First Published as a Guest Blog in 2015
In 1890, my great grandmother, Manya Seidenberg, then a girl of 15, received some disturbing news from her father, Avram. Manya, the tenth of 12 children born to my great, great grandparents, lived with them in the small, rural town of Boguslav, a few miles southwest of Kiev, capital city of modern-day Ukraine. Thanks to the industrial revolution, which had finally reached the area a few decades earlier, Kiev had grown into a prosperous city on the western edge of the vast Russian Empire. It was also the largest city Manya had ever seen.
My great, great grandfather, a dealer in pelts, sat down with his daughter, the apple of his eye, and reluctantly told her his news. His business had suffered unexpected losses, he explained, and sadly, that meant he would not be able to furnish her with a suitable dowry. The news hit Manya hard. Without a dowry, she would not be able to make a good match for herself. Her choice of desirable, available husbands instantly evaporated, along with her dreams for the future. And so, out of necessity, my great grandmother made a courageous decision. This girl, who had never ventured more than a day's journey, by horse, from either shore of the nearby Dnieper River, decided to emigrate to America.
About a year later, she learned of a local family, with relations in America that planned to resettle there. Manya met with them, and they agreed to let her accompany them on their journey, when the time came. Manya's decision was courageous, because it required her to leave behind everything, and everyone, she knew. What's more, the break would be both immediate and permanent. Manya must have known she would never see her parents, or her brothers and sisters, again. She was trading the familiar, and comfortable, for the complete unknown. Ahead of her lay America, a strange and distant place, where people spoke a completely different language and where she would have no family, friends, or relations to rely on.
Manya could not even fortify herself with a long, tearful, loving 'goodbye' from her father. Her mother, Lea, who financed Manya's journey by raiding her considerable stash of "pin money," warned her not to tell Avram of her plans. "Your father would never let you go," she sighed. "He's much too attached to you!"
So, Manya had to leave Boguslav on a day when her father already had headed east, across the Dnieper River, to do business in the market town of Kharkov. Manya, and the neighboring family, traveled west, by train, first, to the German port of Hamburg, and from there, across the Atlantic Ocean, to America, in the steerage section of an ocean liner.
Manya landed at Ellis Island, NY, in 1892, a Russian-speaking, Jewish girl of 17, fresh from the Ukraine. She knew how to sew, and somehow, landed a job in a clothing factory, where she worked for six months before she and her newfound friends, the Friedel family, left New York for the slightly less bustling city of Baltimore, Maryland. A few years after that, she met my great grandfather, Bernard Feikin, a furrier, who had left Moscow for America some years before. And, the rest, as they say, is history.
When my grandmother told me her mother's story, she said Manya had an optimistic, "What's next?" outlook on life. That attitude, along with my great grandmother's personal moxie and character, allowed the Seidenberg line to merge with the Feikins and take root in American soil. It was a good, and fortuitous, thing that sprang out of her unwillingness to let a bad turn of events dictate her destiny.
Forty-nine years after my great grandmother first set foot in America, the Wehrmacht swept through the Ukraine as part of Hitler's massive operation Barbarossa. Behind them came the Einzatsgruppen death squads, intent on realizing the murderous goals of Hitler's "Final Solution." They found enthusiastic partners waiting for them among the newly indoctrinated units of the Ukrainian state police.
The area where my Great Grandmother's family had lived quickly became the site of some of the most ruthless, brutal mass-murder campaigns and atrocities ever committed against the Jews. The bloodletting, brutality, deprivation and exploitation in that area were so sudden, so intense and so complete, that few survivors ever lived to bear witness to it. I imagine most of my great grandmother's family, and my distant, faceless relatives, perished there together, in that awful place and time.