My mom, Mollie Sekuler Daniel, roughly two years old, circa 1914
A month and a half ago, I started off the new year with a little century-old history of my dad’s family. Today I’m turning to my mom’s family.
Like the photos of my dad with his family in January’s post, the wonderful photo of Mollie — my mom, above — was taken very early in life.
Like my dad, my mom was born in 1912. In a remarkable coincidence, Mom was born around the spring equinox (on March 22) and Dad around the fall equinox (on September 23). Also like Dad, Mom had two siblings — an older brother, William, and a younger sister, Anne. I have no pictures of Mom with her brother and sister as children, but several photos below show Annie and Willie (and other relatives) as I recall them from my growing-up years.
My Sekuler and Daniel relatives at my bar mitzvah party, 1957. Standing (from left): Israel Sekuler, Meyer Rose, Murray Sobel, William Sekuler, Nathan Daniel, Meyer Daniel. (Both my grandmothers had already passed away.) Seated: my cousin Marji Sobel, Anne Sekuler, Sally Rose, Ray Rose, Rebecca Sekuler, Mollie Daniel, Ellen Sobel. This is how I still see them all in my mind’s eye.
Aunt Annie (left) with Mom, 1940s. They looked almost like twins, and sounded that way too. They often played phone games with my dad when he was courting Mom — he couldn’t tell their voices apart.
Uncle Willie (right) with Aunt Bobbie (oops! Rebecca as she later preferred to be known), 1940s
In writing about Dad’s family, I feel lucky to have discovered (in a visit some years ago to Ellis Island) the date of his parents’ arrival and even a photo of the ship on which they crossed the Atlantic.
Unfortunately, I’ve found no photos of the ships that brought my maternal grandparents to our shores or the dates of their arrival. However, I do have photos of the passport that allowed my mom’s grandmother, Hinda Goldberg, and her children to leave Czarist Russia in 1905.
My great-grandmother Hinda’s Russian passport, with her signature in Yiddish
Hinda’s passport — the page showing her children and their ages. Ethel, age 19, is on the seventh and eighth lines.
August 2, 1905, departure stamp
I also have a great pair of stories about the voyage of Mom’s father, Israel Sekuler, to America.
My grandfather was born and grew up in rural area near Balta, a city now located in the southwest of Ukraine, about 110 miles northwest of Odesa. Following a terrible pogrom in 1882, Jews began leaving Balta in large numbers. Still single at about age 20, my grandfather departed in 1905. His motivation — in addition to escaping anti-Semitism — was to avoid conscription into the czar’s army, then embroiled in a war against Japan (which Russia was already losing), which would likely have been, in any case, a brutal experience for a Jewish conscript.
Grandma and Grandpa, Ethel and Israel Sekuler, 1940s
When he left Russia, my grandfather planned to go to Palestine, which was, before World War I, ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Sailing from Odesa, he soon found himself in Alexandria, Egypt, quite close to his intended destination. There he met someone who told him he’d be crazy to go to a God-forsaken backwater where Zionist pioneers were barely at the beginning of the struggle that would eventually “make the desert bloom.” He was advised to go to America, where he already had at least one family member. So my grandfather took the advice, changed course and set sail again.
Before leaving Alexandria, however, he needed a haircut. The story he told, decades later, is that when he produced some coins following the haircut, the barber shook his head, declining the amount as insufficient. So Grandpa then fished in his pocket for some higher-value coins and, with his other hand, showed them to the barber, thinking the larger amount would be enough. The barber then scooped up all the coins from both hands — a memorable lesson in Middle Eastern bazaar culture!
My grandfather’s next ship arrived in New York Harbor on July 4, 1905, but no passengers could disembark because the immigration agents had the holiday off. He landed on July 5 and just over a decade later, on August 18, 1915, he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen.
I do not know when and how my maternal grandparents met, except that it surely had to have been in New York City. Here, however, is what I know of my grandmother’s family.
My maternal grandmother, Ethel Sekuler, and her family came from Grodno Guberniya (Governate) in the western reaches of the Russian Empire. Today, the city of Grodno is located in Belarus, close to Lithuania (to the north) and Poland (to the west). According to a family history compiled in 1982, Ethel’s parents were from the town of Antopal, about 70 miles east of the Belorusian city of Brest, which is right on the Polish border about 175 miles south of Grodno.
Ethel left Russia at age 19, traveling on the passport of her mother Hinda (then age 47), together with her siblings Sarah, 23; Eli, 14; Nachum (spelled Nachim in the passport), 11; Wolf, 5; and Ber’l, 3 (rendered Ber in the passport, but my mom always called him Uncle Ber’l, Little Ber, Ber meaning “bear” in Yiddish). The passport was issued in Grodno. According to the exit stamp in the passport, the family left Russia on August 2, 1905.
My maternal great-grandparents — Hinda and Jacob Zelig Goldberg (seated at center) — with their children and spouses. My grandparents, Ethel and Israel Sekuler, are fourth and fifth from left in the back row. For reasons the photo makes apparent, my irreverent dad told me he always thought of his rather imposing grandmother-in-law as “the battleax.”
Among some other old photos I have is a photo-postcard sent to my grandparents in 1932 by three young Sekuler relatives in Balta. Much to my regret, I seem to have temporarily (I hope!) misplaced it. However, I translated its message from Russian a few years ago, as follows:
A keepsake for our dear Uncle Israel, our aunt [Ethel] and our cousins [Willie, Mollie & Annie], from your nephews and cousins Abram, Lyusa and Asir. Look and remember [us]. Balta, October 30, 1932. Return address: Ayzik-Leyb [Isaac-Leib] Sekuler, 24 Senyanskaya Ulitsa [Street], Balta, Moldavia [Today Balta is across a redrawn border, no longer in Moldavia/Moldova but Ukraine.]
This prophetically somber photo was taken when the USSR was already in the grip of Stalin’s terror, although the very worst didn’t begin till 1934. As far as I know, no one from Israel Sekuler’s family, all of whom remained behind when he came to the U.S. in 1905, survived World War II. (Similarly, about half the Goldberg family — five of Jacob Zelig’s 10 siblings and their families — never left Europe, and all or virtually all of them perished, in all likelihood mostly at the hands of the Nazis, but some no doubt as victims of the Soviet regime.) The question is which killer — Stalin (before the war) or Hitler — snuffed out the lives of all these cousins. They call out from the grave as a reminder of all our family members and millions of other innocents brutally murdered by these two monstrous, grotesque regimes. And they remind us too, of how very lucky we are — the progeny of the Sekuler, Goldberg and Daniel families — to have grandparents who escaped what historian Timothy Snyder calls “the Bloodlands” between Germany and Russia and created hopeful new lives for themselves and the families whose seeds they planted in America’s free and nurturing soil.
1. We named our daughter Naomi (born in 1973) after Aunt Annie, 1917–1972.
2. The passport shows Hinda’s full name, including the patronymic Abramovich, meaning that her father’s name was Abraham. As was often the case among immigrant families of that era, Hinda’s husband, Jacob Goldberg, came to the U.S. two or three years before her and the children, to pave the way for the rest of his family.
3. My grandfather would tell us he’d lived in the koloniya near Balta, the significance of which my parents and I had no real understanding. Several years ago, while looking up something else related to Ukraine, I found a site with information about how in the early 1800s the czarist government settled a significant number of Jews in agricultural colonies in areas of southern Ukraine that had only shortly before been conquered from the Ottoman Empire (the Turks). It was in one of these colonies, I believe, that my grandfather grew up. Balta is very close to the border of Moldova, and in fact, for several years during Soviet times, it had been included in the Moldavian Autonomous Oblast within the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Linguistically and ethnically, Moldovans are for all practical purposes Romanians, speakers of a Romance language written in the Latin alphabet. In my grandfather’s day, Balta’s population was heavily Jewish, with a considerable Moldovan minority.
4. Palestine or Israel? Here’s a hugely condensed version of a long history. Most of what was called Palestine in 1905 is today Israel. Palestine is what the ancient Romans called Judea, the Jewish homeland, with its capital in Jerusalem, when they ruled it beginning in the first century Before the Common Era (BCE or BC). Despite being expelled from the area following several unsuccessful revolts against Rome in the first century of the Common Era (CE or AD), many Jews remained in the Holy Land, which for the next two millennia was governed by foreign rulers (e.g., the Byzantines, the Crusaders and a dizzying succession of Islamic powers). Toward the end of World War I, the British defeated the Ottoman Turks (the area’s last Muslim rulers, who were allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary) and began three decades of governing Palestine under a “mandate” from the League of Nations (predecessor to the United Nations). Beginning in the 19th century, Zionism — a return to the ancient homeland — had caught the imagination of many European Jews facing anti-Semitism. Jewish immigration grew under British rule, despite the U.K.’s efforts to suppress it in an attempt to appease the country’s Arabs. In 1947, the British washed their hands of the growing violence in Palestine, and the United Nations voted to divide the country into separate Jewish and Arab states. The Jews accepted this decision and declared Israel an independent state as the last British troops left on May 15, 1948. The Arabs rejected the UN decision and the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon immediately invaded Israel in an effort to “drive the Jews into the sea.” Israel prevailed in this and several subsequent wars, and although Egypt and Jordan eventually signed peace treaties with Israel, its other neighbors (Syria and Lebanon, as well as Iraq) remain in a state of war with the Jewish state. The 2020 Abraham Accords in which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have recognized Israel are a very hopeful sign. However, the Palestinian Arabs (governed in the West Bank by the Palestinian Authority and in Gaza by Hamas, a terrorist organization that periodically bombards Israeli cities and towns with rockets) have regrettably shown themselves unprepared to compromise for a final peace settlement. Sentiment among the Palestinian Arabs, validated in numerous surveys, overwhelmingly favors the elimination of the entire State of Israel. Observers of Israeli society, however, generally agree that any Israeli government would enjoy widespread support for making peace with a Palestinian state — the hoped-for “two state solution” — if they could be assured that such a state would actually remain a peaceful neighbor.
5. Belarus, which translates as “White Russia,” was known as the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic in Soviet days. (Ukraine is sometimes also referred to as “Little Russia.” The czar used to be called “emperor of all the Russias,” which encompassed White Russia and Little Russia as well as “Great Russia.”)
6. Thinking about “hopeful new lives … in America’s free and nurturing soil” reminds me of what I wrote about the immigration issue several years ago. Especially noteworthy, I believe, is this: “While it’s clear that the United States can hardly receive all those who might wish to come here today, it’s easy to empathize with those who are fleeing appalling conditions and want to build new lives in the land of liberty, safety and opportunity. In so many ways, this is actually a good problem for us to have, much better than the problems of the nations whose people want to leave! We need to find better ways to handle the challenge.”