Memoir revisits terrifying world of early 20th century Russia

By on October 3, 2016

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Lititz teacher Sherry Ostroff has lived a normal, quiet, American life.

A Philadelphia native, Ostroff became a teacher and taught in the Lancaster School District for many years, as well as private schools, and Lancaster Community College. She became a wife and mother.

Life was good, with few surprises.

But conversations with her mother, Ita Pogrebiski, opened up a door to another world; a terrifying world that had enveloped her family, where sanity was in short supply, and survival, the goal.

Ostroff’s mother and grandparents lived through persecution and privation in Russia during the early part of the 1900s, and the years leading up to World War II. Once prosperous, they became homeless refugees, fighting for their lives.

Ostroff recently compiled those memories into a book called “The Lucky One: A Memoir of Life, Loss and Survival in Eastern Europe.” The book details her mother’s and grandmother’s lives in Russia, their harrowing escape into Romania and their eventual resettling in America.

Ostroff’s mother, Ita, was born in Russia in 1918, the youngest of six children. Ita was born into a comfortable family that lived in the “Pale of Settlement” in western Russia. This was a large swath of land that covered parts of western Russia, the Ukraine, and Poland, and was where a majority of Russian Jews resided.

The everyday life they lived was soon to be turned upside-down.

In 1917, the last czar was forced to abdicate, and a revolution began.

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The next year, the czar and his family were executed and another revolution erupted. The revolutions escalated until the country was involved in a civil war.

“They (her family) were right smack dab in the middle of it,” Ostroff said.

Riots against Jews, called pogroms, flared. It was a time when even murder became acceptable.

No reason for the heinous acts was needed.

“Everybody knew where the Jews lived in the Pale,” Ostroff said.

It was a frightening time, and just when they thought the madness could get no worse, Ostroff’s grandfather was murdered.

It was then that her newly-widowed grandmother knew the family had to flee.

Romania was their goal. They knew it wouldn’t be easy, but it appeared to be a safer shore.

“Of course, they couldn’t just take a bus and cross over; it was all done on foot,” Ostroff said.

It also took money to pay for guides and to bribe border guards, she said.

The logistics — finding food and shelter along the way — were overwhelming, but they had little choice.

Before they could make their get-away, her grandmother was attacked and robbed. Losing the money she carried meant the family had to wait another year and a half to scrape together more cash before they could afford to try crossing the border into Romania.

The horrors kept coming.

When her grandmother’s house was burned down, the family truly lost everything.

Ready or not, it was time to go.

“They were shot at (by border guards) when they were trying to flee,” Ostroff said. “But they had to leave to save their lives.”

Ostroff’s mother was about 18 months old when her father was killed. She was three years old when her family made it into Romania.

Ita’s family lived in Romania for six years, all the while trying to get to the United States. Laws in the States at the time were not favorable to immigrants, Ostroff said.

Anti-immigrations laws from 1882 to 1924 were designed to keep out Chinese, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants, Ostroff said.

Ita was nine years old when she came to the U.S. with her mother, first arriving in New York City.

Ostroff’s Aunt Anna was the first to make it to this country, arriving by ship, unaccompanied, when she was only 17.

Uncle Jack, only 12 when the family fled Russia, was the next to make it over. Each family member who arrived got a job, and sent money for the next family member to emigrate.

Ostroff’s mother and grandmother arrived in New York in December of 1927, sailing on The Majestic out of France. Stepping foot on these shores meant the nightmare was over.

Ostroff titled her book “The Lucky One” for two reasons. First, her mother was very young when most of the crises were occurring. To her, it seemed like nothing more than a grand adventure, Ostroff said.

Secondly, between 60 to 70 percent of the Jews in the Ukraine were murdered during the Holocaust.

“If she had stayed in Romania for three more years…” Ostroff said. “They were lucky to get here when they did.”

Ostroff’s book stays true to her mother’s own hand-written notes, and the author has added historical background for the reader’s understanding.

Going about everyday life, it’s hard to imagine her own family living through it all, Ostroff said.

“This is my family…it’s something I have lived with and it’s hard to look at it from the outside,” Ostroff said. “In life, you do what you have to do.”

Ostroff’s book is available at Amazon.com and Kindle. She is also available for book presentations to area groups. She may be reached at svostroff528@gmail.com.

Marylouise Sholly is a freelance feature writer and contributor to the Record Express.

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