Back Row: Norman Leavitt (my grandpa) Second Row: Rose Klein (distant cousin and Holocaust survivor), Sandi Leavitt (my grandma), Monica Leavitt (my mother), Elliot Liebman (Rose’s son in law) Front Row: Melissa Leavitt (my aunt), Aaron Liebman (Elliot’s son), Jennifer Liebman (Elliot’s daughter)

Retelling the Story

An Oral History

Simply reading books, researching history through ancestry.com, and looking at old family photos is not enough to get a real firm grasp on a family’s history. While these methods of research are great for getting to know the facts, they are missing one vital component of understanding your family’s history — emotion. What my project was missing up until this point was a real understanding of the emotions that lie beneath my family’s incredible history. On a beautiful, spring night, just one week before Passover, I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with both of my grandparents and ask them a few things about the past. Being able to listen to my grandmother Sandi, assisted by my grandfather Norman, talk about her past and her family provided incredible imagery and stories that will stick with me forever. The following is the interview I conducted:

Camden (Me): Where did you grow up?

Sandi: I was born and lived my first 6 years in Cleveland, Ohio and then when I was 6 years old, my family moved to Bay City, Michigan. That’s where I lived until I graduated high school. My family came to atlanta when I graduated and grandpa followed me and he stayed here but we wanted to get married so bad and my family was against us getting married when we were so young. As a matter of fact, the rabbi couldn’t understand why we were in such a hurry to get married because normally Jewish families have a big wedding and we didn’t care about that. The rabbi thought for sure that I must have been pregnant and thats why I wanted to get married so quickly, but we had been going together since I was in ninth grade, I had just graduated from high school, and one of the reasons my family moved to Atlanta was to get me away from Norman. They wanted to move away from Bay City because they didn’t want me to be married to Norman, but when we moved to Atlanta Norman followed so they were not happy about that.

Camden: What was your neighborhood like growing up in Cleveland and then Bay City?

Sandi: Well in Cleveland we lived in a Jewish neighborhood because Cleveland had a nice sized Jewish population, but in Bay City it was very rural and there was only one small area of town where there were any Jewish people around the Synogogue. That was where my grandfather lived and we lived a few blocks away until I was in 3rd grade then my family moved further out to a very rural area, dirt road and everything. It was a nice area but I was the only Jewish kid in my school for all four years. There was one other Jewish family but they moved away so it was very small-town.

Camden: So you were in Cleveland for the first 6 years of your life and Bay City through high school?

Sandi: Yes. Until I graduated and my family moved to Atlanta and grandpa and I got married in Atlanta then moved back to Flint, Michigan.

Camden: And do you know why your parents started in Cleveland and then moved to Bay City?

Sandi: Yeah, my mother’s family had mostly settled in the New York City and Cleveland areas so my grandparents wanted to be near their family and when my mom and dad decided to move to bay city they also moved my mother’s parents to Bay City to be with us.

Norman: There were a lot of Hungarian people that settled Cleveland and that’s the main reason why your grandma’s family ended up there.

Camden: What were your parents like in terms of religion and their personalities?

Sandi: Well because my father was raised in the home of a rabbi, we were very religious and we kept kosher. Until when we moved to the rural part of Bay City we kind of stopped being kosher, but we had a very Jewish up-bringing. They were both ritualistic. They didn’t keep the sabbath though because of their professions. They were both hairdressers and Fridays and Saturdays are very busy days and they didn’t want to close their salon for the sabbath because they needed the money.

Camden: Do you know how your parents met?

Sandi: They were fixed up.

Norman: Her dad was in the navy and he was on leave in Cleveland and somebody fixed him up with her mom.

Camden: So he was in the navy before they were together?

Sandra: Yes.

Camden: What about your grandparents? What do you remember about them?

Sandi: Of course my father’s family was very religious because my grandfather was a Rabbi. My mother’s mom and dad were also very religious. They lived right around the corner from the synagogue and they walked to the services because you’re not supposed to drive. And I don’t think my grandfather ever drove. He never had a driver’s license.

Norman: And they spoke mainly Hungarian.

Sandi: I was not allowed to learn the Hungarian because they kept it as a private language so they could talk around us, the kids, without us understanding. It was their secret language. But they also didn’t want others thinking we were foreigners. They wanted us to be American.

Camden: And I’m sure those feelings really stemmed from them being in Hungary leading up to World War II?

Sandi: The prejudice, right. Exactly.

Camden: What’s your favorite holiday?

Sandi: Well of course Hanukkah was always wonderful because of the gifts, but Passover was always great because the whole family came together and my father’s family all had beautiful voices. Whenever we got together for the holidays the whole congregation called them the “Glancz choir” because their voices it was like a professional choir. My grandfather’s voice was operatic. He was known throughout Michigan and the whole area because of his beautiful voice so to hear them sing the prayers and everything was wonderful.

Norman: Let me tell you, I was really fascinated by it.

Sandi: His family and my family were very close. We lived within blocks of each other. My grandfather actually married his parents. He actually also performed Norman’s circumcision [laughing]. He was the family Rabbi. He was the Mohel.

Norman: He was the Rabbi, he was the Mohel, he was the Shochet, which is the person that kills the chickens.

Sandi: Oh yeah, my grandfather, in the basement of his house, was a slaughter house for the chickens and sometimes calfs. In order to have your meat kosher, it had to be slaughtered a certain way. Especially for the sabbath every Friday, you would hear in the house the chickens [chicken noises] after they were being put on the block. And that would go on every week in my grandfathers house. That was part of the ritual.

Camden: And you spent a lot of time at his house? You lived close?

Sandi: Oh yeah they lived right around the block from where we lived until we moved when I was in the 4th grade to the west side of town which was the rural area.

Norman: On Wednesdays we’d always go to a farmhouse and pick up a live chicken and I’d have it in the truck with me all day long so he became my buddy. Then we’d take it to her grandfather’s and go down to the basement and he’d cut his neck.

Sandi: He’d have to say the prayers and kosher it and all.

Norman: And then we’d take it back to my grandfather and in the barn, because that’s all it was was a barn. And I’d have to pluck all the feathers from the chicken and then my grandmother would put it in saltwater all night long to kosher it and by Friday night, that was our dinner for sabbath.

Camden: That’s pretty awesome.

Norman: Yeah.

Camden: And when did you guys start your fling?

Sandi: Okay, we’re four years

Norman: Three and a half years.

Sandi: Okay, but we’re four years apart in grades so when I was in the ninth grade he was already a freshman in college. I was the girl that when he would come to Bay city to be with his family and he’d be playing with his cousins and riding around on their bikes and everything, I was the 8 year old girl that was following them, they were 12 years old, on my bike, because I was chasing after Norman. I was constantly. He couldn’t stand it because I was always hanging around. So then there was a year or two separated and in Michigan, there was a convention in December for the Jewish kids from the whole area. So I would be on a bus to Detroit but it would stop in Saginaw, then Flint, and go to Detroit to the convention and we would be there for three days or whatever. Well, when I found out that the bus was stopping in Flint, I was so excited because Norman was in Flint and I just knew he was going to be on the bus with the Flint kids. Well, he didn’t get on the bus, so I was really bummed out. The first night of the convention, I was standing with my girlfriends in a circle and the DJ was playing the records and everything. That was during American Band Stand. Do you remember Dick Clarke and American Band Stand? You’ve heard of that right?

Camden: No I haven’t.

Sandi: Okay well anyway, [Norman laughing in the background] it was a very famous tv show with dancing on the television and there was a dance called the jerk, and it was like this [demonstrating the jerk]. Well, that dance was banned from American Band Stand because it was too vulgar. So before this, your grandpa was at a dance in September and I saw him there with his girlfriend doing the jerk. So I went home that night and practiced in front of the mirror for many hours.

Camden: And how old were you at this point?

Sandi: I was in 9th grade. And my mother finally came in at 1 AM and said “Sandi! Turn off the radio and go to bed!” Since I was busy learning the jerk. So then comes December, and I go to the convention in Detroit, and I was all bummed that he wasn’t there. And so I’m standing in a circle and going like this [demonstrating the jerk] and saying to my friends, “You guys! I learned the jerk! I learned the jerk!” And I started going like this and I only did it maybe two or three times and my girlfriend said “Sandi! Stop! That dance was banned from American Band Stand.” You know, because it was too vulgar. So what I didn’t know was in the meantime Norman and his buddies had driven to the dance. Why would they be on a bus with all those little kids when he and his buddies had just started college? Why would they go on the bus with us? I didn’t know he was there. So him and his buddies were at the dance at the convention and one of his friends said, “There! She knows the jerk!” Because they all did the jerk okay. And so I feel this tap on my shoulder. “Would you like to dance?” And it was Norman and I turn around and almost passed out. I went “yeahhh!.” So we started going together from that moment on and we’ve never been separated.

Norman: I was there because I had a basketball thing.

Sandi: Yeah and he was on the basketball team. Plus he was with the guys you know.

Norman: Most valuable player [wryly smiling]

Camden: I’ll definitely put that in the oral history for you so it can live forever.

Sandi: Anyway, I was so excited and I told my mom and dad, “Guess what! Norman was there!” And you know, the whole reason that we moved away was because they wanted to separate us because we were too serious. So they weren’t thrilled.

Camden: On another topic, did your family ever discuss the Holocaust when you were growing up?

Sandi: No. Well, not my mom and dad or grandma and grandpa. We weren’t allowed to discuss it because it was so painful. Because my grandmother was one of seven brothers and sisters and only two of them survived the Holocaust - her, and her brother Joe. It was so painful to discuss that we were not allowed to bring it up. When we would go to Cleveland to visit my Cleveland family, finally one time when we were with my cousin Lillian, and her mother Rose who was a Holocaust survivor and she had the tattoo with the numbers on the arm, and her husband Emil, they met in the concentration camp and one day we sat down and they were shocked that I didn’t know the history of our family and the Holocaust. So what happened was in 1933, my grandfather, when the Nazis took power, he said, “they’re going to kill all the jews. We have to leave Europe.” and no one wanted to leave because they didn’t want to leave their family. And my mother’s family was very wealthy and they owned a business, I think it was a grocery store. And they did very well and they owned real estate and all so why would they want to leave? Well anyway, my grandfather said, “We’re leaving because they’re gonna kill all the Jews.” So in order to leave you had to have someone in America put up money, so you had to be sponsored. My grandfather had to be a sponsor in order to bring each person over there. There was so much money he had to raise and do the paperwork and everything. Well, my grandfather’s wife wouldn’t come. She didn’t want to leave her family. Finally my grandfather said, “Thats it.” And went back to Hungary and grabbed my mother and my grandmother and said, “We’re out of here.” So they went on the train to the port in Holland. He dragged them.

Norman: But back to what she was saying, the reason we learned a lot of this was through Rosie and the cousins in Cleveland. And they stayed up all night long with us. I wanted to stay up because I wanted to hear these stories. And they told us a lot of different things.

Sandi: And I had never heard these stories. They were telling us how my grandfather was such a hero to their side of the family because he helped sponsor so many of their relatives and bring them over to the United States. Plus my grandmother’s family was very traditional. They lived in a small town called Szikszo in Hungary, which was right outside of Budapest, and it was a wonderful upbringing and everything and they had a wonderful family. My Hungarian family is wonderful.

Camden: So your direct family was a lot more closed off than like Lillian’s? You had to find out everything through them?

Sandi: Oh yeah, totally. And of course when I came back and told my mom that Rosie and Emil had told us this, that, and the other, she was very upset.

Camden: Did she tell you why she was upset?

Sandi: Oh yeah. Because it brought back too many horrible memories.

Camden: So do you know anything about how your mom felt when she was 15 and fleeing the Holocaust?

Sandi: Just how frightening it was. Just how horrible it was and how the Nazis came on the train and were taking everybody off. And they probably went to the concentration camps and died, you know.

Norman: She really didn’t talk about it too much. She kept to herself. She did not want to remember any of that stuff.

Sandi: They grew up in a very prosperous family and then were driven to be penniless. They were wealthy and lost everything.

Norman: When we would go to Cleveland, we were married already, and we’d go to visit the relatives. They were all very close-knit family, and they all would speak Hungarian.

Sandi: Because everybody learned Hungarian except my mother wouldn’t let me and my siblings. We had to be American.

Norman: Yeah because her cousin Lillian and all them speak Hungarian.

Sandi: I can understand some of it but not really.

Norman: I learned Yiddish. That’s what my grandparents spoke.

Sandi: The only thing my parents taught me was “Hogy vagy” which means “How are you?” and “Hálószoba” which is the bedroom. Those are the only two things.

Camden: What’s your Hebrew name? Are you named after anyone?

Sandi: My Hebrew name is Rena. Am I named after someone? Yes, I’m sure I am, but I don’t remember who. It was probably one of my mother’s family, but I don’t remember.

Camden: Do you want to speak on my Hebrew name at all?

Sandi: Yes. Your Hebrew name, Simcha Binyamin, was my father’s Hebrew name. Sydney Benjamin.

Camden: What’s your favorite Jewish food?

Sandi: Chopped liver and Rugelach. Which I always make you know. That pastry. I can’t get enough of those.

Camden: What was a traditional Passover like for you growing up?

Sandi: It was totally ceremonial. Ours today are a lot more Americanized but, you know, there’s a routine that you have to go through from the Haggadah. We always tried to split Passovers between the two families. Some years were with my father’s family in Bay City and other years were with my mother’s family in Cleveland.

Camden: Were there typically a lot of family members and other people at your Passover celebrations?

Sandi: On my father’s side, yes. Because of him being a Rabbi, and his very large family. There were five boys and three girls and it was a very close knit family.

Norman: And they would go through the entire massive service. With Uncle Gary, we are more abbreviated, but they had a very traditional service that lasted many hours. We are more americanized and we do the “robo version.” But with their family, we used to go and we’d start it at 7 and go until 1 o’clock in the morning.

Sandi: Also Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were always a big deal with my father’s family. We would always have a big celebration at grandpa’s house.

Camden: Is there anything else you want to share?

Norman: You having a Bar Mitzvah was a big thing.

Sandi: Yes, with your mother having you go to Hebrew school and all, that was awesome.

Camden: Yeah one of the sources I looked at for this project actually brought up how families are becoming more like “Jews without religion” and there’s starting to be more intermarriage between Jews and Christians but still the grandparents are caring a lot about the Jewish identity of their grandchildren so I talked a lot about how you two loved that I had a Bar Mitzvah and even though you’re mostly fine with my mom intermarrying, you cared a lot about me being Jewish.

Sandi: Well your father and his family are very nice people. So how could we not like them or make a big deal? It’s better to build bridges, not walls. Yes, we were not happy at first when she was going with all these non Jewish guys, but in Bay City or Flint where we raised the kids, we weren’t friends with all the rich “hoity-toity” Jews.

Norman: I wasn’t your typical. I came from a very very poor Jewish family. Most Jewish people are known to be wealthy.

Sandi: That’s another reason my parents didn’t really like your grandfather. I was supposed to marry a rich Jewish boy.

Norman: And we never instilled in our kids really that you had to be wealthy. You just had to be happy with whoever you met. Your mom and your aunt both had Bat Mitzvahs so they both were brought up Jewish. We weren’t real strict but we did bring them up traditionally, they went to Hebrew school. So you know, whoever they happened to marry. You know, Melissa (My aunt) happened to marry a Jewish guy. I love both of them equal no matter what. I love your dad just like he was my son and your uncle Craig the same way. They were the sons I never had. I put up a hoop outside our house because your mom was tall and I thought she’d be my basketball player. I had all guys over playing basketball but not your mom.

Camden: Well that’s all the questions I have for you. Thank you so much, this has been beyond great.

Reflection

  1. How does your tradition-bearer’s story relate to your community in both the present and the past? How does it relate to you?

The stories that my grandparents told to me really gave me a look into my grandmother’s community and family life growing up. These stories related to me because they are how I came to be. I was able to hear the story of my grandparents meeting and even my great grandparents meeting.

2. How did your perception of community history change, from before the interview to now?

Like I said in my introduction, I now understand a lot more about the emotions involved in my grandma’s community history. I knew some of the basics of what happened and why, but now I know specific stories and emotions felt from my grandmother’s point of view.

3. How did this project inspire you to learn more about your community?

Honestly, this interview inspired me to go back to my grandparent’s house one day soon and just talk to them about the past. Because this interview was structured and I needed to complete this in a reasonable amount of time, it kind of limited the questions I wanted to ask and the things I wanted to talk about. It really inspired me to go back and hear even more stories.

4. What were some of the challenges you faced during this project? What could you do differently in your next oral history interview?

Like I said above, the only real challenge I faced was keeping this interview structured. I constantly just wanted to branch off and ramble about certain things with my grandparents, but was unable to because of the focus of this interview. Perhaps in my next interview I will allow for more rambling.

5. If the roles were reversed and you became the tradition-bearer, what stories would you like to tell?

I would love to be able to tell similar stories my grandparents told. I want to be able to tell courtship stories and the stories about the origins of my family. I loved the humorous stories and the way my grandparents laughed while telling some of these stories.

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