Uncompleted interview with Basya Goldmacher

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NEW-YORK, 2011

Incomplete interview with Bays Goldwater

I made an appointment with Pyres Goldmacher – we had to sign some papers regarding our joint work at the Association of Engineers and Scientists for New Americans (AES).

I have always enjoyed our discussions, as the meetings in ‘homelike atmosphere’ with Basya and Peyrets were extremely cognitive and captivating.

The Goldmachers lived a long, fruitful, and non-ordinary life. They both were born in Romania, when the Jewish communal, political and religious life there was still boiling.

Photo from A. Yasenik’s collection

Фото из коллекции А. Ясеника

They were lucky to have spent their childhood in ‘normal’, for those times, Jewish families. Therefore, their life experience was much different from our ‘Soviet’ upbringing with its Pioneer and Komsomol principles under the ‘Thanks to comrade Stalin for our happy childhood’ slogan.

Peyrets went deeper into reading the papers, while I decided to talk to Basya this time around. I was interested to know her woman’s view on the distant past, since we have already completed a number of publications with Peyrets by that time.

We were sitting in their cozy apartment in Rego Park (Queens), going through the family album, while the imagination was taking us back and deep into the times long gone...

Photo #1 Basya having a rest in her apartment, Queens, view on Rego Park, 2006

Photo #2 On the balcony, view over Manhattan, 2005

Photo #3 Shabbat candles lighting, 2003

  1. Bendery ( Romanian Bessarabia)

N.G. Basya, let’s begin with your roots. Tell me about your parents and grandparents. How was the life of the Jews in Romania at the beginning of the last century? What was Bessarabia like, the one that I know only by Pushkin’s ‘Gypsies’? ‘Gypsies, a noisy herd, wonder around Bessarabia… ‘. The poet wrote this piece, while in exile in Bessarabia, the southern province of Russia, from its shining capital – St. Petersburg.
Basya Goldmacher: I was born in Bendery (Bessarabia) in 1921. From 1918 to 1940, Bendery was part of Romania. It was a neat, nice little town, which was literally drowning in vineyards and orchards. The air was filled with aromas of fruit and flowers. The streets were paved with granite stones. The town had sewage, electricity, and water supply systems in place. All these conveniences were set up by the local authorities only after Bessarabia was incorporated to Romania.

During the tsarist imperial years (1812-1918), Bendery, as well as the whole Bessarabia, was for the Jews the «pale of settlement», and the authorities did not care much of the wellbeing of the ‘shtetlah’.

I remember the big square in the center of the town. Children were playing at the fountain in the summer. The fountain was made of statues of children that were releasing water springs that cooled the hot and dry summer air. One of the best brass orchestras of Romanian army used to perform on Saturdays and Sundays. It was then that I fell in love with the classical music, waltzes and other marvelous musical pieces.

A large Orthodox church was standing in the center of the town (Romanians, as Russians, are Christian Orthodox). Two-three blocks away - Old Believer’s church. There was a number of Russian Old-Believers in Bendery and they could freely practice their religion. Nearby, Lutheran and Protestant, as well as Adventists of the 7th Day prayer houses towered.

Two big synagogues were situated not far from the center of the town: the so-called ‘New Synagogue’, built in the late 19th century, and the Sadgorskaya Synagogue - a praying place for the followers of Sadgorsky Rabbi. There were other synagogues in town as well, together with prayer houses that were gathering ‘minyans’. After all, Jews constituted the majority of the town’s population.

The city has been ‘spotted’ with ethnicities and looked like a ‘layer cake’- representatives of many nationalities and religions such as Romanians, Moldavians, Germans, Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians, and Gypsies were relatively peacefully coexisting.

The city had a large and influential Jewish community. I still remember the centrally-located tall synagogues with beautiful architecture, lancet windows and magnificent interiors combined with amazing mosaics. Rabbis were well respected not only by the Jewish population. Gentiles also came to seek advice.

Jewish life there, as well as in other cities of Bessarabia, was in full swing. The Jewish community sponsored the Jewish Home for the Elderly, Jewish Hospital, Jewish Library, rich in books not only in Yiddish and Hebrew, but also in Romanian, French, and Russian. The city had a Jewish Benevolent Fund, which helped in establishing and setting up of small business enterprises. The Jewish community took care of two Jewish cemeteries as well. One was ‘the old cemetery’, it was considered an ‘honor’ to be buried there, and another was known as «the new».

Along with the public schools, where Jews could relatively easy get enrolled, there was an extensive network of Jewish educational institutions – Jewish Vocational School (ORT), Talmud Torah (Jewish religious elementary school), Jewish Gymnasium named after Schwartzman with a complete 12 year educational program. It was a secular school for boys and girls. It provided quite solid classic education by European standards. Even French and Latin were taught there.

The Jewish subjects included Hebrew, Jewish history, Tanah, and Talmud. I was fortunate enough to study at this specific school where I also got my primary musical education. Our teachers were brilliant professionals.

It is understandable that the Jewish community, to a degree, financially supported the school. However, the education was not free. The Gymnasium received half of its income from its students’ tuitions.

But our political education we were getting from other sources. A number of Zionist organizations, from ‘left’ to ‘right’, were active in Bessarabia. Jewish youth received so-called ‘Zionist schooling’ and their first political experience of struggling for the realization and implementation of the national idea in various Zionist youth organizations.

N. G. How did the members of different ethnic groups coexist and get along? I cannot believe there were no conflicts among them.

B. G. At that time, various ethnic and religious groups treated each other with respect. By the way, in my childhood my closest friend was a German girl. We studied together at elementary school and lived close by. Her name was Lilya Tsymmer, and she was the youngest daughter of our landlord.

Government at that time did not impede, but rather encouraged, what was officially called ‘national–cultural autonomy for ethnic minorities.’ For the time being, of course…

N. G. How was the year 1933rd, the year when Hitler came to power, perceived by Bendery Jewish Community?

B. G. The Jews all around the world perceived carefully and painfully Hitler’s anti-Jewish rhetoric, which since 1933 gained legal state’s voice and weight. Our community was not an exception.

When in April of 1933, Nazi hostility towards the Jews turned into tangible actions (from April 1, Germany started boycotting Jewish stores, medical and law offices), Romanian Jews, in response, started to boycott German products. I remember we refused to buy even German pencils. Other ethnic groups, even Germans living in the city, joined us in our efforts.

Nevertheless, little did we know that the start of the Holocaust would be imprinted as the day when Hitler overtook power, and that January 30, 1933 would be the day when the European Jewry heard the death bell.

Until 1936, the situation in Romania (and in Bendery) was stable. Then some disorders and even outbursts occurred. They were connected with one Nazi organization in Romania called the ‘Iron Guardians’. Similar organizations emerged in Poland – National-Democratic Party, Slovakia - ‘The Guardians of Andjey Glinka’, in Hungary - ‘Crossed arrows’, etc.

At the beginning, the Romanian Government tried to fight against extremists. I remember how one of the activists of this organization was executed in Bendery by the Romanian secret police on Yom Kippur eve. Our mayor made a warning by saying that was exactly what would happen to those who would disturb the peace and order in the town. But things turned out differently…

Tolerant attitude toward Jews was gradually replaced by a growing anti-Semitic mood, and their civil and national rights became more and more unsteady. Bacillus of German Nazism increasingly spread throughout once enlightened and liberal Europe.

The leaders of Central and Eastern European countries (Milos Horthy in Hungary, Josef Beck in Poland, and Ion Antonescu in Romania) were ideologically close to German fascism. For instance, Romania has adopted anti-Semitic laws at state level at the end of 1937. State-sponsored anti-Semitism had become a favorite tool for ‘uniting the nation’. All this made quite questionable the meaning and even possibility of our very existence in Diaspora. The victory of fascism in Germany and other countries turned the hopes of many assimilated Jews (including those who believed in cultural autonomy and members of Bund party) into futile dream, another illusion.
N.G. Basya, tell me more about your ancestors. Who were they, what were they, how did they live in Bessarabia?
B. G. From my mothers’ side, my grandfather’s name was Joseph, and grandmother’s name was Sarah, the Pistrovs’. They raised and educated 8 children and 19 grandchildren. As for the grandparents from my father’s side, they were Mordechai and Rachel, the Kishinevskys’; they raised 7 children and 7 grandchildren.

Photo #4 Grandfather Joseph and Grandmother Sarah with their older daughter Brahah, 1923

Photo #5 Grandmother Rachel (first from right), with her daughters, Bendery, 1928

Yiddish was mostly spoken in the Pistrov’s house. If I addressed my grandmother in Russian, the answer would be only in Yiddish.

Grandmother Sarah had her own religious book «Tseena-u-Reena’- (Tsur) (Hebrew, literally: ‘Go and See’) the title in Yiddish of the book for Jewish women. The book was named after the verse from ‘Song of Songs’: ‘Go and See daughters of Jerusalem’. She was trying to read at least one chapter each and every evening.

Grandma Sarah grew up in a German village in southern part of Bessarabia. She was a devout person and educated me in the spirit of the Jewish tradition. For instance, she related to me how God created the world, then the man and more. The most important things that I remembered for my whole life were her stories about ‘God’s Angels’. If I am a good Jewish girl and I need help, then God will send one of his angels. This angel will come as a person and will help me.

I recalled my grandma’s ‘God’s Angels’ for my entire life and whenever I encountered difficulties, in moments of sorrow and weakness, whenever I felt desperate and saw no way out – there were always good ‘Angles’ coming as kind humans and offering a helping hand. It happened even in the ‘Godless’ Soviet Union, where the destiny threw me after 1940. I am grateful to them. Without their help I would have never survived those tragic times.
N. G. Yes, Basya, you grew up in a completely different world and different atmosphere. A lot of things you’ve been telling are new to me, despite the fact that I also grew up in a Jewish family and had well educated parents. Yet, your education had national and spiritual emphasis, the one that the Soviet Jews were deprived of.
B. G. My grandmother was also the one to tell me about the existence of the ‘Holy Land’, Eretz Yisrael, where our ancestors lived in ancient times. And that a day would come when all the Jews would return to their homeland. That is when ‘A Groysse Simhe’ (Yiddish: great celebration) will occur. From the early childhood these words have been infiltrated in my memory, the memory of my heart!
N. G. What did your other grandmother teach you in your childhood - the one from your father’s side?
B.G. Grandmother Rachel grew up in a family that was imbued with the ideas of Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment). She spoke Russian to me, read Russian books, took me to the cinema and tried to acquaint me with all the ‘modern’ things. On High Holidays, she took me to the synagogue with her. Since my grandfather was a banker we went to the New Synagogue, one that was built in a modern style. Even there women were sitting on the balcony, not in the main hall, this synagogue had open balconies, so I was able to see and hear everything: solemn ceremonies, marvelous choral music, and amazing boys’ chorus accompanied by the cantor himself. These melodies touched my soul and bring beautiful memories till now.
N. G. How was the life of the next generation, the generation of your parents? How was it different for the life of your grandparents?
B. G. My grandparents from both sides were intelligent, wealthy, and highly respected people in the city. As I mentioned before, they were very knowledgeable in Jewish culture and traditions and followed religious customs. They all spoke Yiddish and Hebrew fluently. They spoke other languages as well, a skill that was at hand in a multicultural city like ours. Russian, German, and Polish languages were constantly heard in the house.

Grandparents’ main goal was to offer their kids proper education. Not only traditionally Jewish but a broader one as this would give them the opportunity to grow professionally.

The mood of ‘Haskalah’ was in the air, meant to integrate the Jews to European Enlightenment.

All the children from my father’s grandparents received solid education. They all graduated gymnasiums, vocational schools, and higher pharmaceutical institutions. Some of my relatives even studied in Moscow University, as it was the period when Bessarabia was an integral part of the Russian Empire.

My mother’s youngest sister, aunt Zyna, graduated the conservatory in Iasi, Romania. She became the soloist of Bucharest Opera Theatre. Her best role was that of Rachel from J.F. Galevy’s ‘Jewess’. The audience loved her and her husband, also an opera soloist, and always heartily welcomed them on stage.

Photo #6 Aunt Zyna in her role of Rachel in the ‘Daughter of the Cardinal’ (the Jewess) play, Bucharest, 1932

In 1936, the administration of the theatre issued them an ultimatum: either convert to Christianity or leave the stage. The conductor, an Italian by origin, was begging them to accept the offer. He was convincing my aunt, ‘This is just a formality’. My aunt and her husband made up their mind and chose to leave the theatre.

My aunt started giving private lessons of vocal art in Bucharest. A great number of well-known personalities visited her. One of the examples would be the wife of the University Dean. Extremely talented but poor students were benefiting from free lessons, as my aunt enjoyed working with them a lot.

Her colleagues, opera singers, came to ‘correct their voices’. My aunt was a gifted, highly qualified opera singer. The famous Fyodor Chaliapin enjoyed and was deeply impressed with her performances at the end of the 20s.

Aunt Zyna was kind enough to teach me as well. It is possible that by the law of genetics, I inherited good vocals and a perfect ear. My aunt hoped that I would follow her footsteps. But it wasn’t meant to happen.
N. G. You told me about the destiny of your aunt. She became a singer - a high class professional. Were all of the representatives of the second generation as successful in life as she was?
B. G. Unfortunately no. Some of them had tragic lives. This was the case of my mother’s elder sister. Her name was Bruha (or the Hebrew name Braha). She got married early, at 17. Moesha Dorfman, the chief manager of grandfather’s colonial store fell in love with her. He was 4 years older than my aunt. They got married soon and had six children. On one unfortunate day my aunt got sick with intestine twist, a type of illness that could not be cured during those times. She was taken to Chisinau to the best of the surgeons. She passed away on the operation table. Six children were left orphans, three girls and three boys. A tough situation, as you could imagine. My wise grandfather found his son in law a young wife, who generously accepted to get married to a widower with six children. That is how the family solved a difficult and sensitive situation in a Jewish manner.
N. G. What happened as the result of such marriage? Did the new wife treat her step children well and with respect?
B. G. She treated them perfectly. Even more, in order to skip the situations like: ‘your kids are beating mine’, she dropped the idea of having her own children.

N. G. Amazing story. In our age of ‘enlightenment’, it is unlikely for our women to sacrifice to such a degree. Raising six children? I understand that it wasn’t an easy task.

How was this woman treated in your family taking into account that she in a way replaced your aunt?
B.G. Imagine that she was treated with a lot of attention and sympathy. Everyone understood the sacrifice this woman made. Grandmother Sarah was giving most of her care and support to her.

In those days, all the family members lived in the same town and it was customary to bring the grandchildren to their grandparents.

Even the neighbors noticed my grandmother’s attitude toward this woman. I remember them asking, ‘Madame Pystrova, why do you treat this woman so nice? Wasn’t she the one to take your daughter’s place in the family?’

My grandmother’s answer was the quintessence of Jewish wisdom itself, ‘You don’t know how much this woman sacrificed. She surrounds my grandchildren with love and affection. Not only has she deserved my full respect, but even me washing her feet when she comes to this house. ‘

N. G. Why ‘wash her feet?’ What does it mean?
B. G. It is a referral to an old Jewish tradition from the times of our forefathers.

Photo #7 Grandfather Joseph and Grandmother Sarah with their grandchildren. Second row (from left, standing) Basya, aunt Zyna and mother Feyga, Bendery, 1933.

There were times when by washing the feet of your guests after them walking through the deserts of Canaan, you showed the greatest respect to your guests.

N. G. I do not remember such details from the biblical stories. One more useful lesson learned today. Was it that easy for your grandmother to forget her elder daughter?
B. G. Of course not, to the contrary. As far as I remember, until her last day, she was dedicating a special ritual each Friday, in remembrance of her deceased daughter. On Friday night, after she lit the Shabbat candles and has said all the prayers, she was ‘talking’ to her daughter Broha. She was in a way ‘reporting’ on how the children grew, what happened to each of them, how they lived and what successes and failures they had. This ritual report lasted for at least half an hour. Do not forget there were six of them and my grandmother spoke about each and every child in detail. It was an extremely tough moment for me as I knew my aunt very well and loved her enormously. I was very close to her children, all of them being older than me, of course. I could not understand how was it possible to talk to a deceased daughter, but these scenes left a deep trace in my soul and stayed with me my whole life.
N. G. Incredible, indeed. After all, it is thought that if a person sincerely believes from the bottom of his heart and observes all religious customs then the faith itself turns into a material force.

How else did she express her religiosity? What else did this devout woman do, worth to be considered special?
B. G. She cared about the needy, weak, and hungry. Each Thursday, when she prepared the Shabbat dinner, she would cook a separate meal for the ladies from the Jewish elderly home. On Friday, before noon, she would go to the elderly home (of course, women and men had separate dorms) and treat them with the Shabbat meal, which always included different sweet dishes and ‘tsimes’.

That was her charity, her personal contribution and help to the needy. In summer she made jam from different berries and herbs, which were considered to have healing properties. She used to take a jar of her ‘magic jam’ to the ladies, and, frankly speaking, I don’t know whether the jam could really serve as a remedy for blood pressure and other sicknesses, but it surely worked well on their mood.

N. G. You know, Basya, your stories relating the behavior of religious people impress me more and more. I start understanding the reason you and Peyrets respect and follow Jewish traditions with such endeavor. On the other hand, you can be considered secular people. I do understand that after all, the poison, which was poured daily by Bolshevik propagandists, brought us, Soviet Jews, an enormous harm.

In spite of everything, your grandparents, not playing with ‘humanism’ phrases, were more human than our soviet government. They used to call their country ‘the most humanist country in the world’, but in the meantime persecuted their real and imaginary enemies, like true cannibals.

It’s high time for me to change my attitude towards Jewish religion, not to become a religious fanatic, but to understand its spiritual value to a person.

Peyrets and you, reveal a totally different world, special relationship between people in comparison with ‘our Soviet people’. This is an entirely exceptional attitude towards life and people. I believe that is exactly the essence of ‘Jewish wisdom’, which was absorbed by the religious people. We were deprived of that since the first days of ‘our happy childhood’.

Basya, what other interesting facts can you tell me about other members of your family from your mother’s generation? Each of your stories deserve a special chapter, because they are so captivating and full of wisdom; at least for us, Soviet people, who have their stories to tell, but of a totally different character.

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