Posted by PartlyCloudy on December 27, 2010, at 11:48:33
My story is one of misplaced antisemitism and how it affected my mother and her family. It takes place in Latvia, on the Baltic Sea coast in Europe. Its a rather common story from the era, and its left a lasting legacy.
My grandparents were Anna and Jacob Greenbergs. They met while students at university in St. Petersburg, Russia. My grandmother Anna was trained to be a nurse, and Jacob became a teacher of mathematics. They lived in the outskirts of Riga, Latvia and raised their family there. My mother Maija ("Maya") was one of 5 children.
They were a Lutheran family. Many Latvians have last names that sound similar to Jewish ones. If you Google "Jacob Greenbergs" you will not find any trace of my grandfather, nor of any other member of my mother's family; and this is why. (Thats why I havent bothered to change their name here, either. Good luck finding out any relevant information, because there isnt any.)
Latvia is one of the Baltic countries that for centuries had been part of the Hanseatic League. When the Russian revolution occurred, Latvia became part of the U.S.S.R. and lost its independence. My grandparents adapted to the new regime and kept a low profile, particularly my grandfather Jacob, who as an educator was considered a member of the bourgeoisie. Then the second World War began, and a new threat entered their lived - the approach of Nazi Germany.
My grandparents realized that with a family name such as theirs, regardless of their religious beliefs, they would become targets for the enemy that was inexorably making its way across the continent to their door. In order to safeguard the family in entirety, a momentous decision was made: the family name would be altered. No longer would we be the Greenbergs, which means "green" or "forested" village. The name was changed to K******, which has a similar meaning, but does not appear to be a Jewish name. All the family documents bearing the name Greenbergs were destroyed - everything. There are NO records surviving bearing my family's original name.
World War II meant my family became Displaced Persons as they sought safety from not one but two enemies - the Soviets and the Nazis. The family traveled across Europe westward from camp to camp, with only their clothes and a very few belongings salvaged from their native land. Near the end of the war, the family was in a DP camp in Berlin. My uncle T****, who was of fighting age, was gang pressed by the Nazis in a desperate attempt to fend off the Soviets as they came from the east. The Germans presented the Russians as the greater enemy. Who was more evil - the Russians who had taken my grandparents' homestead, and immediately turned it over to other occupants and threatened the family based on my grandfather's teaching job?, or the Nazis, who would have killed them all as Jews if they had not changed their name? My uncle suffered terrible wounds as a grenade he tried to lob at a Russian tank blew up in his hands. He recovered in a German Army hospital unit as my mother and her family put themselves in great danger travelling through Berlin in order to visit him as he recuperated.
All I have to remind me of my family's original name is a piece of worked linen that my grandmother embroidered with her initials on it: AG. I grew up not knowing who AG was, until a few years ago when my own mother shared the family history with me. I always thought up until then that we were (and had been) the K****** family. I had no idea of this other legacy that had been lost forever. Lost because of racial hatred and misplaced antisemitism. I never understood the melancholy that hung over the family: none of the war experiences were ever discussed in front of us children.
I never knew my grandmother Anna (Greenbergs) K******, as she died not long after the family was resettled in England after the war. They, along with so many other hundreds of thousands of Latvian nationals, were not ever able to return to their homes. My grandfather, Jacob, was shattered by his life experience. He struggled in the English-speaking culture and worked on a pig farm, and then in a brick factory. Such an irony that the fine, educated Latvian was only able to provide for his family as an unskilled laborer in capitalistic societies.
That is my personal story. It's the reason why I have lived in the United States for so long, yet have refused to give up my Canadian citizenship that my mother treasures so much. It's the reason that I do not tolerate antisemitism when I see it. It's the reason I try to listen closely and read carefully when I sense that there is injustice going on in front of me. It's a very big part of how I define myself; someone who has had an entire family history erased for the sake of mistaken identity.
Its why I have read and reread Lou Pilders threads where he takes issue with what he has read here, recently and in years past. For me, tolerance and acceptance of others beliefs and faith is becoming more important as I more fully comprehend where *I* come from. Im a product of an antisemitic act - a fabricated family name, and a vanished background, apart from a single piece of table linen.