Gertrude Wishnick Dubrovsky’s parents immigrated to the United States from Poland around the turn of the last century. Early in their marriage, they made an unsuccessful try at farming and then operated a hand laundry on New York’s Lower East Side. With the help of a land grant from Jewish charities set up for that purpose, they tried again, joining a community of Jewish farmers in Farmingdale, NJ. Many were Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe; they had little knowledge of farming before arriving in the New Jersey countryside where they had to learn to raise chickens and other livestock.
One of four children, Gertrude attended a one-room school and hoped to go on to college. Her mother died when she was eight. Her father didn’t believe girls needed college so she joined her brother on the family’s chicken farm.
In a 1987 interview with the New York Times, she recalled that relations with the non-Jewish neighbors were tense or nonexistent, and sometimes the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on lawns or marched past the farms of new settlers. She told the Times that she believed that “the longer established farmers might have been resentful of the Jewish newcomers.”
She also recalled moments of neighborly kindness. “When her mother died a year and a half after moving to the farm,” she told the Times, a non-Jewish neighbor, “took care of the chickens during the painful days of the funeral and the mourning period that followed and brought the family freshly made cream and butter.”
In 1946, two weeks shy of her 20th birthday, she married Jack Dubrovsky, also the child of Jewish chicken farmers in Farmingdale. They started their own farm.
Farm life didn't satisfy her curiosity and drive. In the early 1950s, when the second of her three children started kindergarten, she began taking classes at Georgian Court College, a Catholic women’s school in nearby Lakewood, NJ.
Ironically, she learned more about Judaism there than she ever had at home. She described it like this: “I was raised without religion. Nor had I ever considered Judaism from either a philosophical or a theological point of view. Without religious faith, I was impelled to constantly question and challenge. The result was a turning to my own religion, a searching for answers within a framework that was at least vaguely familiar, if not totally convincing. To the credit of the nuns, my Jewish search was encouraged, my questions were never cut short, and a patient effort was made consistently to answer me.”
She graduated from college in 1956. Over the next 15 years, her marriage ended, she earned a master's degree from Rutgers and taught at a grammar school, a high school, and four colleges and universities. In 1973 she finished her doctorate at Columbia University Teachers College. For her dissertation, she translated Kentucky, a book-length series of poems written shortly after World War I by famed Yiddish poet I.J. Schwarz about Jewish identity among immigrants in the rural south after the Civil War. It took 20 years, but in 1990 the University of Alabama Press published the translation.
In 1974 she decided that there weren't enough women in government, so she did something about it – she ran for Congress. Her bumper sticker read, “Put a woman in the House.” She came in sixth out of six contenders.
With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Dubrovsky conducted an oral history of the Farmingdale farmers and in 1992 published a history of the community in her second book, The Land Was Theirs: Jewish Farmers in the Garden State.
Though she had no background in film and very little funding, she was determined to make a documentary based on her book. Her perseverance paid off in 1993 when PBS broadcast The Land Was Theirs (available from The National Center for Jewish Film).
In 1984 she was awarded a fellowship at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and spent a year there. While in England, a friend introduced her to Greta Burkill, a Russian immigrant who had helped organize Kindertransport convoys that brought thousands of European Jewish children from Nazi Germany to England in the late 1930s.
After finishing The Land Was Theirs, Dubrovsky took on documenting the work of this woman who had stood before Parliament to fight for the right of the Kindertransport children to continue their education past the age of 14, which was when free education ended in England at that time. The culmination was the 2004 publication of Six From Leipzig, an account off six cousins who came on a Kindertransport.
In the late 1970s, she took on the deplorable state of long-term care for the aging and began writing about the subject for The New York Times. Those columns earned her the ire of several nursing home facilities and a lawsuit from one, though she and the Times prevailed.
In an article published in 1980, she described a visit with her stepmother Hilda, who was in a nursing home suffering from dementia. “You let go of memory, and you forget. What else is there to do?” Hilda says. “There was no way for me to respond. I took a crumpled envelope out of my purse and wrote her words on it. At some future time, I, too, may have to let go of memory,” Dubrovsky wrote in a haunting foreshadowing of her own struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Toward the end of her work on Six From Leipzig, she began having problems. She noticed that she would duplicate paragraphs without realizing it. She fought through the confusion of early Alzheimer's disease to finish the book.
In 2007, she moved her to Rogerson House, an Alzheimer’s facility in Massachusetts. During her first year there, she kept a journal. Because she adamantly refused to believe that she had Alzheimer's disease, she couldn't explain why she was having memory problems. So she wrote in her journal to try to find an answer. “Sometimes I think that I only have memories and no more original thoughts.,” she wrote. Nor are the memories always welcome. I cannot separate the bad from the good—the painful from the delightful. … Approaching the end, I do not feel wiser, nor do I feel at all contented. I am determined not to 'go gently into that good night,' but to 'rage, rage against the fading of the light.'”
Gertrude Dubrovsky died on October 13, 2012.
Adapted from obituary in Princeton Town Topics and eulogy by Ben Dubrovsky.