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)