I am descended from a singularly resilient woman.
Recently, my fascination with genealogy led me to examine her life in the years leading to the flu pandemic of 1918. Until today, studying family history had been my conduit to long-dead ancestors whose DNA determined the color of my eyes and embedded within me an optimism that colors every aspect of my life.
Now, it has forever changed my perspective on the current situation.
Two years ago, I immersed myself in family history, starting with the year 1772 and the acquisition of Galicia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By some strange turn of the universe, this past December my studies had advanced to 1918, the year of the great flu pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. This may be obvious, but everyone alive today is descended from someone who survived that catastrophe.
My great-grandmother, lovingly remembered as Bubbe Hudia by her grandchildren, was born in 1864 in eastern Galicia, today’s western Ukraine. In 1910, Galicia was home to 872,000 Jews, the ancestors of many of us living in the United States today.
Well before 1918, Hudia was a proven survivor. Three famines and two periods of mass starvation left her stunted and her legs so badly bowed that she had difficulty walking. When Hudia was 47, my great-grandfather died suddenly, leaving five children and a granddaughter in her care. Her oldest daughter, Bella, was already married with children of her own.
Within a year, the family began to emigrate, but the start of the First World War left Hudia stranded in a continent at war along with her 9-year-old son, grown daughters Bella and Sura Leah, and three young grandchildren.
My ancestral shtetl Mariampol (today Mariyampil, Ukraine) became the site of fierce fighting before falling to the Russians. On Sept. 3, 1914, a newspaper reported 4,800 corpses lying dead in the fields there, where days before the wheat harvest had just begun. Cholera, typhoid fever and dysentery spread across Galicia, and the destruction of the fall harvest ensured winter food shortages.
Back and forth The Great War ebbed and flowed over the little place my family called home. Hudia and the Jews of Mariampol survived a brutal Russian occupation, looting, pogroms and the fighting that accompanied Austria’s recapture of the town. In 1916, Bella died, leaving Hudia and Sura Leah to care for her three young children, suddenly orphans cut off from their father in America.
Galicia was full of Jewish orphans. In a cablegram to New York, representatives from the Joint Distribution Committee begged for assistance crying, “Tenthousand (sic) war orphans are left penniless.” Clothing was so scarce that aid workers resorted to making garments out of donated flour sacks to cover the children’s gaunt bodies.
The war’s end failed to bring relief. Even as the flu spread across the globe, a new Polish-Ukrainian war brought fighting and violent pogroms to the cities, towns and villages that were once a part of Galicia. Despite ongoing violence and a spreading pandemic, Hudia and her remaining family found a way to survive.
Throughout the flu pandemic of 1918, these are the things that Hudia and the family in Mariampol didn’t have — an intact home, food and access to the most basic medicines and medical care. Replacing worn-out shoes was impossible, and schools were rarely open. Letters pleading for help chugged slowly across the Atlantic Ocean and war-ravaged Europe.
Survival depended on mutual support, the charity of others and faith that the end to their suffering was just around the corner.
This brings me to the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.
While I may get sick of beans and rice before it’s over, I have a steady source of food. I’m stuck inside my house, but I have a house, a bed with warm linens and a clean source of drinking water.
There isn’t a cure for the virus yet, but I have medicines that, in 1918, Bubbe Hudia couldn’t have imagined. I should also mention the little device that is constantly in the palm of my hand, ready to connect me to friends and family anywhere in the world. And, unlike my great-grandmother, I am fortunate enough to be able to help others.
In the cruel face of this pandemic, it has become clear to me that somewhere in my DNA, I have inherited Hudia’s faith in a brighter future. Perhaps my driving curiosity surrounding family history was planted within me for just this moment, to give me strength and to show me that that I am descended from a tenacious survivor, a singularly resilient individual. Chances are that if you’re reading this, you are, too. JN
Sharon Taylor is a member of Gesher Galicia, an international society for Jews with Galician ancestry. She lives in Pennsylvania.