Barbara Balaj

If there is going to be a world…

“If there is going to be a world, we can replace these things. If there is not going to be a world, then these things don’t matter,” said Sima to Manya, her youngest daughter, as she looked on bewildered and frightened by the selling of household goods when World War II broke out.

Then the evacuation began as the war came closer. With preparations to leave underway, Sima suddenly began to take the family belongings off the train, telling her husband, Zalman, “If I’m going to die, I will die in my own home.” As he was about to be conscripted into the Soviet army, Zalman pleaded with her, “Sima, please go, if you don’t, you will regret it the rest of your life.”

Why did my grandmother, Sima, choose not to leave? The question rises, hovers and haunts over the years and generations. Evacuation was no promise of security, safety and sustenance, but it offered a chance — perhaps the only chance — of survival.

Sima Bogomolny Waskobujnik and Zalman Waskobujnik (image courtesy of author)

A possible answer and more questions emerged during my research into our family history. I knew that Sima’s parents, my maternal great-grandparents, Chana-Rivka and Itzhak Bogomolny, had been killed during a pogrom shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. However, research findings from a 1923 report by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) following their visit to Teplik, Ukraine, where the family lived, revealed a far more devastating history.

Between 1919 and 1922, there had been not one — but 17 pogroms in Teplik. The 1919 pogrom by the Petliura, the first of two pogroms perpetrated by them that year, lasted 10 days, killing 300 people, including Sima’s parents. According to the JDC report, “It is indeed difficult to describe the horrors and suffering which the people of Teplik lived through and the butchery they had to witness. It can be said that not one Jewish family escaped; in fact, some families were entirely massacred and wiped out.”[1]  Some 500 Jews were killed during the series of pogroms, resulting in 300 orphaned children, among them, Sima and her four siblings. How old were they? What did they see and experience? Where did they go? Who took care of them?

Having lived through this horror, and then facing a war, Sima’s decision not to evacuate becomes more complicated and incomprehensible. Did she fear that in fleeing, she could encounter worse? Did she have faith that after having survived so much, she could do so again? Or was it some kind of trauma-induced fatalism? Who can say? Who can judge? Who would dare to judge?

As I reconstructed and built the family trees, I found that the Bogomolny tree, my maternal grandmother’s family, was entirely hollowed out. From Sima, her four siblings and their 11 children, only three people had survived: my mother, Manya, Uncle Elik and his son, Isaac (the only one of Elik’s four children to survive). The price of their survival would be unimaginable.

As the only member of her immediate family to survive, my mother, Manya, would be left alone as a 12-year-old child — a second, orphaned generation.

Maria Balaj Obituary (2017) - Farmington Hills, MI - Detroit Free Press
Manya Waskobujnik Balaj (image courtesy of author)

Perhaps like many children of Holocaust survivors, I often dreamed and wished that someone, somewhere, somehow had survived. The feeling lessened, fading with time — but a tiny hope persisted. A miracle, long in coming, awaited.

In 2021, a woman in Israel contacted me saying that she thought we were related. Unbeknownst to me, three of my mother’s first cousins – Moshe, Pesach/Peter and Chana, the children of her Uncle Chaim (Sima’s brother) and Aunt Leah Bogomolny — had survived the war by evacuating to Kazakhstan, and then later resettling in Ukraine and Moldova. They lost touch with my mother after receiving a last letter from her in 1945, saying that she had survived, married and would be leaving the Soviet Union and going west.

Chaim and Leah Bogomolny (image courtesy of author)

Upon arriving in Israel in the early 1990s, my mother’s first cousin, Moshe, began to search for her anew, placing notices in the newspaper and on the radio. He did not know her married name or where she had gone. He searched for her for 70 years. After his death, his children continued to search and found me.

A branch of the Bogomolny tree is flourishing, with many new generations, as I discovered at the wedding of the great-grandson of Uncle Chaim in Israel during a first, emotional meeting with my extended family. In my dear cousins, Liza, Menashe, and Igor, and in many of their children and grandchildren, I see the visage of my grandmother, Sima, filling me with joy and wonder.

Yes, Babushka Sima, there is a world.

Reunited at a family wedding in Israel (image courtesy of author)

1] American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Report on Teplik. Podolsk Gubernia.

About the Author
Barbara S. Balaj, PhD, lives in Washington, D.C., where she is Consultant for the World Bank Group, a United Nations specialized agency, initially created to rebuild countries devastated by World War II. The World Bank now provides loans, grants and technical assistance to over 100 developing countries around the world.
Related Topics
Related Posts