Grodno: The Lifschitz Family
Grodno (Hrodna, Гродно, גראדנ)
The Republic of Belarus (Белару́сь)
September 10, 2014
The Family Lifschitz: “Ich Baink Noch Grodno”
In 1902, Jehoshua Lifschitz bought a one-way ticket. All the Lifschitz Family purchased travel tickets. “One-way!” Jehoshua’s brother Schmuel bought a one-way ticket as did his brother Yitzchak, his sister Lena and Jehoshua’s wife Pesha Tziril. Lifschitz nee Lubitsch. I think she was a relative of Ernst Lubitsch, the German motion picure director who was born in Grodno.
They left Grodno, their home town, traveled overland across the Russian Empire (horseback? cart? train?) to the Baltic Sea where they boarded a ship (more than one?) bound for the dangerous, often disease-ridden “steerage” crossing of the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. The Atlantic crossing took at least eleven days.
The Lifschitz Family was not alone. Between 1900 and 1914, eleven million immigrants from Europe made the crossing, 85 percent of them in steerage. Steerage was the lowest fare and passengers sometimes were housed below the main decks of the ship.
Immigrants landed in New York, or Boston. If they were sick, they may have been refused entry. So some stayed aboard the ship and traveled to Galveston, Texas.
They arrived. Most stayed. They never looked back.
The Lifschitz boys wanted to be “American” so they changed their names. Two Lifschitz brothers, Schmuel and Yitzchak, became Samuel Leaf and Isaac Liff. Yehoshua Lifschitz and Pesha Lifschitz became Harry and Pauline Lifson, my maternal Grandparents.
They “arrived.” They stayed. They never looked back.
At the time they left, the Jewish population of their home town was 64% of the total population of 44,000, the second largest Jewish community in the area (Vilnus was the largest). Regardless, for the new immigrants, Grodno was the past. The Russians were the past. The Lithuanians were the past. The Poles were the past.
But more than one hundred years later, Grodno is for me, the present. I decided to “go back.”
The current stop on my tour of Northern Europe is Grodno (Pop 334,000). The city is pleasant enough with impressive churches, a charming town square, a pedestrian shopping arcade, cafes serving fresh pastries topped with whipped cream or ice cream, modern hotels offering a plentiful breakfast, and several high bridges that span the placid Neman River.
My thanks to Rabbi Yitzchak Kofman who leads the small Jewish community here. He guided me on a tour of the ancient Great Synagogue (1578). He provided a driver to take me to the Jewish Cemetery that was located down a narrow road in the woods outside of town. My great-grandparents are buried here somewhere. I said my prayers.
Despite the fact that Grodno is my ancestral homeland, is there something special I can say about this modern city?
Wait a minute! I just remembered!
Buried somewhere in my pile of music books lies a collection of sheet music that I inherited from my mother who inherited it from her father. And in that dusty collection lies a song that my Grandfather wrote about Grodno, his home town.
Digging! I found it! The Yiddish song is “Ich Baink Noch Grodno.”
My maternal Grandfather, Harry Lifson (1878 – 1955) was a musician and composer. He played the cornet in a marching band. Family lore has it that he played in the Czar’s Marching Band!
As an immigrant from the Russian Empire, Harry Lifson loved America. Many of his musical compositions were patriotic marches. All were published by his own company, Symbolic Music Publishing in New York City. Even today, his sheet music for piano and his arrangements for accordion and for symphonic band are held in university libraries around the country. *
Harry Lifson and his wife Pauline Lubitsch Lifson had six children. Their first-born infant son died in an influenza epidemic in Massachusetts in the very early Twentieth Century.
Sue Lifson was the oldest daughter. Then came Abraham Lifson and then Ida Rose Lifson. My mother Ruth Lifson was born in 1912. Finally, the youngest, Beatrice Lifson.
I never knew my Grandmother Pauline Lifson. She died when I was just an infant.
Apparently my Aunt Sue was most like her mother, a “Balabusta,” the Yiddish expression for an excellent homemaker. What energy she had! And, undisputedly Aunt Sue was the best card player and mahjong player in the family.
Uncle Abe was named for Abraham, his Grandfather. I remember Uncle Abe as a handsome, dignified and retiring gentleman.
Aunt Ida, oh how I miss Aunt Ida! She was an accomplished pianist and accompanist. Her signature piece was Malagueña by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. If only I had Aunt Ida’s talent and discipline.
Aunt Ida was assigned to teach piano to her younger sister. Ruth resisted the classical method. My mother (Ruth) told me once that Ida complained to her father, “Papa, I can’t teach her. She only wants to play jazz!”
Indeed, such jazz! Has Anybody Seen my Gal (Five foot two, eyes of blue) and If you Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie) and all the other pop favorites of the Twenties and the Thirties comprised my mother’s repertoire on both piano and banjo-ukulele. A Flapper, Yes, Sir!
My enthusiastic mother Ruth had that most enviable musical talent: “Just hum a few bars” of your favorite song and her fingers danced across the piano keyboard.
Aunt Bea. The youngest Lifson and what a free spirit! Entrepreneur and salesman extraordinaire. To paraphrase an expression from somewhere, “She always made money for her clients” and they loved her for her business acumen. **
Only two of the Lifson children ever married. Sue Lifson and Harry Taxier had one son, my cousin Stanley Taxier. Stanley has two children and five grandchildren.
My mother, Ruth Lifson and Otto Polatschek had two children. My late younger sister Paula Carol Wiesenfeld passed away in 1972 when she was only twenty-eight. She was named for her Grandmother Pauline. Paula had one son and now three grandchildren.
Then there’s me. Jan Robert Polatschek. I think I inherited a bit of the skills and personality of each of the Lifson siblings and most certainly a bit of the adventurous spirit of my mother Ruth and Aunt Bea.
But Grandma Pauline and Grandpa Harry Lifson tower above us, the most adventurous of us all. As a young couple, they left their home in Grodno for an unknown land and an unknowable future. They left family. They left friends. They left, never to return.
Grandpa Harry was a great salesman in his own right. He owned a General Store in Fargo, North Dakota where my mother was born. (She remembered the Indians!) During the Depression, in New York City, my mother recalled that Papa always sold not one but two cartloads of oranges on the street.
Harry owned an automobile supply store in Monticello, New York. And finally, already in his 70’s, trudging around town on buses and subways in New York, schlepping his sample cases, Grandpa sold greeting cards and calendars. His best item was the notorious Marylyn Monroe nude calendar of 1949.
Harry was a proud and patriotic American. He learned and spoke excellent English. He voted. He watched the Ed Sullivan Show on TV on Sunday nights. (He mispronounced the name and called him “Ed Solomon.”) He wrote marches for the Firefighters and the Postal Workers and the Police.
And yet…. And yet….. He never forgot.
Throughout his life of more than fifty years in America, amidst his business ventures, his musical career, and a growing family, Grandpa remembered where he came from. He read The Forward, the Yiddish Language newspaper. In 1948, to honor the independence of a new State in the Middle East, he wrote a stirring song: Salute to Israel. He dedicated this piece to the Fighting Sons and Daughters of Israel.
But most of all, Grandpa remembered home.
Toward the end, in 1950, in New York, Grandpa Harry Lifson wrote the song, Ich Baink Noch Grodo.
“I Miss Grodno. I Yearn for Grodno”
The Yiddish lyric begins:
Bilder zhe ich in mein cholem
Fun mein alter Heim
Grodne Teiere mein Grodne
Vi shein biz too gevein.
Pictures in my dreams I see,
Of my sweet old home.
Grodno, Grodno dear old Grodno,
How beautiful you were for me.
Harry Lifson never returned to his beautiful home town. He never visited his school. He never prayed in his synagogue. He never again saw the friends and family he left behind. He never prayed over the graves of his parents.
So, now it’s up to me, Papa Harry’s grandson. I make the journey for him. To satisfy the yearning. To fulfill the dream.
Since I have neither the training as an historian nor the skills of a journalist, I am not qualified to present even a brief history of Grodno. But I have read a bit.
Suffice it to say that since the Fourteenth Century (perhaps even earlier), the Jewish population here in Grodno has experienced waves of success and disaster, followed by waves of success and disaster, and followed once again by waves of success and disaster for more than six hundred years. And ultimately, disaster. Elimination. Extinction.
In 1940 the Jews of Grodno numbered about 25,000 men women and children, about 40% of the total population. In the winter of 1942-43, the Jews were rounded up by the Germans, herded into stifling ghettos, transferred to horrendous transit camps, and finally transported to Auschwitz and Treblinka and instantaneous mass murder.
Emerging from hiding (protected by neighbors) at the moment of the Russian Liberation in 1944, the surviving Jewish population in Grodno numbered about 200.
The Grodno experience could very well be the paradigm for the ebb and flow of the Jewish experience across Europe. Depending on the whims of the regional rulers and the clergy, or the attitudes of the local populace, flourishing periods of growth were followed by periods of discrimination, decline, and dislocation.
Finally, with brutal finality, in the Twentieth Century, from the Volga to the Atlantic, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, the Centuries-Old European Jewish life as my Grandfather knew it, ended in eradication.
Years ago, at my synagogue, Temple Emanuel, in Newton, Massachusetts, our young Rabbi delivered a sermon about the Holocaust. I’ll never forget his words when he spoke about the loss of our People and the disappearance of our Family. He spoke sadly, “We miss them! We miss them!”
That young Rabbi could very well have echoed the sentiment of my elderly Grandfather: “Ich Baink Noch Grodno.”
For Jewish Grodno today:
For a history of Grodno, from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, please read this detailed and moving essay:
*The Harry Lifson catalogue includes:
The Fire Fighter 1936
Good Old New York 1939
Forty Eight Stars over Forty Eight States 1939
Postal Dispatch 1939
March Marconi 1939
Emblem of Humanity 1939 Tribute to the American Red Cross
Over the Clouds 1939 Aviation March
Our Nation’s Youth 1939
March Niagara 1939
The Challenger 1940
Our Gallant Police 1940
Temple of Peace 1940 Dedicated to the Land of Democracy
The Church Bells That Were Silent Are Ringing Again 1943
Yanks Around the World 1944
I Love Miami 1945
In Coney Island 1947
New York By Night 1948
Mary and Me 1948
To Be With You 1948
Salute To Israel 1948
Ich Baink Noch Grodno 1950
Enjoy Your Ride 1951
Honeymoon Mountain 1953
Shine on, Miss Liberty 1954 Dedicated to the Statue of Liberty
Born in Grodno:
** Meyer Lansky , (Hyman Roth in Godfather 2.) “Financier” was born in Grodno.
- Meyer Lansky (1902–1983), central figure in the Jewish Mafia and highly influential figure in the Italian Mafia
Paul Baron (1926 – 2011) Internet Hall of Fame (His original name was Pesach).
- Paul Baran (1926–2011), Internet pioneer and technology entrepreneur
Olga Korbut Four Time Olympic Gold Medalist.
- Olga Korbut (born 1955), gymnast and four-time gold medallist at 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games