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.