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.