A growing collection of in-depth interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds, whose stories about the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture offer a rich and complex chronicle of Jewish identity.
Lili Bermant's Oral History
Lili Bermant, 83-year-old widow from Antwerp, Belgium currently living in Amherst, Massachusetts, was interviewed by Emma Morgenstern on October 26, 2010 at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Lili started the interview talking about her upbringing in Belgium before the outbreak of World War II. Both of her parents were Jewish, her mother from a religious family in Poland. Her mother, wanting to get a better education, came to Belgium from Poland. She spoke German and French. Lili's father spoke Flemish and Yiddish, but as Lili said, somehow they made it work. Lili's father was a diamond broker in Antwerp. The Nazi occupation of Belgium brought on a series of attempted and realized escapes to other parts of Europe and eventually the United States. When Lili's parents felt it was dangerous, the whole family (including Lili's grandfather), traveled to a series of three towns on the border of France and Belgium in order to seek refuge. They eventually crossed the border into France and spent several days walking across the countryside, trying to avoid the invading German troops. Lili talked about what it was like to walk with all of their belongings and to stay in cramped French farmhouses during their journey. The family had to turn around, however, when they encountered a family coming from the opposite direction that was doing just the same: trying to escape invading German troops. At that point, Lili's family returned to the border towns and were eventually told they had to go back to Antwerp, where they had come from. Luckily, their landlady had made the apartment look lived-in so that German troops passed over it as they attempted to find quarters within the city. The apartment still intact, Lili and her family stayed there until again, they felt it was too dangerous. Before their second escape, Lili's father secured false papers somehow. Lili often mentioned, during the interview, that she had no idea how her parents were able to work the system in order to buy papers or secure passage to wherever they needed to go. This time, the family intended to travel from Antwerp to Brussels to Paris to some part of France that was unoccupied. Lili's grandfather decided he did not want to come; instead, he somehow stayed with a non-Jewish family during the war and survived. Lili told the story of their train from Brussels to Paris, on an express Berlin to Paris train. The train was too crowded and the family got stuck in the middle of the car, with no compartment. It was very cold, so Lili's mother asked three Germans in a compartment if the family could squeeze in with them. Lili's mother, educated in German and a sharp woman, spoke with the German officer about how he was sad to be leaving his family back in Germany to go to Paris. At one point, border control entered the train and demanded the family's papers; the falsified ones didn't satisfy the officer, so he demanded a passport. As Lili's father pretended to look for it, the German officer they shared the compartment with waved away the younger border control officer. As Lili said, her family was saved by a German officer. The family spent a couple of weeks in Paris and then moved on to Nice, the French Riviera, as Lili says. She enjoyed her time there, and life wasn't too hard. But the family wanted to get to the United States, so they again picked up (after nine months or so) and went to Spain. Lili's mother somehow met a man who was able to secure better accommodations for them on a boat from Bilbao, Spain, to Havana, Cuba. Lili talked about crossing the Atlantic: the Mexican youngsters who taught her sister some Spanish, eating in first class on the boat, and the boat nearly sinking during a hurricane near the Bahamas. When the family arrived in Havana, Lili's uncle met them, but they were still sent off to a detention camp for a couple of weeks. They eventually were released and stayed in Cuba for four years. Lili completed high school there and her sister worked; the family moved to the United States in 1945, after the war ended. When asked about Jewish identity, Lili talked about her struggles with being Jewish as a child. She did not like visiting her mother's family because they were still very religious and she felt uncomfortable. She, in some sense, associated being Jewish with limitations and extra responsibility: not being able to attend public school on Saturdays, being required to attend extra Hebrew school, even though she didn't get anything out of it. Lili joined the youth group Shomer Hadati in Havana, which was a religious Zionist organization. She enjoyed the social aspect of it, even if it meant becoming more religious – keeping shabbes and such. She fondly remembers reading Yiddish stories and going camping on Friday nights with the youth group. However, she was unable to dance socially because the group was too religious, which was a significant restriction given that she lived in Cuba. At some point, she dropped out of the youth group, which was not a problem since the family moved from Cuba shortly after. Lili married a Jewish American man, but talked a little bit about her parents' negative feelings regarding dating non-Jews and dating Americans (rather than Europeans). Lili and her husband ended up moving out of New York City (where they had lived) and raising their family in parts of upstate New York: Poughkeepsie and Woodstock. There were small Jewish communities there, but Lili became disenchanted when a smart, progressive rabbi was let go because he didn't fit the aura of the Jewish community. This furthered some of her already-held views about Judaism being hypocritical. Lili and her mother had a significant argument about whether or not Lili's son would become a bar mitzvah. Lili and her husband decided it was not important—her husband had done it, but it meant very little to him. Lili's mother threatened to never step foot in the house again, but in the end she came to respect their decision. Lili's mother became a diamond broker when her husband died shortly after they arrived in America. She was a diamond broker until she was 81, and then she took a creative writing class. She wrote stories that Lili collected into a few volumes. This was the conclusion of our interview.
This interview was conducted in English.
Lili Bermant was born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1927.
Video highlights from this oral history
How a German Officer Saved My Family5 minutes 32 seconds
Listening to Hitler on the Radio1 minute 1 second
My Son Was Not Bar-Mitzvahed2 minutes 20 seconds
The Maginot Line2 minutes 43 seconds
Joining a Zionist Group in Cuba3 minutes 50 seconds
Jew numbers and the underground railroad:1 minute 47 seconds
My Early Take on Being Jewish3 minutes 11 seconds
Walking Through France During World War II1 minute 38 seconds
More information about this oral history
- Family histories
- Jewish Identity
- Immigration and migration
- Career and Professional Life
- Family traditions
- Jewish holidays
- Eastern Europe
- Western Europe
- United States
- Latin America
- Politics and political movements
- Yiddish Book Center
- Youth group
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About the Wexler Oral History Project
Since 2010, the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project has recorded more than 500 in-depth video interviews that provide a deeper understanding of the Jewish experience and the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture.
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