Sunday, July 3, 2011


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.

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