When I was growing up, I was perpetually fascinated by matters relegated to realms unknown. Namely, this applied to such phenomena as witchcraft, psychic dreams, ESP, curses, and other related and unexplainable activity. In part, I believe that this fascination stemmed from the stories my father would make up to lull my younger siblings and me to sleep at night, as well as the folktales – some of them quite frightening – that I used to enjoy reading when I was relatively young. But mainly, I was piqued from early-on by the unusual occurrences my maternal grandmother, Tola Pszenica Pinkus (b. Warsaw, 1921-d. Chicago, 1999), related to me about her family and herself, growing up in pre-World War II Warsaw, Poland.
I always found these unusual occurrences all the more intriguing, given that my grandmother hailed from an upwardly mobile and well-educated Chasidic family that was fairly modern and well-integrated in Polish – and particularly, in Warsaw Jewish – society. Indeed, my grandmother attended Polish public schools and was on the verge of entering her final year of Gymnasium [a college preparatory high school] when World War II broke out on September 1, 1939. What’s more, her father was a polyglot who knew seven languages, a businessman, and medically-trained man who was revered for his knowledge, both by local Jewish and Gentile Polish society. Supernatural occurrences and beliefs are often associated with small-town shtetl life or those who are deemed highly emotional, impressionable, backward, and possibly also rather ignorant and/or poorly educated. These stereotypes simply did not hold sway with my grandmother or members of her family.
The accounts that I heard most frequently within the realm of “the unknown” pertained to what may be deemed the “psychic dreams” of my grandmother and some of her close Pszenica family members. Given that my grandmother had what I considered the “gift of second sight” – something that appeared to run in her paternal family – I often wondered, as a child, whether I too would ever show signs of this “gift.” On at least one occasion when I mentioned this to my grandmother, she became somewhat irritated with me and responded in her typical matter-of-fact Warsaw Yiddish and slightly-accented English: “Believe me, Rivka, you do not want or need such a gift! S’iz behopt nisht ka’ matune! (It’s no gift at all!)!” When I would then declare my grandmother a “witch” (makhasheyfe in Yiddish) – since witches are said to possess powers of the unknown – my grandmother would usually scoff at me with some of her most typical Yiddish expressions: “Hak mir nisht in shvakhn kop (aran)!” (Literally: “Don’t bang my weak head!”; figuratively: “Stop pestering me!”), “Hak mir nisht ka’ tshaynik!” (Literally: “Don’t bang the tea kettle at me!”; figuratively: “Don’t bother me!”), and “Vus redsti aza narishkaytn?!” (“What are you talking such nonsense?!”). As indicated by my grandmother’s aforementioned reactions, one might say that she viewed this “gift” as perhaps more of a curse than anything else, and that she did not consider this something worthy of my taking it as seriously as I did.
Apparently, my grandmother herself had several such unusual dreams throughout her lifetime, beginning from when she was a relatively young girl of perhaps 10, and lasting up until the 1950s – at least – in her post-World War II life in Chicago. The earliest such account that I heard numerous times (because I asked my grandmother to retell it on multiple occasions) was that of the dream that my grandmother had when she was a child and had contracted scarlet fever. As my grandmother conveyed to me, scarlet fever was a potentially fatal disease that children of that place and era (Warsaw, early 1930s) often did not survive; and those who did, were often left brain-damaged, deaf, with heart-damage, and/or a host of other lifelong maladies.
During the course of a single night, my grandmother’s temperature rose to a dangerously high level, such that the consulted doctors did not believe that she would survive this ordeal – and that if she did, she would essentially be left a “human vegetable.” As she lay in bed in a comatose-like state, my grandmother had a dream in which she witnessed her namesake, Tobe Sure Pszenica, the mother of her paternal grandfather, Rachmiel Yosef Pszenica. The first Tobe Sure (my grandmother being the second) had died relatively young, even before my grandmother’s father, Toivye Gitman, was born. Therefore, the only immediate physical witness at the time to this foremother was that of my grandmother’s grandfather. After all, there were no photos dating back that far, and I am uncertain how many photos the family had in general, given that photos were not terribly cheap, nor were they as widely accepted among Chasidic Jews (like my grandmother’s family). Indeed, when I asked my grandmother about family photos, her pragmatic and to-the-point remark was: “Ver hot dentsmul gehat gelt ts’ makhn bilder?!” (“Who had the money in those days to make photos?!”)
In the dream, my grandmother’s namesake comforted her by presenting her with some beautiful well-ripened plums, saying: “Eat these nourishing plums, my dear, and you will soon be well again. Do not be afraid” – similarly, in Warsaw Yiddish: “Es di flomen, man tayerinke, un di vest bald zan gezint. Hob nisht ka’ moyre.” My grandmother heeded her great grandmother’s words and ravenously bit into the succulent fruit. All the while, as this dream was transpiring, my great grandfather, Toivye Gitman Pszenica and a quorum of adult males stood vigilante at my grandmother’s bedside reciting Psalms throughout the night. Finally, at some point, my grandmother’s fever broke, and she awoke shouting that she had seen “Bubbe [Grandmother] Tobe Sure,” her namesake. My great grandfather was very much moved by my grandmother’s account – especially since he himself had never known this first Tobe Sure. He, in turn, related the details surrounding my grandmother’s dream to his own father, Rachmiel Yosef, the son of the first Tobe Sure.
When Rachmiel Yosef heard the physical description of the woman who appeared in my grandmother’s dream – especially, of the sheytl [wig] and brown jumper that she wore – he recognized all of this to be the mother whom he had known, and who had died many years before. He jumped up, exclaiming: “I know precisely which jumper you are talking about. This was an article of clothing my mother used to wear quite frequently.” Afterward, he went to search among old boxes of his departed mother’s belongings and found the exact brown jumper that he had had in mind. He brought it to my grandmother, who in turn confirmed that yes – this was, in fact, the very article of clothing that she had witnessed in her dream.
I believe that until her dying day, my grandmother credited her own great grandmother and namesake for looking over her and ultimately, for saving her young life through the power of that very real dream. A few years after that dream episode, also in the 1930s, my grandmother’s father showed her the headstone of the first “Tobe Sure Pszenica,” whose grave stood in the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery.
As a postscript to this story, I have personally made several efforts to locate that grave on my multiple trips to the still-intact Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, but to-date, I have not been successful in locating it.
Yet another story involving a “psychic dream” that my grandmother had before the Second World War, most likely a few years after the former dream, did not have such positive results. In this other dream, my grandmother unknowingly predicted the death of her maternal grandmother, Roize Urfajg Pinkiel. In the disturbing dream that my grandmother had one particular Friday night, she witnessed an undisclosed lifeless figure lying in bed surrounded by a large crowd of sobbing people. Among these individuals was her mother, Miriam Pinkiel Pszenica, hunched over the lifeless figure and sobbing uncontrollably. Not surprisingly, my grandmother woke up shaken, but I am not certain that she ever discussed the dream with any other family members.
It was the regular custom in my grandmother’s family on the Sabbath [Shabes, in Yiddish] that her maternal grandmother would walk over to the Pszenica household following lunch, and the family would gather together, chat, take walks, and the like. But on this one Saturday afternoon following the night during which my grandmother had that frightful dream, Bubbe Roize did not show up at her usual time. Not long thereafter, there was a frantic knock at the apartment door, and a messenger appeared to inform Miriam Pszenica – my grandmother’s mother – that she had to come quickly, as her mother had suddenly become gravely ill and needed her daughter at her bedside.
Bear in mind that up until that time, according to my grandmother, her maternal grandmother had never been seriously ill. Yes, she did adhere to cupping – also known as bankes in Yiddish – which was considered a remedy for circulatory problems, but otherwise, she was a rather fit woman. Thus, her illness took the entire family by complete surprise; it was not something that anyone could possibly have predicted beforehand. She had somehow developed an inflammation of the intestines, and in a matter of hours she was dead. Indeed, her daughter Miriam was at her bedside – just like my grandmother had dreamt the previous night – when she passed away. My grandmother’s menacing nighttime vision had in reality come to pass…
This was the only one of my grandmother’s four grandparents to die before the onslaught of the Warsaw ghetto. The other three were murdered in the early years of World War II/ the Holocaust. One of those other grandparents to die in the war was the aforementioned Rachmiel Yosef Pszenica, who passed away in July of 1941, and whose grave I visited in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery in 2014. In my grandmother’s opinion it was a great blessing for her departed grandmother to have died in the years leading up to the khurbn [Yiddish for a great catastrophe – the Holocaust]. In her words: “At least she was not murdered, but died of natural causes.” Sadly, I have to agree that my grandmother was correct.
It was, in fact, a year after Bubbe Roize Pinkiel died that the family held a ceremony at the Warsaw Jewish cemetery to erect her headstone (or matseyve, in Yiddish). At that time, my grandmother’s father took her aside to show her the grave of her namesake, Tobe Sure Pszenica. This was the same woman whom I previously mentioned that saved my grandmother’s life through yet another “psychic dream.”
Another remarkable dream my grandmother had, which also came to fruition, took place at the tail end of World War II, the night before she and her younger sister, Lola, were liberated by members of the Soviet Army in early May of 1945. By this point in time, my grandmother and great aunt had just been on a series of death marches ranging from Auschwitz to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, and other sub-camps. My grandmother was so ill and swollen from starvation and malnourishment that she was ready to give up and die.
But during that last night of captivity she dreamt that her father, who had been dead already for a few years, having died of starvation in the Warsaw ghetto and been buried there in a mass grave, came to her and told her not to give up hope, for in the morning she would be rescued by three Jews. As it turned out, the following morning my grandmother was approached by a Russian soldier who informed her that he was a fellow Jew, that he had two accompanying Jewish fellows – also officers in the Soviet Army – and that they had come to liberate them. I do not know for certain what the common language was, but I would imagine that Yiddish may very well have factored into their verbal exchange.
As my grandmother was to learn from this and subsequent dreams, whenever her departed father came to her in a dream, it was a sign of encouragement and strengthening, and that things would ultimately be alright. Conversely, when my grandmother was visited in a dream by her departed mother, it was a sign of warning that difficult times were ahead.
Some years later, once my grandmother was already living with my grandfather, young mother, and my infant uncle in Chicago in the early 1950s, she had another one of these prescient dreams. This time around, though, she was visited by her mother, which as I just mentioned, was an omen of something ominous to come. In that “psychic dream” – the last of the ones about which I know anything – my great grandmother warned my grandmother that she would soon be met with a very trying and troubling year ahead.
As I understand it, not long thereafter, my grandfather developed a rather pernicious form of TB. This was actually a recurrence of the tuberculosis he had developed during the war years, and for which he had endured multiple surgeries yet in postwar Germany. As a result of this highly contagious disease, my grandfather was placed in quarantine in the Chicago-Winfield Tuberculosis Sanatorium, located on the far-outskirts of the Chicagoland area. As my grandmother recalled, the sanatorium was only accessible to her by train, and the train only came once on the hour and only during certain hours. At the time, she had no vehicle, had two young children at home, had no source of income, and had few people to whom to turn for help.
During that inauspicious year, the doctors at the sanatorium had little hope of my grandfather’s ever leaving in an upright position. What’s more, the bed that he was given still had the name tag of the previous patient attached to it. The unfortunate individual had also been a Holocaust survivor, and he had not pulled through. It goes without saying that none of this boded well. Furthermore, it all weighed heavily upon my grandmother.
To make matters worse, my grandmother had brought my mother along on one of her visits, but because my grandfather was in quarantine, my grandmother and mother had to remain outside, waving to my grandfather at the window. This left my young mother in tears – not understanding why her father did not want to see her. From that point forth, my grandmother informed me that she could not bear to take my mother along with her anymore on those visits. It was simply too heartbreaking and painful for her.
Ultimately, though, my grandfather proved the doctors wrong and recovered from the disease – but not before having to undergo more surgical procedures. Once he finally returned home from the sanatorium nearly a full year after having been admitted there, my uncle, who was two years old by that time, could not remember his father and ran away from him. As the story goes, my grandfather was able to lure in my uncle by showing him a pocket watch, which apparently fascinated my uncle and won him over. Although my grandfather miraculously survived that horrible year and returned home to his wife and two children, the dream that my grandmother had had with her departed mother had undeniably been fulfilled.
These are but some of the unusual accounts that were handed down to me via the oral tradition by my grandmother. I am the first one, as far as I know, to set down any of these stories in the written form. All of these particular accounts revolve around “psychic dreams” – dreams that carried with them a vision of something that was yet to come in the near future – whether for the better or for the worse. But there were still additional family accounts that my grandmother conveyed to me, which involved curses (“kloles,” in Yiddish), the “Evil Eye” (“Ayen-hore,” in Yiddish), name changing for the purpose of fooling the “Angel of Death” (“Malekhhamoves,” in Yiddish), and other such seemingly bizarre happenings. However, for the sake of brevity, I have had to limit the scope of this subject.
I am sure that in my readers’ research into their own family histories, they have also come across unusual or unexplainable accounts such as the ones I have related here. These are undoubtedly the stories that help form a more nuanced mosaic of one’s genealogy, as they offer true insight into the human beings behind the names on the family tree, and the lives they led. Moreover, these are the types of accounts that have, at least in part, shaped generations of a family. I am curious to learn more about your own such accounts, and hope that you will please consider sharing snippets of these in my blog’s “Comments” section.
If you have any Yiddish materials – perhaps even bearing family accounts of unusual or seemingly unexplained events – that you would like translated, please feel free to contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.