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My Grandparents’ Impossible Situation

Carol Ungar

Tablet, Sept. 16, 2022 

Though I didn’t realize it as a kid, there was something odd about my grandparents. The tall, craggy-faced man in the black cloth yarmulke was my grandfather, my mother’s father—with their shared large frames and light eyes there was no mistaking the biological connection. But what about the short lady with the headscarf and the iron leg brace whom I called Grandma, and my mother called Yulishka. Where did she fit in?

She was, my mother told me at a very young age, my step-grandmother. What had happened to my mother’s real mother, my real grandmother? Also at a very young age, probably too young, I knew that she’d been murdered by Hitler.

I also knew her name, the same as mine; Carol is an anglicization of Tzirel. I even knew what she looked like. My mother showed me the sepia-toned photographs of the unsmiling young woman in a flapper-style dress and cloche hat. Still, something didn’t add up. Grandpa had made it to Brooklyn. Why hadn’t my mother’s mother, his wife at the time, joined him there?

As a teenager, I squeezed the story from my mother—by this time Grandpa was long dead, and Yulishka confined to a nursing home. Like many survivors, my mother didn’t share her prewar memories, but I needed to know, and so during our long Shabbos afternoon walks up and down West End Avenue, I nudged her until she spoke.

Grandpa had arrived in New York illegally in 1930 when my mother was 5. My mother told me that had had “jumped ship.” The phrase connotes high drama, but my mother’s description was far more prosaic; Grandpa had taken a job on a ship—as what, I don’t know. Then, upon landing, he disembarked and disappeared into the city. On Ancestry.com I saw my grandfather’s name on the crew lists of two steamships that sailed from Europe to the U.S. in 1926. It seems he’d had made several trial runs, round-trip, before that final one-way voyage. But how did he sneak past the immigration officials at the port? Years after my mother shared her version, a cousin told me that Grandpa dove off the boat’s rail and swam into the Goldene Medine. He was 40 at the time.

Though some immigrants abandoned their European families, Grandpa sent his paltry earnings back home, and my grandmother sent photographs of my mother so that my grandfather would remember the daughter he left behind, as she grew up in his absence. Did they keep up a correspondence? I don’t know. Whatever letters they may have exchanged have been lost to time. SOURCE

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