My Family, The Holocaust, and ‘Original Sin’

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I was recently discussing the concept of original sin in a workshop I was leading. I was explaining that I thought that this was a legitimate concept, even though I did not share it. If I ever did accept original sin, I would certainly apply it to the holocaust.

This photo was taken c. 1905 in Pinsk, Belarus. In the center is my grandmother, Leah Kaston (Kaplan). Standing behind her are my great-grandfather Ya’akov and my great-mother Rivka Kaston. To the far left is my Aunt Bunya, my grandmother’s sister. She tried to come to this country around 1915, but was turned back by immigration services at Ellis Island because of red eye (conjunctivitis). She returned to Belarus. Later her husband, and some of her children followed her, and they went to live in Babruysk, Belarus. Somewhere between 1941-1943, when the Nazis entered Babruysk, they shot my Aunt Bunya and her family and dumped them in mass graves.

When I was growing up, my grandmother cried frequently about her sister. There were always hushed tones and requests to me that I please not ask too many questions about this. I heard the sobbing, but I did not really get to ask or say much. I have always thought that this affected the upbringing of my mom and her sister. My mom felt neglected and unattended. Is it any wonder that my grandmother could not give more attention to my mom when she felt so deeply wounded by the murder and absence of her beloved Bunya? There are many families with holes and wounds like this, especially many Jewish families, and sometimes I wonder how we might close the circle and find a way to restore the gaping hole that persists to this day in my family and in many others who went through this.

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More Photos of My Mother, Charlotte “Lotte” Kaplan, c. 1948

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The Kastonowicz Family c. 1900 in Pinsk, Belarus

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These are photos of my maternal family, the Kastonowiczs, c. 1900 in Pinsk, Belarus. The first photo from left to right: My great-grandmother, Rivka; Uncle Joe; Uncle Oscar; and my great-grandfather, Ya’akov. Uncle Oscar was a wonderful human being, beloved in our family.

I don’t know the names of the children in the second photo: on the far left is my Aunt Bunya (murdered in 1943 in Bobruysk by the Nazis in the Holocaust); the older man on the left is my great-grandfather, Ya’akov. Sitting to his left (our right) is my great-grandmother, Rivka; standing in the center is my grandmother, Leah. Of the four children, I would assume that one or two were murdered by the Nazis in Pinsk, but I’m not certain about that. At least one survived. There were others probably murdered as well (not all born yet presumably), but names and numbers are unclear.

Bunya attempted to come to this country in 1920, but was rejected by the Immigration Service at Ellis Island because of Red Eye (conjuncitivitis). She went back to Pinsk and Bobruysk in Belarus. Afterwards her husband followed her, because he could not live without her. Some of the children went as well. Later they all ended up murdered by the Nazis. My grandmother wept about this loss for as long as I knew her. It left a hole and a traumatic legacy for our family that persists to this day. When President Obama announced his executive order, I felt a measure of relief for my Aunt Bunya that justice had been served in some small way.

While there are several factors, the story of Bunya has a role to play in why I chose to enter the field of history of religion, New Testament studies, and Jewish studies. It is part of who I am today and why I do what I do. It always will be.

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Charlotte (Lotte) Kaplan-Kant

 

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My mom, Charlotte (Lotte) Kaplan-Kant, c. 1938 on left in front of a Poughkeepsie shop and c. 1943 on her house porch

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My Great-Grandfather and Grandparents in Pinsk and the U.S.

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On the top left is my maternal great-grandfather (my grandmother’s father), Jacob Kaston (Kastonowicz), in the early 1900s from Pinsk (Belarus). He never came to this country. The photo to his right is my grandmother Leah Kaston in her high-fashion of the day c. 1917 in Pinsk. She was in her early 20s. The third photo is my grandmother c. 1925 with her husband, Nathan Kaplan (my grandfather) in the U.S. While my grandfather sold fruits and vegetables on his cart, my grandmother invested in real estate in Poughkeepsie and managed the family finances. In Belarus she worked in a bookstore in Pinsk. On the far right is my grandfather with my mom’s brother, Alvin, c. 1945. Alvin died tragically of an apparent heart attack in the late 1950s (he was a pharmacist). I still have a stuffed animal lion (which growls when pressed) given to me by him. I think of him whenever I see it. My grandparents sent all their children–Lotte (Charlotte), Ann, and Alvin–to college.

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My Grandfather and His Horse

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My grandfather, Nathan (Notke) Kaplan, had a fruit and vegetable cart by which he made his living. When I knew him, he used a truck to transport his produce, but, in the old days, he used a horse to pull the cart. The first picture shows my grandfather with the horse, while the second photo is a picture of the horse with the groom (I think). I’m guessing that these photos are from the early 1920s.

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My Mom as a Girl

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My mom, Charlotte “Lotte” Kaplan, and her sister Ann Murkoff, as girls c. 1934-1938. Left two photos are mom on left and Ann on right. Second photo from right is my grandmother on left (Leah), then mom, then Ann, then my grandfather (Nathan/Notke). Right photo is Ann on left and mom on right with two unknown boys (probably cousins).

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Charlotte Kant Kaplan and Lev Gleason

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CHARLOTTE KANT (my mom) AND LEV GLEASON (comic book publisher)

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Right after college (SUNY Teacher’s College, Albany, math major), my mom (Charlotte Kaplan, 1928-2012) who was from Poughkeepsie, New York, moved to the big city, Manhattan. She worked as a secretary (1950/51-55?) for one of the founders of the modern comic book industry, Lev Gleason, at 114 East 32nd Street. His series included Silver Streak Comics, Daredevil Comics, and Crime Does Not Pay.

Lev Gleason was a brilliant, visionary man. His idea of a comic book written for adults heralded the age of graphic novels in which we now live. My mother valued people like that and looked up to them. She was an extremely practical person, detail-oriented, but she deeply valued vision and imagination. And Lev had that in spades. Gleason was strongly anti-Fascist and opposed Hitler in his comics and other writings. After enlisting in World War II, he continued to publish anti-Fascist comics. For his leftist politics, his association in the 1930s with the communist party (which many on the left in those days had supported because of Hitler, Mussolini, and others, as well as because of the Depression), and his refusal to name names, he was cited for contempt by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Of course, that was the committee associated with the infamous Senator Joe McCarthy (though he was a senator and not directly involved with house committees).

Along with the decline of the comic book industry in the mid-1950s (spurred by attacks that it encouraged juvenile delinquency and moral laxness), the congressional attacks ruined Gleason who ended up becoming a small-time real estate agent. However, his work inspires comic book writers to this day.

For some time, in the 1950s, my mother brought him food and a little money to help support him. What the U.S. government did to people like Lev was reprehensible and wrong.

I’m sure that Jewish youth at that time would have seen Lev (who was not Jewish, though most of his peers in the comic book industry were) as a heroic figure for his fight against Fascism and Hitler. My mom lost one of her mother’s sister’s (Bunya) and much of Bunya’s family in the Holocaust (murdered by the Nazis in Bobruysk, Belarus, in 1943). This affected our family deeply. Still does (unconsciously for the most part). My grandmother (Leah) cried about it for as long as I knew her, and there was always a hole.

For that reason among others, my mother no doubt saw Lev as a figure to admire. My mother was an extremely practical and detail-oriented person. However, she deeply valued people with imagination and vision. And Lev Gleason had that in spades.

Above is a photograph of Lev autographed for my mom and another photo of her with Lev and the staff of Lev Gleason Publications: mom is the one in the middle with the black top; Lev Gleason is the man with the glasses at the far left.

The man on the far right of the photo (to the the right of the woman whose name I don’t know) is Charles Biro, who created the comic book characters, Air Boy and Steel Sterling, and edited Daredevil Comics. He saw comic books as “illustories,” the forerunner of our graphic novels. He’s a major figure in graphic arts and editing.  Stan Lee was asked about his success at Marvel Comics, he said “The secret is Charles Biro” (with whom he spoke by telephone on a regular basis): Here’s more on Charles Biro: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Biro

In Crime Does Not Pay (1942-1945), Gleason and Biro had artists and writers interview real criminals. Though standard operating practice now for crime writers, this was groundbreaking at the time.

The man directly to the right of my mom is Bob Wood, a talented artist who worked for Lev Gleason on many of his comic book series and helped to created the Crime Does Not Pay series. Wood became most famous for murdering his girlfriend Violette Phillips in 1958 and going to Sing Sing for it.

If anyone knows who either of the other two people are, I would appreciate the information.

For more on Gleason, see the following items:

http://harvardmagazine.com/2011/05/leverett-gleason

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lev_Gleason_Publications

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daredevil_(Lev_Gleason_Publications)http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silver_Streak_(comics)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_Does_Not_Pay_(comics)

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Technically my mother was a secretary. According to one of my sisters, she talked about doing menial things, such as retrieving staff dry cleaning and lunch. However, my mother was one of those organizer types, a take-charge kind of person and was extremely sociable. She was magnetic and would walk into a room, and everyone would gravitate toward her, as the photo suggests.  She was the type of person who could organize big events, pull a lot of details together, and make everything work. If she were born now, she would probably end up a CEO. Obviously, that wasn’t possible in those days.

In spite of her extroversion, she was an excellent listener and very private. She did not talk about herself a lot and used her outgoing nature very discreetly. One would never know what was going on inside her, and she would never spill a secret.

What she told me and what I remember is vague. She was also not a person who bragged at all or talked about private matters.  So I wouldn’t take this for fact. But she suggested indirectly to me that she shouldered some responsibility for the business, financial side of things. She may have helped keep the trains running, as some might say, and kept the books straight. She also was a social butterfly who I believe organized some of the parties and get-togethers there.

From what I can gather, Lev was not exactly adept at business, but my mother would have been. She would certainly have helped out in that way. I assume that Lev Gleason Publications comprised an extremely artistic, creative group of people. Mom was very attracted to those kind of people, and she would have wanted to organize them and make things work more effectively. She looked at artists, scholars, inventors as people to manage and keep on track. Of course, she was probably also doing all the things a secretary and female employee did in those days, a lot of which was grunt work.

My mother always mentioned that she brought Lev food and a little money to Lev in jail and that he was destitute for some time. At least, that’s what I thought. I asked my wife, Dianne Bazell, again whether she heard my mother say this, and she said that she had. So it’s not just my own memory here. My mother was not the type to exaggerate or embellish. If anything, her personality would lead her to minimize something like this. She played things down more than she played things up.

But I realize this doesn’t fit with what we know about Lev Gleason. All the stuff I’ve read (cursorily, I admit) mentions nothing about jail or prison. And there’s nothing about poverty. One of my sisters does not recall hearing about any of this from mom. I recognize that there’s something that doesn’t jibe here and hope that more information will come to light.

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Charlotte Kant: 1928-2012

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My mom circa 1946: Charlotte (“Lotte”) Kaplan, 1928-2012.

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