From the Library Stacks to the Light of Day: History Professor Revives Texas Jewish Immigrant's Life Story
By Tonyia Cone
While working on his dissertation on the history of the Jewish community in Texas nearly 15 years ago, Bryan Stone came across a typed translation of a retrospective autobiography in the University of Texas’ Perry-Castañeda Library.
Alexander Ziskind Gurwitz wrote his memoir, “Memories of Two Generations,” between 1930 and 1935 in Yiddish. He had the book self-published and distributed copies to friends and family before he died in 1947. In 1978, his adult grandchildren arranged for San Antonio Rabbi Amram Prero to translate the work into English.
Prero had the translation typed up, and someone placed a copy at UT. When Stone found the typed, translated copy in the course of his research, he knew it was compelling and that he would return to the document later in his career.
Gurwitz’s work detailed not just his life as a man who emigrated from Yenaveh, Ukraine, in Tsarist Russia to Texas with his wife and four children in 1910, but also a history of Jewish communal life in 19th century Eastern Europe and early 20th century San Antonio, Texas.
“There are a couple of things about it that I think make this kind of unique. First, the religious background that he writes about – he was very Orthodox, living in a very traditional Jewish community, and he was fully immersed in that, not just as a member of the community, but as an official of the Jewish community,” Stone said, adding that Gurwitz attended yeshiva and had trained for the rabbinate before spending the rest of his life as a Hebrew teacher and shochet (ritual slaughterer).
“He was particularly knowledgeable and particularly committed to that way of life,” said Stone, a professor of history at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi who has taught as a visiting professor at the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at UT.
As an immigration story, Gurwitz’s work is also unique. In his early 50s, he was far older than most immigrants. When he left Ukraine, his neighbors were amazed; usually young men and those who were desperate emigrated, not well-established community members.
“For him to just uproot himself and leave was a really odd decision,” Stone explained.
Gurwitz lived in San Antonio for about 25 years when he wrote the book, and the perspective of the Texas Jewish community from an Orthodox Jew who stuck with his traditions is also striking.
“He’s describing a community that frankly, I think, not many of us know existed – a Yiddish speaking, Orthodox, very Eastern European oriented Jewish community in San Antonio, Texas, that persisted for decades,” Stone said.
That there were even enough people buying kosher meat to keep Gurwitz in business as a kosher butcher is an unfamiliar fact, one of many such tidbits in the book.
After Stone finished his first book, “The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas,” and returned to “Memories of Two Generations,” the first step in Stone’s process was converting the pages from printed to digital before proofreading each page.
“Gurwitz and Prero, the translator, had really done the bulk of the work. I just had to kind of clean and trim and explain some things,” Stone said, explaining that he reorganized the chapter structure and had to edit for consistency because Hebrew and Yiddish words were spelled differently throughout the book.
Stone also sought permission from Gurwitz’s family. Of Gurwitz’s six children who survived into adulthood, four lived in Texas with their spouses and their 20 to 30 children. Many of Gurwitz’s descendents – the youngest of whom are now his great-great-grandchildren -- have stayed in Texas, and Stone has met some of them, including Austin community member Sandy Kress, in person and over the phone.
“It’s been a very nice thing, getting to know his family. They are excited and hospitable,” Stone said.
After adding an introduction and footnotes explaining the book’s historical context and some of the terms Gurwitz used so that modern readers who may have no Jewish background can understand the writing, Stone’s next step was seeking a publisher. University of Alabama Press ultimately published the book, “Memories of Two Generations: A Yiddish Life in Russia and Texas,” in May 2016.
“About 20 percent of it is about Texas. The rest is about Eastern Europe. And for whatever reason, the University of Alabama Press has a really strong list in Jewish history and European Jewish history, as well as Jewish history in the American South, which Texas kind of is. So Alabama was actually a pretty reasonable place to go and they were excited to have it,” Stone explained.
While there is enough material for the book to appeal to academics and others interested in Gurwitz’s story professionally, Stone believes “Memories of Two Generations” is such a great read, it will appeal to general audiences as well in its beautifully written descriptions of European shtetls and Jewish religious practices, history, politics and social customs.
“He’s got a great sense of humor, he talks very sort of self-effacing, he tells good stories, he explains everything,” Stone said. “It’s a tremendously readable and interesting book.”
“There’s a long section describing his early life. He talks about the annual holiday cycle that his community experienced, so sort of every year, the holidays that come up around the calendar in order through the entire cycle of the year. It’s extremely informative, especially because a lot of these are holidays that we really don’t recognize very much in the United States anymore,” Stone said.
The history is made even more interesting because Gurwitz, who was in his 70s when he wrote the book, tells about the experience looking back, from the perspective of his ten-year-old self.
“What he does is for each of these holidays, as it comes along, is describe in just incredible detail what his community is doing, what his family is doing, what mom is doing and what dad is doing, what happens at the synagogue, and what happens at the dinner table.”
“I’ve found a lot of people who’ve taken great interest even though it’s not their own cultural background,” Stone said.
“He’s a fascinating individual with a very unusual and pretty remarkable life,” Stone said.
Stone has spoken to numerous groups – both Jewish and non-Jewish -- about the book, including an enthusiastic audience at the JCC in Austin on August 24. He also toured the B’nai Abraham Brenham Historic Synagogue on the Dell Jewish Community Campus during his visit.
To learn more about “Memories of Two Generations: A Yiddish Life in Russia and Texas,” visit http://www.uapress.ua.edu/product/Memories-of-Two-Generations,6312.aspx.