Bashert — Memoir

Bashert: A Granddaughter's Holocaust Quest

Haunted by her grandmother's Old World stories and bigger-than-life persona, Andrea Simon undertook a spiritual search for her lost family. Her sojourn, a quest for truth, gave her tragic answers.

On a group tour of ancestral Jewish homeland sites that had been crushed in the Holocaust, she makes a riveting detour to her grandmother's village of Volchin, in what is now Belarus, where the last known family members had lived. There, she followed the trail of the death march taken by the village Jews to the place of their slaughter by Nazis and Nazi collaborators in the fall of 1942. During the same period, in Brona Gora, a forest between Brest and Minsk, some 50,000 Jews were shot. Simon was in one of the first American groups to visit this little-publicized site.

Bashert, the Yiddish word for fate, guided her through the arduous quest. With newly translated archival records, she peeled back layers of clues to confront the mystery. This story of her momentous odyssey reveals the terrible fate of her kin.

Mass shootings of Jews, particularly in the Soviet Union, have not been addressed with the same focus given to concentration-camp atrocities. Yet Simon's research reveals that Nazis killed nearly fifty percent of their Jewish victims by means other than gassing. In the historiography of the era, comparatively scant reference is made to the executions at Brona Gora. Thus Simon fills a significant gap in Holocaust history by providing the most extensive report yet given on the executions at Brona Gora and Volchin.

As she interweaves tragic narrative with evocative family anecdotes, Simon writes a story of life in czarist Russia and, within this frame, of her family's flight from pogroms and persecution. From a unique vantage Simon's memoir discloses her dogged genealogical search, the newly perceived Jewish history she uncovered, and the ramifications of the Holocaust in the postwar generation.

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Book Reviews

Bashert is the engrossing story of Andrea Simon’s search for her roots, her re-engagement with her grandmother Masha, who journeyed from Volchin to Brooklyn, to Woodridge, to Israel, to Berlin and back. It is the story of the past that once was and never again will be — Volchin, a Jewish town whose population was decimated....Simon’s writing makes us care about her, her grandmother, her town and her self-discovery. Pilgrimage is the most ancient of religious rituals, a journey forth that is also a journey into self and Bashert is an admirable account of Simon’s pilgrimage. We learn as she learns, we engage, we remember, we cry out and we even at times laugh. Perhaps the first — or at least one of the first — of a new genre of Holocaust writing that will become more familiar and more urgent as the survivors are no longer with us and their descendants are forced to uncover from history what they once could encounter directly from memory.”

— Michael Berenbaum, Director, Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and Professor of Jewish Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, California; former President of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation

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"Makes a significant contribution to our understanding and perception of the Holocaust in eastern Poland (Belarus).... Balances impressions of life before and during the Holocaust in eastern Poland with other fragments of family life in the U.S. and other parts of the world from roughly 1915 to the present day. This has the welcome effect of demonstrating the quality, beauty and despair of those lives that were destroyed.... The very personal approach and the attempt to reconstruct fragments of the quality of life ... give it a special and enduring quality."

—Martin Dean, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

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“Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest delivers something much more than a story about the author’s kin. It carries a message that transcends all cultures, races and generations....Ms. Simon’s memoir whispers a warning to all who read it: do not let the past become the future.”

—Melanie McMillan, The Litchfield County Times

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“Bashert is an emotional roller-coaster ride. I laughed heartily at some of the family anecdotes, and I cried bitterly at the description of the horrific executions of innocent men, women and children whose only crime was being Jewish. I kvelled with Andrea when I learned of her family’s bravery and courage...and I mourned the senseless loss of so many loved ones. Bashert is essential reading.... While we are all aware of the horrifying misery that confronted Jews and other minorities in the concentration camps...much of what occurred in the smaller and often unknown villages inside Czarist Russia remains unreported. Bashert opens our eyes to the personal story of a strong and determined young woman, who lost her home and family...and found a new life in America. Masha will take a place in your heart as she did in her granddaughter’s and mine and create a pocket of warmth and pride that will forever remind you of how the strength of one person can change the destiny of an entire family. I urge you to read Bashert, but please be sure to have a hanky at hand.”

—Michael D. Fein, editor, The Gantseh Megillah

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"Based on interviews, memoirs, historical accounts, archival documents, and family anecdotes, Simon undertook what she describes as a 'spiritual search' for her family members killed in the Holocaust. Obsessed by her grandmother's tales of life in the village of Volchin (in what is now Belarus), Simon visited there during a trip to Poland, Belarus, and Russia in 1997. She learned that in 1942, all 395 Jews remaining in Volchin were murdered by two Nazis with the help of the non-Jewish villagers. She learned, too, that 50,000 Jews were killed and buried in eight mass graves in Brona Gora, a forest between Brest and Minsk, from June to November 1942. The author concludes from her research that her relatives were murdered on September 22, 1942, in Volchin, killed 'for one reason only--because they were Jewish.' Bashert is the Yiddish word for fate. In her quest for the truth, Simon has written a loving eulogy to her lost family."

—George Cohen, Booklist