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Oh, Brother

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

"New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings." -Lao Tzu

Droves of immigrants press down the gangway of the SS Marine Tiger jamming the pier. They search through piles of trunks and suitcases, then shuffle through long lines to wait for the Customs inspector. A stampede of feet pounds the American ground and amplifies the tension and excitement. Each step forward sheds a bit of burden from the past, clearing the way for new beginnings.

The date is February 14, 1949. In my mind, I watch as Shmuel, my future father-in-law, scans the crowds. At last, he motions to his wife Sabina.

“Kime aher!” he shouts in Yiddish. Come here!

With high hopes, they approach a man who Shmuel presumes is his brother; though after so many years of separation, he could just as well be a stranger. Practically an entire generation sets them apart—Shmuel being the youngest of thirteen siblings and his brother Motl the oldest. Motl’s hair is thin and streaked with grey. Dressed impeccably in a suit and tie and a white short-sleeved dress shirt despite the winter’s cold, his clothing style can be described as “snazzy.” I picture Shmuel staring at Motl’s leather lace-up Oxfords with the precise attention of a shoemaker. They are polished to a shiny black, the uppers finely stitched.

No doubt Shmuel’s own wardrobe looks shlock by comparison. My husband Paul confesses that his father used to dress like a grine—an Eastern European greenhorn—in clashing colors and mismatched patterns. It was embarrassing. By contrast, Sabina was more style-conscious. I would expect her to wear her best clothes for their New York arrival; though after six days on rough seas, she probably looks tousled and in need of a bath.

Shmuel asks the man, “Bis tu mein brider, Motl?”

“Shmuel? Ya, it’s me, your brother!” Motl answers at the top of his voice in a mix of Yiddish and English.

They wrap their arms in a hard embrace. Paul confirms my impression of his father’s eyes dripping with tears, his voice cracking with emotion.

Shmuel steps back to introduce his wife and child, little Avrum. “Mein weib Sabina un mein zin Avrumele.”

His brother winks at the toddler and grins at Sabina with characteristic charm. “My name is Max.”

Sabina had learned a little English as a librarian in her native city of Warsaw, and she adjusts to his American name with grace. To Shmuel, though, his brother forever remains Motl.

According to a story that Paul’s older brother Avrum heard from their father, what starts as a sweet welcome and affectionate reunion of two brothers abruptly turns sour and hostile. An argument breaks out between Shmuel and Motl within minutes. What they argued about, Avrum was never certain. But it seems that Motl had distanced himself from the family he left behind in Poland—not just geographically, but emotionally. He is not at all interested in hearing about the anguish and suffering of his closest relatives at the hand of Hitler. When Motl makes an offhanded remark about their brother Chaim who died during the Holocaust, the quarrel gets heated. Shmuel is infuriated by Motl’s lack of sympathy. True, Motl had responded to his family’s need for resettlement and sponsored their arrival into the United States. But brushing off their tragic losses feels like one more stab to Shmuel’s bleeding heart. For the rest of his life, Shmuel could neither forgive nor forget those who turned their backs on the victims of the Holocaust. He later wrote, “Those who could and did not help us were informed and knew of our plight. We remember the indifference of the world.”

Despite their differences, Shmuel and Motl have no other surviving relatives and cling to one another as family. Motl and his wife Ethel generously share their Brooklyn apartment with Shmuel, Sabina, and Avrum until Shmuel can afford to rent a one-bedroom flat for his expanding household. In October 1950, twenty months after arriving in New York, Sabina gives birth to their second son, my husband Paul.

I think of the events that bring Paul’s parents to this moment. They had endured the deepest depths of agony. They outlived the darkest years of history. They will now plant the family’s legacy in a land of hope and promise. The words of the 20th-century Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos could not ring truer:

“They tried to bury us—they didn’t know we were seeds.”

by Sharon Citrin Goldstein

Sharon Citrin Goldstein is an ordained Cantor who has expressed her creative passions through multiple careers as an educator, business entrepreneur, vocalist, and program coordinator for the Anti-Defamation League. Her family memoirs have been featured in Moment Magazine,, Ancestor Strong, and Short Edition where she was a short-story finalist.

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