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.