Monthly Archives: January 2022

Chasing the Elusive Georgia O’Keeffe

A friend of mine just posted on FaceBook that she and her husband were visiting the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It brought back memories of Larry and I attempting to chase down this American legend’s paintings!

In January 2016, Larry and I attended a lecture on Georgia O’Keeffe, part of an artist series offered in our Florida community. It was a relief to drive only three miles to the lecture. You see, we have been chasing Georgia across the country for years.

Growing up in Keeseville, New York, I had little opportunity to visit museums and galleries, much less to develop art appreciation. In college, I avoided “killer” Art History 101 as I was too obsessed with my grade point average to venture out too far beyond my literature and education courses. 

Larry took some art courses at Northeastern University and spent time in Boston museums. One of our first dates was a trip to the Sterling Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Our interest in art grew along with our marriage. Fall leaf peeping trips included the Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses museums. In New York City, we explored the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, and the Museum of Modern Art. As our travels expanded, we visited museums in San Francisco, Lima, and London. We knew what we liked: We walked quickly past Renaissance art with its stiff and tortured religious images and headed for the Impressionists—Monet, Manet, Degas. 

Although we had seen and appreciated Georgia O’Keeffe’s work when we viewed her occasional pieces in major cities, our interest was heightened as a result of a college visit. One of our nephews was accepted to St. Johns’ College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Larry offered to fly out with him to see the school and explore the area. When they returned, Larry could not stop talking about the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and its collection of her paintings. He loved the colors and the creativity. He promised that we would travel to Santa Fe together so he could share his find with me.

Less than a year later, we made plans to visit Santa Fe as part of our annual summer visit with Julie and Sam in Colorado. We researched lodging, restaurants, the art district, the historic downtown. On top of the list was the O’Keeffe Museum and Ghost Ranch, O’Keeffe’s New Mexico residence for many years.

Fate intervened from the start. A series of wildfires had hit New Mexico. As we traveled south on the highway, an ominous cloud of smoke loomed above us. At one point, we considered completely abandoning our plans and going back to Colorado. As we learned more about the situation, we scaled down our expectations. We would skip Ghost Ranch, which was closer to the fires, and limit our visit to just the historic city.

Our destination on our first full day in Santa Fe was the O’Keeffe museum. As we walked the short distance from our bed and breakfast, Larry chatted about diverse subjects that O’Keeffe painted—the New York cityscapes, the flowers, the Northern New Mexican landscapes. When we got there, however, we saw a huge sign announcing that the majority of O’Keeffe paintings were on tour in Europe. Instead, the museum was proud to present an exhibit of Norman Rockwell sketches and paintings. We could not believe that we had traveled so far to see O’Keeffe only to view drawings by the popular New England artist. Yes, we liked Rockwell and his iconic Saturday Evening Post covers. But we experienced his work every fall as part of our annual leaf peeping tour of New England. We had to drive less than one hour across the New York border to go to the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Needless to say, I was disappointed. 

We soon had another chance. In 2014, the Hyde Museum in Glens Falls, less than an hour north of us, was sponsoring a special exhibit entitled “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George.” The family of O’Keeffe’s husband Albert Stieglitz owned a place in Lake George, and O’Keeffe had spent summers there during their marriage. We knew we weren’t going to be seeing many flowers, but seeing her interpretations of Lake George would be interesting.

The exhibit opened in the summer. Friends reported back to us that lines were long and the place was jammed. We decided to postpone our visit until after Labor Day when the crowds thinned. Stymied again! Larry tore his Achilles tendon. He underwent surgery and sported a bulky cast on his leg for eight weeks. By the time Larry felt up to going, the exhibit was long gone. 

The following February, Larry and I flew out to San Francisco to visit our son Adam. On the plane, we met a couple from the Capital Region. She had been involved in art and served as a docent for the Hyde Museum. We shared with her our sad saga of thwarted attempts to see the O’Keeffe exhibit. “Did you know the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco currently is running the same exhibit?” she asked. No, we didn’t know. As soon as we arrived in Adam’s apartment, we suggested to him that we go to the DeYoung together. It was a surprisingly short walk from his apartment to the museum, and we actually got to see the exhibit. We lingered over the paintings and portraits and even listened to a lecture. Our chase was over.

Larry and I enjoyed the lecture down in Florida. Forty minutes into her talk, however, and the speaker was still focusing on Stieglitz and his work. Only the last fifteen minutes focused on O’Keeffe. Maybe we are just not meant to experience Georgia up close and personal. Or maybe, just maybe, we need another trip to Santa Fe.

Photo of Georgia O’Keeffe painting taken by Christine Grossman at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.

No Opposing View to the Holocaust!

“You make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust that you have a book that has an opposing view,” a Carroll County,Texas, administrator recently told a group of educators during a training session on what books were allowed in their library. Fierce backlash resulted in an apology and an investigation, but to many it hammered home the fear, denial, and outright ignorance that surrounds the teaching as well as recognition of the reality of the systematic murder of six million Jews. For that reason, there will never be “too many stories” about the Holocaust, including that of Galina “Golda” Goldin Gelfer (Z’L).

On June 22, 1941, Golda woke up on her 14th birthday to a beautiful sunny day in Glusk [now known as Hlusk], Belarus. Despite her family’s status as Jews in a highly anti-Semitic country, she and her family—her father Meir, her mother Elke, her eight year old sister Malke, and a large extended family— were happy in their small shtetl. Then, their world changed when news that Germany had declared war on the Soviet Union. Five days later, Nazis marched into their town. Soon after, Golda’s older sister, Chaisoshe returned home to join her family after Minsk University was evacuated, walking the last 30 miles with a friend. With limited means of escape, the entire Jewish population was trapped.

All Jews were registered and forced to wear yellow stars on the clothes and post the yellow stars on their homes. A Judencrat (Jewish council of three men) was formed to organize labor. While Chaisoshe remained hidden in their homeMeir and Golda worked long hours in menial jobs: cleaning and plowing the streets, digging up bricks, and mucking out horse stalls. All other work by Jews was forbidden.“We performed useless task mainly to make us feel we were slaves,” Golda later wrote in an autobiographic essay in The Holocaust DID Happen. (Southern California Council for Soviet Jews, 2010) 

For the next five months, as reports of mass executions of Jews in neighboring villages were reported, Golda and her family lived in absolute fear. On December 2, 1941, their worst nightmare was realized when they learned in the early morning hours that Nazis were beginning to round up all the Jews in Glusk for a “death march.” As the Goldin dressed in multiple layers of clothes and hastily packed bundles of food, they made plans to split up, run, and hide. Chaisoshe and a college friend were first to leave.“ You have some friends,” Elke told her husband. “Take a child. You may survive.” As Meir took Golda’s hand, Golda grabbed Malka’s. But Elke insisted that her youngest child hide with her in their shed.

Meir, Golda, and another relative they found in the street began frantically knocking on the doors of their Russian neighbors, begging for places to hide. But they were repeatedly turned away because of fear, ignorance, or indifference.The circle of Germans, politsaislocal collaborators, and dogs surrounding them grew tighter.

The three finally found refuge in the attic of an abandoned store on the main street. They climbed up to a loft filled with hay and silently watched the street below. The streets were soon filled with dushegubka, trucks modified to divert engine exhaust into a sealed internal gas chamber, As the Nazis forced women and children into the black-topped vans, Golda recalled in 2010 Yad V’Shem video, could hear a single woman screaming in agony as the van moved towards a former hospital that the Germans had converted into the slaughterhouse.

When these precursors to the gas chambers used in the concentration camps could no longer keep up with the number to be killed, the remaining Jews were herded together by Germans and the politsais. They were helped by local residents who joyfully made a game out of rounding up anyone trying to escape. “Jude! Jude,” they would yell to the Nazis, who would then shoot the “offender” and leave the corpse on the street. The numb, terrified victims could do little but march to their almost certain deaths.

Throughout the terrifying day, Meir, Golda, and the cousin heard the sounds of gunfire from Myslotino Hill, an area two and a half miles outside of Glusk. They learned later that over 1000 Jews men, women, and children were killed in a volley of bullets and then thrown in pits prepared earlier by the Germans. 

At two a.m., all was quiet. Praying that somehow members of their family had survived, the three fugitives descended from the hideout and began walking to the town’s outskirts.They narrowly missed falling into the hands of a roving band of Russian murderers who were “drunk on blood and vodka” and bragging about the number of Jews they had killed.

The threesome began their trek through deep snow and bitter cold to Zhivun, a village 23 miles from Glusk. As Meir had been born, raised, and, as an adult, done business there, they hoped to find help. While in route, Meir and Golda hid in the forest while the relative attempted to enlist the aid of friends. The two heard a volley of bullets, and the cousin never returned. 

Meir and Golda had better luck. For the next six months, Golda stayed with the local peasants helping with housework and, when necessary, being spirited from home to nearby forest to another home to escape discovery by the Nazis.Meanwhile, in between trips back to Zhivun, Meir worked with the partisans, members of the resistance movements who lived in the forest. The war had not lessened their anti-semitic feelings as they were initially reluctant to accept Meir into their circle. Meir, however, proved to be worthy comrades, helping the partisans to bomb railroads, ambush German convoys, and do whatever they could to fight the German forces.

During this time, two eleven year olds they encountered in Zhivun who had also escaped from Glusk gave Meir and Golda the bad news regarding the Goldin family. The two children initially had hidden with Elke and Malka until Elke told them to go back into the village where she correctly believed their blonde hair and blue eyes would help them blend in with the Gentile population. Two days later, a Belarussian neighbor and his son, with whom the Goldin had had a close relationship before the Nazi invasion, came to search for valuables and steal the cow. They found Elke and Malka hiding in the hay and turned them over the Nazis, who killed them. Chaisoshe and her friend met the same fate two days later when four local teenagers found their hiding place and turned them over to the Germans for bounty money. Meir and Golda later learned that 32 members of the Goldin family they had left behind had been killed.

Once he was established with the partisans Meir went back to Zhivun to get his daughter, who was at fifteen now old enough to participate in the guerrilla warfare. In addition, a Jewish doctor who joined the ragtag group enlisted the help of Golda and a 17-year-old Jewish refugee in providing needed medical assistance. (The two woman remained lifelong friends.)

Meir and Golda survived in the forest for the next two years, living as did the real-life partisans portrayed in the 2008 movie Defiance. They finally gained their “freedom” on July 4, 1944, when Belarus celebrated heir victory over the Germans (The Germans and Soviets continued fighting through May 1945).“Freedom,” however, still had its limitations. When they first met with Red Army soldier, their initial comment was, “I thought the Nazis killed all of you Jews!” Meir, Golda, and the new families they created after the war lived in the Soviet Union until the 1980s, when, upon Golda’s insistence, relocated to the United States.

Golda’s story has been saved for posterity in her two hour interview in Russian as part of Steven Speilberg’s Shoah project. In addition, her descendants continue to carry on her and the Goldin legacy through their family reunions, Zoom meetings throughout the pandemic, and through their sharing this story with me. No, Texas, there is no “opposing view to the Holocaust.” Just ask those, like Golda, who lived to tell their tale. 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.