An Ornate Desk, Family History and the Jewish Past
This article first appeared in Washington Post. You can read it on their site here, or below:
My mother’s desk connected me with our shared heritage
In the mid-1920s, a group of Jewish woodworking students in Warsaw made two elaborate desks as centerpieces of traveling exhibits to show off their skills and seek more funding. The Jewish community in Poland, a nation newly independent in the wake of World War I, was extremely poor, so a group called the Organization for Rehabilitation Through Training (ORT) had opened technical schools in Warsaw (among other programs) to teach skilled trades to Polish Jews. Although ORT is a European organization, much of its funding came from prosperous American Jewish communities. They shipped one desk, part of a “suite for a man’s study,” to ORT headquarters in Berlin, and it is now in London, where the organization is currently based.
They sent the other one on tour to New York. And on a cold day in late March, two long-haired guys from Nebraska carried that second desk from their U-Haul through my front door and installed it in my living room.It’s new to my house, but it’s always been part of my life, a landmark in my mental map of all the homes I lived in as a kid. When I was 7 or 8 and I wanted to pretend I was in some mysterious castle or wizard’s cave, especially if the winter meant I was stuck inside, I’d crawl under what we always called “the Belle desk.” It’s a grand wooden contraption, with intricate carvings of scrolls, grapevines and for some reason palm trees, a modesty screen (so you can’t see legs from the other side) shaped somewhat like a menorah in the middle, and a center drawer full of foreign coins, letter openers and other treasures. My mom and dad used the desk to handle the household bills. When my sister and I were young, my mother told me later, she would sit at the desk and cry as she tried to balance the checkbook. It was only after Mom died in 2018 that its contents became our generation’s business, a place to store bills and a checkbook, to build a support structure to preserve Dad’s independence for as long as possible.“Belle” meant Belle Moskowitz, my maternal great-grandmother and a legend in New York City politics. But the desk was a gift for her husband, Henry, my step-great-grandfather. Henry worked in a wide array of public and private positions and is best known as one of the co-founders of the NAACP. Henry had also helped found the American branch of ORT and was chairman of its board, and our best guess is that when he retired, he either claimed the desk or was given it. In his will, he offered his daughter-in-law Irma anything she wanted from his possessions, and she chose the desk. She handed it down to her daughter Elisabeth, my mother. Mom, a historian, spent her career writing about New York City politics in the era of Henry and Belle. I understood the desk as a piece of my family history, a story to be proud of, a story my mother knew better than anyone else. What I didn’t know until I started going through files on my mom’s old computer, though, is that it came from the hands of Jewish artisans in Poland, part of an organization that employed and taught thousands of people, nearly all of whom were subsequently killed in the Holocaust.
In the 1930s, ORT ran schools across Poland, but its furniture-making program was based in Warsaw. The ORT website has a picture of a cabinet that looks a lot like our desk, with eight wood panels identical to the ones I’d run my fingers along as a child, as well as an English-language flyer announcing the display of furniture in New York and seeking funding. Of course, the story of that era of Polish Judaism has a tragic ending. After the rise of Adolf Hitler, ORT continued to try to ameliorate conditions for Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, funding a garment factory to make clothes for the inhabitants and operating vocational schools and training courses. In the 1960s a survivor, Rachel Gurman, recounted her time in the workshops, and how excited she and her fellows were that they could make a living during such hardship and terror. She described the nearsighted director, Joseph Jaszunski, who, “exhausted and depressed, would arrive at his office early each morning. … Sometimes he arrived with broken glasses, his face covered with blood. Because of his nearsightedness, he would not notice a German coming his way and so would not leave the pavement or take off his hat.” Jaszunski and his family were deported to the Treblinka death camp in January 1943, where they all died, but the ORT programs continued. Not long after, the Nazis decided to deport all the remaining Jews in the ghetto to the camps, and the residents fought back. Few survived.
As a historian, I’ve spent lots of time teaching and learning about the horrors of the past, but the Holocaust has never been specifically part of my story. My Jewish ancestors came to America in the late 19th century, the Ashkenazi branch fleeing pogroms in Lithuania and the Sephardim fleeing poverty in Holland. But the family history of this desk and the story of its origins have merged, somehow, with the recent era of personal tragedy. My mom died in 2018. I spent my last days with her doing the final edits of her book about, as she writes, “the story of the women who attended my grandmother’s [Belle’s] funeral.” It’s about the women of New York who fought for suffrage, then found ways — against great opposition — to move into political life and urban administration. Working on it, literally at her deathbed, I found myself drawn into the early-20th-century history of my family, of which this desk is a part.
My dad died this January; he had Alzheimer’s, and he fell just before New Year’s and went to sleep and never woke up. It takes months, though, to handle all the things, all the stuff, that death forces on us. Each object opens a new wound that scabs over slowly, if all, waiting for the next trigger. It was on Mom’s birthday at the end of March, just by chance, that movers arrived with some of the things my siblings and I had agreed would go to me. So now the desk sits in my house, uncomfortably wedged in a corner next to a small couch.
Can you call yourself an orphan at nearly 50? My parents are gone now, and the weight of keeping memories falls more heavily on my brother, my sister and me. To some extent, this is what it means to grow older, to be left without your elders. It’s easy to feel adrift in time, and so I return to the desk. I put my kids’ pictures on it. I tried to revise this essay sitting at it but fled to the kitchen table instead. I left a medical bill sitting on its surface, a promise to return later.Objects carry their past with them as they move. We can’t, and shouldn’t try, to shed their weight. Surely the students and teachers in Poland never dreamed that this desk would rest in a Minnesota house, its itinerary strange and unlikely, but it’s here. To use it to manage my family finances or even write essays and books is not, in the big scheme of things, important. But to let it sit forgotten would be shameful. The act of remembering, then telling new stories without erasing those memories, is very much what it means to me to be Jewish. It’s what it means to me to be human. Facing death and destruction, we can bind the long stories of struggle to the small stories of our individual lives, loves and losses.
By David Perry