Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Liba's property in Sosnowica

I just heard back from the friend-of-a-friend who helped with a translation from Polish. In the stack of papers that my father sent me several weeks ago, I had found a Polish document with Liba Waszerstrum's name in it. Through google-translate, I was able to make out that it had something to do with property.

I now have the full translation:

Government Of the Municipality of Woloskowla                           September 25, 1935


This governing body hereby declares that the woman who lives in the settlement of “Sosnowica” of this municipality – Liba Wasersztrum owns a house and a plot of land on which the house sits. Beyond this she possess nothing else in her estate, she is ‘in a poor state’.

This notification was prepared for Wasersztrum Liba who personally received it.

Signatures of officials of the gov. office
M Zielinski
J. Martyniuk

So now I know what the words mean. But what does the document mean? What does it mean that Liba was "in a poor state"? Why did she need this document? and why did Gittel have a copy? and why is this one of the only things that was saved, when all the other letters are gone (destroyed or lost, we will never know)?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bad Arolsen

My brother found a reference to The International Tracing Service, at Bad Arolsen, Germany. This is the largest archive of Holocaust related documents. Here is the description from Wikipedia:

The International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen, Germany, is the internationally governed archive whose task it is to document the fate of millions of civilian victims of Nazi Germany. The documents in the ITS archives include original records from concentration camps, details of forced labour, and files on displaced persons. ITS preserves the original documents and clarifies the fate of those persecuted by the Nazis. Since November 2007, the archives are accessible for researchers.
ITS was founded in 1943 as an organization dedicated to finding missing persons, typically lost to family and friends as a result of war or political unrest during World War II. The service operates under the legal authority of the Bonn Agreement, is under the administrative umbrella of the International 
Committee of the Red Cross and is funded by the government of Germany.

ITS’s total inventory comprises 26,000 linear metres of original documents from the Nazi era and post-war period, 225,000 meters of microfilm and more than 100,000 microfiches. Work is underway to digitize the files, both for purposes of easier search and for preserving the historical record.

The documents in the archive were only made available to the public in 2007, after years of controversy. I remember hearing about this, and wondering if there might be some information there on our missing relatives. Although the documents have been digitized, it is still not possible to access them on-line. (This too has been a source of controversy, angering survivors and families.)  But it is possible to fill out a form and request that the ITS staffers search for evidence of your family members. My brother found this form on-line, and I filled it out for the family members whose names I know - Leibl Korenbaum, Reizel Korenbaum, Liba Waszerstrom, Reuven Zylberkant, David Zylberkant. The forms request details about the person's life (such as date of birth, last address, married or single, number of children), for most of which I had to fill in "unknown". You also must certify that you are a family member of the person you are looking for, and if not, send a power of attorney form authorizing you to access the information.

It said it would be 6-8 weeks before our query is answered, and any documents will be sent to the address I gave. So now we wait.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A false lead

This morning I got an email from my Russian translator. She was able to read the 1874 birth certificate, which she says was written in "old Russian" and sent me the following translation:

At 8am on April 15th (27th), 1874  Mendel Kershenbaum (34 years of age) living in Radlin of Gorno Gmina (Gmina means 'county') appeared personally (at the vital statistics office?) together with Maneli Rubinshtein (45 years of age) and Mikhel Shafir (26 years of age) living in (???) to present a boy and to announce his birth in the village of Radlin on April 7th(19th) of the current year at 8pm. The boy's mother was his (Mendel's) lawful wife Udli Shlyamovich (could be Shiyamovich, I did a search and both last names exist) (25 years of age). Some words in the last sentence are unclear, but the main meaning is The boy was given a name Leibus.
Signatures of the ones appeared.

So this is not "our" Leibl. But I am fascinated by this document - that the father needed to present the baby and two witnesses (attesting to the parent's identity?), and that this occurred 8 days after the baby's birth, which would have been appropriate to the Jewish tradition of not giving a baby a name or presenting him in public until after the bris on the 8th day. Hopefully we will somehow find similar documents for our family members, as they will obviously be treasure-troves of information.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

It takes a village

On Jewishgen, in the Jewish Records Index-Poland, I find the following:
Bodzentyn 1869-73,77-84
Kielce Gubernia / Kielce Province
Located at 50°57’ 20°58’
Last updated January 2000

It’s the wrong part of Poland, and the wrong year. We think that “our” Leibl Korenbaum was born in Siedlce, and was either a twin or close in age to my grandmother, who was born in 1889 or 1890. This Lejbus Korenbaum was born in Kielce Province in 1874. But the name is so close (Lejbus and Leibl are variations of the same Yiddish name) and we know that my great-grandfather Kalman was wandering during those years. Maybe if we can see this record, we can learn something helpful. At this point, I have given up on finding anything easily, and have realized we need to cast a wider net.

This record, unlike the others I have found, is not in Poland, but is held in the archives of the Mormon church. Apparently, as part of their missionizing efforts, the Mormons have traveled the world copying vital records, and copies of some (but not all) Polish records are held at the Mormon church in Salt Lake City.

A friend’s brother lives in Salt Lake City, and is a semi-professional genealogist. I ask him if he can get a copy of the record. After three or four emails back and forth (I don’t really understand what I’m asking for, and give him the wrong information at first), I give him the film number listed for this record (which I now understand is the number of the microfilm page on which this record is located). A few days later, an email arrives with a photo of the record:

I am stunned. I don’t know why, I should have thought of this, but I haven’t. Of course, the document is hand-written in a language I can’t read. (Is it Russian? Polish? I’m not sure.) This is not a formal 20th century birth certificate. It is a page from a ledger, written by a 19th century clerk. I am amazed that my friend was able to find it. (I realize now why the film number was so important).

What do we do with this document? How do we turn it into something useful?

I send it on to my father and cousin Rich. Rich shows it to some foreign language professors at the college where he works; one thinks it may be Flemish. My father says no, it must be Russian, because the area was in Russian control during those years. He shows it to an acquantaince, who has trouble making out the writing and thinks the name is something other than Korenbaum. I show it to a friend who can read basic Russian, and he confirms that it is Russian, but the letters are different than modern ones. He deciphers the name Leibush Korenbaum, but can’t make out much else.

I worry that I will never know what's in all of these documents that we are finding. But then I remember that wonderful solution to any modern problem: Facebook. I post to Facebook: Can anyone translate from Polish and/or Russian?  Several friends respond. No one I know can translate, but my friends have friends who may be able to help. So I email this birth certificate to one friend-of-a-friend, and I email Liba’s property deed to another friend-of-a-friend.

I also email friends and ask if anyone knows someone who can translate from Yiddish. Three people refer me to the same man, who runs the Yiddish club at the JCC. He says he will be happy to help translate the inscriptions on the photos, but he’s away for the summer. He offers to meet me in August, and translate whatever documents I have at that point.

So now I wait. My next steps are dependent on the kindness of strangers. Apparently, it takes a village to research family history; a village, the Mormons, and good technology.

Sarah’s mother, Part II

On Jewishgen, you can look for other people searching for similar family names. I have mostly come up with dead-ends with this tool. The people looking for Korenbaums are people I already know; there is one person looking for Zylberken (my grandfather’s family name) but they didn’t respond to my email; the people looking for Wasserstroms did answer my email, but had no Liba in their family tree and did not have any information on anyone in their family being in Sosnowica.
After finding a possible birth record for Sarah’s mother, I looked for anyone searching for Wodinski’s. I found someone searching for Wodinski in Siedlce, and sent an email. A few days later, I received this reply:
My parents came to Israel from the area where the town Siedlice is located. It is less than 50 miles from Warsaw. My father's family is Wodynski, and the town they lived in is called Stochek, not far from the town Siedlice. My mother is also from the same town. I know that they mentioned a lot of relatives who lived in Siedlice. I do not know Chana Wodynski, but I am sure she is from "our" Wodynski family - the location points it out.
Unfortunately, there is no one to ask. All the Wodynski's I know of passed away (some of them only in the last decade). There was a large "branch" of the Wodynskis in the States - they spell their name "Wodinsky" and lived in Boston, LA and surroundings. My mother who is still with us, is not in a position to remember - she is almost 97 years old.
I am sorry I cannot confirm the relation. I think you should also try the "witness pages" of YAD VASHEM in Jerusalem - I think you can do it using the internet.
If you find something of value, please do not hesitate to share it with us

I look at Yad Vashem, and find lots of Wodinski's from the town of Stochek. I do not find Chana Wodinski. But I also do not know what name she would have been using, or if she was still alive when the Nazis arrived. Her married name would have been Zylberkant, but did divorced women keep their married names in Poland in 1880? Or would she have remarried? More stories we will never know. But I feel some sort of satisfaction; at least I have been able to give her a place and a family. She is no longer an empty space in the family story.

Bialystok home for the aged

The return address on the 1937 postcard from Reizel is a street address in Bialystok, followed by the words “Dom Starcow”, which translate as “home for the aged”. Bialystok is a big city, and at the time, it was one of the major centers of Jewish life in Poland. What was Reizel doing there? And how did she end up in a home for the aged (rather than living with family, as most people seem to have done in those days)?  We may never be able to answer these questions, but given the size and importance of the Bialystok Jewish community, I know that there must have been records from these communal organizations. The question is – did any of these records survive the war?
There is an extensive web-page for the Bialystok Region Jewish Genealogy Group.  Volunteers have translated, indexed and posted numerous documents, including the 1938 Bialystok telephone directory, the 1946 list of survivors from Bialystok, a “Bialystok martyrs list”, business directories from 1895, 1903, and 1929, the 1897 Russian census of the region, the list of Bialystok children transported from Theresenstadt to Auschwitz in 1943, a list of property seized between 1945-49, and a list of names from a yahrzeit list compiled by the Bialystoker center in New York City. With the wonders of modern technology, I can sit at my computer in Arizona and, within 30 minutes, check all these lists for our relatives. There are no Korenbaums on any of them. I also don’t find anything that mentions a Jewish old age home, although there are dozens of books about Jewish Bialystok. We can probably find something there, but it will take months or years to find and read all of the books.
Jewishgen has a number of listserves for people doing Jewish genealogical research. I post a note to the Bialystok list, asking if anyone can direct me to information about a Bialystok home for the aged.
I receive only one response, from someone named Piotr, who I realize is in Poland. He directs me to an online list of Jewish properties in Bialystok, part of the website of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. I wonder if Piotr works at the museum, but his email signature translates (thank you, Google translate) to “Events for you and your child in Warsaw”.  You never know who’s going to answer when you post to a list like this.
The webpage (in Polish) is labeled: Lista nieruchomości pożydowskich w Białymstoku
There are 30 or 40 properties listed.
About half-way down the list, I find the address from Reizel’s postcard:
ul. Kupiecka 32, mieściła się tam instytucja charytatywna "Cdoko gdejlo"
Google translate tells me that this means: Commerce St 32, housed a charity named “Cdoko gdejlo”.
I email Piotr again; does he have any idea what “Cdoko gdejlo” means? and does he have any idea where I might find more information about these organizations? He answers that it does not sound like Russian or Polish, but might be Yiddish. He says nothing about my second question.
I ask my father if he can figure out what Cdoko gdejlo might be in Yiddish? With his little bit of Polish, he is able to sound out the words, and realizes that they are “Tzedekah Gedalia”.  He speculates that someone named Gedalia gave money to found a charity, or someone founded a charity in Gedalia’s honor or memory. A few days later, I go back to the Museum website, and look around some more. I find a short description of Jewish organizations in Biaystok, that mentions the formation, in 1869, of Cedaka Gedola (Hebrew for “great” or “big” charity), to provide aid to the sick and needy.
There are also several other Jewish organizations nearby:
Kupiecka 21 (dziś ul. Malmeda), z budynkiem Szkoły Żeńskiej Chaima Bogdanowskiego  (Commerce St, now Malmeda Street, the female school building Chaim Bogdanowski)
Kupiecka 27, z budynkiem "Dwir" Mordechaja Bojarskiego (the building of “Dwir” Mordechai Bojarski)
Kupiecka 49, internat Białostockiego Stowarzyszenia dla Opieki nad Sierotami (Bialystok Association for the Care of Orphans)
Kupiecka 42, z budynkiem szkoły Tora we-Daet J.M. Rubinsztajna (the school building, Torah v’daat, J.M. Rubinstein)
From this list, I learn that Jewish communities have not changed much. Jewish schools, social service agencies and homes for the aged are often still located near each other, in “compounds” like this. And then, like now, the agencies were named for the wealthy members of the community.
In terms of our family story, I learn only that Reizel was living in a home owned by a Jewish charity.  Learning more about that charity, and finding any records it left behind, will be a much greater search.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Who is Reizel?

We have two pieces of information about Reizel:
·      An old photograph that was in my grandmother’s papers. My father and aunt both remembered being told that this was a photo of Reizel. My father thought it was a photo of his mother’s mother who had died.  But looking at it now, we realize it is a photo of an older woman. And we know that Reizel was still alive in 1937. So this must be a photo of the woman who raised Gittel.
·      The postcard from Bialystok in 1937.

So who was Reizel Korenbaum?
I had dinner a few weeks ago with Doug and Tanja, Korenbaum cousins who live nearby. They found me through the Korenbaum family tree, and we have become friends. It’s nice to have family around, even though the relationship is a distant one (my great-grandfather and Doug’s great-great-grandmother were siblings). We took out the family tree and studied it together, trying to piece together the stories that they have heard from their branch of the family and the stories I’ve been gathering. We notice that there is a long gap between the siblings of Kalman’s generation – almost 15 years. There must have been other children who died, or perhaps there was a second wife? If the dates are accurate, the first child would have been born when the mother was young (less than 20) and the last when she was 47. While not impossible, it seems odd. Could Reizel have been the second wife? The family story was that Gittel was raised by her grandmother. If Reizel was Kalman’s mother, then she would be that grandmother. But then she would also be the mother of Kalman’s younger sister Channah, Doug’s great-great-grandmother. Tanja remembers that they have boxes of old photos and letters, that others in the family saved. She offers to look through them and see if there are any pictures of Channah and her mother, or of anyone who looks like the picture of Reizel.
I email this theory to Rich, the family historian. No, he says, he’s never heard of a second wife in that generation. As far as he knows, there was only one mother. And the dates are accurate, he says. They were written in a family bible, which unfortunately, has disappeared. The last person who had it donated it to a synagogue in the 1970’s, and Rich has not been able to locate it. According to that bible, Kalman was born in 1855. If Reizel had given birth to Kalman, when (let’s guess) she was 20, she would have been almost 100 when she wrote that letter in 1937. That seems unlikely.
Rich suggests that maybe Kalman remarried after being widowed, and Reizel, his second wife, raised his children as her own. This would fit with Liba’s being her daughter. If Reizel was a widow with a small child, she might have remarried and raised her daughter and her husband’s as siblings.
I tell my Dad these theories. “No, no,” he says adamantly, “Kalman never remarried.” Gittel never mentioned her father marrying again, and Usha, the cousin he interviewed in 1972, also said that Kalman never remarried.  My dad goes on, “He was a drunk. Who would have married him?” as if that fact is all we need to end the discussion.
But Kalman was in Warsaw (we think); Reizel was in Bialystok (at least in 1937). Maybe he did remarry and no one knew?
As I think about this more, I come up with a third theory. For years, my father was certain that his mother was raised by her mother’s family. Could Reizel have been her mother’s mother? Could Liba have been her mother’s younger sister (because in the photos she looks young)? But Reizel’s name is Korenbaum. What if Kalman had married a Korenbaum cousin? We know this did happen – Doug’s grandparents were first cousins (both Korenbaums) who were married to each other, in an arranged marriage. But we also know that all of Kalman’s siblings stayed in Maloryta, and married other people from the same town. Why would he break this pattern? Could he have left to marry a cousin elsewhere in Poland? We know that Kalman was the only sibling who left Maloryta, but we don’t know when (before or after his wife died). How did he end up in Warsaw? And how did Reizel end up in Bialystok?
None of the theories really make any sense. We need more information.


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.