A Winding Jewish Journey

Jews have been long called the wandering race; Aftermath: Coming-of-Age on Three Continents (Amsterdam, $19.95) charts the winding journey of Annette Liebskind Bervokvitz.  She talks to fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about what she’s learned about identity and belonging along the way.

YZM: You went from the grim landscape of post-war Poland to the newly created state of Israel—what was that like and how did you acclimate?

ALB:  At first the experience was shocking. Suddenly I was surrounded by family, something I didn’t have in Poland. The only relatives I knew in Poland were those buried in the Łódź cemetery: my paternal grandparents. We went to the cemetery most weekends when the weather was good to clean the graves and to sweep away fallen leaves. Each time my father repeated, “They we’re lucky to die before the “horbon” disaster in Yiddish. As a young girl I could not understand how dying could be considered lucky except I sensed it had something to do with the cemetery walls pockmarked with bullet holes, made by the Germans. It wasn’t until later that I learned many Jews from the Łódź ghetto were murdered right there in the cemetery.

The other shock in Israel was the language. There is simply no linguistic similarity between a Slavic language and Hebrew. The guttural sounds, sentences written from right to left, words written without vowels—it was all so very alien. And the weather: hot and humid, something rarely, if ever, I experienced in Poland. Israeli winter was all rain and mud, not the beautiful snow I had known. It was as if I had found myself on a new planet.

The most significant aspect of my acclimation was being thrown directly into the deep water of kibbutz life. I, a girl accustomed to having a nanny who did everything to make my life easier, was suddenly placed in a group home of Hebrew speaking teens. I had to sink or swim.

YZM: What was it like being uprooted yet again, and moving to the United States? What was it about New York that drew you in? 

ALB: I suppose one might think that after figuring out how to survive in the alien environment of Israel, I’d be a pro at being a serial immigrant. After all, I learned Hebrew in just a matter of months, attended a top Tel Aviv high school and fell in love with the country. But that experience did not help me deal with or prepare for another move. Quite to the contrary. I had begun to grow roots in Israel. Having my tender roots ripped out of the soil against my wishes made me resentful of New York, which loomed cold and impenetrable. Here, once again, there was no family except an aunt in Pennsylvania which might as well been on the other side of the world.

Truly, there was nothing in New York to draw me in. In fact all the communist propaganda which I had been fed in Poland left its mark. Girls with makeup seemed spoiled and self-absorbed. Businesses were out to rob the working poor—at least that’s what I had read in Poland.

Luckily, there was one huge draw in America. It was my father. He’d emigrated to the United States before us and I missed him terribly. In our family my father was the light hearted one, the one who sang and told stories. I was very attached to him and on days I could set aside my anger at having to leave Israel I relished the thought of seeing my beloved father, my Tinek, my Tatinek.

YZM: You graduated from the Bronx High School of Science; how did your love for science, especially biology, influence the choices you later made? 

ALB: Marie Curie, that Polish born heroine of the science world—at least to me—winked at me from the Bronx High School of Science famous mural the very day I laid eyes on her. It was because of that other-worldly meeting with her image that my first career upon graduating college was to work in cancer research lab at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Later, my career took a turn toward wildlife conservation. Sure, it was not a laboratory setting with test tubes and Bunsen burners, but the Bronx Zoo where I was headquartered was in fact, a living laboratory.

It seemed to me that after the huge losses sustained by my family in the Holocaust, doing something to save wild lives was a worthy cause to which to devote myself. I had written about my experiences in this three decade plus career in a memoir titled Confessions of an Accidental Zoo Curator.

YZM: Let’s talk about the way personal geography has shaped your life. Have your feelings for these three places—Eastern Europe, Israel, America—changed and evolved over time and if so, how? 

ALB: This is a very deep question to which I could write an entirely new book— and someday I might.

It has been at least six decades since I left both Poland and Israel. Places change and people change. I know that I certainly have grown in terms of life experience and knowledge of history.  I have been back to both countries a few times on short visits. Those visits gave me an opportunity to do reality checks on my own understanding of the changes that had taken place.

In Poland there has been a growth of understanding of how the extermination of the great majority of its Jews has had a negative impact on its overall cultural landscape. A major Jewish museum has been built in the Polish capital, Warsaw, and some Jewish cemeteries cleaned up. In the Unlikeliest of Places, the memoir of my father’s survival of the Nazis and Soviet gulags was translated into Polish. He was a citizen of Łódź and the Center for Dialog between Poles, Jews and Germans translated it and published my book.

That is good and would not have been possible in the eighties or nineties, but the progress is slow, not nearly approaching the recognition of the loss of Jews in Germany. I am somewhat more comfortable traveling to Poland than I used to be, but when an unexpected graffiti offensive to Jews hits my eye, or I see Jewish figurines with gold coins in their hands, I once again feel like the girl I used to be in Poland—an alien.

Israel is an altogether different situation. She is like an old lover, someone who delighted you, whose warmth and intimacy you relished–but now the one who seduced you has deceived you. It is a very bittersweet feeling. I still love Israel’s vibrant spirit, it’s resilient people, but am disappointed with its divisive politics, with its lack of creativity in solving the Palestinian problem and failure to improve the lives of its neighbors.

America has been very good to me. My father’s decision to emigrate at a difficult age—past midlife crisis was prescient. Both I and my younger brother, Daniel Libeskind, the much acclaimed international architect have done well. We had access to free university education and embarked on highly satisfying careers.

YZM: How do you explain all this to your children?

ALB: My son asked me once if after all these years I feel truly American. The honest answer is no. Every cell of my body is infused with the myriad places I’ve lived and experienced. I feel a bit of them all in my being. America has been my home for many years, both physical and spiritual. I treasure its diversity and its freedoms. However the last nine years have put that identity to the test. I still harbor hope that the freedom my father aspired to when he brought us here does not evaporate.