As the tradition goes, the center of many Jewish households is the kitchen. And for Judith Ginsburg, hers was no exception.
She took pride in her vibrant, tight-knit family piling around the table, sharing laughs and smiles and food — by far and away her love language — and it was there that her granddaughter, Shira, first heard her Bubby’s stories about World War II.
In fact, she can’t imagine a time that she hasn’t known them — or when she started to realize they were unique.
“Like any other child, you don’t know that you’re different, that anything is different, until you get a little bit older and you start to see yourself in the context of the rest of the world,” Shira Ginsburg said during a telephone interview. “So for me, it was just what I knew — until I started telling people my grandparents were in the woods in the war, and they were like, ‘What do you mean, like, camping?’”
Not quite. As teenagers, Judith Ginsburg and her husband, Motke, lived for years in the forests of Belarus, serving as resistance fighters against the Nazi regime.
Inspired by their story, Ms. Ginsburg, who is a cantor at East End Temple in Manhattan, wrote a one-woman musical, “Bubby’s Kitchen” — a story of loss, survival, family and, of course, food — that she will stage on Saturday night at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.
“Every time I do the show, I can’t believe that people are seeking me out to tell these stories,” she said, “how lucky I am that I get to perpetuate this legacy of these incredible people and their incredible stories, because there are so many stories that have been lost.”
Between 1941 and 1945, 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, eradicating two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population. Many died in mass shootings, gas chambers and extermination camps, largely Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bełżec, Chełmno, Majdanek, Sobibór, and Treblinka.
“A lot of people who survived camps are sort of ashamed by what they had to do to survive and didn’t speak as much about their survival,” Ms. Ginsburg said. “But people who were hidden or people who were able to fight did speak a lot about it, so I grew up hearing stories all the time.”
On January 6, 1925, Judith Ginsburg was born Yudis Kosczzanska in Lida, Poland — now Belarus — as one of five children to her parents. Two years into the Holocaust, her sister, brother-in-law and their two children were the only other members of their family who had survived, living together in a ghetto.
The Nazis came on September 22, 1943, and ordered the Jews to walk to the train station. While they were standing in line, Judith caught the eye of a soldier and asked him where they were taking them. Without answering, he commented that she was so young and pretty, tears pooling in his eyes.
Then, he took the yellow Star of David off her clothing, and told her to run.
“I looked at my sister, holding her baby,” Ms. Ginsburg says, portraying her grandmother in the musical. “She said, ‘Run! One of us must survive.’”
Judith grabbed her friend by the hand and, in a split-second decision, they jumped a fence and fled, shots being fired all around them. They hid in a hole in the ground as her family boarded the train destined for Majdanek. She never saw them again.
Once the screaming and shooting stopped, the two girls ran again, eventually knocking on a door seeking refuge. A Polish woman answered and tried to turn them away until her husband, a local shoemaker, insisted they stay. After all, he told them, he had learned his craft from a Jewish man.
He offered to marry Judith to his brother, while hiding her friend, but the girls refused. They had heard rumors of Jewish resistance fighters, or Partisans, in the woods, and they wanted to join them. The next day, they did.
Judith was 16 years old — and those woods became her home for the next two years.
She fought as a member of both the Raschinsky and Bielski Paritsan units, and in 1945, she married Motke Ginsburg, also a Partisan who fought in the Russian unit, Iskra. They blew up bridges and trains with handmade bombs, creating their own liberation before being liberated.
At the end of the war, they were two of 30,000 Jews — out of hundreds of thousands of Partisans — who emerged from the forests. They spent four years in Ferenvald, a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, where they had their first two children before immigrating to Troy, New York, in 1949. There, they had two more children, started a dairy farm, and became the heart of Jewish life there.
“It was my grandparents’ mission to rebuild a family,” Ms. Ginsburg said. “They both came from big families, and to be together was the ultimate joy.”
There wasn’t a day that, as a girl, Ms. Ginsburg didn’t find herself on the farm working, socializing, or eating. Up until eighth grade, she attended the Hebrew Academy of the Capital District, and soon realized that her family was not like the other farmers, or any of the other Jews.
And when she transferred to Troy High School, she suddenly found herself as one of seven Jewish students, out of about 1,400.
“I was this token Jew and I did have people ask me if I had horns,” she said. “I realized pretty early on, ‘Okay, I’m gonna have to be the one who teaches people about Jews.’”
She discovered that there was both power and responsibility in owning not only her story, but that of her family. While earning her master’s degree in cantorial ordination at Hebrew Union College, she knew she needed to tell it — by way of a musical for her senior recital.
And she called it “Bubby’s Kitchen” — named for the place where she had learned how to love and be loved, and to be a Jewish woman. It’s where her life began, she said.
“A lot of what the show is about is how you piece those stories together, how ultimately they weave together to create your own life and how you decide to take hold of that legacy — not let it take hold of you,” she said. “You say, ‘I own these stories and I need to perpetuate this legacy and I need to actually become myself.’ I can’t just live in the shadow of these stories, either.”
Since her first performance in 2009, the show has taken on a life of its own, explained Ms. Ginsburg, who has booked and toured it across the country by word of mouth only — playing to both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike. In fact, one of the first houses she performed was a church, she said, at the request of its pastor.
“We are supposed to bear witness to survivors and their stories, so that it can never happen again,” Ms. Ginsburg said. “With the rise of anti-semitism and so much hatred and so much vitriol in the world right now, I think it’s more important than ever to tell the truth, to tell the stories.”
Today, Judith Ginsburg is 96 years old and lives in Coconut Creek, Florida. She is the proud Bubby to 10 grandchildren — and 10 more great-grandchildren — and wrote a letter to her granddaughter about five years ago, after watching her musical play off-Broadway.
In it, she says: “Words cannot express how humbled I am that you feel my life has had such an impact on yours. Thank you for seeing to it that our stories be told and our family remembered. I was hopeful after the Holocaust that my legacy would be my family and the good they would contribute to the world. You, my darling Shira, have fulfilled those hopes of mine.”
As published in the Southampton Press