The Wall at the Sugar Factory
“I had no answers for Elta. None that would be truthful, anyway….. I knew that we needed a home. My daughter needed to live in a place where she wouldn’t have to live in constant terror. A home where she wouldn’t have to be fearful that murderers might come for her in the middle of the night. Where people didn’t hate her…..”
So thinks Shaindel, a main character in Sherry Ostrioff’s excellent historical novel, The Wall At The Sugar Factory, based on her own family’s history. Shaindel and her daughter survived a pogrom, a government or military orchestrated violent attack on Jews. Shaindel’s husband and most men in her village were murdered by the Russian and Ukrainian military. Women and girls were raped and murdered, homes looted and burned. Fear was in the air. Shaindel had hoped that a mother and child would not be targets. But she knew better.
Part of my family was from the Ukraine, coming to the US in the 1880’s. None had a good memory to share.
Shaindel’s home was destroyed, her husband murdered at the wall at the sugar factory. She and her 3-year old daughter were homeless, afraid and uncertain of their future. When her daughter, Elta, asked when they will go home, Shaindel didn’t know what to answer. They had no home.
Author Sherry Ostroff shared, “Think about my grandmother, Shaindel (on whom the character Shaindel is based). She was born around 1880. The pogroms started in Russia in 1881 with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Shaindel probably heard about pogroms her entire life, but it wasn't until the murder of her husband, when she was in her early 40's, did she realize it was time to get out. She almost missed the boat - literally.”
The narration was mostly divided between Shaindel and her search for a safe home, and her sister Chava, who had already immigrated to New York. Life in the US wasn’t always the goldene medina, the land of golden opportunity, as it was rife with prejudice against the Jews and other immigrants. However, one’s life was not threatened daily, as it was in Eastern Europe.
This was an era of burgeoning nationalism movements. The Nazis (National Socialist Workers Party) and the Marxist groups of Lenin and later, Stalin were part of this trend. European borders changed from the smaller Medieval and Renaissance boundaries, reformed after WWI into new territories. New countries were configured, as Pakistan was carved out of India and Israel and Jordan from the Palestine of the Ottoman Empire.
Socialism was on the rise. The Russian Tsars fell with violence, the socialist revolutionaries promising freedom and equality. Neither was delivered. The history of countries that were or are communist or socialist are studies in governments that have taken away civil rights, voting rights and economic rights—few choices in one’s life. The choices available were uncertain at best and most often dangerous.
Sherry told me about the strength of her mother, grandmother and aunt. “In regard to The Wall at the Sugar Factory, writing the book, allowed me to understand how truly strong my grandmother, mother, and my aunt were. …[T]hey were all immensely determined woman, and I am grateful for each. We have a saying in Judaism that if you save a life, you save a world. My grandmother, mother and aunt saved my world.”
America gave choices and freedoms for Sherry’s family and characters and for millions who came legally to these shores. In her concluding remarks, Sherry mentioned that some historians date the Holocaust’s beginning to 1918 or earlier because of the many pogroms that occurred in Eastern Europe. One wonders whether the violence of Hamas against the Israelis, mostly Jewish, some Muslim and Christian, on October 7 and the subsequent rise in hatred against Jews is predictive of a Jewish future fraught with danger and violence, as the pogroms were at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century were a dark omen for the Holocaust.
Sherry wrote to me, “I think the October 7th massacre in Israel was definitely a pogrom. We, the present living generation, who only heard about pogroms from our mother's and grandmother's laps, now got to see one in real time. It was scary as hell.
“I've read many books on the pogroms from 1918-1921, and the parallels are all there: the debasement of women, the torture of forcing families to watch their relatives attacked and murdered, the disregard for age and sex. It's all the same play-book….
“For historians, and I consider myself one, it is frighteningly frustrating.”
Shaindel packs a suitcase filled with apple strudel for her ane for Elta to eat on the voyage to America. What would be more appropriate for the recipe to accompany this novel?