Saturday, February 4, 2012


Injured WWI Soldier
by Mark D. Shulman

Abe, my grandfather, fought for the Germans during the first world war when he was in his twenties. He was a decorated war veteran. He was shot in the face, losing most of his teeth and much of his jaw and was left with a hole in both cheeks through which he could whistle much to the merriment of his many grand children.  Abe was a very short man, a little over five feet, but very strong. He could snap chain links with his bare hands. In a rough and tumble area, with many different peoples, few would try to bully him.  He took his religion seriously and observed the Sabbath. He was a self-made wealthy man in a very poor region where the people lived off the land. He owned much land and livestock in Bukovina and served as a butcher to peasants (gentiles) and Jews of the surrounding area. He was well liked and had many friends, including the local Parish Priest.

Bukovina, part of the Pale, which between 1918 and 1940 was almost entirely in Greater Romania, was the melting pot of eastern Europe, with populations of Romanians, Moldvans, Gypsies, and German/yiddish speaking Jews.  The Prut, or Pruth, in Ukrainian, is a 953 km long river in Eastern Europe, originating, in the Carpathian Mountains in the Ukraine was the largest river in the region and important to its commerce. It flows southeast to join the Danube River near Reni, east of Galati, before entering into the Black Sea. Nowadays it forms the border between Romania and Moldova. The biggest city along its banks was Chernivtsi, now in the Ukraine. Abe would take his family there on special occasions, to visit his brother Joachim, his wife and many children. The river had a special meaning to my Mother, Abe’s third oldest daughter. With the melting of the snow in the Carpathians, the spring flood of the Prut would often coincide with Passover. My mother told me how she wait for her grandmother, who would hike her skirts to ford the flooded river to join the family for the Passover celebration. It was a happy annual ritual.

On another special occasion, while visiting Chernivitsi, my mother told me of joining a group of excited teenagers and younger children surrounding and following a very beautiful woman who was different from anyone ever seen before. She was black! It was the famous singer, Josephine Baker, on tour of Eastern Europe, strolling the streets and enjoying the attention of the young people.

The Jews of the Pale had an uneasy relationship with their neighbors, suffering numerous atrocities over the centuries, but the years following the end of World War One were peaceful. In the mid 1930’s, things began to sour. There were unsettling rumors. The gentile neighbors, friends for years, became strangely distant, not so gentle, and then hostile. Abe could speak many languages but could not read (except for the Torah), but he was in ‘touch’ and knew things were changing quickly. Although Abe was relatively wealthy, his extended family was poor. They would perish at the hands of the Nazi death squads abetted by their covetous neighbors. Simon, Abe’s second son was about to be drafted into the Army that had honored his father. It would have been sure death. Abe helped him flee to Argentina, never again to see his parents.

Abe bribed the local parish priest, once a great friend of his, to prepare baptismal certificates for him and his family.  This allowed the family, now Roman Catholics, to obtain passports and leave for the United States. They traveled comfortably, through Poland, and then from Gdanks sailed on a Cunard Steamship and landed, now destitute (his wealth liquidated), at Ellis Island where they were granted asylum.

Abe and his family settled in the Bronx. As the children grew, married and had children, they remained in the Bronx, in the same neighborhood. I came on the scene at the end of the Great Depression prior to the Second World War. Through the early forties the family  learned of the murder of the family members left behind. First it was Uncle Joachim and his children, then there were the others.

Abe had great respect for FDR and I remember, as a four year old, walking with Abe to the Bronx’s grand Concourse to see the President. I still can see FDR, passing by in an open car, waving to Abe and me among the crowds. Most of the time Abe had no time for parades. Now in his seventies, once a wealthy man, he became a ‘junk’ man. He would march up and down the hills of the Bronx, often with me in tow, pushing a metal cart collecting scraps of metal and anything of value. Some of the other junk men had the advantage of a horse and a cart, Abe had only me.I don’t know what he did with his collected ‘stuff’ but he earned enough to support himself and my grandmother Pearl. He was never a burden to his children. Abe’s most valuable finds would be books, which he would always give to me encouraging me to read. Though illiterate (other than in the the writings of the scripture), and an impoverished old man, Abe placed great value on education and imparted these values to me, those many years ago, for which I continue to remain grateful.

One Shabbat morning, toward the end of the war, in his Bronx Schul on Mt. Eden Avenue, Abe was called to read from the torah. A great honor. He could not.

Mark D. Shulman, is Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University, where he taught and did research as Head and Graduate Program Director of the Meteorology Department. His research led to more than 80 peer reviewed publications. He served as President of the National Weather Service, Associate Editor of several professional journals and as the State Climatologist for New Jersey. He lives in Woodstock on the steep slope of Overlook Mountain where he continues to observe the weather and work in and on the arboretum he built, and in Florida in a home to which he hasn't yet invited me!

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