Thursday, June 30, 2011

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.

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