By Jackie Shimshoni
When folks hear my last name (Shimshoni), after giving a blank look and asking how that’s spelled, there’s inevitably one of two reactions. If the person is American, they will guess it is some sort of Native American (a la Shoshone tribe) or Asian. If the person I’m talking to is Israeli, they will give me a broad smile of recognition and say, “ahh, that is a very Israeli name”. The second category of individual is correct.
My very Israeli name is matched only by my very Israeli father, who moved to America in his mid-twenties and could easily have a book or five written about him and his misadventures. Unlike my mom, who, when you ask about her ethnic background, will reach back to the time of her paternal great grandparents and tell you “Italian”, if you talk to my dad about his background he will say “Israeli”. This is in spite of the fact that his mother (who I’ve mentioned in previous posts) is Tunisian and his paternal grandparents moved to that area after generations of living in the Ukraine in a tight-knit Ashkenazi community, changing the last name from “Davidovich” to our very Israeli name of “Shimshoni”.
My dad, for all his misadventures that could fill five books, is unique in how you get information from him. He will tell you a story without hesitation, but only if you ask the right questions–so, for example, I learned in adulthood that when he was a kid he briefly had a pet donkey. How did he never tell us he had a pet donkey?! We all asked. “Well,” he said, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world, “because you never asked.” Yes dad, because a donkey is a totally typical pet to think to ask you about.
Anyway, I consider myself deeply invested in ancestry, but because ISRAEL factors so prominently into how I think about my dad’s side, it’s taken me longer to unearth the subtleties of a family that only moved to that region within the last century. Since I started working at the Holocaust Center, I’ve been learning a lot of new questions to ask, and it’s really helping me start to learn more about my own family.
Recently I finished reading Father Desbois’s The Holocaust by Bullets, which is all about the mass murders and graves of 1.5 million Jews in the Ukraine. It differs from the mainstream narrative of central Europe, and it’s a critical and long overdue piece of the horrifying, huge puzzle of the Nazi’s many crimes. But because of everything I’ve described to you, it took me about halfway through the book before I realized, with a sickening blow in my gut, that this was the story of my family.
I looked back at a family tree of my extended family members that an uncle has painstakingly worked to reconstruct, and sure enough, while I always assumed my family on that side had been “safe” because they moved to British Mandate of Palestine in the 1920s, in fact you can see that every family member who stayed in the Ukraine–my great great grandfather, most of my great grandmother’s siblings and nieces and nephews–had all been murdered. I spent hours scrolling through the Yad Vashem website finding every little scrap of information I could find about them. There wasn’t much, only that they were all hanged in Odessa in 1941. The oldest was 70 and the youngest was 10.
Armed with a new question to ask, I asked my dad if the mass graves described in Holocaust by Bullets was our story. His reply, via text, was: “My knowledge of the family in Europe is very limited. From what Saba [my grandfather, his father] said, all of them perished in the Holocaust. Those who moved to Israel in time survived.”
The land now known as Israel is the reason that my great grandparents escaped the massacre that their families did not–and they presumably left everything they knew because of the series of anti-Jewish pogroms that took place there before that. Small wonder that Israel, rather than Ukraine, was a land that felt like home to them.
Lynne Ravas, one of our volunteers who comes in to speak about her family’s history, starts her story by saying “every one of the stories of survival from the Holocaust is unique and important.” When I started this job five months ago, I barely knew that I had a story at all. After all, I did not grow up hearing about camps, or the central European experience that one is taught in school. My grandparents did not have numbers tattooed on their arms. But if there’s one thing I have learned about the Holocaust, it is that this story affects the Jewish people–really, all people–in so many more ways than your high school social studies class would have you believe.
This weekend at the Holocaust Center we’re having a talk on Aliyah Bet, which is all about the illegal efforts of Jews to escape the Holocaust in Europe to start their new lives in Israel. This migration effort took place after the Davidovich-Shimshoni’s left the Ukraine; however, researching it has helped me to learn about the numerous Aliyahs that preceded it, including my family’s.
I’m in the process of working with my dad to learn more about our history. As with every event that we have here, I am excited to see how this one will help me to find more of the right questions to ask.