Prolific Judy comes from a long line of strong women


PROFESSOR Judy Baumel Schwartz, who specialises in women in Jewish history at Bar Ilan University, comes from a long line of strong Jewish women.

Her great-great-grandmother, Malka Scharf of Mihowa, Bukovina, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was widowed at the age of 35, with 10 children and a farm to run.

Prolific author Judy - who has penned 10 books about the Holocaust, Zionism and the State of Israel, plus a biography of her late Holocaust survivor father - is to publish, later this year, My Name is Freida Sima, the story of her late maternal grandmother.

In it, she describes how shortly after she was weaned, baby Freida Sima was sent to newly-widowed Malka to "distract her from her loss, knowing how much she adored babies", although she already had so many of her own under 16.

Judy writes about her great-great-grandmother: "Malka was surprisingly independent. Knowing the importance of being able to cope on her own, she taught her children not only homesteading and farm skills, but also to speak their minds and follow their dreams."

Malka's female descendants certainly did that, whatever the challenges. Having learned how to milk a cow and other farming skills, at the age of five, Freida Sima returned to her parents who had, in the meantime, given birth to another girl and a boy.

As the eldest child in a rapidly-growing family, Freida Sima was taught by her father Nachman to help on his farm by riding his horse bareback, roping cows and climbing trees to bring the best apples from the top branches.

Freida Sima began attending cheder at the age of five. According to Austro-Hungarian law, the cheder was obliged to teach secular subjects, even to girls for a fee.

By the time Freida Sima was 10 and hooked on learning as much as she could, Nachman decided that his priority was providing an education for his three sons and told his daughters that their cheder days were over.

Devastated, Freida Sima suggested that she and her eight-year-old sister Marium took alternative days to go to cheder and help their mother at home so her father would only have to spend one set of fees.

This arrangement worked until after Freida Sima was batmitzvah when Nachman, who was then a head lumberjack, was transferred to Kresy, in the forests of East Galicia, where the Jews were poorer and much more illiterate than in their previous home.

In Kresy, it was almost unknown for a girl to study. However, for a sum the teacher would allow even a girl to sit at the back of his class and Freida Sima managed to persuade her parents to allow her to do that.

But a year later Freida Sima began to worry that her father would soon want to marry her off. Her mother had been married at only 15.

Her only hope was to escape. She suggested to her father that at the 15, she should go alone to America in order to make money for her large family. He agreed.

Freida Sima, who became Bertha when she landed in America in 1911, hoped to study as well as work in America, but she never had the opportunity.

She worked, first as a nanny and then in a handbag factory, sending money to bring over her brothers. She did not marry till she was 32, when she met her husband, Mordche, a Communist. They argued all evening at a party at the end of which he asked her to marry him.

Judy told me: "He stayed an atheist and she stayed religious. He was a widower with four teenage sons. My grandmother was a stepmother as soon as she married."

Judy added: "My grandmother was definitely a very strong influence on me and my mother. She was a remarkable woman.

"My mother was also pretty strong. She always used to say that she couldn't step into her mother's footsteps. But when she and my father married, they went out to the Midwest for two years when my father was the general manager of a gold and uranium mining company.

"My mother, as a new bride, found herself in Rapid City, South Dakota, where there were two Jews, 100 whites, 1,000 Indians and 50,000 head of cattle.

"My father started Shabbat services. My mother asked where he would find Jews. Out of the woodwork, people came from all over to the services. My father never asked any questions how they got there.

"My mother used to make a kiddush for the children. A whole bunch of children became Orthodox as a result."

Freida Sima made aliya with daughter Shirley, her Holocaust survivor son-in-law Yechezkel Tydor and Judy when the latter was 15.

Judy said: "My grandmother's great disappointment was that she never got to study in her life. But she realised it through her children and grandchildren. My mother went to school and was the first girl in the family to get a college degree.

"Then I went to Bar Ilan University. My grandmother lived long enough to see me study for my PhD. She was no longer with us when I got my doctorate, but she knew I was going for it and she was thrilled."

Judy, who has been teaching at Bar Ilan for 20 years, heads its school of basic Jewish studies, specialising in the history of women in the Holocaust and the State of Israel.

She admitted that the strong maternal influences in her family probably influenced her choice of speciality.

But she added: "I was lucky. I had both strong maternal and paternal traditions. I got it from both sides."

Judy has already published a biography of her late father, The Incredible Adventures of Buffalo Bill of Bochnia.

Her father was born in Bochnia, Poland. Together with his family, he escaped Poland to Germany during World War One.

He married his first wife Bertha in Frankfurt. They had a daughter and a son.

In 1938, Yechezkel was deported to Poland, but Bertha remained behind in Frankfurt. Fearing for the lives of her children Camilla and Manfred, she sent them on the Kindertransport to Belgium where they were taken in by foster families, who fled to France on the Nazi invasion in 1940.

From there, they were miraculously taken by the Quakers to America in 1941. They are both still alive.

Meanwhile, Yechezkel had returned to Germany on the promise of a British visa, which did not arrive before he was taken to Buchenwald and later Auschwitz.

Bertha meanwhile had fled back to her parents in Poland and was killed in the Bochnia Ghetto.

Yechezkel survived the concentration camps to help found a hachshara kibbutz in Germany set up by a unified group of young Zionists across the religious spectrum from Aguda to Bnei Akiva and Hashomer Hatzair in which kashrut and Shabbat were observed in all the public areas.

In 1945, he went to Jerusalem, but kept commuting to America to be re-united with his children, eventually settling in New York.

He didn't remarry till he was 54, waiting for his children to marry first. Shirley was 25 years his junior.

So where did Buffalo Bill of the book's title come in?

"When I was little I used to go to shul with my father," Judy explained. "He would keep me quiet at about the age of four by telling me stories about an imaginary person called Buffalo Bill from Bochnia, who fought all the people who were trying to hurt the Jews.

"I always thought that that was my father fighting the Nazis. My father was a hero to me. When I decided to study history, I chose to write about the Holocaust for my first subject."

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph