Bryna Dvorkin Krasner sits like royalty next to her king, husband Mordechai, also known as Mottel. She wears no crown, only the traditional matron’s sheitl (wig) to ensure she’s unattractive to other men. Her eyelids draw heavy curtains over eyes that perhaps have seen too much and cannot absorb this strange city of Newark, New Jersey. She wears tightly pleated black taffeta with seven tightly strung strands of white beads around her high collar. Seven strands for the seven children she has given birth to?
Her lack of teeth—no false teeth for her—accentuates her high cheekbones. She is all about tradition. Yet, she has been known to consistently lie about her age to U.S. Census enumerators. After more than a decade in America, she is now younger, so she says, than she was when she arrived (at sixty). Gray tufts of hair peak out from under the wig and her eyebrows have nearly disappeared into the deep lines of her face. It could well be that she never actually knew her age for certain. When other women at sixty might have been thinking about their final days, Bryna instead may have said, “Mottel, grab the featherbed and the candlesticks! We’re going to America!” She and Mottel weathered the storms of the Atlantic and arrived in September 1901, too late to stop the marriage of daughter Chaike to the presumed ne’er do well, Sam Williams, who already had two daughters through previous relationships.
We only know about six of Bryna’s children: Doba, Malka, Hillel Meyer (Meyer or Mike in America), Chaike (Ida in America), Mendel (my grandfather, Max), and Hesia (Bessie in America). Of these, all but the elder two came to America. The immigrant and the American-born family members come together in a photo taken in Newark, New Jersey in 1912. Doba’s daughters are here, the eldest with her two New York-born daughters. Malka’s daughter Minnie is here, too. Meyer brought her over, but one daughter stayed behind in Russia. While Ida is not in the picture, two of her big-bowed daughters are.
In the photo, those located closest to Bryna are grandchildren and great-children, a mix of Old World and New. Within just a few years, Doba and Chaike (a.k.a. Ida) would be dead. Mottel and Bryna’s brother Chaim Ber would pass in 1915. Chaim Ber had been the first of the family to come to America, in 1886. With so many of her close family now gone, black taffeta became her staple.
Bryna becomes a fixture among her children and grandchildren. Though her daughters-in-law may find her abrupt and caustic, her grandchildren adore her. Ever in her black taffeta, she stands in for the motherless Williams children. She brims with a universal love that transcends language, although her grandchildren may well have known her Litvak dialect of Yiddish. Black taffeta means respect for the dead, respect for tradition. It’s Bryna’s job to teach it to the American grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They can ask, “Bobe, why do you wear black taffeta all the way to your neck, to your wrists, and to the ground?” She’d bring the children into an embrace, plant each one with a sloppy, toothless, wet kiss. Each would feel the silkiness and fragility of the taffeta. Bryna would say, “I need to keep these memories—my husband, my daughters, my brother—as blessings. I will remember and respect them always. I mention their names every Friday at sunset as I light the Shabbos candles. Every Yom Kippur. Every Yahrzeit of their deaths. I hope when the day comes, you’ll do the same for me.”
By 1920, Bryna is about 80 years old. Her children have (finally) married. In one photo, granddaughter Adele, named for Ida who died of post-partum hemorrhage, sits on her lap. In another photo, Adele wraps an arm about Bryna’s shoulder while her mother holds her. Ida’s daughter Nellie, now about 17, tenderly places a hand on Bryna’s shoulder. Bryna wears a sweater, American style. The sheitl has given way to a kerchief. Bryna takes the name Bertha for Newark census enumerators and city directories. But for her, a name change does not change who she is and who she needs to be.
Her children and grandchildren, that is Bryna’s world now. Having come from the unpaved streets of wooden shacks of White Russia to the wooden tenements of Newark’s Third Ward, she straddles the Old and New Worlds. Grandchildren on both sides of the Atlantic. Able to cook for one set but not another. Russia has now become the Soviet Union. Letters to family there don’t come as often as before. Bryna sees the opportunities her sons have here to own their own businesses, Meyer in tailoring and Max, in groceries and dry goods. Even Bessie had her own business.
The respect for Bryna is palpable. She rests on a chair outdoors while others stand and the camera readies. Children intuitively know whom they can trust, and Bryna’s grandchildren trust her.
Her tradition becomes especially noticeable as the 1920s proceed. The hemlines of her daughter and daughters-in-law rise above the ankles, but her own graces the dirt and grass beneath her sturdy footwear. Her taffeta blouse hangs over her bosom like a feed bag and the billowing sleeves narrow drastically at the wrist. She is tightly connected, tied tight to family and to the fleeting practices of the traditions her own grandparents taught her. In this photo, her cheekbones suggest a smile under her losses, thinking about the better future her grandchildren may bring. At least three of her great-grandchildren, myself included, are named for her. Immigration has been worth the sacrifice.
About the author
Barbara Krasner teaches in the Liberal Arts division of Mercer County Community College. She also serves as Director, Mercer Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Center. She holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a doctoral candidate in Holocaust & Genocide Studies at Gratz College outside Philadelphia.