Esther Lewis
Voices from the Grave
Edited by Aaron Ninedek
© 2015 Esther Lewis

The essay was written by Aaron's sister Esther Lewis. Esther, Aaron and Theo Balberyszski translated letters from Yiddish to English which allowed her to construct the story of their parents' families who were left behind in Poland before the war.

I was almost five when I met my father for the first time and I rejected him. I didn’t believe this man was the father I had yearned for all my life. He had migrated to Australia from Poland in 1928 seeking a better life, leaving behind his wife and two children, my brother Sam, aged six, and me.
I was three months old when he left. In 1933, when we sailed from Marseilles on the Ville d’Amien for the family to be reunited, my main concern was how I would recognize the father I had never met before. My mother assured me that I would know him because he would be carrying a large doll for me. The stranger who met us had no doll and I shrank away from his embrace. I clung to my mother’s skirt, refusing to accept this man as my father. My mother’s letter asking him to buy the doll had never reached him.
During the Great Depression Australia was experiencing one of the most severe unemployment rates in the industrialized world. In 1932 unemployment peaked at 30%. Our family was luckier than many because my father had a steady job, albeit for 3 days a week. An expert tailor, he was employed in a factory that made men’s suits. His was the exacting task of sewing sleeves into the jackets which had been machined together by piece workers on a production line. In spite of this, in spite of the fact that he had regular employment, there was never any money to spare for small luxuries. Any toys we had were makeshift. Sam taught me how to fold and fly paper planes around the room and my family of dolls were constructed from tea towels which I rolled up and tied at the top with a sock to form a head and arms. Each of these improvised dolls had a name and I lined them up on my pillow for a good-night story when it was time for bed.

My mother had difficulty adjusting to her new life and always seemed sad and preoccupied. She missed family and friends and the culturally rich life she had left behind in Poland. Frequently ill, she relied on me at the age of five or six to accompany her to the doctor to translate.
Even though she spoke five other languages her grasp of English was not yet adequate. Some days, after the postman had been, I would find her sitting by the window clutching a letter and sobbing. She would look up when I entered, wipe away her tears, and quickly thrust the letter into a drawer. Other times I found my mother and father huddled together deep in an urgent, whispered conversation which stopped abruptly as soon as I entered the room. But they never shared with us children their concerns about the contents of these letters which so distressed them.
We’d been in Australia for four years when Aaron, my baby brother, was born and the tiny cottage we’d been renting became too cramped for our needs. We moved to a bigger house in North Carlton and Sam and I changed schools. Unlike our first experience of school in Australia where we had been bullied and mocked and jeered at, we now fitted in. We had outgrown the strange clothes we wore when we first arrived from Europe and our sandwiches no longer reeked of garlic sausage.

In 1937, with the influx of immigrants from Europe fleeing the horrors that were about to befall them, I was suddenly in great demand at school. I was hurried from room to room to translate for the newcomers whenever there was need and my minor misdemeanours went unnoticed. I blossomed in this new-found acceptance. The headmaster and teachers were positive and encouraging and I began to top my class in spelling, in reading, in arithmetic, and my paintings and drawings found their way up on the wall. I was good at sport, a fast runner and in the basketball team. School became a place to look forward to. But this was to be short-lived.

In grade six, when I was twelve, my world suddenly fell apart. My mother was admitted to hospital for a gall bladder operation. My father and Sam, now aged seventeen, were at work all day. There was no extended family for support so I was taken out of school to care for Aaron, who was three years old. The evening meal, when the men came home from work, was also my responsibility. I prepared this with moderate success from the instructions my mother had left me. Aaron remembers that when he went to Prep class he was bored because he could already read, do simple sums and tell the time. He says I taught him these things. I have no memory at all of this. I only remember what a difficult and lonely time it was and how much I yearned to be back at school with my friends. It was three months before my mother was strong enough to return home from aftercare.
The following years passed quickly. After the war my brothers and I built our lives, married and had children. Our father died tragically of complications after an operation. My mother was ninety and a great grandmother, when she too died after a three year battle with cancer. Sam outlived her by four years, then succumbed to chronic heart problems and died in his early seventies.
In the final weeks of our mother’s life Aaron taped their conversations on a small recorder, prompting her to reminisce about the past. It was twenty two years after her death, when my daughter Dianne asked to borrow the tapes to help her with a project in which she was involved. Whilst searching for the tapes Aaron re-discovered a long forgotten cache of letters which he had retrieved from our mother’s belongings after she died. There were approximately eighty letters from family and friends in Europe dated from 1933 to 1937 and all were in Yiddish. His intention had been to translate them and surprise us with the contents. But every time he sat down to try the magnitude of the task defeated him and he put them aside and forgot all about them, until now.

We were overwhelmed by what we were suddenly confronted with. These were, ‘Voices from the Grave,’ a rare and unexpected glimpse into the past. But what did the voices say? We couldn’t read these letters. We needed to find someone who could translate them for us. We left several letters with a professional translator to estimate what it would cost and were bitterly disappointed to find the cost beyond our means.

Aaron sent several letters to his friend, Dr Theodore Balberyszski, who now lives in Israel. Theo, an expert in both Yiddish and English, took time out of his busy life to translate the letters for us and this gave us a glimpse into what the rest of the letters might reveal.

Some of our Australia friends who could still read Yiddish offered to translate several of the letters and we gratefully accepted. But upon checking the translations against the originals, Aaron, who could read the language quite well although he spoke it only a little, found the translations were often superficial. Sometimes names had been left out or misspelt, or a name had been mistranslated as something else, thus changing the meaning of what had been written. We began to realize that the only way it was going to be done to our satisfaction was if we could somehow manage to do it ourselves.
I could speak Yiddish and Aaron could read it, although he didn’t always fully understand what it was he had read. We made a decision. We would combine our skills and translate the letters ourselves because we had a vested interest in getting it absolutely right.

When I fronted up for our first session, Aaron, a retired teacher, had prepared everything we might need for the task. Many hours had been spent photo-shopping the letters, lightening the backgrounds and enlarging the font, making the letters easier to read.
He had downloaded a Hebrew keyboard to his iPad - this would suffice since Hebrew and Yiddish letters are the same. He had also purchased a Yiddish English dictionary online, which he handed me together with an exercise book and pen. And so we began.

All other activities became secondary. The translations were now our major preoccupation. We were pedantic about getting it right. On many occasions after I returned home from an exacting couple of hours translating, there would be an excited email from Aaron, because he had tracked down the meaning of a word we had struggled with and abandoned as being too difficult. We decided to meet twice a week for two hours at a time and we continued to do this for as long as it took – which in the end was six months.

My Yiddish was rusty from disuse but as time went on it got better. The work was intense. After two hours we found we were exhausted and could no longer concentrate. Some of the handwriting was extremely bad, sometimes the spelling left us struggling to tease out meanings, sometimes the letter was torn in an inconvenient place but the more we did the more determined we became to complete the task. After we ended a two hour session I would go home and correct and type up the day’s work, then send it back to Aaron. He would check it against the original and if all was satisfactory, would email the completed letter out to all the members of our extended families both here and in America. This way we kept everyone interested and involved with us in our journey.

After our mother died I became keeper of her precious photographs. Some were black and white and many were sepia toned but, unlike the letters, most were in good condition. I loved to look at them but the identity of many of the subjects was a mystery to me because all were labelled in Yiddish. I included them in our quest and Aaron was able to read the names on the back of many of the photos. Now we could often put a face to the people we were reading about. These were sent out as well and, sometimes, other members of the family found that they too were in possession of a photograph that nobody else had. These were added to the mix.

As we worked we laughed and we cried and sometimes were so frustrated that one or the other of us would throw up our hands and shout, “That’s it. I can’t do this anymore.” Then we’d stop for a cup of tea and maybe a guilty chocolate biscuit after which we’d look at each other sheepishly and get back to work. We got to know the people whose letters we were reading and we grew to love them. Even though their own lives were fraught they worried about us and how we were adjusting to life in our new home. How was our health? How were we coping with the climate? Were the children still being bullied at school?
In one letter from my father’s family there is a note included for Sam and me from a paternal Aunt. It reads:
“Dearest Senderke and Esterke why don’t you write anything to us? Can’t you find a few words to write us? However you write will for us be good. Write if the children from your school are not pestering you, laughing at you, have they stopped? I ask you to write everything, I write you these greetings because I have such a longing for you that I cannot bear it. From me, your Auntie Itke.”
And suddenly I am fighting back tears, because I have no memory of this woman who loved us so much. When we left Poland I was only four years old.

Before discovering these letters we knew very little of our father’s family. Now we came to understand that he had three sisters, Itke, Sarah and Dvora. Dvora appears to have had the most dominant personality of the three and she wrote many of the letters, often on behalf of their mother and Sarah. Was the mother illiterate we wondered? She, herself, never wrote although she frequently sent greetings in Dvora’s letters. A letter from Dvora just four months after we arrived in Australia, dated 20-6-1933, begins with the usual greetings and concerns about our health, then continues with:
“We thank you very much for the ₤1 that you have sent us.”
In another part of the same letter she has written about a prolonged strike:
“Now I write about the strike. It was very difficult to survive. Many people went hungry and all institutions sent to our ‘Farein’ (Association) a little money so that all workers will receive a few times a week half a kilo of bread per person.”
The letter continues with more news about family and friends then moves on to more disturbing events:
“Since you left there were several tragic events. One night at 2am a drunken railwayman came across a Jewish youngster and stabbed him to death. In a second incident a Jewish horse and buggy driver was travelling with a non-Jew. No one knows what happened, but next morning the Jew was found dead in a nearby forest and the murderer disappeared. The Jewish man left a wife and four children.”
The next letter from Dvora is dated only six days later, 26-6-1933, she has included greetings from their mother and again thanked our father for the money he sent. Then she returns to news of the strike:
“We have this week ended the strike… we were on strike for 15 weeks and the factory won and I am heavy of heart because it is difficult to find work.”
In this same letter Hitler’s name appears for the first time:
“In Germany there is now a chancellor whose name is Hitler. In his name there have been established whole Hitlerist parties. Things have got bad in Germany for the Jews because of a man called Hitler. He has taken control over all political parties and they’ve made for the Jews in Germany the same conditions that used to be for the Jews in Spain.”
Later, as I type up the letter which Aaron and I translated this day, I find myself transported back to my childhood, to an anxious little girl, standing in the doorway watching her mother bent over a letter, with tears streaming down her face.
Our mother had always talked more about her family than our father did of his, so her brothers’ letters give us an insight into the lives of people we did know a little about. A letter from her brother Herzl in Russia, dated 2-10-1933, reads:
“I write that I received the ₤1 sterling. I will write how much that   means to me. Now I won’t fear that my children will go barefoot this winter and feel the cold.”
In 1917, this brother, we knew from stories told us by our mother, had at the age of 20 together with a younger brother who later drowned, left his family to join the Bolsheviks and had gone back to Russia with them after they returned home. In 1918, during the Influenza pandemic which killed millions of people worldwide, their widowed mother together with one of her sons, who was only 10 years old, died. This left our 19 year old mother responsible for the two remaining younger brothers, Velvel and Shimon. There was rampant anti-Semitism and widespread poverty in Poland at that time and life became very difficult for what was left of this once large family.

In 1925 Shimon immigrated to Argentina and many of the letters and photographs of his new wife, and later his son, are among those we were translating. In a letter addressed to my mother in1936 he wrote:
“My dear sister Kreine, firstly I write to tell you that my wife and I are well and we wish to hear the same from you. Secondly, your letter with the ₤25 we received. Dear sister, I thank you very much for the money. When I wrote to you that we needed the money it was to settle in. Now it will be useful for a child birth because my wife will soon be confined.”
A second letter some months later starts off:
“We are now well,” but continues with: “My wife went through a tragic event. Because of complications during her pregnancy, during the delivery the baby came with feet first and therefore they had to use instruments to pull it out. The baby was dead when it arrived. The Doctors said they did all they could – but it did not help. Thank God she is alright. I saw the baby, a boy, in the hospital and was heartbroken.”
After many years in Argentina, Shimon was finally granted a visa and was able to resettle in America. My mother and Shimon continued to communicate by letter. They were both getting old, had not seen each other for fifty years, and longed to see each other one more time before they died. My mother begged him to come to Australia for a visit and offered to pay his fare as an incentive. He wrote back that he was unable to leave his wife because she was crippled with arthritis. The letters went back and forth and finally my mother, who at 78 years of age had never been out of Victoria since coming to Australia, allowed herself to be driven to Tullamarine and bustled onto a plane to fly to America for a reunion. Before she died she described this journey to me as, “The highlight of my life.”
After my mother died I flew to America to meet this uncle and I was astonished at how much alike they looked and talked even though they had been apart for fifty years. He told me at the time, explaining why he loved her so, “Kreine was not only my sister she was also my mother.”

When we left Poland to join our father, who had immigrated to Australia ahead of us, the only member of my mother’s family who still remained in Poland was her brother, Velvel. Velvel used to babysit Sam and me whenever our mother went out at night. He would sleep in our one room apartment on a couch and tell us stories which we loved. Sometimes, to tease us, he would scratch on the wall and pretend there was a mouse in the room. We would shudder and screech with delight, a little afraid, but never quite sure if he was teasing us or if there really was a mouse.

Velvel was a sign writer by profession and in the difficult economic climate that existed then in Poland he could find little or no work. In a letter to my mother in 1933, soon after we left he wrote:
“It is becoming absolutely impossible to live…weeks pass where I earn nothing…I now owe the landlord one and a half year’s rent and he pressures me every day for the money. There is nowhere I can earn even a penny.”
There are several letters from Velvel along these lines and in one letter he says he painted a room for the landlord to offset some of the rent he owed. In another that he is losing weight and is coughing blood because it is winter and he has no money for heating. In June 1936 when he wrote to my mother he was happier but still anxious:
“The postman has arrived with a big photograph with a letter and a registered envelope with ₤1 – that is in our money 27 Zlotys {2 week’s wages}. Dear sister, I don’t know how to thank you for your letter…you have so pleased mewith the line regarding that we will be able to travel to Australia. If you can make for me papers and send me a ship’s ticket do it the quickest way because this year that is passing conditions get worse. For the journey expenses I will get from my girlfriend and I will leave before I marry her and then I will bring her over. That which you write that you don’t know which
work I will do there – don’t worry about that…if I don’t get work at sign-writing I will become a house painter and if not house painting I will become an electrician, carpenter, lock-smith or any other black labour. Now Dear Sister…you ask how are conditions…The excesses on Jews we have long got accustomed to, but lately several formal pogroms have happened – in Pshitik, in Minsk and in other places where Jews were massacred. In addition, they set fire to houses and shops in Poland…those who were impulsive enough to protest were arrested. And now they are being held responsible for the unrest.”
In May 1937 there is a letter to say that he has had notification from the Ship’s Company to inform him that our mother had already paid in full for his ship’s ticket:
“Now all that is missing,” he writes, “is the ₤50 to show as landing money, and I won’t have any more worries. All is going forward with a fast tempo, if there are no more hold ups I will quickly be able to leave.”
The next letter is one month later and is dated 23-6-1937:
“Dearest sister, I received two letters from you – one air letter and one normal letter. In the air-letter was the cheque for ₤50. However, I am afraid that the Immigration Department will not allow Polish emigrants to travel on a French ship. I received a letter from them to that effect, so I will have to sail on an English ship. The cheapest tickets on an English ship cost ₤36 and that means we need to pay another ₤12. You will understand why I am so upset…I have no option but to turn to you again because I now don’t have enough to get my papers…therefore dear sister, I implore you – you have already outlaid so much. I would certainly take my life if a disaster should come to pass that I must remain in Poland. Darling sister I implore you for the last time, finish what you started and telegraph me the ₤12 that I still need. I will never forget the favour.”
My parents must have wired the extra money because Velvel arrived in Australia 28-9-37 just three months later.
The work Aaron and I did with the letters became a catalyst for our children to do further research. They found and made contact with relatives who were also searching for the same ancestors and added them to our family tree. Our niece continues to have a dialogue with this new found family. My daughter, a librarian, established a timeline of world events that coincided with information in the letters, thus giving us a better understanding of the pressures on the family. Our nephew researched historical documents such as naturalisation papers, births and deaths records and searched out surnames which had been misspelt, whilst my son kept track of the letters as we translated them.

So many of the letters we translated thank my parents for sending money and now, in my declining years, I understand for the first time in my life why, when I was a little girl, we never had any money for small luxuries. Why I never did get a real doll. Why I was the only child in the street who couldn’t afford twopence to go to a dancing class that all the other children were going to. My father was earning ₤4.10 a week, and from that my parents scrimped and saved to help family, back home and scattered in other parts of the world, to survive. And of the ones who did remain in Europe, no one was ever heard from again.