Buddy called at 9:45 from Georgia saying he was married on Wednesday [the previous day, May 3.] Well the shock was awful
- Diary entry, Beula Keller Lehman
It may be that the shock is simply that he married someone other than the one he had been dating for years. It may have sunk in that the “friend” grandma mentions speaking to in a phone call from Georgia 13 days earlier is now Mrs. Harold Lehman.
Here we meet Dora Moldawsky. Her parents, Sam and Anna, came to the United States from Eastern Europe, most likely the Ukraine. It was the early 1900s, probably around 1904 before the Soviet Union, but not before the pogroms. That is no doubt why they made the trip to the United States. How they entered is a piece of the myth. In those mists of childhood overhearing, I remember something about them posing as brother and sister, even though already married. All genealogical research points to them already being married when they got here. It makes an interesting story. Legal, illegal, or semi-legal immigrants, they came through the golden door of Ellis Island in New York Harbor next to the uplifted lamp of the Statue of Liberty.
Sam and Anna had three children. Dora, the youngest, was born in 1913. I have some pictures of Sam from the 1940s- a tall, handsome man, tanned and well dressed. Anna was the typical Jewish, eastern European Bubbe, grandmother. Sometime in the late 40s or early 50s, Sam had a leg amputated. Family lore had it due to diabetes, but a cousin later discovered other possible causes.
They were observant, Orthodox Jews. They kept Kosher and Sabbath. When we visited, the strict separation of meat and milk, for example, was hard for my brother and me to understand. Mom was not observant back in the Gentile wilds of Pennsylvania, Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. When we were in Brooklyn I don’t remember any time when anyone went to services on Friday evening or Saturday morning. It is quite likely that at least the men went, but, since Sam died when I was nine or ten, it wouldn’t have been unusual for us not to even notice what was happening.
Sometime in her late 20s, Dora did her version of running away from home. In 1940 according to that year’s census records, she was still in Brooklyn, working as a bookkeeper at a wholesale dress house. In some magical and mysterious unknown way by 1943 at age 30 she ended up in Augusta, Georgia. Different versions of the story claim she was working as a secretary or did accounting or was a club singer in Augusta. Maybe all three. What is clear is that while there she met a GI from Pennsylvania who was eight years older than she was. That adds a certain amount of rebelliousness to her character. It would take a great deal of what her family would call chutzpah for her to be on her own, in 1944, and then get married to a gentile! This was as “mixed” a marriage as any other in 1944.
Sam and Anna must have loved her, though. They did not disown her. Beula’s diaries mention Harold and Dora both going to New York to visit and then, after Buddy was deployed, Dora coming to spend time with his family in Pennsylvania. Later pictures show Sam and Anna visiting in Pennsylvania with my brother and me, their two youngest grandchildren.
What we have here is a story with a glimpse into a far-different time. We have Harold Lehman, a run-away gentile from Pennsylvania standing at the Jewish USO of Camp Gordon, Georgia, marrying Dora Moldawsky, a run-away from her Brooklyn family.
People have asked me what it was like to grow up Jewish in Gentile, Bible-belt, Pennsylvania. My immediate answer often was, “I have no idea.” My brother and I grew up culturally Gentiles. I was living in the midst of my family’s home area. As I have mentioned before we were the 7th or 8th generation from my family tree in the West Branch/Pine Creek Valley. And they were all culturally, if not actively practicing Christians. Christmas was a big holiday in our family with a tree and a midnight Christmas Eve/Day party where my brother and I were awakened. We went out to open our presents, delivered by Santa Claus, with family and Dad’s workers there.
I know there was an awareness in the community that our mother was Jewish and that therefore I was, in some way or another, Jewish. Before 1964 each school day started with a reading from the Bible, the Lord’s Prayer,* and the Pledge of Allegiance. When I became aware of such things, I noted that I was always given a passage from the Old Testament. Socially, and practically, though, I was far more Gentile than Jewish. That does not mean I wasn’t aware of “Jewishness.” It was just far more prevalent and obvious to me that I was part of a Pennsylvania native family. I have no idea how others in town felt.
Seventy-five years ago today none of this was on the table, at least in any way I can see. Knowing my family, I am sure there was a great deal of uncertainty, fear, perhaps even anger, at what Buddy had just done. I would guess they had some of the same stereotypes and prejudices, especially about New York City Jews, as were common in the day. Beula never mentioned in her diary that Buddy’s wife was Jewish. I have a hunch that, like many a mixed marriage today, the tension would have been incredible. It is May 1944 and he is only a few months away from shipping out to Europe. As if that wasn’t enough stress, they would have to get used to a new and very unfamiliar family member.
*Footnote: Many years later, living in the Midwest, I learned that in a number of places in the United States this daily Bible reading and reciting the Lord's Prayer was NOT the practice. I had a roomful of church members look at me like I was crazy and dreaming when I said that we did that each morning. The reason was simple- there were Christian groups in the community that were not allowed to pray with others, Christians or not.