Any Other Name
A Temporary Peace
My grandmother was an immigrant from Eastern Europe. She was born in 1910 in the town of Svalava, which was part of the Kingdom of Hungary at the time but joined Czechoslovakia in 1920 by decree of the Treaty of Trianon, which ended WWI. Now, the town, with no remaining Jewish population, is within the boundaries of Ukraine.
The area where my grandmother was born has been, and is currently, known by many different names, some of which reference geography, some of which reference culture, and some of which reference nationality. The terms Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia or Sub-Carpathian Rus’ reference the area’s geography as well as one of its oldest cultures.
Last night, I pulled a book from the library shelf in my sons’ middle school and read that some identify this period in Czech history, just after WWI, to be a time of great democracy. Others, however, may feel differently, including those who would object to the particular redrawing of national boundaries defined by the Treaty of Trianon.
What I do know is that my great grandfather Moritz seemed to flourish as a businessman at the time. This was no small feat for a Jewish man living in a region with a harsh and recurring history of antisemitism, which had included laws against Jewish business ownership and settlements, as well as outright violence.
The region also was a crossroads of many cultures, languages, and nationalities, which, for a short time, seemed to live in a kind of harmony and co-dependence.
My grandmother died when I was 13. What I remember is how she took care of my older brother and me. She bathed us, washed our clothes, and put cologne in our hair. She made giant tins of blintzes, froze them, and left them hanging in plastic bags by the knob of our front door. She rode the bus from downtown Rochester, New York to our half-house at the crack of dawn and left these treats while we slept. She took us everywhere on the bus: to Charlotte Beach on Lake Ontario, to Seabreeze Amusement Park, and to various stores, where she bought us toys and school clothes.
Now, her apartment building on Broad Street in Downtown Rochester has been demolished, as has Midtown Mall, down the street, where she would take us during the holidays to ride the monorail and watch the international clock ring in the hour. The clock was a kind of tower encircled by enclosures that would open on the hour, revealing scenes of different peoples in different parts of the world in a variety of cultural clothing and activities.
I remember my grandmother’s accent and her shiny, silver hair. I remember a kind of hysteria that would enter her manner that I imagine originated in the devastating losses in her life and the horror she knew had befallen her family members at Auschwitz, including her first two children.
I wonder where she and her two surviving brothers, Ladislaus and Stefan, found the strength to continue living and to take care of my brother and me as she did, knowing what she knew and seeing what she had seen.
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