks up on the fact that so many people still link Jews with a religion or with persecution. Actually that’s why I’ve started using the word ‘Jewhood’, to refer to what mere being-a-Jew (merely being born a Jew) is. & as you say Jews definitely constitute a unique (& puzzling because so unique) kind of entity, one that is ethnic &/or racial & at the same time cultural (which includes that indefinable something that causes most Jews to identify with their Jewhood & some of us to even embark on “the passionate search for what this means”). We can admit that for many centuries the dominant element in the cultural superstructure that has been the “glue” for this entity was the Jewish religion, but this has changed radically since the late 18th century (see Wikipedia, “Jewish emancipation” and “Haskalah” for an intro). I’ve started taking these things up further in the first installments of my new pages “Are Jews a Race?” & “What is This Word ‘Jew’?”


  2. Hi Dick, I have just taken on a gig assisting an elderly Polish Jew write his memoirs, another of the many extraordinary stories of survival; escape from the Warsaw Ghetto at 13, fostered by Gentiles, joining the partisans, avoiding detection by the Nazis etc, etc. An issue for his family too, was conversion to Christianity. Synchronicity?? cheers, peter w


    • Hi Peter. Sounds like a good gig, & good luck with the project. I’d love to hear more about his story. & yes, I’d say synchronicity in that we’re both quite unlikelily relating to this phenomenon at the very same time, & synchrony in that this kind of problem may well have been common to most Jews, secular as well as religious, in Warsaw at the time, & possibly more synchrony in that your elderly assistee may have grown up in the same more cosmopolitan Warsaw Jewish ambience that my mother’s parents & my parents lived in (& that I may have grown up in, had WW2 not happened, what a thought!…)… cheers, richid


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