Friday, February 2, 2007

Where We're From

This is a photograph of the grandfather Eliezer Bloshteyn, one of the members at the Bay Ridge Jewish Center. His name is Ze’ev Shleyfer. He was called Wolfe in Yiddish, and Vladimir in Russian. He was born around the year 1870 in the shtetl Ovruch, which is in the center of the Ukraine, close to the shtetl where Rabbi Nachman was born. In 1941, their family had left Odessa and moved to Tashkent where he died. In Odessa, he was a shoemaker and a serious man. In the community, he was considered to be a very dignified person. Eliezer and his family lived on the third floor of the building and his grandparents lived in the basement. His grandparents' apartment was always clean and light. Inside of their apartment there was a big storage cabinet with Kosher plates and forks. They always ate kosher food.

He was religious, but in private, as you were forced to be in the Soviet Union at the time. In 1937, Stalin had taken a lot of people and put them in jail, not because they were Jewish, but because they believed in God. So few people prayed in the synagogues out of fear and eventually they were closed. The Jewish newspapers and other institutions were closed down as well. So, Ze’ev would put his siddur on the window ledge, put on his tefillin and davin facing the light. Eliezer remembers him putting his talis on his shoulders and making Eliezer say prayers. He remembers distinctly the words “Modeh Ani Lifanecha.” (“I acknowledge that you are before me.”)

Eliezer loved sleeping at his grandfathers house, in part because he liked that his grandfather would let him get up early and go and play with his friends. His mother would say, “No Zorik, don’t go outside” and she would make him wash and do the things he needed to do in the morning—practice the piano, eat breakfast, study. But at his grandfathers house, he could indulge his childhood wishes and go out to play at 630 in the morning. It was summer time and he didn’t have to school.

Ze’ev died in Uzbekistan near Tashkent in Karasu, which is a village in the Yangul region. He was approximately 71 years old. They had moved from Odessa, all together. Sadly, Eliezer’s grandmother, Shifra Shleyfer, had died of cancer in 1936. There were five of them: Eliezer, his parents, his sister and his grandfather. In Nov. 1941, when his grandfather died, he was 9 years old and Eliezer remembers a little about his grandfather and a little from those days. They all lived in one medium sized room and he was able to sleep on a bed, but his blanket was a tablecloth. At that time, Eliezer was sick and he contracted arthritis (but you wouldn’t know it given how strong his handshake is.)

He remembers watching the ceiling where there was a drip from the rain. In their family tradition, the children would not go to the cemetery if their parents were still alive, and he remembers vividly seeing his parents leave the room where they all lived to go and bury Ze’ev.

Tashkent, where they moved after Odessa, was known as a breadbasket and so many people came from all over the Soviet Union to live there. But that was not the case, especially with the 10,000 or more refugees who flooded the area. There was not enough food for everyone. It is likely that his grandfather died of mal-nutritition, of hunger. The main source of their food at that time came from food stamps (katigke) that they got for bread. Each person could get 200 grams of bread a day, which is hardly enough.

The other source of food came from a field across from the apartment. There was a big water channel, the Arik, the depth of which was 5 and a half feet and 7 feet wide. He and his sister, Amelia (Malka in Yiddish) who was ten years older than he, would cross the channel to a big field on the other side. There they would collect scallions and they would eat them on the thin bread that their food stamps bought them (laypushka). It was like round Matza, only thicker. And they would cut it into five pieces, for their breakfast, lunch and dinner. This was their meals all day for a long time.

When they left Odessa, they were a happy family. Before the war there were 600,000 people in Odessa. Half of them were Jewish: Lawyers, doctors, shoemakers,etc. but a refugee problem was created, when an influx of people came from Moldova fleeing the war. Life became hard in the city.

Before Oct. 16, 1941, people who wanted to leave Odessa, would have to get a permit—a propisk and for that you would have to pay lots of money. Eliezer’s family left because the Germans and the Romaninans were coming. They knew that they were coming because Eliezer’s father had read Mein Kampf and listed to the radio. According to Eliezer, there were some Jewish people who wanted to invite the German and Romanian troops. But his father knew that if they stayed in Odessa, they would be killed. He knew about fascism and racism.

When they wanted to leave Odessa from Mariupul, they couldn’t get a permit. But their neighbors, who lived on the second floor, were their friends and their son had a high rank in the navy of the Soviet Union. He was the head of the Navy in the Soviet Union at the beginning of World War II. His name was Leibl Granovsky. He supported his parents and he sent from Moscow permission for his parents and his sister to leave. They, in turn, added the names of all of Eliezer’s family in the same permit. Because of this, they were able to board the ship, the Georgia, and leave from Mariupul and go to Tashkent.

Eliezer’s grandfather kept Tsarist coins and saved them, thinking that maybe they would be used again. It seems that he did not have so much faith in the Communist Revolution. He also kept an album with pictures. Eliezer used to like look at them and he remembers his grandfather standing over him and watching him to see what he would do. The picture above is his passport picture.