Thursday, June 30, 2011

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.

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