Murderous Memories: Tulsa and Volozhin

Two massacres, 21 years and 2 continents apart.

Tulsa, May 31-June 1, 1921. Volozhin, May 10, 1942.

The survivors didn’t want to talk about it.  They wanted to spare their grandchildren from the horrors, to shield them from the bitter fruits of bigotry, and perhaps they wanted to suppress the awful memories, the nightmares that must have filled their waking as well as their sleeping hours.

Hearing, watching the centenarian survivors of the Tulsa massacre, when as many as 300 Black residents were murdered and 35 blocks of their prosperous Greenwood neighborhood destroyed, when they were just children but seared for life, I flashed back to the story of my family in the Belarussian hamlet of Volozhin, a town of 6,000 people. Half of them were Jews, and most of them were murdered by the Nazis and their local collaborators two months before I was born.

Spring is supposed to be a time of rebirth, but in both Tulsa and Volozhin it was a time of death. My mother’s family had been there for generations; In eighth grade, I traced them back to 1804  for a family tree. Like Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, the Jews of Volozhin had prospered. My grandmother’s family owned a general store, a relative owned a tannery.  Simcha Perski, my grandmother’s first cousin and the only survivor, was schooled at a military academy in Vilna.

My grandfather, Yitzchok Lempert, came to study at the world famous Volozhin Yeshiva; the students ate in different homes. That’s how he met my grandmother Rochel Perski. They married in 1900. He came to America in 1904 and his wife and their daughter Basia in 1907.   That is the only reason that I — and my three sons, and my many cousins — exist. Everyone else: Destroyed.

But no one wanted to talk about it, and I never asked. In the 1950s, you just wanted to be American. Nobody said the word “Holocaust,” much less “Shoah,” to name the unnamable. My grandmother,  widowed in 1938, had her own small apartment on the Lower East Side, where, in 1908, my mother became the first American-born sibling of what would be five.  But “Bubby,” as we called my grandmother, using the affectionate Yiddish term, would often live with her children, a few months here, a few months there.  She died in 1959 at the age of 79, many questions unasked, unanswered.

In May 1992, I wrote a long Sunday Style story in the Washington Post about the massacre of my family in Volozhin, how I learned in mid-life much of what I’d never before known, how the Jews were forced into a ghetto and 2,500 were rounded up and shot to death on May 10, 1942 and buried in a mass grave. Suddenly, the distant horror seemed very close, as I saw photos of my family and lists of 130 dead relatives that ran on for pages in a memorial book published by survivors in 1971.

As in Tulsa, all their hopes, their aspirations, their achievements suddenly and irrevocably gone.

Nobody had talked about it, as the Tulsa survivors hadn’t spoken of the horrors that happened just a generation earlier in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  And, as I learned more about the veil of silence that had descended over Greenwood and its survivors, it struck me that the relatives murdered in Volozhin were not just names and faces but my great aunts and great uncles and their children, my second cousins, and my grandmother’s brothers and sisters whose names I’d never known, about whom she never spoke, at least not to me or to my sister. I knew this, of course, from my earlier research, but Tulsa had brought it all back with a renewed focus.

How unspeakably awful, the pain Bubby must have endured in silence, shielding us from the murderous reality and the depths to which human beings could sink to commit such crimes.

May all their memories be for a blessing.

7 Comments

  1. David Stewart on June 9, 2021 at 5:53 am

    Thanks for this moving piece, Gene. I found the same store at Czyzewa, northeast of Warsaw, where my grandfather’s family had lived. A place in the forest out of town, lined up and shot. My grandfather, who had a sister and brother disappear during the war, wouldn’t talk about life in Poland. Not even when I asked.

  2. Deborah Meyer DeWan on June 9, 2021 at 8:22 am

    Heart wrenching doesn’t begin it… Your mention of our grandmother, Bubby, Rose, and thinking of her in silence all those years. what pain she must have held. and none of us (our generation anyway) knew. In our world, in our country, we need a truth and reconciliation for these horrible horrible acts — be they Tulsa or Voloshin — and more deeply commit to root out what motivates people to commit them. It would be interesting, perhaps instructive to sit with descendent of the Tulsa Massacre on these inconvenient truths of the past (and tragically current events).

  3. Carrie Cowherd on June 9, 2021 at 9:30 am

    Gene,
    Reading your blogs, I always learn something. My perspective is always broadened.
    Thanks

  4. Joseph Drew on June 9, 2021 at 10:38 am

    This is a wonderful and deeply moving account; thank you so much for writing it.

    I, too, am Jewish and grew up in a small Adirondack town during the 50s, and you are right. Although my father was president of the Zionist organization for all our lives there, somehow the Holocaust was barely in the discourse of the time. Increasingly I have become aware of it and studied it. The older I get, the more it seems to haunt me. I’ve visited where my grandparents came from — what Timothy Snyder calls the Bloodlands. The racism and bigotry fill the air still there, in my observation.

    We lived in Prague for a number of years, in the early 2000s, but the Czechs of today are perhaps less prejudiced against the Jews than are others in Europe.

  5. barbara de garcia on June 9, 2021 at 12:04 pm

    Recently a friend, who like me is a retired academic and Holocaust scholar, told me about the recent discoveries regarding the ways in which trauma can affect DNA and be passed down through generations. A new area of study, epigenetics, researches how this occurs. It seems to indicate that the instinct of parents to shield their children and later their grandchildren from knowing this history does not necessarily spare them from the impact of this trauma. This idea about the internalization of trauma through generations is not new. But our understanding of it continues to develop. I am sure your family members, just like descendants of the Tulsa Massacre, carry some of this in them, even when they don’t always know the stories.

  6. Patrice J Gaines on June 9, 2021 at 1:48 pm

    Gene,
    This is so hauntingly beautiful. It makes me ache. I thought of my father who I never knew was one of the first Black Marines until after he died and he received posthumously the Congressional Gold Medal from President Obama. My father was silent about what he experienced in the corps. Your closing: “May all their memories be for a blessing” reminds me of athe t-shirts my family wore to our last reunion: “I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams.” I might add, “My their silence make us scream!” Bless them all.

  7. Anne Vaccari on June 14, 2021 at 3:46 pm

    “As in Tulsa, all their hopes, their aspirations, their achievements suddenly and irrevocably gone.
    Nobody had talked about it, as the Tulsa survivors hadn’t spoken of the horrors that happened just a generation earlier in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave.’ ”

    Thank you for this. As the granddaughter of a liberator, I feel like the Tulsa holocaust should be taught along side The Holocaust. Just because Tulsa deals with a difficult and painful part of US history, just as the Germans do now, it’s our job to talk about our past in order to help heal now and see how we have changed and what still needs to be done.

    Thank you for this sensitive and well-thought out perspective.

Leave a Comment