Much of what I know about Bubbie (Yiddish for great-grandmother), is rumor and mystery at best. I know she lived somewhere in Rural Russia. I know she watched two governments topple in the course of a decade. I do not know about her. I can’t fathom her experiences or loves or likes, because I never really knew her. That is why, by some godsend, I recently discovered a cassette tape. The only whisper of what is inside comes from the title: Mama’s Interview-Complete, as well as the date, 1963. It is well preserved, still shrouded in its clear plastic case, with a few notes scribbled in unintelligible cursive on the back. I was instantly gripped by excitement, and so I hastily bought a cassette player off amazon.
She came to New York in 1910 on a cold winter. The boat rocked with the overflow of people coming in from the old-country. The great minarets and skyscrapers looked sullen and shrouded in fog; and among them as a beacon, was the Statue of Liberty, cloaked in green, with her arm outstretched towards the clouds. Never had a building seemed so tall and intimidating. It was new and exciting, she said, so unlike the squat, tense villages and snowy Russian cities. They had only a few cents and a suitcase. They had no shoes, and were seasick from ten days in the halls of a cramped and loud boat.
Ellis Island was crowded and dank with sweat. The tall ceiling of the main building gave the structure an atmosphere of rot and mold. When they settled in the Jewish quarter of the city with seven other children, the streets were lined with all sorts of vendors selling smoked fish and wares for the home. She talked of meeting new friends who shared her religion –there had only been four Jewish families in her village– and how she often weaved her lithe body through the raucous crowds and merchants, laughing with her newfound companions. Her mother made them dolls from tarp and leftover scraps to play with, and despite the smog and endless nights, they made a home.
There was one bed in their apartment, and all the children either slept on the bed or the floors. It was stifling and clammy, but they always had food on their table and full stomachs. They always sat down for the sabbath, and prayed and gave thanks.
In Russia, she described Christians, drunk and groggy men, who would abuse the Jewish families in town. She described a man who beat her mother, a stranger in the house. They hadn’t even known him, but one night he decided to break in the flimsy door of the house. They were scared, and when the Christian men came again, they were gone to Moscow. They went over a frozen river, and took a carriage into the city. Dark and cold, her father became a merchant, who sold various fruits and dried meats in order to scrape by. They went to the theater once and awhile for recreation, but had little money. Her father then decided to take what was left, and head off to America. He sometimes sent money from New York, and so they came one at a time, the oldest child first, until they had all arrived in the city. The relatives that were left, according to Bubbie, were killed in the oncoming war.
Bubbie was married at twenty; her mother before her was forced into an arranged marriage at the behest of her father. Bubbie, of course, did not want the same fate; she did not want unhappiness. Yet through the second half of the interview, she struggled to find a moment in her life that was truly happy. I don’t know whether or not she ever found happiness, I never met her, but I hope she did somehow.
The most important thing to take away from this, is the hardships of a migrant which are so important now more than ever. The East, despite its problems, has survived. But Islam is scapegoated, much like jews were and still are today. There is a similarity in prejudices, while different in their own respects, when someone says “all muslims are terrorists” or “all Jews are thieves.” Neither statement rings true in a world that is never so clear-cut.
The same conditions which first appeared in Germany in the early 1930s are emerging once more into today’s world. The way in which Muslims are being targets, with talks of internment camps in the United States is not only saddening, but also reminiscent of the second world war. In conjunction, the rise of nationalism and neo-nazism is no less frightening than it was eighty years ago.
With the spikes in hate crimes against Muslims that coincided with the conclusion of the election, people remain in denial about the root causes of extremism. Religion, whether Judaism or Islam, does not cause people to kill one another, other people do. Whatever your stance is on religion, at the core, it is a binding mold that unites all sorts of disparate groups in the name of peace. It is only when people misinterpret those fundamentals of peace and become that extremism exists.
I believe great-grandmother’s story remains poignant in a time like this. She survived despite hatred and bigotry. She makes me remember that there have been times where things have seemed impossible and the sacrifices people have made to bring us the freedoms we have today. It will be a hard battle to retain such freedoms; people will most likely lose their lives along the way. We mustn’t diminish them, they must not be forgotten or lost to history. I remain, as we all should, optimistic. People unite in times of sorrow, and hopefully the same cords that bind us to each other will become even closer in the course of these events. I hope to see in the coming years people protecting one another. I hope to see people standing up for the rights of each other. I hope we can move forward and bring meaningful change to the world.
And so I am reminded now of a famous quote from Anne Frank, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.” With all that has happened, remain strong, we will not be moved or shaken, and we will not give in.
Zachary McInnis '20