Tag Archives: Family roots

The Fate of Cousins Who I Never Knew

by William Levine (Belmont, MA)

On July 1, 1941 my mother was a popular 17-year-old girl in the insular world of Atlanta’s Jewish community. No doubt she was looking forward to being pursued by her favorite crushes from Georgia Tech’s Jewish frat in the carefree summer of 1941. Mom had also assimilated enough of Dixie culture to be a true Southern Belle, helped by her enrollment in the prestigious citywide Girls High School. Most likely on July 4th, Mom took in the pyrotechnics show in Atlanta that ushered in the day as a Federal holiday.

On July 1, 1941, my mother’s 2nd through 4th cousins, twice removed, the Seligson family of Riga, Latvia, were doomed as the Nazis occupied Latvia’s capital city and rained down hell on its Jews. The Seligsons also most likely witnessed a fiery display on the 4th of July as fellow Latvians burned down Riga’s Chor Synagogue.

On December 8, 1941 my mom most likely listened to President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech via a handsome radio in her well-appointed living room in the affluent Ansley Park section of Atlanta.

December 8th was also a “day of infamy” for the Seligson family, if they were still alive. On that day they may have been among the thousands of Jews killed by the Nazis in the Rumbula Forest just outside of Riga. If so, their last seconds on earth were spent lying in an open pit atop dead Jews and bracing to be shot in the back of the head. By the end of the day the three generations of Seligsons in Riga were gone, murdered on either November 30th or December 8th 1941.

Mom died in 2006 without knowing that she had relatives who had died in the Holocaust.   Of course, I also did not know either, as I relied on her for family history. We had discussed her family and WW II casualties, and Mom said that a distant cousin in the Navy had been killed in action. But she had no inkling of any Holocaust victims.  In 2016, however, my view of a family luckily unscathed by genocide changed.

I received an e-mail from a reader who had viewed my piece in Family Tree magazine describing how a distant minor-celebrity cousin, the late Bert Parks, had led me to my previously unknown Latvian ancestry via a notation in his Wikipedia page. Cousin Bert, the late host of the Miss America pageant, had not given me an introduction to a beauty wearing a tiara, but rather had given me a something better: a clue to my family’s history.

My token fan, Jan, said that she too was related to Bert Parks, so we might be distant cousins.   Shortly after hearing from her, I learned that Jan was my fifth cousin, a discovery based on her family tree spanning eight generations on my mother’s maternal side. I spent several hours perusing the tree’s numerous branches. It seemed like I was related to half the Jews in Atlanta. But a few perusals later I found that I was also distantly related to eight Seligsons, with the notations by their names: murdered by Nazis or died 1941.  This realization added personal sadness to the horror, outrage and revulsion that I felt when I thought about so many Jews who had been swept up in the evil of the Holocaust and strengthened my need to honor their memory.

My eight Seligson cousins personalize the Holocaust for me. Now that I know about the fate of my Latvian cousins, I am more profoundly saddened and thus more connected to the river of blood that flowed into the death pit outside Riga in the Fall of 1941, where, presumably, an iota of DNA found in the pit would match mine.

But thank goodness there is a counter-balance to the sadness that came with my discovery of the Seligson’s slaughter. It comes with the discovery of hundreds of living relatives (family tree verified) descended from these eight Holocaust victims. As a lucky American, I have the opportunity to make sure that future generations remember my Riga relatives who got caught in a cyclone of hate. This past year at Yad Vashem, I felt writing a check in memory of my relatives who died in the Holocaust was more meaningful than previous perfunctory donations. Next year my pledge will honor all my cousins by name, including my nine year-old cousin, Miriam Seligson (1932-1941).

I now want to visit Riga. Should I get there, I will first visit the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. This museum is laid out within the confines of the Riga ghetto, which was the way station for the Seligsons for five months before they were herded into the pit in the forest to be murdered. Then I would like to go to the Jewish Memorial at Rumbula. This is where the Seligsons’ bodies lie trashed in a pit. I will pay my respects, as well as the respects from my mom, the happy go lucky Georgia girl of 1941.

William Levine is a retired IT professional and an active freelance writer residing in Belmont, MA.  He  has a growing interest in genealogy.

 

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Forefathers

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

I tell my father that I’m working on a new poem.
I got into the poem, but can’t seem to find a way out.
“Kind of like a fart in your pants,” he says.
And I realize that my poetic forefathers were probably not
William Shakespeare and Robert Frost, but more likely
Milton Berle and Henny Youngman.

I ask him if there were any poets in our family, and he tells me
Tante Channele was a poet but nobody liked her, which doesn’t
make me feel any better.

A hairy woodpecker, with the red mark of a male on its neck,
comes to our birdfeeder today.
“Look at how bright, how clean his colors are,” my father says.
“He looks like he’s just been painted.”
And I know exactly who my poetic forefather is.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us, poems about her family and the Holocaust.  Her recent work has appeared in The Poet’s Quest for God and is forthcoming in Forgotten Women.  Janet is currently producing AFTER, a cinematic film about Holocaust poetry.  https://www.facebook.com/AfterAPoetryFilm/

This poem is reprinted from Mima’amakim with the kind permission of the author.

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Finding Babette, My Great-Grandmother

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

This is a story about my maternal great-grandmother, Babette Muhr, whose life has interested me ever since I learned about her from the few memories that my own grandmother passed on to me.

I was fascinated to discover that Babette lived with the “Wundermann,” a famous holy man known as “The Baal Shem of Michelstadt.” For years, I tried to find the truth of this story, and ended up learning more about Rebbe Seckel Loew Wormser (the Baal Shem’s given name) than I did about Babette.

Few people knew the rebbe as well as the little orphan girl named Babette Muhr, who cried herself to sleep in the horse-drawn carriage travelling the 5-6 hours from her small home town of Reichelsheim, Germany to her new home in Michelstadt, near Frankfurt. Having recently lost her father and mother, the young girl was escorted by well-meaning townspeople who considered it a mitzvah to deliver the child to her new home. But wrap-around blankets and comforting arms gave little solace to the grieving child who did not want to leave her hometown and feared the new world ahead of her. The pitch-dark road leading to Michelstadt caused her to shiver with fright.

The legends surrounding the almost mystical rebbe describe him as poor and barely able to sustain his own large family of five children.  My grandmother called him a “Wundermann” for his many so-called miracles known to reach across the borders of Europe. His great heart always made room for those in need of help. At times his house was filled with almost 70 students from many parts of Germany, but it was always large enough to also accommodate orphans whom he fed with his limited means. The orphans lived with him and his large family, and there must have often been times when the rebetzin wondered how much thinner she could make the soup and still provide proper nourishment for the large brood in her dining room.

Little Babette learned many new facts about her new family within a few days after her arrival. One was that her new “father” was a vegetarian who would not touch any food that came from an animal, not even milk, eggs, or butter. On weekdays he lived on soup and coffee. On the Sabbath, he added a little more food to this meager diet. It was a lifelong vow of abstinence he had adopted during his student days in Frankfurt. Of course, in a household run on such sparse funds as that of the rebbe, meat was a great luxury.

Babette discovered very quickly that she would be exempted from his vegetarian diet. From the first day, she sat on a small chair next to her host while he cut up tiny pieces of meat from the family’s ration and fed them to the little girl. He was most concerned she had the proper food to grow on.

The rebbe had a running business that kept his family alive. He manufactured amulets designed with inscriptions to heal diseases. These “kemenot,” made of paper or parchment, included either the name of the Lord God or of an angel like “Rafael” who could heal specific diseases. The amulets were meant to be hung around the neck of the patient and promised speedy healing, especially when combined with prayers.

The twenty-odd Jewish families who made up Michelstadt during the rebbe’s lifetime (1768 to 1847) were well-to-do and did not appreciate his activities, especially those concerning the so-called “miracles” for which he was famous, which in many cases involved the healing of mentally ill patients. He had emissaries travelling in Germany and parts of Europe who took and delivered orders for the amulets and, in turn, collected the payment, which was due the rebbe.

It was around that time that his fellow Michelstadt neighbors rebelled against the rebbe’s extreme piety and his kabbalistic practices. Their complaints to the town authorities resulted in his arrest in his synagogue and a two-day stay in the local jail. These intrigues prevented the rebbe’s elevation to the post of Chief Rabbi in his hometown, handing that job to a competitor, and depriving him of an income.

After his wife of twenty years, Adelheid, died in 1809, the rebbe left Michelstadt and moved to Mannheim where he accumulated much fame as a healer. While there he healed a woman hospitalized for incurable insanity after local physicians had given up on her care. Her name was Benzinger and she had a 17-year-old daughter. While still in Mannheim, the rebbe became engaged to the daughter whose mother he had cured. He returned to Michelstadt, married the young lady, and reopened his yeshiva. It must have been during this second marriage that Babette joined their household and was raised by a woman not much older than her.

My grandmother said Babette lived in the home of the rebbe until she herself was married. Many years later, during a trip to Germany, my husband and I visited the town of Michelstadt, for I was always curious about the place that had sprouted so many family legends. We walked around the rebbe’s house, which is still occupied, but we could not get in because the lawyer’s office, which now rents it, was closed for the day. I looked up to the upstairs windows and tried to imagine Babette’s thoughts as she viewed her world when she lived there.

As I write these words, I am holding a photocopy of a marriage certificate which I recently received from the archivist of the town of Michelstadt. According to the certificate, a couple named Meier Oppenheimer and his wife, Babette Muhr, appeared before the mayor of the German town of Rimbach on September 6 in the year 1859 where he signed a document confirming their wedding performed three days before by the rabbi of that same town. It was their daughter, Bertha Oppenheimer Salomon, born in Fuerth, Germany in 1867, who became my grandmother.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

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Look to the Sky

by Toba Abramczyk (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

When I was a small child, my dad, a Holocaust survivor,  used to take me over to the window and ask me to look to the sky. He would take my brother and sister and ask them to do the same thing. This happened all the time, whether it was a barbecue or a family occasion, he would take us out and say “Look to the sky.”

When I got married, he took me outside. It was the hottest day of the year, but he asked me to go out and look to the sky

When I had my first child, he said “I am not good with babies. Don’t let me hold her, my hands can’t carry her and I will drop her.”

His hands were bent and swollen from years of hard labour and butchering meat for years and years.

The day my daughter was born, there were about ten family members in the hospital’s recovery room, all waiting for a turn to hold her. All I could see was her little body bobbing up and down from person to person.

There was so much noise and laughter, but through all this hoopla, I could see my dad holding his first grandchild, tears streaming down his cheeks. He was singing so softly to her. I had never heard my dad sing. Perhaps this was a lullaby his mother sang to him. He then walked my daughter to the window and said, “Look to the sky.”

That’s when I got it, I finally got it, and I started to cry.

I was sobbing so hard, everyone around me thought I was breaking down, but my mom understood. She took my hand and smiled.

All these years, all the times we had “looked to the sky,” my dad was showing his family, everyone who he had lost in the Shoah — mother, father, sisters, brothers – he was showing our faces to them, his legacy, and now his granddaughter.

Toba Abramczyk is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Her father was born in Belchatow Poland, the only survivor of seven children. His parents and two younger sisters, grandparents and extended family were taken to Chelmno. One older brother was shot on the street; two older sisters and an older brother were taken to Lodz and then sent to Chelmno in 1944. Her father came to Canada in 1956 after serving in the Haganah as a soldier (1948-1952) in the engineering corp while in Israel. Her mother came to Canada from Rovna Poland in 1930. A single parent of three children, Toba  lectures on the Holocaust, has gone on the March of the Living as a chaperone, and volunteers with various Jewish organizations. 

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An Unexpected Discovery

by Laurie Rappeport (Safed, Israel)

Several years ago I became involved in guiding a group of students who were studying the history of the American Jewish Experience through music. The kids were examining Jewish America of the 21st century.

Toward this end they explored the traditional liturgy and music of successive waves of immigrants who made their way to America’s shores over the past 400 years. It was probably one of the most interesting subjects that I’ve ever tackled with a group of students.

The project first brought me into contact with the Milken Archives of American Jewish Music, which provided the students with a significant percentage of our research material. Much of the Milken material relates to the first Jewish immigrants who arrived in South Carolina from Brazil in the mid-1600s. These people were refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions and, after fleeing to South America, were forced to run again when the Inquisition reached South America.

The students had a wonderful time and I put the experience in the back of my mind until recently when I suddenly discovered that the history of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain and forced to wander the world, looking for sanctuary, was, in fact, my own history.

Until that time, as far as I knew, I was a bona fide gefilte fish and kreplach Jew with roots in Poland, Belerus and Lithuania. However, it turns out that one of my grandfathers, who hailed from England, was the descendent of Dutch Jews who were almost certainly of Spanish origin.

In 2008 I received an email from a man in New Zealand. Geoff had been born in Birmingham England and immigrated to New Zealand in the ’50s with his father and brother. However, recent documents had come to light that indicated that Geoff had, in fact, been adopted, and that his biological father had been Jewish.

In following through the family history that my family knew, as well as the history that Geoff had been able to determine, we were able to ascertain that Geoff and my mother were second cousins. A subsequent DNA test with my mother’s brother confirmed the relationship.

Throughout the following year Geoff showed great interest in his Jewish ancestry. Still living in New Zealand, he read voraciously about Judaism and Israel and contacted me on Skype several times a week to find out my take on the things that he was reading. In 2009 Geoff and his wife, Jenny, came to Israel to meet the family and attend my son’s wedding.

Geoff and Jenny continued to research our family’s history but they were also fascinated by Judaism. They returned to Israel the following year to celebrate Rosh Hashana with us and in February 2011, under Israel’s Law of Return, made aliyah. To say that no one was more surprised than I was is an understatement!

Geoff and Jenny joined an ulpan course to learn Hebrew and completed a formal conversion program in February 2012 with a giur and a Jewish wedding celebration as a new Jewish couple. The story of their return to Judaism was featured as a Friday spread in Israel’s largest newspaper. They bought a home and now live a 20-minute walk from my house in Safed in northern Israel.

Geoff has continued to explore our common genealogy and discovered a number of interesting details of our family’s life in England. The majority of England’s Jews are, like America’s Jews, descended from Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (One interesting note: many of these immigrants had intended to make their way to America but, when the ships docked on the eastern shore of Scotland or England, were tricked by the sea captains into thinking that they had arrived in America and never completed the train ride that would have taken them to the western shore and their second boat to America.)

What Geoff discovered was that, in at least two lines of our family, our lineage can be traced back to Dutch Jews who were welcomed to England by Oliver Cromwell in the late 1600s. (Jews were expelled from England in 1266 and were not allowed back into the country until Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, invited them to return.)  The majority of the Jews in Amsterdam during that period were descendants of Jews who had fled Spain in 1492.

Suddenly, my students’ project took on a whole new meaning as I realized that the art, music, traditions and customs of the Mediterranean and Sephardic world comprised my own heritage as well.

There’s still much left to determine about our family’s history, but access to the increasing availability of both English and Dutch records may open the door to new discoveries. One far-flung cousin was able to find her ancestor’s ketubah in Italy while another break-away branch of the family has been located in Australia and New Zealand. It turns out that one of their descendants lives up the road from me in the Golan Heights!

In the meantime, Geoff and Jenny have become core members of our local synagogue. (Geoff arrives every Shabbat morning at 8:00 am. I told him that, in my entire life, I’d never made it to shul before 10:00 am.) Their latest project is wine-making, which they undertook so that, when they spend time in Italy (which they do every summer), they’ll have plenty of kosher wine.

Laurie Rappeport is originally from Detroit. She is an online educator who works with Jewish day school and afternoon school students to teach them about Judaism and Israel. She frequently uses the Milken Archives as a resource for historical studies about Judaism. 

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