Cypora's Echo: Mothers, Daughters, and A Holocaust Legacy

  • Speaker: Judith Greenberg
  • Lecture Date: 12-19-2021


Judith Greenberg had been writing and teaching about trauma, literature, and women’s acts of resistance for years before she discovered that the history of the last days of the Jews of Siedlce, Poland, her family’s ancestral hometown, was recorded by her own relative, Cypora Jablon Zonszajn, her grandfather’s first cousin. In the fall of 1942, having survived an Aktion that killed over 80% of Siedlce’s Jews, Cypora understood that the only chance for her baby daughter, Rachel, lay outside the ghetto. They escaped and Cypora gave Rachel to her Catholic friends from childhood. She returned to the ghetto, wrote her testimony, and, to resist boarding a train to Treblinka, took poison. Cypora’s friends raised Rachel and buried their friend’s written pages, which are now held at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Judith grew up knowing Rachel for most of her life; her mother was Rachel’s second cousin and close friend. But it was only in 2002, when Judith read Cypora’s testimony and saw a photo of Cypora holding baby Rachel, that she began to ask questions about her cousin’s history as a hidden child, her mother’s past, and the intergenerational process of transmission of this story. How did these pages and this photo survive? Who were the Catholic women who risked their lives to save Rachel and how had they become so close to Cypora? Judith, who was then a mother of young children, was gripped by Cypora’s descriptions of trying to nurse Rachel during the Aktion, of guilt for failing to save her parents, and of the Jewish police, in which her husband was a part.

Over the next twelve years, Judith traveled to Poland, with her mother, her daughter, and other relatives. She met Cypora’s friends who saved Rachel, discovered a vast archive of prewar and wartime photos of Cypora and Rachel, and forged a friendship with the granddaughter of one of Rachel’s rescuers, a prominent human rights lawyer. Relying on her background analyzing trauma writing, Judith conjoins her research of the history with an analysis of Cypora’s writing and with a contemplation of her postmemories and the many roles of mothers, daughters, and shared parenting in this story.

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