Sunday, 14 December 2014

Meet the Szwarc family

The Szwarc family, Gombin (Poland) 1918
I have just this weekend had my first contact with another ‘new’ cousin, Belinda from Israel. This afternoon she sent me this photo of her grandparents, Towje Aron Szwarc and Bajla Frankensztajn, with 9 of their children. Two more had died young, and there was one more to come. Bajla was the sister of my own great-great-grandfather, Jankel Josek Frankensztajn, so Belinda is officially my Second Cousin Once Removed. She is named after Bajla, her grandmother.

The little boy seated on the right, whose feet don’t quite touch the floor, is Belinda’s father Pinhas (Paul), here aged about 5. In the middle at the back stands Jankel (Jack), the oldest son, aged about 23.

I had never seen this photo before, and thought it quite wonderful. Now that Belinda has identified all the people in it for me, I think that, for our family, it is also quite historic. Here’s why.

My own grandfather Lajb (Louis) Frankenstein and his cousin Jack Szwarc both left their home town of Gombin, in Poland, during 1913, and came to London. Louis was 21 and Jack 17. They may even have come together, we don’t know. They both found work in tailoring, Jack in the East End of London, Louis possibly in the West End. They both married in 1916. Jack’s first child Phillip was born in September 1917, and Louis’s first child, Esther (my Auntie Essie) was born in April 1918 (sadly, she died earlier this year, aged 95).

I have been trying to trace their lives in Britain for a couple of years now, and a couple of the documents I have come across deal with their military service during the First World War. In 1917 Russia and Britain, allies in the war against Germany, came to an agreement - the 'Allied Convention' - whereby all Russian nationals in the UK who were eligible for military service, would either have to ‘return’ to Russia and enlist in the Russian Army, or they would have to join the British Army. This included people from Poland, which was part of the Russian Empire.

Louis in the British Army
The vast majority of the Jewish community in the East End of London had come from areas within the Russian Empire, and this agreement was particularly aimed at them. The two cousins, along with thousands of others, had difficult decisions to make. They chose different paths: Louis stayed in the UK and joined the British Army, whilst Jack opted to go ‘back’ to Russia.

Under this scheme, a number of boats, with a few thousand men in total on board, sailed from London to Odessa, on the Black Sea, between August and October 1917, and Jack was on one of those. He eventually returned to London in September 1919.

In the end, he did not fight in the War, because the Bolshevik Revolution occurred shortly after he arrived, in November 1917, and Russia immediately withdrew from the War. I do not know whether the recruits from the UK were expected to carry out some form of military service in the Red Army, after the end of the War, or whether they were freed from service altogether.

The War between Britain and Germany continued until November 1918, so Jack would not have been able to travel across Europe to return to London before then. Until I saw this photo, I had no idea where he went, or what he did, in those two years.

What the photo tells us is that he did in fact return to Gombin, some 1300km from Odessa. Belinda’s identification of the younger children dates the photo in 1918 or possibly early 1919, and Jack's presence confirms this. I think it may even have been taken especially for Jack, so that he could take it back to London as a memento of his family, and to show to his wife. It is quite probably the only photo ever taken of the whole family together. I don’t think they were ever again all in the same place at the same time.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Meet my great-great-great-grandmother's family

Lewek and Libe Taube

This is from a Book of Residents covering the villages between Gombin and Plock, in central Poland. It is an entry on the page for the family of my great-great-grandfather, Wolek Frankensztajn, and it identifies his parents. The entry is written in Russian, and probably dates from the 1870s or thereabouts.

Wolek's parents are my great-great-great-grandparents. I had no idea what their names were going to be - I hadn't even known of Wolek until I saw this book in the archives in Plock last June. There isn't an online index for the book, so there's no way of knowing what's in it without going there and asking to see the original.

I can read a bit of Russian, not fluently, but enough to decipher the names in the first line: Lewek and Libe Taube. The word on the second line should be her maiden name - but what is it? I couldn't make it out. I put it aside, intending to post it online to see if anyone could decipher it for me.

Then a couple of days ago I was putting together a little booklet to give to my 'new' cousin Joan. We are third cousins, and this is the document that proves it: Wolek, born in 1839, is our most recent common ancestor, and I wanted to translate the whole of this page into English for her. I could work out all the rest - but I didn't want to leave out our great-great-great-grandmother's maiden name.

I had another look, I blew it up big. Suddenly it dawned on me that the word might start with the Russian character: щ , which gives a sort of double sound 'shch'. I followed through, trying out all the possibilities I could think of for all the other strokes, and laboriously pieced together a candidate: щавинска . Written in Polish, which uses Latin characters, this would be: Szczawinska .

I'd never heard of the name, so I was a bit dubious. Maybe I'd got it wrong. I went to the JRI-Poland web-site, and put in a query. There they were: a handful of Szczawinskis (masculine) and Szczawinskas (feminine) in the area, including two or three in Lewek's home town of Gombin. The database didn't include my Libe Taube, but that was because the time period it covered was wrong for her.

But at least I now know her family name, thanks to Cousin Joan :-), and I also know that there were others with the same name in the same area, so it may be possible to find traces of her family.

And now, three days later, however hard I stare at the word, I can't see it as anything but: щавинска . How come I couldn't see it before?

Can you decipher 267 Jankel?

I have a number of short snippets that I'll be posting here in the hope that someone can help me decipher them. They are from entries in a Book of Residents covering the villages between Gombin and Plock, in Poland. They are handwritten in Polish or in Russian, sometimes both. There's about 20 altogether so I'll post a couple to start with and see how it goes.
267 Jankel

This is from the entry for my great-grandfather, Jankel Josek Frankensztejn. I can see that the second note says "died 2 November 1903" - but I can't make out the first note (Russian). And I can't even work out whether the scribble in red is in Russian or Polish ....

Please feel free to post any comments or translations in the Comments below.

I think we need to talk

I met Cousin Joan yesterday. Well, Third Cousin Joan. She came across me online a few months ago, but this was the first time we had met - she lives in Israel, and was coming over to London for a couple of days, so I hopped on the train and went up to see her.

She had just started delving into her family history, and did a Google search for her great-grandmother, Bajla Frankenstein. Go on, try it. Second up is a post of mine from two years ago, recounting how I had made contact with Frankenstein cousins in the USA that we had previously had no idea even existed. In the post I mentioned a Bajla Frankenstajn I had found, as a possible connection between my family and the 'new' cousins.

Joan saw what I had written, and posted a comment:
"I've just started a serious genealogy project and stumbled upon this post. I am a great-grandaughter of Bajla Frankenstejn. I think we need to talk."
So here we are, talking. We compared notes, and after some scratching of heads we realised that, although I'm older than her father, she and I are in fact of the same generation - we share great-great-grandparents, which makes us third cousins, I think. Her great-grandmother, Bajla, was sister to my great-grandfather Jankel Josek. She was 13 years younger than him, and his lot seem to have been quicker off the mark than hers in each succeeding generation.

Joan brought with her an absolute jewel of a photo album, which had been her grandparents'; it had scores of photos from before the Second World War. I had never seen any of them before, and Joan herself was pushed to put names to more than a few of the people in them. As she showed them to me, I snapped away with my iPhone, on the café table (spot the shadows); Joan will scan them properly for me when she gets back home.

Bajla and her husband, Towje Aron Szwarc, lived in Gombin, in Poland, and had a dozen children. A couple of them died in childhood, but most of the rest went on to have families of their own. Towje Aron died in the early 1930s.  Some of the children emigrated - to Panama, the US, and the UK - and thereby survived the War. Bajla and the others stayed in Poland, and all perished in the Holocaust.

Bajla and Towje Aron
The oldest of their children was Jankel, born in 1896 and a few years younger than his cousin, my grandfather Lajb. The two cousins both came to London in 1913, where Jankel became Jack Schwartz, and Lajb became Louis Frankenstein. They remained in contact at least until the late 1930s.

Bajla came to London to see Jack in 1930, and stayed for three months, during which time she must have seen her nephew, Louis, and his family, including my mother, who would have been 10 years old. However we have very few photos from this period, and none that seem to be of this visit. So this is the first photo of Bajla that I have seen.

More than that, it is the first time I have seen a photo of anyone in the generation before my grandfather.

By the way, this is at least the third time that I have been 'found' by a previously unknown cousin googling for one of their own ancestors, and coming up with a page I had written that named the person they were looking for. See Cousin Report #27, for example.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

A tale of three brothers - or maybe four

Here’s a tale of three brothers, all born in Gombin (‘Gabin’ in Polish) around 1780-1800. Or maybe four.

Lewek - my great-great-great-grandfather - stayed in Gombin, Moszek moved to Plock around 1810, and Wolf moved to London around 1820. In a declaration in 1840, Lewek says that “the family here (in Poland) chose the name FRANKENSZTEJN, but my brother in London chose WAJNBERG”.

This generation straddles the period when Jews in Poland were first obliged to take surnames, in 1822; each household was supposed to choose a different surname, so that the authorities could tell which was which. Previously the Jewish tradition had been to identify a person by the name of their father - their ‘patronymic’ name. So all three brothers are identified in the earlier records as ‘Jakobowicz’ - son of Jakob.

The records I have found show a clear progression in this family towards the adoption of a surname, as can be seen in the records I have found for Moszek. In 1812 he is Mosiek JAKUBOWICZ (patronymic) from Gombin, in 1818 he is Mosiek Jakob GABINSKI (place of origin = Gombin), and from 1824 onwards he is Mosiek FRANKENSZTEJN. In the 1818 record the name ‘Jakob’ could be interpreted as a second given name - ‘Mosiek Jakob’ - but I think this is unlikely, because children were not named after their fathers, but after a recently deceased close relative, such as a grandfather or great-grandfather. I think this 'Jakob' is not a given name, but a patronymic, without the patronymic ending - 'Mosiek son of Jakob'; none of the later later records refer to him by the given name ‘Jakob’.

So much for the three brothers. But could there be a fourth? In the Plock records throughout the 19th Century there are only two identifiable FRANKENSZTEJN families, and no other individuals using the name. One is the family of Moszek, the other is of a man called Szmul. They are the only FRANKENSZTEJNs in town. Could they be brothers?

The earliest records I have found which I can identify as being for this Szmul are from 1817 and 1819, where he is simply Szmul IZRAEL. Unfortunately none of his records seem to identify his father directly. Is ‘Izrael’ being used in these early records as a second given name, or as a patronymic, as I think is the case of ‘Mosiek Jakob'? If it is a patronymic, his father is Izrael and he is not a brother to Moszek (whose father was Jakob, of course) and we are looking at two men, who are not siblings, nevertheless choosing the same surname.

A further twist is that in the late 1810s they seem to have been living in adjacent houses: Moszek at Nowa 65, and Szmul at Nowa 64. Intriguingly, two generations later, a grandson of Moszek and a grand-daughter of Szmul are each raising families in the same house, at Bielska 17.

The couple Sura and Szmul Hersz KLAJNFELD, by the way, are cousins - their mothers are sisters, Golda and Hana, daughters of Szmul FRANKENSZTEJN. And this Moszek is the son of Icek Jankiel, son of the original Mosiek JAKUBOWICZ later FRANKENSZTEJN. Who said this was going to be straightforward?

Now Moszek and Szmul could just have been very close neighbours, so close they chose - and were allowed to keep - the same surname. Or they could be brothers. If they are brothers, I get a whole stack of new cousins.

Is that just wishful thinking?

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Laja’s Registration Card

Laja Florkiewicz, daughter of my grandfather’s sister Chawa (see earlier posts in the series The Frankenstein Trail), was the only member of her family to survive the War. Chawa and her three other children were all killed in the Holocaust.

Chawa’s daughter, my cousin Ewa, tells me that her mother used to speak to her of escaping from the Warsaw Ghetto through the sewers, and of fighting with the partisans. Ewa says that Laja spent most of the War in the Soviet Union, married Josef Mandeltort there, and had her first child - Ewa’s brother Henrik - in Kazan, east of Moscow, in 1944. After the War the family returned to Poland, and Ewa was born a few years later. In 1962, shortly after the death of Josef, they moved to Israel.

Three cards
When I went to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, on the first morning of my visit to Poland earlier this year, I mentioned this story to Anna Przybyszweska, one of the genealogy experts there. Ewa particularly wanted to find out about Josef, her father - he had died when she was 10 years old, in Poland; she had spent the rest of her life in Israel, and all she knew of him was his name.

Anna explains
While I was explaining all this, Anna was fiddling with her computer, as experts tend to do, and before I had finished she was printing off three sheets of paper and handing them to me. There they were - Laja, her son, and her husband. These were print-outs of data from a Register of returning Jews, compiled from 1946 onwards by the Central Committee of Polish Jews. The registration cards are now held in the Archive of the Institute.

Here’s a scan of Laja’s card - you can click on it for an enlargement:

Laja's Registration Card
The card is dated 14 October 1946, and contains basic identity details, plus information about occupation and residence before, during and after the War. There’s some new family information, and a number of intriguing discrepancies with information we have from elsewhere - but we’re getting used to that, aren’t we? In this post, and probably a couple of further ones, I’ll be discussing what we think we can glean from it.

Two birth dates for Laja
Laja gives her name as Lea Mandeltort, née Florkiewicz, born in Gombin (Gabin) on 28 December 1921 - and here’s the first discrepancy. On the Certificate of Residence obtained by her mother Chawa in 1935, which lists the dates of birth of all her children, Laja’s is given as 7 February 1917.

from Chawa's Certificate of Residence
In 1946 Laja was nearly 30, but claimed to be not yet 25. She appears to have used the younger date through the rest of her life. We’re pretty sure the earlier date is correct, and Ewa is puzzled as to why her mother should have wanted to change it.

Two maiden names for Chawa
Laja’s parents are given in this document as Elia Florkiewicz, and Ewa Finkielsztein. Ewa is not a problem, it’s a Polish version of her mother’s Yiddish name Chawa. However Chawa's maiden name was not Finkielsztein, but Frenkensztejn:

from Chawa's Certificate of Residence
This was another puzzle, until I started thinking about Laja’s family situation, and realised that, by the time she was 14, there were hardly any Frankenszteins left for her to have contact with. Her grandfather was, we think, the only male of his generation to stay in the area, and she never knew him - he had died before Laja was born. Her grandmother used the surname Frankensztejn, but Laja would probably only know her as ‘Booba’ (‘Granny’). Her mother Chawa of course had become ‘Florkiewicz’, and Chawa’s sister Chaia had also married. Chawa’s brother Lajb - my grandfather - had left for London in 1913, and never returned; we don’t know if they were ever in contact. The other brother, Lajzer (also known as Itsek), was the only one who appeared to be using the family surname, and he used Finkelsztein - we still don’t know why (see the earlier post Siblings). Lajzer had left Poland in the 1920s, and by the mid-1930s was living in Palestine, from where he corresponded with Chawa, and sent her money.

from Chawa's letter to her brother
So perhaps it is understandable that, some seven years after Laja had last seen her mother, she ascribed to her the only family name she was familiar with.

And four names for Josef
Ewa had told me her father was Josef Mandeltort, but that he had adopted her mother’s maiden name, Florkiewicz, as it “sounded less Jewish”. 

Poland had become an uncomfortable place to live for many Jews well before World War II - Chawa’s letter to her brother, written in 1936, gives a graphic picture of the hostility they faced from Polish authorities and some sectors of Polish society. The majority of Poland’s Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and only a few amongst the survivors tried to return after the War. Those that did return found themselves in a country still riddled with anti-semitism, which reached its peak with the infamous pogrom in Kielce in July 1946.

In these circumstances it is understandable that some of those that did return might try to make themselves appear less conspicuous.

Laja’s father was Eliasz Florkiewicz. There is a long-standing Polish Catholic family in Gombin called Florkiewicz, but there do not appear to have been any other Jewish families in the area using the name, and very few elsewhere. It does not appear to be a ‘Jewish’ name. So how come Eliasz’s family used it?

We are in touch with the local Polish Florkiewicz family, and we are both intrigued by the possibility that there could be a direct connection between us. However, if there is, we have not been able to trace it. We think it is possible that one of Eliasz’s ancestors, some time in the 19th Century, may have chosen to use the name for motives similar to those discussed here for Josef - to blend more in with the Polish population.

Here’s an extract from Josef’s Registration Card:

from Josef's Registration Card
He was not Josef - he was Izrael.

So Izrael Mandeltort came back to Poland after the War, and became Josef Florkiewicz.

And we haven't finished with Laja's card yet - for further discussion see (coming soon): 

Laja’s War - Laja’s other Grandmother

Wednesday, 12 November 2014


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The Administration of this municipality certifies that Hawa Frenkiensztejn and Lajzer Finkielsztejn are siblings, children of Jankew Josek and Gitla née Kon, and that this error occurred as a result of the wrong name being written on the birth certificate. 
This certificate was issued to Hawa Florkiewicz on her personal request.
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Finkelsztejn or Frankensztejn?
My grandfather’s brother Lajzer went through most of his adult life using a different surname to that of the rest of his family. He was always known as Finkelsztejn. His father and grandfather were both born Frankensztejn, and the name seems to have been adopted by the family around 1820. His brothers and sisters are all recorded as Frankensztejns. Lajzer and my grandfather Lajb used to tease each other as to which one had the ‘real’ name, but neither of them ever told us when or why this difference arose. Lajzer’s daughter Bracha wrote a family history a few years ago, but he had never explained it to her, and her research didn’t uncover an explanation either.

In the mid-1930s Lajzer’s sister Chawa was hoping to join him in immigrating to Palestine, then under British control. She obtained this document from the local authorities in Poland, certifying that, despite the difference in surname, they are in fact brother and sister. She must have sent it on to Lajzer in Tel Aviv, because Bracha came across it amongst a collection of his papers, just last year.

The ‘wrong name’
The Certificate says that the ‘error’ is due to a ‘wrong name’ on a birth certificate - but it doesn’t say what the error is, or on whose birth certificate it appears. So which is the ‘wrong name’? From other records, it seems that Lajzer was born in the town of Gombin, about 100km north-west of Warsaw, and Chawa in the nearby village of Juliszew. Unfortunately birth records from this area do not seem to have survived, so we can’t check directly. However, as indicated above, other records clearly show that the family name was Frankensztejn. So we still don’t know when, or why, Lajzer became known as Finkelsztejn. 

Immigration requirements
I have not been able to find out what immigration regulations the British authorities had in force at that time, but I presume that Lajzer would have had to show that Chawa, her children and her mother were members of his family, hence the need for this Certificate. He maybe also would have had to show that he would be able to guarantee their accommodation and upkeep, as Chawa herself was the only one of working age. The children were aged 14 and 16, and Chawa and Lajzer’s mother Gitla (my great-grandmother), was 75, although Lajzer entered ’65’ on the Immigration Certificate.

So who was Lajzer Finkelsztejn?
Tracking Lajzer down is proving quite entertaining. We have reason to believe that not only was his surname not really Finkelsztejn, but he wasn’t called Lajzer either, and was actually born several years after he claimed. But that’s a story for another day.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Chawa’s Immigration Certificate

In November 1935 my grandfather’s sister Chawa Florkiewicz applied for permission to immigrate from Poland to Palestine, then under British control. Her application was approved by the British Authorities in Palestine in April 1936. This is the Certificate of approval. It was returned to Lajzer Finkelstein, her brother, who lived in Tel Aviv and was acting on her behalf. She is instructed to take the Certificate, together with her passport, to the British Consulate in Warsaw by 5 August, and that it would only be valid for entry to Palestine until 15 August.

This implies that Lajzer needed to send it on to her in Poland fairly quickly, so that she could have time to make the necessary arrangements. However, it appears he didn’t send it, as it was amongst a collection of his papers found by his daughter Bracha just last year. Chawa did not make the journey, but not because Lajzer had not sent on the Certificate; in July she sent him a letter explaining why - please see the earlier post ‘Dear Brother’ for details.

Chawa's children
The application includes her two younger children, Szejwa, 16, and Jankel Josek, 14. The two older daughters, Marjem, 20, and Laja, 18, are not on the Certificate; they may have been studying or working, or had other reasons not to leave. We know very little about them, apart from what we can glean from documents like this. We know Laja was not married at that time; we know nothing at all about Marjem.

An age-related mystery
Also on the application is Chawa’s mother Gitla, my great-grandmother. And here we have another age-related mystery. Gitla is shown as 65 years old, which puts her year of birth as 1871. However we have a copy of her birth record: she was registered in 1861. She married in 1888, and according to her marriage record, she was 26, which also gives a birth year of 1861/2. The usual rule of thumb is to give more credence to earlier records than to later ones, and I think a dated birth record is pretty decisive. So Gitla was really 75, not 65 as shown here.

I presume Lajzer was the informant for this document for the British Immigration Office in Palestine. Why does he make his mother appear 10 years younger than she really is? Did the British authorities have an upper age limit for immigration? There are all sorts of possibilities, all sorts of reasons why people sometimes change their own details or those of other family members. Some of these 'amendments' can be identified in my own family - see for example the discussion of Laja's date of birth at the end of the post on the family's Certificate of Residence. However, my preference in this case is for ignorance - my guess is that Lajzer genuinely did not know how old his mother was, so he put something that appeared ‘old’ enough for her to have a 44 year-old daughter.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Chawa and her family

This is a Certificate of Residence obtained in Poland in 1935 by Chawa, a sister of my grandfather Lajb Frankenstein. She needed the documentation in order to apply for a passport; she was hoping to follow another brother, Lajzer, in emigrating to Palestine. A year later she wrote to Lajzer to say they weren't able to come at that time - for a discussion of that letter, see my earlier post 'Dear Brother'. Chawa never left Poland, but somehow the Certificate ended up amongst a batch of Lajzer's papers that his daughter Bracha came across a year or so ago. Chawa's grand-daughter Ewa - named for her - brought me a copy when she visited us from Israel earlier this year.

Ewa was keen - to put it mildly - to find out anything we could about her grandmother, and about her own mother Laja, and this document is a mine of information. As is often the case, it raises as many questions as it answers. Here's a brief outline of what we found out from the form.

In the document, issued in the town of Gombin (Gabin), Chawa is named as Chawa Florkiewicz, née Frenkensztejn. She is a widow. This in itself was new information for Ewa, as it implies that her grandfather Elias had died by 1935; she had known nothing of him apart from his name.

My great-grandparents
Chawa's parents are shown as Jankiel Josek and Gitla née Kon. This was the first documentary confirmation we had found of the names of our great-grandparents, and an indication of a family name - Kon - we had not been aware of.

Chawa's birth-date
Chawa is shown as born on 1 January 1891. I am always somewhat suspicious of birth dates from this period that appear as '1 January' or '31 December' - or other first and last dates - as births were sometimes not registered until weeks or months - sometimes years - afterwards. The parents may not have noted the exact day of the birth at the time, and just declared a convenient date for the registration. We don't have any other documentation for her at the moment, so we'll have to accept it until we do.

Juliszew - our ancestral home?
Chawa was born in Juliszew, a place Ewa and I had not heard of. We eventually located it on the map - a small village about 12km to the East of the town of Gombin, which is where we thought they all came from. We were so excited to have discovered what we took to be the family's ancestral home! However, when I mentioned this later to Bracha, and our American cousins, they all said, "Ah yes, Yoolashov, my Dad/Grandad/whoever mentioned that place". Nevertheless, this is our first documentary evidence.

Tylna 4
Other entries on the form show Chawa as a 'worker', Jewish, and of Polish nationality. She lives at 4 Tylna Street, which is the return address she put on the envelope containing the letter to her brother. She has lived in Gombin since 1915; before that, she lived in Juliszew.

Tylna Street now. The street is quite short, but there doesn't seem to be a number 4, and we couldn't work out where it would have stood.

The household
The lower part of the document lists the members of the household. Chawa is living with 4 children, which corresponds with what Ewa had heard from her mother. Her mother Gitla does not appear to be living with her, although she was with her a year later (see the letter to Lajzer). The children were all born in Gombin: Marjem born 1915, Laja (Ewa's mother) 1917, Szejva 1919, and the only boy, Jakub Josek, 1921. We noted that Jakub Josek appeared to be named after Chawa's father, Jankiel Josek - Jankiel is a diminutive form of Jakub. The tradition among Ashkenazi Jews was to name children after recently deceased close relatives, and not after those still living, so this suggests that Jankiel Josek had died by 1921.

What we have learned
We can conclude from the form that Chawa was almost certainly living with her parents in Juliszew until she married in 1915, at the age of 24. She and her husband then moved to Gombin, and raised their family there. Her husband died at some point between 1921 and 1935. Her father had also died, before 1921, leaving her mother Gitla on her own, though we think that Chawa's sister Chaia was probably living with her for some of that time. We can surmise from the letter to Lajzer, written a year later, that Gitla fell ill around 1935, when she would have been in her mid-70s, and came to live with Chawa.

Laja's birth-date
The big surprise to us was Laja's date of birth. Ewa had always understood from her mother that she had been born in 1921. This document puts her 4 years earlier. Another date puzzle!
Laja Florkiewicz, in the centre of the group of members of Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist-zionist youth group, 1934

Then I came across this photo, in the Gombin section of Ada Holcman's web site Zchor (Remember!). The young woman in the middle is named as Lea Florkewicz, and Ewa confirms that it is indeed her mother. The young man to her left is Meir Holcman, Ada Holcman's father. The year is 1934. What do you think? Is Lea 13 in this photo, or 17? Was she born in 1921, or in 1917?

The question is, why did she later - after the War - claim a birth date of 1921? On my trip to Poland in June I came across a couple of documents that take Laja's story a little further; I'll discuss them in a later post.

Laja was one of the few young people in this photo who did not perish in the Holocaust. She was the only member of her family to survive.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Dear Brother

In July 1936, my grandfather's sister Chawa wrote from her home in Gombin, Poland, to her brother Lajzer in Tel Aviv, which was at that time in British-controlled Palestine. My cousin Bracha, Lajzer's daughter, came across the letter a year or so ago, amongst her father's effects.

The letter is written in Yiddish, which unfortunately none of us can understand. However, we have had it translated into English, and it makes pretty harrowing reading.

Lajzer had emigrated to South America in the 1920s, and then to Palestine in the early 1930s. Chawa's husband had died, leaving her with four children - Marjem (21), Laja (19), Szejva (17) and Jakub Josek (15). She was also looking after her mother Gitla (my great-grandmother), who was aged 75 and was unwell. The situation for Jews in Poland during the 1930s was difficult to say the least - there was much prejudice, many Poles refused to trade with Jews, and restrictive laws were passed. 

Chawa and her family were keen to follow Lajzer to Palestine, and she made an application to emigrate which included herself, her mother and her two younger children. The application was accepted by the British authorities; however, none of them left Poland, and Chawa and all her children, apart from Laja, were killed in the Holocaust. We do not know what happened to Gitla.

Here are some extracts from the letter, which give an idea of what Chawa and her family were going through.
Dear Brother, 
We hereby share with you that we are in good health. We wish to hear of your good health forever. 
True, my dear brother, we sincerely thank you for your dear condolence letter. You have brought joy to our sad hearts with your words of condolences. True, dear brother, you have enlivened our weak mother with you dear writing, and she prays to G-d that she will live to see you again and come to the Holy Land. 
We want to work and we work very hard, but there is nothing here for us to eat other than what you my dear brother sends and the few dollars that I receive at times from my mother-in-law. If not for this we would suffer much need and go to shame with the children. 
The Jews are now being buried. It is all going over into gentile hands. And we work carrying a heavy load but earn nothing. When we want to buy something with our earnings, they say "for this you have to pay dearly". As a result there is no income. We toil really hard and with added fear from the gentile merchants, who are dismissive of our life.  
Imagine our situation. The boycott is so great. The bitter situation is that there’s nowhere to earn, and they raise the price only for the Jews. 
In short, the hatred is big, the boycott even more so. Between all this it is not possible to live.  
Chawa suggests that it is her mother's illness that is delaying their emigration:
I have sent your letter to Warsaw and I added, ‘that since my dear mother is not well, and I do not have anyone to leave her with, I ask that they postpone the aliya (emigration to Palestine) till she is healthy.’ 
So my dear brother, our dear mother is not feeling well and she needs great care. She has gotten very weak from heartache of seeing my lot. She can not eat what we eat and needs to heal. I am doing all that I can and more, but I do not have the means. She is very weak.
She then drops a bombshell - at least, it is to us:
My true dear brother, now I am going to get married with mazal (luck) right after Shabbos Nachamu (a Sabbath in late summer).
None of us were aware that Chawa had remarried - not even her grand-daughter Ewa, daughter of Laja, the only survivor. The fact that Chawa doesn't feel the need to mention who her new husband is, suggests that Lajzer may already have known about the impending marriage.
When we will arrive there [in Israel] in peace then with G-d’s help everyone will be able to earn their own. Because everyone wants to work and is capable of working, as they say. And when it comes around they will definitely work. There should only be work to do. They can not wait to help and to be together with you. 
G-d should give you joy and have compassion on my beautiful children and on my suffering. I should only live it through in good health.
After four pages of closely packed writing, Chawa adds a final sentence written vertically in the margin:
I can not describe to you exactly how things are and my desperate situation leaves me not wanting to write at all, it is only that I must write to you. I know very well that you have a lot of heartache from us. We send you our best wishes and all kiss you and hope to be with you.
Along with this letter, Bracha also found a number of documents that Chawa must have sent to Lajzer when she was making her application. These papers give us important information about the family, confirming or contradicting what we thought we knew before, and I will be writing about them in later posts.

Monday, 2 June 2014

On the Frankenstein Trail

It might have seemed a bit quiet here at TwentyOne Seven recently - I see the last post was nearly 8 months ago - but that doesn't mean the roots quest has slowed down. Far from it. In particular, the search for the Frankensteins - my mother's father's family - has gathered momentum, and by a combination of luck, hard graft, and serendipity, we have made considerable strides towards understanding where they came from, how they fit together, and what happened to them.

Amongst our discoveries have been a stash of documents shut away in a cupboard in Tel Aviv for 30 years, including a letter written in Yiddish that no-one could read. We've now had it translated, and it is mortifying, the saddest letter I ever hope to read.

Then there were a couple of Freedom of Information requests that uncovered a completely unsuspected twist in the family story, and give us a different perspective on the havoc caused by the First World War, and how people tried to cope with it. And the cousin I had never met before, who helped join the dots, and left us open-mouthed at the story of her mother's escape from the Warsaw Ghetto.

And then the cousin I never knew existed - well, she's probably a third cousin or so - who spotted her family name in a list of names I was researching that I'd put at the end of a message to an online forum. "I think we need to speak", she said.

And the photographs, and the partial family trees, half-hidden away on genealogy websites, and the half-remembered anecdotes, all of which first whisper, then speak out, then shout out loud - cousins!

We are now at the point where we have four Frankensteins, Tauba, Rifka Leah, Bajla and Jankel Josek, of comparable ages, who all seem to come from the same tiny village, who all appear to have a father called Wolf, and whose families have stories that claim at least some of them are siblings, and go on to describe a network of cousinhood.

All we need is proof.

The stories are surfacing, gradually, telling of emigration, return, re-emigration, further emigration, planned emigration that didn't happen, invasion, war, international agreements, desertion, revolution, ghettos, slaughter, escape, resistance, post-war return, more emigration. Then there's the husband with two wives, and the wife with two husbands, the informal adoption, the changes of given name, the changes of surname, the naming patterns ... In short, the usual stories. However, so far, documentary evidence has been very thin on the ground.

I'm now in Poland for a couple of weeks, to see what I can find. I'm in Warsaw for a few days; I'll see the genealogy people at the Jewish Historical Institute tomorrow, and that meeting could shape how I spend the following few days. Then I'm going up to Gdansk for the weekend, to see Frankenstein cousins who come to be Polish by a different route.

And then next week, I'll be spending a few days in and around Gombin, the town my grandfather said he came from. He came to London in 1913, married and raised his family in the UK, and died in 1955. He never went back to Gombin; he never wanted to. I hope he doesn't mind me going back there for him.

Researching: SHREIBMAN (Pinsk); ILYUTOVICH (Lida, Novogrudok, Gomel); ZATURENSKY (Nesvizh ?); LEVIN (Streshin, Gomel); FRANKENSTEIN, FINKELSTEIN (Gombin); ZELMAN (Gombin); KOHN (Nadarzyn); IGLA (Nadarzyn); WAKSMAN (Demblin-Irena, Gniewoszow-Granica); SZECHTMAN (Bobrowniki); GLASMAN, GLUZMAN (Demblin-Irena); LENDENBAUM (Bobrowniki); ELBSZTAJN (Bobrowniki); EIZENSTADT (Gniewoszow-Granica); LEFSHITZ (Zhuravichy); ALIEVSKY (Zhuravichy); SZWARC (Gombin), SCHWARTZ (London, Leeds)