Jewish women tell their stories for history
Seattle Times staff reporter
Etkin, now 80, was barely in her 20s when she and her family were carted off to Auschwitz. One of her duties in those horrific, calendar-less days was to sort out the personal items taken from arriving trainloads of fellow Jews.
Do you know how she knew it was Yom Kippur? There was a Gestapo officer, the one with the dog. One day he said to her: "Where is your God? It's Yom Kippur."
"That's how we knew," she said. "The next day, I fasted a half-day. I didn't eat my bread."
Now, the 80-year-old's story is among those featured in "Weaving Women's Words," a project by Boston-based Jewish Women's Archives recording the lives of Jewish matriarchs nationwide. So far the project has been launched in three markedly different U.S. cities — Seattle, Baltimore and Omaha, Neb. — but Seattle's is the first to be displayed.
The exhibit, which opens today at the Museum of History and Industry, features 30 women narrators ages 75 and older and reflects the city's mix of Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews. Some are Seattle natives. Others arrived after World War II. They include pharmacists and musicians, mothers and wives, Holocaust survivors and well-known community figures such as Becky Benaroya, Althea Stroum and former King County Councilwoman Bernice Stern.
"They're much more than names on a sheet of paper," said Robin Boehler, chairwoman of Seattle's project advisory board. The complexity of the women, she said, defied her expectations. Dynamic and assertive, they pursued passions, endured struggle and unflinchingly gave to help others.
"I felt honored to be able to step into their lives for a few hours," said Seattle historian Roz Bornstein, who spent more than 100 hours conducting interviews along with New York University doctoral student Pamela Brown Lavitt. "It's not always easy sharing your story. Joy and sorrow fill a life."
For 89-year-old Meta Buttnick, the project played to a longtime interest in oral history that recalled life in Fairbanks, where she grew up. As a high-school teacher, she instructed students to collect tales from residents who'd come during the Gold Rush days. "Walking libraries," she called them.
After she moved to Seattle in 1939, she spent years compiling the city's Jewish history. Much of her work is now at the University of Washington's Jewish Archives.
Now, she said, the "Weaving Words" project has given her generation a chance to share its contributions to society. "We went through a lot," she said. "We suffered. But we continued living."
"This exhibit will bring back a lot of memories," added Ann Meyers Kaplan, the 95-year-old daughter of Russian immigrants who spent 50 years as a bookkeeper. "As you get older, you don't always remember all the details."
That only illustrates the urgency of such projects. "Every time somebody passes away, you miss gathering their story," Boehler said.
How-to workshops on oral-history collection and family-artifact preservation will be offered in conjunction with the exhibit, which runs through April 27. Along with recorded histories and photographs, the exhibit features selected artifacts — aged kitchen tools, weathered handicrafts, a traditional charity collection box.
"Why did they use that picture?" Etkin chuckles, seeing her almost whimsical portrait — one of the exhibit's collection shot by photographer Joan Roth — taken at a ritual bathhouse. (Etkin spent 27 years in Seattle preparing the bath for the Orthodox Jewish community, and came to be known as the "mikveh lady.") "That was a drop in the bucket."
Looking back at all those years, it's hard to believe how far she's come, how much the world has changed. "The way things are now brings back horrible memories," Etkin says. "I am afraid there will be a war."
But in her memories she can find hope — the Nazi guard who secretly provided her food, the day liberation finally came to her and her fellow prisoners. In those years and in the decades since, she and 29 other women came of age and now form a permanent part of Seattle history.
"We're here," she marvels. "I have great-grandchildren. I wonder, how it is possible?"