Tuesday, May 26, 2020

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I am from Pittsburgh. In fact I was born and raised in Squirrel Hill. I was extremely sad and heartbroken when on Sunday morning I turned on CNN and saw the list of names of the victims of the Tree of Life masacre. Sylvan and Bernice Simon, the couple that was killed in shul on Shabbat, were my stepbrother and stepsister-in-law! In about 1957 my widowed father married Sylvan’s widowed mother Rose. I was about 14 years old at the time. Sylvan and Bernice had been married at least a year earlier and when I met them Bernice was expecting their first child, Michelle. They had four children in total, Michelle, Marc, Michael and Martin...the 4 M’s. I was the family babysitter.

We spent holidays at their house, Pesach seders, Thanksgiving etc. Bernice, whose father was a baker, used to bake up a storm. As a teenager I remember every nook and cranny of her kitchen covered in baked goods cooling off from the oven: cookies, cakes, pies. She was an incredible baker. She was also a registered nurse trained at Montefiore Hospital, the Jewish hospital in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I used to be a volunteer like a candy striper at this hospital while in high school and then would visit with Sylvan’s grandmother who lived in Oakland across the street from the hospital.

Sylvan worked as an accountant until he retired. I remember my stepmother, Rose, telling me the following story about Sylvan. He was about to graduate from high school. He must have attended the local high school in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh since he and his mother were living at his grandmother’s house. There were few Jewish kids in his class. The Korean conflict broke out about that time. The boys in his class challenged Sylvan, as one of the few Jews in the class, to enlist. Sylvan was not about to take any of their guff. So not only did he enlist, he enlisted in the paratroopers. When his mother found out she was beside herself. Besides being her only child, the idea of him jumping out of airplanes and into a war zone was almost too much to accept. Sylvan did his training, he jumped out of airplanes many times, loosing watches from the wind factor on the way down. But the armistice was signed before he could be shipped out to Korea. It was a breathtaking tale.

My granddaughter’s name is Stella Rose. The Rose is for Sylvan’s mother, my stepmother. She was the only bubbie my kids knew. She was a very gentle woman whose parents were from Europe. For many years she would come out to California and visit in June/July for two weeks. We would stay in Berkeley and tour San Francisco and the second week we would load the car and drive up to Lake Tahoe. She loved Lake Tahoe. When I visited the family in Pittsburgh I was always introduced as her daughter, not her stepdaughter, and my children as her grandchildren.

I never met Rose’s father, Sylvan’s grandfather, who was an Orthodox rabbi and shochet. I did meet her mother, who spoke about three words of English, if that. Her language was Yiddish. Very frum. We would have Friday night dinner at her house while my father was dating her daughter. I remember the chicken soup was especially rich. When she could no longer live on her own, she moved in with us and shared my bedroom. You can see by this history of a family that it was really no different than any other Jewish family of Squirrel Hill. It was a Jewish family living a Jewish life in a Jewish neighborhood. That’s all it was...but growing up in Squirrel Hill was special to me. I have always looked back fondly of those years. It’s sad to lose such wonderful people. I will always miss Sylvan and Bernice because they were family. And I will mourn the others murdered by the vitriolic hatred that is festering in our country. This should never have happened and it should never have happened in Squirrel Hill.

Joan Brunswick