My mother divorced my father when I was 2. We never spoke of him. We never said his name. I grew up in Brooklyn, near the Prospect Park parade grounds with my mother, her parents, and her sister—the Bonowitz family. I never saw my own name written out until I was 3 and found it inscribed in an alphabet book hidden away in a musty cupboard. Sherry Zimmerman, it said. I had not heard that name, but I knew it was mine.
I was the keeper of my mother’s secret, the secret of her early marriage and divorce. Of course, I could not be both the keeper of the secret and the thing that betrayed her. But that’s how it was. Certainly, our neighbors never knew my last name. I was just part of the Bonowitz clan.
I always felt that we had something to hide. My grandmother would not allow any strangers into our apartment. And anyone not in our family was a stranger. So there were no guests. At first I thought it was because of me and the shame of my name. Gradually, I came to realize more was going on.
My grandparents were second-generation American Jews. Their families had come from the area around Minsk, in present-day Belarus. They were from a small town called Wolozin, home to a famous yeshiva. My grandparents often invoked the fate of the Jews who had stayed: During WWII, the Germans had told the Poles of Wolozin to assemble the Jews and have them dig a hole. And then the Poles shot the Jews and buried them right there. In 2009, I visited Wolozin with my daughter and we found that mass grave in the center of town, exactly as my grandparents described it. Shamelessly convenient.
We were loyal to Wolozin; my family bought graves in a section of a cemetery in Queens reserved for Wolozin descendants. Although my family did not lose any immediate family members during the Holocaust, those strong ties to Wolozin made it so that we felt the weight of the Shoah in our daily lives. “There would be a knock on the door,” my grandparents said.
This talk of Wolozin’s lost Jews may seem like dark conversation for a kindergarten-age child. It never seemed that way to me. This was how my family talked. During television commercials: why Joseph McCarthy needed to be stopped in order to save democracy. Over Rice Krispies at breakfast: ruminations about the fascist radio priest Father Coughlin, who had frightened my grandparents in the 1930s. While I was getting dressed: how someone like Hitler could take power in the United States. No transitions. This has given a characteristic cadence to my conversation. No matter what the occasion—I could be hosting a birthday party, I could be buying shoes with my daughter, I could be about to kiss my lover—I’m always one sentence away from bringing up democracy, religious freedom, the rights of minorities, all of these in danger. No transitions.
I think of Wolozin when I remember how my grandparents reacted to any breach of their threshold in Brooklyn. When the doorbell rang, everyone tensed. No one was ever invited, but of course, the bell had to ring sometimes. An electrician had to fix some outlets. The icebox had to be taken away and a new refrigerator had to be installed. The plumber had to work on a stopped-up sink or toilet.
I remember the first time I was asked to please answer the door when a tradesperson came to the house. I was just about to turn 5 and the kitchen faucets needed repair. My aunt and mother were at work. My grandfather put on a suit and sat in the bedroom. My grandmother was dressed up, sitting in the living room. Holding her pocketbook on her lap. I was sent to the door. Looking back, I think that, however irrationally, any stranger entering their apartment conjured their worst fears. They prepared by dressing. I was given instructions: Greet the stranger, walk him through what he needed to accomplish, make sure the work was done correctly, pay him in cash, tip him, thank him, and make sure to get a receipt.
As a child, I was the “designated adult” who could best deal with the world outside. I dealt, but I, too, began to be afraid of strangers.
The antisemitism of the 1930s had been hard on my grandparents. America’s hesitancy to enter WWII upset them every day, and for long after the war was over. The Roosevelts were their heroes, but at home we often discussed how the Roosevelts, too, had been brought up to be antisemitic. My grandparents continued to struggle with what at the time had seemed to them inexplicable, unpardonable, that the Roosevelts had not been willing to bomb the train lines to the concentration camps.
My grandparents told me that the government had made a strategic decision, believing that Americans would not want to go to war if they felt that the country was doing it for the Jews, an explanation I remember being given during a bath. I was told that Winston Churchill, another family hero, was also a private antisemite. This was Bonowitz political reality: The people who had saved the Jews did not like the Jews. So, to survive, Jews had to get people to do the right thing regardless of their private feelings. We had to change laws before we changed hearts and minds. These childhood conversations were casual but tutorial: I had to learn how to get along with people who secretly did not like me. I had to learn how to make hostile people do the right thing.
The conversations accompanied the most pleasant, even sensuous outings. During summers, the family moved to a bungalow at Rockaway Beach. My grandfather was the manager of a Times Square movie theater and twice a week, he would come home from a late shift early in the morning, reaching Rockaway at about 4 a.m. But he would be up at 8:30 to have breakfast with me. And then, we went out for newspapers and sweet drinks at the candy store.
We talked about Christmas trees. I had to promise that my home would never have a Christmas tree. That was an easy promise. Christmas trees had angels and five-pointed stars. I had learned that there were no Jewish angels and Jews had only six-pointed stars. I felt securely Jewish. My grandfather said that in America, it was easy to be tempted. Two of his own brothers had changed their names in order to get jobs and then, once they had Christian names, they found it was easier to not draw attention to themselves as Jews. He understood but it made him sad. During the war, he said, so many had died for the right to be Jewish, to proudly show their Jewish symbols. Being Jewish was about standing up as a Jew. “You can’t just borrow all the Christian things because you think you’ll enjoy them.” In any case, my grandfather was clear: When a country turns against its Jews, it doesn’t matter what their names are.
I was being schooled in the skepticism my grandparents thought would protect me as I made my way as a Jew in Christian America. They saw America as a refuge, but one’s safety was not fully guaranteed. In the world outside your apartment, you had to keep your guard up. Your home was where you could relax. My family seemed afraid of being found out, and whenever I thought about it, I could only imagine it was for being Jewish.
So, even though my Bonowitz family had lived in Brooklyn during the war, the Holocaust cast a dark shadow. Not survivors, there was nonetheless, a survivalist mentality: When in doubt, circle the wagons and stay with your own kind. They used this ugly phrase: M.O.T. Member of our tribe.
I was never sent to Hebrew school but I learned in a steady state of anxiety and responsibility. The existence of my generation of Jewish children was a miracle. It proved that God had wanted the Jewish people to survive. But being in that miracle generation meant that it was our job, my job, to defend the countries—America and Israel—that could keep the Jewish people alive. For my grandparents, Nazism was only the most recent of the authoritarian regimes that had come for the Jews. Their own parents had run away from Russian soldiers who felt so superior to Jews that they considered it their right to rape them or kill them at will. In 1950s America, I watched Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show and tried to identify with teenage heroines who had no cares. But I was on a parallel curriculum: Antisemitism springs up easily; authoritarianism is always tempting; even Americans want scapegoats when times get tough. If you are Jewish, vigilance is always required.
Could it happen here? It could, but it would not. In these conversations, it was my aunt Mildred Bonowitz who was most reassuring. Such a thing would not happen in America because it had happened in Germany, for all to see. And also, said my aunt Mildred, it would be my job, if I ever saw any threat to American democracy, to take all necessary actions. That’s what I owed this country. That’s what my generation, the miracle generation, had been brought up to do. My aunt said that my education would prepare me for this. She gave no specific instructions.
Now, at our local and federal legislatures, the impossible seems to be happening. I think of my Bonowitzes and my promise to them. I always imagined, when I was a child, that when it came time, I would leap up, like Wonder Woman, to take all necessary actions. Now, I think it’s time and I don’t know what to do.