Left in Andover: Found in translation

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Growing up, I never suspected my extended family of any deep secrets. Boy was I mistaken. Now I yearn to recreate the kitchen and Popplewood porch gatherings of my childhood, to sift for evidence.

At that age, I was focused on my aunts’ cooking rather than on their reminiscing. But even if I had concentrated on the adult talk, I would never have learned of the desperate letters that Dad’s sister Merele received from relatives trapped in Poland in the 1930s and ’40s.

This is because my aunt kept them secret. And her first commitment was to peace of mind for the younger generation. Possibly she felt that naming the monster would perpetuate its power.

Cover of family Yiddish letters booklet

I wish she had shared these letters with her sisters and my dad, her brother, at least. It seems a lot to have borne alone. But even worse, what if she did? What if Dad, whom I believed shared everything with us, knew all about them? And he, as in the case of many touched by the Holocaust, tried to shield us, from fear as well as shame and guilt.

In her Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt posits, “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”

The contemporary rise of far right and skin-head ideology prove Arendt’s fear is not without grounds. In the words of one Holocaust survivor, “If we don’t understand the history of hate, we cannot recognize the ideology that brings about violence.”

The ordinary looking trunk containing the stack of Yiddish letters lay dormant for more than 80 years, transported carefully from house to house in Bennington by Merele and her descendants.

Finally, 30 years after her death, we have had the letters translated from the original Yiddish into English. They reveal the plight of Dad’s aunt Elka Kuznets and other relatives in Lithuania and Poland caught in Hitler’s noose during the Holocaust.

The tone of the letters is one of increasing desperation. This excerpt from 1940, addressed to four family members including my father (Chaim), is typical:

Aunt Elke’s letter.

“To my niece, esteemed, faithful. Dear Merele and Ivan, Hiiren and Chaim, you should be healthy and strong. It is extremely cold here, impossible to live like this. In the house we are without clothing (naked). Perhaps you can help save us; you have done us enough good, but in such times, we know that if you don’t help us, we will fall. You yourself know what is happening here, and what has happened up to now. Save us with very little. My children kiss your feet. Save us with whatever. Please grant us what we ask. Our hope is that if you help us, perhaps some one of us will survive. My dear one, my life.”

Elka writes to Merele in Bennington repeatedly. Sometimes she acknowledges receipt of a small sum of money. A five dollar bill is lost or more likely stolen in transit, then possibly found, meaning all the world for these close relatives.

I was raised on the legend of my paternal grandfather Isaac Kadischewitz and his four brothers, Max, Leib, Israel and Myron. Born in Bialystok, Poland, upon entering adulthood they each assumed the surname of a different family that had no sons. Only sons were exempt from serving in the czar’s army.

Four of the brothers, including my grandfather Isaac, immigrated to the United States by World War I. Supposedly Leib ended up in Argentina.

Through persistent detective work, contact with our Argentinian cousins was recently achieved for the first time since the 1970s, when Dad’s Uncle Myron (possibly the “Hiiren” in Elka’s letter) visited there.

Learning for the first time of the brutal suffering of this branch of the family at the hands of the Nazis is what galvanized my family to finally have our collection of Yiddish letters translated into English last year. Previous to that, I truly had no idea I had close relatives who were murdered during the Holocaust. A collective trauma has become personal to me.

Aunt Merele in the 1940s.

Countless times I sat in Merele’s Bennington kitchen, which incorporated an old diner banquette, as she showered my family with delicious cheese omelettes and love.

Merele was my aunt who graduated high school but to my limited knowledge never left town. She inherited my grandparents’home along with their correspondences abroad. She volunteered with HIAS — the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — to reunite refugees. But she never spoke of this work.

She always had a tidbit of news to share with Dad about former classmates, a neighborhood obituary. Now, as the only sibling left in Andover, I play that role myself. But as a child — privately of course — I found Merele the most boring, unadventurous aunt on the planet. Little did I know.

Most of all, I wonder if Dad knew. Not just about the letters, but about his uncle Leib, who perished in the Bialystok synagogue fire of 1940.

In the mid-1920s, Leib had written to my grandfather Isaac asking for $20. Was that the amount needed to remove him from the danger zone? Isaac responded that due to a fire at the Leader Blocks, documented in the Bennington Banner, he could not help.

Of course I cannot prove it, but my bet is that had my father known about Leib, 1941 would have found him somewhere other than Tunbridge, Vermont, chopping firewood with Civilian Conservation Corps volunteers.

A family member holds brother Emmett as Susan sits on the porch of Popplewood.

Awareness that his aunt Elka’s life hung in the balance by $5 might have motivated him to stay in law school instead of dropping out. Or to channel his considerable energy and intelligence into earning more than a subsistence living.

But then he would have been a different Dad altogether.

For myself, reading the letters fills me with gratitude that my grandparents had the courage to escape their country of origin. Providentially, they were welcomed into this country and became American citizens, along with the million other immigrants who found refuge here in 1908. Not an hour away from where my grandparents settled, I, boring as it may sound, live on the same property where I was raised.

I cannot conjure back the dead. Perhaps this sort of family history needs to sit a couple generations before a family can integrate and learn from it.

Thank you Merele. You preserved the Yiddish letters for us to discover anew this Passover season. The journey from oppression to freedom is universal and ongoing.


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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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  1. Ruth Holleran says:

    What a burden for her to carry, and for you. What sorrow.

    I’m glad you translated the Yiddish and uncovered the dark story, nevertheless.

    We can’t forget.

  2. henry homeyer says:

    Thanks for sharing. Wow. What a story.