Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Liba's property in Sosnowica

I just heard back from the friend-of-a-friend who helped with a translation from Polish. In the stack of papers that my father sent me several weeks ago, I had found a Polish document with Liba Waszerstrum's name in it. Through google-translate, I was able to make out that it had something to do with property.

I now have the full translation:

Government Of the Municipality of Woloskowla                           September 25, 1935


This governing body hereby declares that the woman who lives in the settlement of “Sosnowica” of this municipality – Liba Wasersztrum owns a house and a plot of land on which the house sits. Beyond this she possess nothing else in her estate, she is ‘in a poor state’.

This notification was prepared for Wasersztrum Liba who personally received it.

Signatures of officials of the gov. office
M Zielinski
J. Martyniuk

So now I know what the words mean. But what does the document mean? What does it mean that Liba was "in a poor state"? Why did she need this document? and why did Gittel have a copy? and why is this one of the only things that was saved, when all the other letters are gone (destroyed or lost, we will never know)?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bad Arolsen

My brother found a reference to The International Tracing Service, at Bad Arolsen, Germany. This is the largest archive of Holocaust related documents. Here is the description from Wikipedia:

The International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen, Germany, is the internationally governed archive whose task it is to document the fate of millions of civilian victims of Nazi Germany. The documents in the ITS archives include original records from concentration camps, details of forced labour, and files on displaced persons. ITS preserves the original documents and clarifies the fate of those persecuted by the Nazis. Since November 2007, the archives are accessible for researchers.
ITS was founded in 1943 as an organization dedicated to finding missing persons, typically lost to family and friends as a result of war or political unrest during World War II. The service operates under the legal authority of the Bonn Agreement, is under the administrative umbrella of the International 
Committee of the Red Cross and is funded by the government of Germany.

ITS’s total inventory comprises 26,000 linear metres of original documents from the Nazi era and post-war period, 225,000 meters of microfilm and more than 100,000 microfiches. Work is underway to digitize the files, both for purposes of easier search and for preserving the historical record.

The documents in the archive were only made available to the public in 2007, after years of controversy. I remember hearing about this, and wondering if there might be some information there on our missing relatives. Although the documents have been digitized, it is still not possible to access them on-line. (This too has been a source of controversy, angering survivors and families.)  But it is possible to fill out a form and request that the ITS staffers search for evidence of your family members. My brother found this form on-line, and I filled it out for the family members whose names I know - Leibl Korenbaum, Reizel Korenbaum, Liba Waszerstrom, Reuven Zylberkant, David Zylberkant. The forms request details about the person's life (such as date of birth, last address, married or single, number of children), for most of which I had to fill in "unknown". You also must certify that you are a family member of the person you are looking for, and if not, send a power of attorney form authorizing you to access the information.

It said it would be 6-8 weeks before our query is answered, and any documents will be sent to the address I gave. So now we wait.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A false lead

This morning I got an email from my Russian translator. She was able to read the 1874 birth certificate, which she says was written in "old Russian" and sent me the following translation:

At 8am on April 15th (27th), 1874  Mendel Kershenbaum (34 years of age) living in Radlin of Gorno Gmina (Gmina means 'county') appeared personally (at the vital statistics office?) together with Maneli Rubinshtein (45 years of age) and Mikhel Shafir (26 years of age) living in (???) to present a boy and to announce his birth in the village of Radlin on April 7th(19th) of the current year at 8pm. The boy's mother was his (Mendel's) lawful wife Udli Shlyamovich (could be Shiyamovich, I did a search and both last names exist) (25 years of age). Some words in the last sentence are unclear, but the main meaning is The boy was given a name Leibus.
Signatures of the ones appeared.

So this is not "our" Leibl. But I am fascinated by this document - that the father needed to present the baby and two witnesses (attesting to the parent's identity?), and that this occurred 8 days after the baby's birth, which would have been appropriate to the Jewish tradition of not giving a baby a name or presenting him in public until after the bris on the 8th day. Hopefully we will somehow find similar documents for our family members, as they will obviously be treasure-troves of information.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

It takes a village

On Jewishgen, in the Jewish Records Index-Poland, I find the following:
Bodzentyn 1869-73,77-84
Kielce Gubernia / Kielce Province
Located at 50°57’ 20°58’
Last updated January 2000

It’s the wrong part of Poland, and the wrong year. We think that “our” Leibl Korenbaum was born in Siedlce, and was either a twin or close in age to my grandmother, who was born in 1889 or 1890. This Lejbus Korenbaum was born in Kielce Province in 1874. But the name is so close (Lejbus and Leibl are variations of the same Yiddish name) and we know that my great-grandfather Kalman was wandering during those years. Maybe if we can see this record, we can learn something helpful. At this point, I have given up on finding anything easily, and have realized we need to cast a wider net.

This record, unlike the others I have found, is not in Poland, but is held in the archives of the Mormon church. Apparently, as part of their missionizing efforts, the Mormons have traveled the world copying vital records, and copies of some (but not all) Polish records are held at the Mormon church in Salt Lake City.

A friend’s brother lives in Salt Lake City, and is a semi-professional genealogist. I ask him if he can get a copy of the record. After three or four emails back and forth (I don’t really understand what I’m asking for, and give him the wrong information at first), I give him the film number listed for this record (which I now understand is the number of the microfilm page on which this record is located). A few days later, an email arrives with a photo of the record:

I am stunned. I don’t know why, I should have thought of this, but I haven’t. Of course, the document is hand-written in a language I can’t read. (Is it Russian? Polish? I’m not sure.) This is not a formal 20th century birth certificate. It is a page from a ledger, written by a 19th century clerk. I am amazed that my friend was able to find it. (I realize now why the film number was so important).

What do we do with this document? How do we turn it into something useful?

I send it on to my father and cousin Rich. Rich shows it to some foreign language professors at the college where he works; one thinks it may be Flemish. My father says no, it must be Russian, because the area was in Russian control during those years. He shows it to an acquantaince, who has trouble making out the writing and thinks the name is something other than Korenbaum. I show it to a friend who can read basic Russian, and he confirms that it is Russian, but the letters are different than modern ones. He deciphers the name Leibush Korenbaum, but can’t make out much else.

I worry that I will never know what's in all of these documents that we are finding. But then I remember that wonderful solution to any modern problem: Facebook. I post to Facebook: Can anyone translate from Polish and/or Russian?  Several friends respond. No one I know can translate, but my friends have friends who may be able to help. So I email this birth certificate to one friend-of-a-friend, and I email Liba’s property deed to another friend-of-a-friend.

I also email friends and ask if anyone knows someone who can translate from Yiddish. Three people refer me to the same man, who runs the Yiddish club at the JCC. He says he will be happy to help translate the inscriptions on the photos, but he’s away for the summer. He offers to meet me in August, and translate whatever documents I have at that point.

So now I wait. My next steps are dependent on the kindness of strangers. Apparently, it takes a village to research family history; a village, the Mormons, and good technology.

Sarah’s mother, Part II

On Jewishgen, you can look for other people searching for similar family names. I have mostly come up with dead-ends with this tool. The people looking for Korenbaums are people I already know; there is one person looking for Zylberken (my grandfather’s family name) but they didn’t respond to my email; the people looking for Wasserstroms did answer my email, but had no Liba in their family tree and did not have any information on anyone in their family being in Sosnowica.
After finding a possible birth record for Sarah’s mother, I looked for anyone searching for Wodinski’s. I found someone searching for Wodinski in Siedlce, and sent an email. A few days later, I received this reply:
My parents came to Israel from the area where the town Siedlice is located. It is less than 50 miles from Warsaw. My father's family is Wodynski, and the town they lived in is called Stochek, not far from the town Siedlice. My mother is also from the same town. I know that they mentioned a lot of relatives who lived in Siedlice. I do not know Chana Wodynski, but I am sure she is from "our" Wodynski family - the location points it out.
Unfortunately, there is no one to ask. All the Wodynski's I know of passed away (some of them only in the last decade). There was a large "branch" of the Wodynskis in the States - they spell their name "Wodinsky" and lived in Boston, LA and surroundings. My mother who is still with us, is not in a position to remember - she is almost 97 years old.
I am sorry I cannot confirm the relation. I think you should also try the "witness pages" of YAD VASHEM in Jerusalem - I think you can do it using the internet.
If you find something of value, please do not hesitate to share it with us

I look at Yad Vashem, and find lots of Wodinski's from the town of Stochek. I do not find Chana Wodinski. But I also do not know what name she would have been using, or if she was still alive when the Nazis arrived. Her married name would have been Zylberkant, but did divorced women keep their married names in Poland in 1880? Or would she have remarried? More stories we will never know. But I feel some sort of satisfaction; at least I have been able to give her a place and a family. She is no longer an empty space in the family story.

Bialystok home for the aged

The return address on the 1937 postcard from Reizel is a street address in Bialystok, followed by the words “Dom Starcow”, which translate as “home for the aged”. Bialystok is a big city, and at the time, it was one of the major centers of Jewish life in Poland. What was Reizel doing there? And how did she end up in a home for the aged (rather than living with family, as most people seem to have done in those days)?  We may never be able to answer these questions, but given the size and importance of the Bialystok Jewish community, I know that there must have been records from these communal organizations. The question is – did any of these records survive the war?
There is an extensive web-page for the Bialystok Region Jewish Genealogy Group.  Volunteers have translated, indexed and posted numerous documents, including the 1938 Bialystok telephone directory, the 1946 list of survivors from Bialystok, a “Bialystok martyrs list”, business directories from 1895, 1903, and 1929, the 1897 Russian census of the region, the list of Bialystok children transported from Theresenstadt to Auschwitz in 1943, a list of property seized between 1945-49, and a list of names from a yahrzeit list compiled by the Bialystoker center in New York City. With the wonders of modern technology, I can sit at my computer in Arizona and, within 30 minutes, check all these lists for our relatives. There are no Korenbaums on any of them. I also don’t find anything that mentions a Jewish old age home, although there are dozens of books about Jewish Bialystok. We can probably find something there, but it will take months or years to find and read all of the books.
Jewishgen has a number of listserves for people doing Jewish genealogical research. I post a note to the Bialystok list, asking if anyone can direct me to information about a Bialystok home for the aged.
I receive only one response, from someone named Piotr, who I realize is in Poland. He directs me to an online list of Jewish properties in Bialystok, part of the website of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. I wonder if Piotr works at the museum, but his email signature translates (thank you, Google translate) to “Events for you and your child in Warsaw”.  You never know who’s going to answer when you post to a list like this.
The webpage (in Polish) is labeled: Lista nieruchomości pożydowskich w Białymstoku
There are 30 or 40 properties listed.
About half-way down the list, I find the address from Reizel’s postcard:
ul. Kupiecka 32, mieściła się tam instytucja charytatywna "Cdoko gdejlo"
Google translate tells me that this means: Commerce St 32, housed a charity named “Cdoko gdejlo”.
I email Piotr again; does he have any idea what “Cdoko gdejlo” means? and does he have any idea where I might find more information about these organizations? He answers that it does not sound like Russian or Polish, but might be Yiddish. He says nothing about my second question.
I ask my father if he can figure out what Cdoko gdejlo might be in Yiddish? With his little bit of Polish, he is able to sound out the words, and realizes that they are “Tzedekah Gedalia”.  He speculates that someone named Gedalia gave money to found a charity, or someone founded a charity in Gedalia’s honor or memory. A few days later, I go back to the Museum website, and look around some more. I find a short description of Jewish organizations in Biaystok, that mentions the formation, in 1869, of Cedaka Gedola (Hebrew for “great” or “big” charity), to provide aid to the sick and needy.
There are also several other Jewish organizations nearby:
Kupiecka 21 (dziś ul. Malmeda), z budynkiem Szkoły Żeńskiej Chaima Bogdanowskiego  (Commerce St, now Malmeda Street, the female school building Chaim Bogdanowski)
Kupiecka 27, z budynkiem "Dwir" Mordechaja Bojarskiego (the building of “Dwir” Mordechai Bojarski)
Kupiecka 49, internat Białostockiego Stowarzyszenia dla Opieki nad Sierotami (Bialystok Association for the Care of Orphans)
Kupiecka 42, z budynkiem szkoły Tora we-Daet J.M. Rubinsztajna (the school building, Torah v’daat, J.M. Rubinstein)
From this list, I learn that Jewish communities have not changed much. Jewish schools, social service agencies and homes for the aged are often still located near each other, in “compounds” like this. And then, like now, the agencies were named for the wealthy members of the community.
In terms of our family story, I learn only that Reizel was living in a home owned by a Jewish charity.  Learning more about that charity, and finding any records it left behind, will be a much greater search.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Who is Reizel?

We have two pieces of information about Reizel:
·      An old photograph that was in my grandmother’s papers. My father and aunt both remembered being told that this was a photo of Reizel. My father thought it was a photo of his mother’s mother who had died.  But looking at it now, we realize it is a photo of an older woman. And we know that Reizel was still alive in 1937. So this must be a photo of the woman who raised Gittel.
·      The postcard from Bialystok in 1937.

So who was Reizel Korenbaum?
I had dinner a few weeks ago with Doug and Tanja, Korenbaum cousins who live nearby. They found me through the Korenbaum family tree, and we have become friends. It’s nice to have family around, even though the relationship is a distant one (my great-grandfather and Doug’s great-great-grandmother were siblings). We took out the family tree and studied it together, trying to piece together the stories that they have heard from their branch of the family and the stories I’ve been gathering. We notice that there is a long gap between the siblings of Kalman’s generation – almost 15 years. There must have been other children who died, or perhaps there was a second wife? If the dates are accurate, the first child would have been born when the mother was young (less than 20) and the last when she was 47. While not impossible, it seems odd. Could Reizel have been the second wife? The family story was that Gittel was raised by her grandmother. If Reizel was Kalman’s mother, then she would be that grandmother. But then she would also be the mother of Kalman’s younger sister Channah, Doug’s great-great-grandmother. Tanja remembers that they have boxes of old photos and letters, that others in the family saved. She offers to look through them and see if there are any pictures of Channah and her mother, or of anyone who looks like the picture of Reizel.
I email this theory to Rich, the family historian. No, he says, he’s never heard of a second wife in that generation. As far as he knows, there was only one mother. And the dates are accurate, he says. They were written in a family bible, which unfortunately, has disappeared. The last person who had it donated it to a synagogue in the 1970’s, and Rich has not been able to locate it. According to that bible, Kalman was born in 1855. If Reizel had given birth to Kalman, when (let’s guess) she was 20, she would have been almost 100 when she wrote that letter in 1937. That seems unlikely.
Rich suggests that maybe Kalman remarried after being widowed, and Reizel, his second wife, raised his children as her own. This would fit with Liba’s being her daughter. If Reizel was a widow with a small child, she might have remarried and raised her daughter and her husband’s as siblings.
I tell my Dad these theories. “No, no,” he says adamantly, “Kalman never remarried.” Gittel never mentioned her father marrying again, and Usha, the cousin he interviewed in 1972, also said that Kalman never remarried.  My dad goes on, “He was a drunk. Who would have married him?” as if that fact is all we need to end the discussion.
But Kalman was in Warsaw (we think); Reizel was in Bialystok (at least in 1937). Maybe he did remarry and no one knew?
As I think about this more, I come up with a third theory. For years, my father was certain that his mother was raised by her mother’s family. Could Reizel have been her mother’s mother? Could Liba have been her mother’s younger sister (because in the photos she looks young)? But Reizel’s name is Korenbaum. What if Kalman had married a Korenbaum cousin? We know this did happen – Doug’s grandparents were first cousins (both Korenbaums) who were married to each other, in an arranged marriage. But we also know that all of Kalman’s siblings stayed in Maloryta, and married other people from the same town. Why would he break this pattern? Could he have left to marry a cousin elsewhere in Poland? We know that Kalman was the only sibling who left Maloryta, but we don’t know when (before or after his wife died). How did he end up in Warsaw? And how did Reizel end up in Bialystok?
None of the theories really make any sense. We need more information.


My grandmother came to America in 1920, aboard the SS Stockholm, sailing from Gothelburg, Sweden.
On the ship’s manifest, she is listed as Gitla Zilberken, age 31; last permanent address: Ostrow, Poland. Under “name and address of nearest relative in country whence alien came, it says “Sister: Liba Waszerterow, Sosnowiec.”  (All three of these things will turn out to be inaccurate.)
What? Who is Liba? As far as we know, Gittel did not have a sister. I thought I was looking for a brother named Leibl.
When I saw the ships manifest a few months ago, it was the first time I had heard this name. When I asked my father if this could have been a mistake, he says, “oh, yes, there was definitely a Liba, but I don’t know much about her.”  He thinks Liba’s name was Wasserstein, which in English might have been changed to Waterstone. He thinks that his mother spent part of her childhood in Bialystok, and then, when she was close to marriage-age, was sent to Liba in Sosnowica (which, he cautions me, should not be confused with Sosnowiec, a big city elsewhere in Poland). He thinks that she was living in Sosnowica, a small village near Ostrowa, when her marriage to his father (who lived in Ostrowa) was arranged.
I looked at Jewishgen for Liba Wasserstein, or Waszerterow. I look at Yad Vashem. Nothing.
But it turns out I am looking for the wrong name.
My father’s sister Bea, who was much closer to their mother, seems to have known more about Liba. In Bea’s memoirs, she writes that her mother was raised by her aunt, Liba. She also says that Gittel learned how to manage a household from Liba, and that the stitching on Gittel’s prized possession, a feather comforter she brought with her from Poland, had been done by Liba. I read these stories a week after Bea’s death. I realize that not only have we lost Bea, but we have lost all the stories that she knew. Bea was the one who sat with her mother at the kitchen table of their Lower East Side apartment. While my father was roaming the streets or lost in his books, Bea and Gittel would read the Forward, laughing and crying over the letters in the Bintel Brief, and searching the paper each day for names of family members who had disappeared. Bea was the one who stayed nearby to her mother, the keeper of her mother’s stories. And they are gone now. She left us a phenomenal gift in her written memoirs. My grandmother comes alive in those stories in ways she never has for me before, but I am so, so, sad that I waited too long to ask Bea directly.
After Bea’s funeral last month, going through old photos, we find four photos that we realize are the same woman, at different ages. On the back of two of the photos (the two in which she is older) are long inscriptions in Yiddish; all I can make out is that the last name in the signature is “Wasserstrom”. On one of the photos, in English characters, there is also the word “Sosnowica” and the year 1928. My cousin Amy looks at them, and says, “Those are Liba. I’m named for her. My Hebrew name is Chanah Liba.” Amy thinks (based on what she remembers Bea telling her) that Reizel raised Gittel, and that Liba was Gittel’s “favorite cousin” and may have been Reizel’s daughter. We will have to find someone to translate the Yiddish, and see if there are any explanations hidden in these inscriptions.

A few weeks later, a package arrives from my father. He has sent me copies of all the documents he has: ship’s manifests, naturalization papers, social security applications, birth certificates for himself, his sister, and all of us children. In the midst of the pile, I find an official-looking document in polish. The only words I can make out are Liba Wasersztrum, and Sosnowica. Using Google Translate, I figure out that this is some sort of property deed from 1935, declaring that Liba Wasersztrum owns a home in Sosnowica. What is this document? and why would my grandmother have it?  Now I realize I need a polish translator also.

 Over the last few months, Liba has gone from a mysterious name on a ship’s manifest to a central character in my grandmother’s story. I realize that, whoever she was, she was clearly the person my grandmother was closest to. Of the five or six photographs Gittel had from Poland, four are of Liba. She has a property deed of Liba’s. She listed Liba as her next-of-kin when she left Poland, and not her father, or her brother, or her husband’s family who she had been living with for the last five years.
But now we know the right name, the right town, and we have some of Liba’s own writings to decipher.  So maybe now we can begin to find what we’re looking for.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sarah's mother

My aunt Sarah was the only child of my grandfather’s first marriage. It was an arranged marriage, and my grandfather later claimed that he was not told his wife had epilepsy. He divorced her and she went back to her family, in a village elsewhere. Sarah was raised by my grandfather’s family, the Zylberkants. Who in the family raised her? This I don’t know. According to my father and his other sister, Sarah and their mother were not close; they did not have a mother-daughter relationship. But I know she was close to the Zylberkants, refusing to leave Poland when my grandfather sent for her and his wife, and choosing to stay with them instead. She did come to America several years later, and then – remarkably – went back to Poland to visit in 1931. Clearly, she missed these people, and they were important to her.
Her birth mother was always an empty space in the family stories. She seemed to have just disappeared. No one knew her name, no one seemed to have kept in touch with her. My father remembers Sarah telling him that she met her mother only once. On the way to America, she stopped at her mother’s village. (Where was it?) She described the meeting as unemotional. As my father re-tells it, he told her, it was like “oh, so you’re the mother” and “oh, so you’re the daughter.” And that was that.
As my father started sorting through papers recently, he found a copy of Sarah’s application for a social security number. The form asks for her mother’s name. The beginnings of a word are written and crossed out. I think it says “Gussie” (Gittel’s name in America). Next to that is written, “Chana Wodinski”.
On a whim, I type “Wodinski” into Jewishgen. I have had little luck finding other members of the family, but this name is so new to me that I decide it’s worth a try. There are very few records (only 24), compared to other family names I have searched for. Of these, several are names that are not even close (Bodanski). But there are 14 records from Siedlce Gubernia, the area of Poland that I now know many people in our family came from. 
And there she is.
Chana Rojza Wodynska. Born 1885. Siedlce Gubernia, Warszawa Province.
I got goosebumps when I saw this. It is the first time I have found a record of a specific person in our family.  One empty space, however peripheral, may have been filled.
My father says the name is a Russian form of the name, so this must have been when the area was in Russian control. Male names ended in “ski” and female names in “ska”.
I will add this to the list of records to order from Poland.


Jewishgen is a Jewish geneaological website. On this site, you can search by name, town or type of records.
A search for “Korenbaum” in Poland turns up 377 matches. But most of these are names that sound like Korenbaum (Grynbaum, for example). A search for is exactly Korenbaum gives 33 matches:
1 record from Kielce Gubernia (Kielce administrative district)
3 records from Piotrkow Gubernia
4 records from Radom Gubernia
4 records from Siedlce Gubernia
5 records from Warszawa Gubernia
9 records from Stanislawow Wojewodstwa
6 records in Jewishgen Family Finder (where people can list who they are searching for)
1 record from the Warszawa Gubernia voters lists, 1907

The 6 records for people searching for Korenbaums are two people (distant cousins) we already know, and me.
The other records are from Polish Birth, Marriage and Death records that have been indexed. (I am not sure by whom or when.) I am trying to find birth or marriage or death certificates for Gittel, Leibl, or Kalman.
I have no idea which region of Poland I am looking for. I think we are looking for Korenbaums in either Maloryta, Wlodowa or Warsaw, but I am not sure what provinces these are in. These are the places where we know the family lived. I am also looking for records from Ostrowa Lubelski, where my grandfather’s family was from and where my grandparents lived after their marriage. The years I am interested in are not indexed here. But it seems that most of these records are missing or were destroyed in the war. The Korenbaums that are listed here are people I have never heard of, mostly from the mid-to-late 1800’s.
Then my father tells me that on his mother’s naturalization papers, she listed her birthplace as “Shedlitza”. She told him that she was not born in the town of Shedlitza, but in the administrative district of Shedlitza, which in Polish is spelled Siedlce.
So I look again at the records from Siedlce Gubernia. And I find this:

Miedzyrzec Podlaski PSA BMD1869-1901
Siedlce Gubernia / Lublin Province
(records in Fond 1762 in Lublin Archive)
Located at 51°59’ 22°47’
Last updated May 2008

At first I think – oh my god, I’ve found my grandmother. The place is right, the date is right. But then I look more closely – this is a death certificate (Type: D). And then I realize – this must be the relative my grandmother was named after. (And so, in some ways, therefore, am I.) This Gitla Korenbaum died in 1887 in the town of Miedzyrzec Podlaski (pronounced, my father tells me, Mezrich), Siedlce region, Lublin Province, Poland. My grandmother Chai Gittel Korenbaum was born 2 or 3 years later, in the same region (possibly the same town?). There is also another Chai Gittel in the family, a cousin born around the same time. Perhaps they were both named for this woman. It would fit with Jewish tradition, naming a new baby after someone who had recently died, and adding Chai (life) – so that her name would mean: Gittel lives on.
If we can look at the original document, there may be important information here. But to look at the original document, we need to order it from Poland, a complicated process. This will have to wait. But I start to feel like maybe we will find something, like maybe it will be possible to fill in some of the pieces of story.

A postcard from Reizel

We know that my grandmother’s mother died when she was very young. The story is that she was crossing the Bug River on a sled. Some peasants had cut holes in the ice for fishing, and the sled fell into the ice and she drowned. There may or may not have been others with her, including other children. Because their father fell apart, and could not care for them, my grandmother and her brother were then raised by other relatives. My father always thought they were raised by their mother’s family, probably by their maternal grandmother. When he asked his mother what her mother’s name was, she said Reizel. So he thought that Reizel was the woman who drowned in the river.
Going through family papers, my father found a postcard in Yiddish. He doesn’t remember where or when he found it.   
When he finally had it translated, this is what it said:
TO: Mrs. Chaie Gittel Silberman
82-84 Sheriff  St.
New York

Reizel Korenbaum
Kupiecka  (Commerce st.) 32
Dom starow (home for the aged)

Postmark: 11VII3728
Sunday the 7.12 Bialystok
To my dear daughter Chai Gittel and good health to the grandchildren.
I am in good health. Dear Daughter, you will be surprised because of my sudden writing this letter to you. I have no choice but to turn to you. As you know Leibl Lager (?) has got a match for his oldest girl. She is already "dating" some years a very accomplished young man only they will need some help with an apartment and some furniture for them to be able to marry. So I am asking you dear daughter to turn to Freidel's (?) sister, who might be able to help out and maybe you can also help. I am not asking anything for myself. I will accomplish this as helping a couple to marry is one of the greatest things.
Stay healthy from your faithful mother, mother in law, Grandmother Reizel Korenbaum.

If Reizel is writing from Bialystok in 1937, she is clearly not the mother who died young. And her last name is Korenbaum, so she is not from the mother’s side of the family. Could she be a grandmother? Aunt? Cousin? Did Kalman remarry and Reizel, his second wife, raised his children as her own?
There is no one named Reizel in the extensive family tree that the Korenbaum cousins have compiled.
And what is she doing in Bialystok? As far as we know, no one in the Korenbaum family lived in Bialystok. It is a big city, far from the places where the family was – Maloryta, Wlodowa, Warsaw (100 miles from Warsaw).
Whoever she is, she clearly thinks of Gittel as her daughter. And she is clearly in touch with Leibl.
And who is Freidel? And who is her sister who Gittel would have been in touch with in the US? Again, there is no one with this name in the family tree.
Why would her writing be considered “sudden”? Were they not in touch? Or was it the request for money that made the letter unusual?
The more we find, the more confusing it gets.

The dysfunctional branch of the family

If we come from such a large family, why didn’t we know them? Why didn’t we have contact with them?
As I’ve learned more the last few years, I have a new understanding of this. Most of the Korenbaums who came to the United States are descendants of one branch of the family -- a group of siblings and cousins who helped each other come from Poland and settled together in Rhode Island. They had all come from the village of Maloryta, on the Russia-Poland border, and when they came to the US, they lived near each other and stayed close. Their children and grandchildren grew up together, although they later scattered across the US.
My grandmother, who was a first cousin to these Korenbaum’s, was not part of this group. She came to the United States to be with her husband, who had gone to NYC. My father was aware of the relatives in Rhode Island, but he only met them once, when he asked to meet the family and traveled to Rhode Island, before he went into the army. There were a few cousins in New York, and my aunt remembers visiting them on Coney Island every summer.
My father says his mother was in touch with the family, but didn’t see them much. Why? His parents were poor and couldn’t travel to family events. And he thought my grandmother was embarrassed because they (she and her husband) fought all the time, so she kept her distance from the extended family.
But the more I learn about their lives, the more I realize that the pattern was set long before this. Most of the family was in Maloryta. After their mother’s death, Chai Gittel and Leibl were raised elsewhere (but where? we aren’t sure). They don’t seem to have visited much, or had much contact with the family.
My father recently sent me a transcript of an interview he did in 1972, with Usha, one of the few cousins left at the time who still remembered life in Poland. Usha says something fascinating, and very sad. He explains that after Kalman’s wife died, leaving him a widower with two small children, Kalman went meshuganeh, a little crazy. And he began to drink. Usha says that Kalman was a tall man, the smartest one in the family, very social. But he became an alcoholic. He was living in Warsaw, and he would come to Maloryta occasionally, but he was always drunk. At some point, Usha’s mother (Kalman’s sister) told him not to come anymore, until he could stop drinking. So he stopped visiting. Before coming to America (in 1907), Usha was living in Warsaw, and somehow Kalman found him. Kalman would come visit him every week at work, and Usha would ask if he could see the children. He knew that there was a boy and a girl, and he thought they were in Warsaw too, but he never met them. He kept asking Kalman to tell him where they lived, but Kalman would never say.
I read this story and I began to understand – we come from the dysfunctional branch of the family. Even in Poland, our line was separate from the family center, cut off by a death, distance and drink. Chai Gittel wasn’t in touch with the large extended Korenbaum family in Rhode Island - a family who grew up together, and took care of each other, and helped each other make it in America – because she was never part of the large extended family in Poland.

The Korenbaums

As a child, I knew that we came from a small family. Although we are 5 siblings, we had few cousins or other extended family. I knew of people who had many generations of family, or talked about cousins 2rd or 3rd cousins, once or twice-removed, but these were not categories that were part of my own experience. I knew that my father spent a lot of time researching family history; I have memories of being a little child and being taken to visit people (mostly older, Yiddish-speaking) who he had found or wanted to interview. I vaguely remember someone saying (or maybe I just heard the story later?), when my father walked into the room: “wow. you look just like my mother.” and someone (in a different place, years earlier) saying, “we thought all of Kalman’s line were dead.” But I didn’t understand who these people were, or how they were related to us. They were not people who were actively involved in our lives, and we were not involved with theirs. So it seemed strange to me that my father spent so much time and effort tracking them down. Our family was gone, killed in the Holocaust, and whoever these people were, their connection to us seemed distant and far-removed from my life.  Or so it seemed to me, as a child.
And then, when I was in my late 20’s, my father and some others who had been researching the family history put together a family tree. It was more than a family tree; it was a book. It was 30 pages long, and there were hundreds of people listed. And most of them were not dead. All of a sudden (or so it felt to me), our family was not all alone, we were not the sole survivors, we had a history that went back farther than two generations. We were, in fact, part of an extensive extended family. All those years, I had pictured our family tree as a single vertical line. In fact, we were part of a vast network that branched out vertically and horizontally in a complicated web.  All those people my father had been interviewing and finding all over the world were Korenbaums. They were all descended from the siblings of my great-grandfather Kalman Korenbaum; they were all cousins of my grandmother Chai Gittel.
At the Korenbaum Family Reunion, held in Rhode Island in  2003, there were over 100 people. The only people I knew there were my parents, my siblings, my aunt and my first cousins. The rest of these people were all strangers to me, but they were all somehow “family”. This would take some getting used to.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The story I know

This is the family history, on my father’s side, as I knew it, before starting this project.
My father was born to immigrant parents in the Lower East Side of New York. They were poor, and never really learned to speak English. My father remembers that their first apartment shared a hall bath with other families, and that he slept on the couch. I heard this story my whole childhood, until my aunt, hearing my father tell us (yet again, although apparently for the first time in her presence) about the couch, commented: “We didn’t have a couch.” “Then where did I sleep?” my Dad asked. She replied, “I don’t know. We had a chair, maybe you slept in the chair.”
My grandfather Moshe had been married once before. When his first child, my Aunt Sarah, was very little (2 or 3) he divorced her mother, because she was epileptic and he claimed not to have known this before the (arranged) marriage. She went back to her family’s village, and his family raised Sarah. Sometime after this, Moshe married my grandmother Chai Gittel. This was also an arranged marriage. The family story was that both were considered “damaged goods” – he because he was blind in one eye (and was divorced with a young child? this was never mentioned to us as a factor); she because she had been sick as a child and her hair had fallen out, although it later grew back (and also because her mother had died when she was a baby and her father became an alcoholic? This was also not mentioned). Moshe was a “restless sort” and left their town of Ostrowa Lubelski for America in 1914, leaving behind his wife, 5 year-old daughter and 2 infant sons. He promised he would send for the family soon, but World War I broke out and no one could leave. My grandmother endured horrible conditions during the war, including the death of her two small sons, who died of starvation. After the war, he was finally able to send for her, and she arrived in America in the early 1920’s. My aunt Sarah did not want to leave the family, and chose not to come to the US at this time. A few years later, at the age of 16, she changed her mind and joined her father and step-mother, although she never lived in the same house as them.  My aunt and father were born in New York City, the first Americans in our branch of the family.
On my father’s side, I grew up with two aunts and a few cousins. My paternal grandparents died before I was born. As far as I knew, they – and one of my grandfather’s cousins who escaped through the woods and joined the partisans - were the only family to escape the Holocaust, simply because they were already gone by then. “The letters stopped coming”, was what I remember hearing, and no one in the extended family was ever heard from again. I never thought to ask, “letters from who?” “When did they stop?” “Did the earlier letters describe what was happening?” Mostly, I was haunted by a sense of absence. We had little extended family, and I knew this was not a natural occurrence. But I never thought much about what was missing. Asking questions about the past led quickly to a very dark place, a place of deep mourning and sadness, but I never quite knew for what.

Where Leibl is not

There is no record of Leibl Korenbaum, or of any Korenbaums, in the Yad Vashem listing of Holocaust victims. There is no Leibl Korenbaum, or even L Korenbaum, in the records indexed on Jewishgen, the Jewish genealogy website, where many of the surviving records from Jewish Poland have been archived. There are no Korenbaums in the listings from the Warsaw ghetto, the Warsaw death notices, the Warsaw business listings, or the 1907 Warsaw province voter lists.
We know he worked at a newspaper. My mother asks a colleague who grew up in Warsaw, and was hidden as a child, if there is a list of Jewish newspapers. She tells us there were dozens of them.  And we do not know if Leibl was a writer. The only record that might have survived would be if he had a by-line in a newspaper that somehow was preserved in an archive. I am overwhelmed, thinking about how we could look for such a thing.
I start to wonder if Leibl really existed. On the ship’s manifest for Gittel’s arrival in America, she lists her next-of-kin as Liba Waszerterow, of Sosnowica, and calls her a sister.  I call my father and ask, “Could this be Leibl? Could there somehow have been a mistake? Was Leibl a sister? Or was her description of her brother mistranslated in the manifest?” “No,” he tells me, “Liba is someone else. She spent part of her childhood with Liba. Bea even had a picture of Liba.”
So we seem to have come to a dead-end. We can find no record of Leibl or his family. Their names have disappeared. All we have is the one photo. And then I start to understand. If I want to find Leibl, I need to find the world he lived in. If I want to find Leibl, I need to find Gittel.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Real things

My father recently told me this story:

At some point, his mother, Chai Gittel/Gussie, had broken her hip. The doctors repaired it, but some time later, it became necrotic (he thinks this is the word they used), and she was hospitalized for an extended time, while the doctors treated the problem. He was living in Ohio at the time (this would have been the mid-1940's), and came to see her in New York. Knowing that she could only read yiddish (not English), he stopped at a yiddish book store and bought her a book of Shalom Aleichem stories, so she would have something to read in the hospital. She read a few pages of the book, and told him: "Take it back." "But mama," he said, "this is Shalom Aleichem, the greatest yiddish writer there is." "I don't want to read about the life I lived. I want to read about real things. Go back and get me a book about the miracles of the Baal Shem Tov." And so he did. And she was happy, and read the stories in that book over and over again.

Researching family history is like this. We are not interested in the stories we lived. We want to know about the "real things", the miracles and mysteries, the things we can never fully know or understand, the people we never met, or the stories that show us that we never really knew the people we thought we knew. Those are the real things. Those are the stories we seek.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Looking for Leibl

There is a photo that haunted my childhood. It was a photo of our extended family, taken by our aunt, during a visit back to her childhood home in Poland. Twenty or thirty people, ranging in age from toddlers to the elderly, posing formally, with the patriarch, my great-grandfather Reuven Zylberkant, seated in the middle. Everyone in this photo was related to me, and everyone in this photo, except for my aunt, who returned soon after to the U.S., was killed in the Holocaust.
In my memory, the picture was large, taking up the entire mantle piece of the fireplace, where – in my memory – it sat for years. Many years later, when I mentioned this to my father, he said that the photo was not that large, and was only displayed for a few months. But it haunted me – these people who had disappeared, this image of the old country, all this family I never knew. But mostly it haunted me that so many lives had been taken so quickly, that they all posed for this picture thinking that life would continue as they had always known it, but within a few years, they, and their village, and the entire Jewish way of life there, were gone, simply gone, destroyed by an evil I could never understand.
Recently, another photo has come to haunt me. When my son was born 5 years ago, I wanted to continue the Jewish tradition of naming him in memory of family members who had died. But there were already other children named for all of my grandparents. I asked my father – who had spent decades researching the family history – if there were any family members who had not been remembered in this way, any family names that had disappeared in the Holocaust and were no longer in use. He mentioned Leibl, my grandmother’s brother. Since I had been named for this grandmother – Chai Gittel – it seemed fitting to name my child for her lost brother. And so we gave him the middle name of “Ari”, the Hebrew translation of Leibl (Lion).
I remembered vaguely hearing of this great-Uncle before, but I confess I wasn’t paying that much attention. I knew that he was my grandmother’s brother, and that he had been killed in the Holocaust. Now that my child carried his name, I asked for more details. I learned that we knew little: Leibl was my grandmother’s brother, possibly her twin. Their mother died when they were young, and they were raised by other relatives, most likely separately. When the war broke out, Leibl was living in Warsaw, with his wife and seven children, working for a newspaper. At some point, the letters stopped coming, and they were all assumed to be dead.
To my great surprise, I also discovered that my Aunt (my father’s other sister) had a picture that she thought was Leibl, his wife and three of their children. Two things are particularly striking to me about this picture: the babies look so much like the baby picture of my own father, and Leibl looks like a man with some resources, he wears a well-cared-for suit, there is a confidence in his expression, he is a man comfortable with himself and comfortable with his place in society. This is so different than the few photos of my grandmother, who always looks sad and beaten down by life.
And I realized that I want to know more about these two siblings – my grandmother, whose name I carry, and her brother, whose name my son carries - who they were, how they lived, what happened to them. I want to know how they disappeared, but more than how they died, I want to know how they lived.
I’ll share what I learn in this blog, so that the family history will be recorded, and because others might find it interesting also.