Professor Joe Goldblatt
My 85 year old grandmother, Susan Spector Goldblatt, regularly welcomed me into her bed every Sunday morning to read the Sunday Funnies in the newspaper. The Sunday Funnies were colourful cartoons such as Beatle Bailey, Blondie and later Peanuts. In her thick Russian accent she would tell me stories about the characters she called “Beatala Bailey and Snuffala Smith” and we would smile and laugh together under the warmth of her duvet.
She was, like many women of her generation, a wisened soul due to the suffering she had experienced first through the pogroms she suffered in her home city Kyiv, Ukraine and later having immigrated to the USA, two deadly world wars. It was only after she died at 87 years of age and I saw my father shed tears for the first time at the loss of his mother, that I began to think about her life and the human cost of war and aggression.
Grandma was driven away from her Ukranian home by the Russian Czar and his Cossacks as they destroyed every village where Jews were living. Her family had no option but to flee and with literally only the clothes upon their backs and a wee bit of hope in their hearts, they sought a better and safer life in a foreign country.
Fortunately for my grandparents the United States welcomed them and soon they started a family that grew to include eight children. In 1929 when Grandma was fifty years old, she packed up her belongings once again and moved with her husband and family to a newly discovered oil field in Texas where Grandpa could find new afortune as a tradesman. Upon arriving in Texas they soon found that there was no housing available for their large family and they were forced to pitch a tent in the middle of the oil field where my father and his siblings slept upon the cold earth for one year until a house became available.
Grandpa soon purchased a horse named “Joe” and a wagon and began selling fruit, vegetables, pots, pans and other commodities to the thousands of oil field workers. While grandpa ran the business, grandma managed the family and insured that all the children were enrolled in local schools and helped start a small Jewish synagogue.
Following the death of my father, my wife and I returned to the small town where the Goldblatt family first lived and I discovered there was a small town history museum in the now abandoned former department store. This was the same store that my father had once worked in that was owned by the Bender family. With the help of the Benders and the Goldblatts and 60 other families a small synagogue building was eventually dedicated in 1929. As I toured the museum, I noticed a section entitled Faith in the Community and my wife pointed to a faded black and white photo on the wall and I immediately spotted my grandmother sitting on the front row wearing a wide brim hat and smiling broadly at the camera. She always loved to have her picture taken and her pose was confirmation that she was happy and proud to be a member of this community.
Ironically, after moving to Scotland and joining a small Jewish community I sat next to ayoung man at one of our worship services. He told me his surname was Bender and that his Grandfather came from Texas. Within a few minutes I realised I was sitting next to the grandson of Charles Bender of Bender’s Department Store for whom my father worked in the 1930’s.
Perhaps, my realisation of how closely connected we all are is why that when I awoke this morning to news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that I felt a deep personal sadness. My grandmother was what we called in Texas a straight talking woman. I imagined her exclaiming though tears “Here we go again!”
Following the death of my Grandfather, I decided it was time to move out of the room I shared with my sister and I begged my parents to let me move in with Grandma. They finally acquiessed to my wishes and I spent three delightful years as her room mate. In the late evenings we used to sit on one another’s beds and play the card game Canasta. However, in Grandma’s thick accent this game was mispronounced as “Nasty”. When I would report to school with dark circles under my eyes from the late night gambling sessions with grandma the teacher would ask me why I was so tired and I would reply “I was up late playing nasty with grandma.” That response triggered an immediate phone call to my mother.
Just before Grandma died, she awakened me in the wee hours of the morning and said “I have lost my teethies!” She wore a beautiful set of dentures and she seemed to have misplaced them. I immediately ran with fear into my parents room and shared the news with Papa and he said “Tell her not to sit down, they may bite her in the tuchus (Old Jewish Yiddish word for bum)! My mother arose from her bed and went to see how she could help and soon reported that Grandma had actually lost her glass eye. Soon the broken false eye was located and an appointment was made with an eye doctor for a replacement. Once the new eye was installed, Grandma wore it proudly and winked at everyone she met as if to call attention to her beautiful new baby blue eyeball.
The American news journalist Tom Brokaw described Grandma’s age group as “The Greatest Generation” due to their hard work and sacrifice for others. Therefore, when I saw tanks rolling through the streets of Kyiv this morning, I could hear Grandma saying under her breath “When will they ever learn?”
The tank as an instrument of war was actually developed in Scotland in 1916 when our country had a major role supplying armoured vehicles to the Ministry of Munitions. As I saw the descendants of these tanks queuing up to invade Grandma’s home city I once again thought about her many struggles that finally brought her to find safety and security in a small town in Texas.
The synagogue they founded with 500 others was sold in 1974 and the last Jew left town in 1987. The former synagogue building sadly burned to the ground in 2019. What would grandma think about Mr Putin’s act of aggression upon an innocent people and the inability of her community to maintain a place of worship because once again, so many had been forced to move away for a better life?
I believe grandma would have picked up the Sunday Funnies and begin reading in her thick Russian accent, mispronouncing all the names, and laughing at their silly deeds as well as her own foibles with language. She knew that throughout human history tyrants would always rise up and that we must never forget that we are collectively responsible for trying to make the best out of seemingly impossible situations so that we may continue to carry the same wee bit of hope that Grandma carried with her as she trekked through the snow as she left Kyiv.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University and Chair of the Edinburgh Interfaith Association.