Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A wedding, and a woman, to remember

Barb and Joel Bierig escort Becky on
their way to the chuppah.
     While LSU and Alabama played football two Saturday nights ago, we were at the Bierig-Cohen wedding in Plano, Texas -- a weekend in which special old ties were renewed.
      Old ties means the father of the bride, Joel Bierig, and his mother, the bride's grandmother, 87-year-old Steffi Bierig. My connections with them go back 36-37 years, but there's another sort of connection with Steffi that you'll find a few dozen paragraphs below.
      The wedding began at 7 p.m., kickoff time in Tuscaloosa. Let's say that I enjoyed the wedding festivities a helluva lot more than what I saw on recorded TV late that night into early Sunday morning.
      Everything about the wedding, from the invitations to the guests' gift bags to the rehearsal dinner to the ceremony to the reception/dinner/dance afterward was beautiful and classy. Sometimes even the biggest football game of the college season can be put on hold.
      This was a unique wedding for me, a traditional Jewish wedding under a chuppah, the canopy which covers the bride and groom, their parents, the four attendants and the rabbi. Think the wedding scene of Fiddler on the Roof, and you've got the picture.
      Unique for me because it was the first time since October 1955 -- 58 years ago -- that I'd been to a traditional Jewish wedding. I was 8 (and two months from leaving Holland for the United States) when my mother's first cousin -- her closest remaining relative after World War II -- was married in Amsterdam. Elsa, my sister who was 4 then, was the flower girl; my parents wore formal attire as part of the wedding party.
      Somewhere, we have two dozen photos from that wedding. But we also have some film that shows scenes of the wedding -- I am barely visible for a split second -- and, later on the same film, the Van Thyn family departing Amsterdam by car and then walking onto the boat that carried us across the Atlantic.
Becky and Joseph Cohen, at the rehearsal dinner.
      Back to this wedding. The lovely bride, Rebecca "Becky" Bierig, is the daughter of Barb and Joel Bierig, and she has worked and lived in Dallas since graduation from the University of Missouri. She and Joseph Cohen had been a couple for four years before their marriage on Nov. 9.
      Joel was a longtime sportswriter who began his career -- just after graduation from Missouri -- at the Shreveport Journal in early summer 1975. That's where we first met.
      Joel was, as I've told many people over the years, as good a sportswriter as anyone I've known coming right out of college, the first of a whole string of talented young writers -- many in their first jobs -- to work for the Journal for the next decade.
      (In fact, a fellow Mizzou grad who followed Joel to Shreveport and Journal that same summer, Steve "Tiger" Richardson, sat with us at the wedding events. Steve went on to write sports for The Dallas Morning News, still lives in Dallas and is now executive director of the Football Writers Association of America and a noted college football/basketball author.)
      Joel stayed at the Journal for about a year, then moved on -- and up -- to several newspapers before landing at the Chicago Sun-Times as a baseball writer, covering the Cubs and White Sox.
      That was a natural for Joel because he grew up in the Chicago area, and still lives there. But in 1990, when he was 37, he decided to leave sportswriting because (1) he wanted to spend more time with his kids -- Becky was 4 then, Brian was 1 -- and (2) he joined his family's business.
      His father, Jerry J. Bierig, was Joel's biggest fan as a sportswriter, but he was delighted that his son wanted to join the family's sales agency, which represents paint- and hardware-related products.
      It was sportswriting's loss, although Joel still does some free-lance writing.
      Now, Joel is the company president. But he'll tell you that the heart of that business is his mother. Steffi is as well-preserved, as spry and mobile, as sharp and active as just about any 87-year-old you will meet.
      She is still there most every day running the company's books and keeping things in order. For instance, as she showed me, if they need business cards, she designs and prints her own. If Joel needs advice -- and maybe sometimes if he doesn't -- she's ready with it.
     As Steffi was being escorted into the hotel ballroom where the wedding was held -- with the chuppah an awe-inspiring sight -- I thought of how proud she looked ... and how far she'd come for this moment.
     Because her life began in Germany, before World War II. In 1938, she was a 12-year-old Jewish girl -- Steffi Lewin -- living with her parents in Berlin.
     How perilous that was. The concentration camps, and perhaps death, were only a couple of years away.
      So she has a connection of sorts with my family. Steffi is not a Holocaust survivor, per se, as my parents were. She is someone whose family -- luckily -- found a way out of Germany, out of Europe, before the Nazis began rounding up the Jews, and other non-Arians, and making them prisoners.
Steffi Bierig
      Because her parents were fearful of what was happening with young Jewish men, they sent  her older brother (16 then) to the United States to live with relatives.
      And because her family had the means -- her father was a dentist, her mother was his assistant -- and they already had family in the U.S., they had a connection and a way out.
      Fortunately, they were selected among the quota allowed into this country in those pre-war years.
      When she was a student at Missouri, Becky (the bride) wrote a paper about her grandmother for a women's history class. It was entitled "A woman’s view: Examining the herstory of the Holocaust."
      With Becky's permission, I will share a few items from the paper. Such as ...
      -- The anti-Semitism she encountered in her public school, kids chanting, "You killed Jesus Christ!" as they studied the New Testament in religion class. And before she transferred to a Jewish school, she would come home crying because an anti-Semitic teacher gave her a failing grade in penmanship when she “had perfect handwriting.”  
      -- More than 3,200 German children (60 percent boys and 40 percent girls) were sent by their parents to Palestine to work in agriculture.             
      -- She recalled her mother having to comply with a Nazi order requiring Jewish women to prepare Sunday meals using only one pot.
      -- A former dental patient of Steffi’s father who belonged to the SS warned him, albeit indirectly, about the November 1938 pogrom known as Crystal Night. (Nazi legislation forbade her  father from treating non-Jewish patients and required him to display a yellow star outside his residential office.) Without giving a reason, the patient warned the family to leave home for three days.   
      “We walked the streets for three days,” Steffi said.  She recalled seeing typewriters and office cabinets thrown into the streets as windows of Jewish homes and businesses were smashed. “Two spinsters kept us for a while. We couldn’t stay anywhere too long because we didn’t want to put anyone at risk.”
      To their relief, they found that “nothing had been touched” when they returned home. “Somebody had been looking out for our place,” Steffi said, convinced that the sparing of her home was not a result of mere oversight. 
      (Steffi told me this story when we visited in Plano because the wedding, coincidentally, fell on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.)
      -- Steffi  and her parents immigrated to Chicago in October 1939 under the sponsorship of relatives who had been living in the U.S. for nearly 30 years.
      (The trip itself, though, wasn't a smooth one; they could not travel west in Europe; instead, they wound up going to Norway and taking a boat across the Atlantic from there, so the trip took two weeks "and we were sick almost the whole time," Steffi told me).
      -- Allowed only $5 per person and suitcases packed by authorities, the family went from financially well off to having to use overseas trunks as furniture. In addition to confiscating the family’s bank account and furniture -- which had been “refurbished for America” -- Nazi officials did an incomplete and careless packing job. “We weren’t allowed to be present,” Steffi said. “They stole a lot of the stuff we wanted to take.”
      -- As her father was not certified to practice dentistry in the U.S., he learned occupational therapy. Her mother worked selling lingerie out of a suitcase door-to-door and also worked in a lighting factory.
      Steffi went to school, but "had jobs always” -- babysitting, live-in nanny during summers, working at a mail-order catalog office and, although she was underage but fudged on her application, working at a Venetian blind factory, where she made 35 cents an hour.
      Her story has an amazing twist, which takes us back to where we began -- with the Bierig family.

      In 1951, she met another refugee from Germany, who also got out before World War II hit full blast. Jerry Bierig also had settled with his family in the Chicago area, and was a traveling salesman. 
      They married that year, Joel was born a couple years later and then sister Debbie followed. In 1971, Jerry formed his own agency as a wholesale manufacturers' representative. That is the company in Flossmoor, Ill., a south Chicago suburb, that Joel is running now. Well, Joel and Steffi.
       And for the Bierigs and the Cohens, and all of us who were there, the wedding weekend was a wonderful experience. No matter how that football game came out.


  1. From Joel Bierig: Your column today leaves me emotional in so many ways ... about our friendships, about my Mom, about Becky, about my writing career. ... You can really "scribe." And crop pictures, too! What a wonderful job of tying together so many elements. You knocked this one out of the park.

  2. From Yemile Cohen (groom's mother): Wow, it is great how you intertwine stories and share a life. You should write a book. As an afternote, my husband and i were born in Mexico but our families both are from Syria. We did not experience the Holocaust first-hand but did experience some anti-Semitism and could help with some stories if you decide to write your book. Keep the stories coming.

  3. From Steffi Bierig: You are a great writer, but also a great friend. I think Joel is truly blessed with the good friends he made many years ago and those friendships still continue. ... Yes, our families have similarities -- you immigrating from Holland and we from Germany. But, thank the good Lord, we are here to tell the story that you so ably put online with your blog.

  4. From John W. Marshall: I really enjoyed this. Amazing, inspiring story ... these people have been through so much more than we have.

  5. From Rebecca Bierig Cohen: Excellent post! I was wondering why you were interested in that paper I wrote about grandma. I didn't think our wedding could possibly be blog-worthy. Great job weaving in so much history.