Friday, October 14, 2016

Taking Stock

Part 3 of a genealogy story, please read two prior posts first...

It was time to gather my findings and take stock. My original mission was to find the married names of Sara and Szajndla Ruchla, their husbands and their children.  I also needed to link them to Chaia, the mother of Sara and grandmother of Szajndla.  I had indeed found the married names of both Sara and Szajndla as well as the names of their husbands. I had also found Sara's two other children, and the two children of Szajndla. One of the challenges is to be able to say with some certainty that the records that were discovered apply to the right people.  There were lots of Saras and Szajndlas in the Lodz community.

Testing Validity
To test the connections I decided to try some mind mapping.  I wrote about this in a blog entry after the IAJGS Conference (the international Jewish genealogy conference) where I attended a session on it.  Mindmapping is a visual way of looking at data from multiple sources. For each key person, I noted data sources and the data that each provided. I look for at least two data points to validate my conclusions and ideally they fit into a web of data. The mind map is a way to visually see those connections and the mere act of laying out the data is a part of the thought process.

There were three women who I was trying to validate; Chaia, Sara and Szajndla Ruchla.  It is the women who are often the hardest to anchor in genealogical records even as they play such a central role in their family.

In the first records of Chaia from the early 1916-21 registration cards, she tied out to her town of origin, her husband and her father's given name. Her year of birth fell in the expected time period based on family story and was consistent through multiple records. Chaia's death record also tied out to her father's name and his name was also found in relationship to Chaia in the Lodz cemetery.  Her granddaughter, named after Chaia's mother, was with her at her death validating the family relationship. 

I also felt quite confident that I had Sara's marriage record because it referenced her parents and maiden name correctly. Her husband was also found at the same address with her in the prewar period as well as during wartime and also reflected in the marriage record. Her anecdotal death in the ghetto was also validated by the Holocaust Museum records.

Szajndla Ruchla was found in the 1916-1921 registration cards, together with her parents. Later when she was grown her linkage was to her grandmother at the time of her death. A further linkage was the fact that her siblings moved to the next door address. We also have a naming pattern connection with her great-grandmother.  Not only do multiple data points exist, but there is truly a web of connection.

Based on their married names, I searched for  individuals of the same surname and address.  Thus children and husbands were linked to the family member with whom they lived and whom multiple sources had validated.

We still have a multiplicity of maiden names, but my previously outlined theory that Galinski and Walinski are one and the same seems sound. Cyralnik or Soralnik arose several times and in fact there is another individual named Sonia Cyralnik at the same address where Chaia was at the time of her death. Both of them are also listed at the same address outside of the ghetto before it was formed. A Yad Vashem record indicates this new Cyralnik has the married name of Lapin, perhaps a version of Lape and another possible point of connection.  Sometimes names derived from the mother so perhaps Soralnik refers to a long-ago ancestor named Sora. Given the fact that Chaia's daughter was named Sara, it is quite possible it was a family name that dates back in time.   Galinski, Walinski and Soralnik all appear to have originated as patronymics or matronymics, taking a parent's name and adding an ending signifying "son of" or "related to". Silversztajn remains a puzzle. It appears only once and after some preliminary searching presents no corroborating evidence or thread to pursue at this time.

The other puzzle is when the relationship between Sara and Kalma began. The timeline indicates that Kalma's first wife was alive through 1913 when it appears her last child was born based on the early registration cards.  Here it shows Kalma as a widower with four children and we know from another source the year one son was born so can date this card to 1916.  Szajndla was born in 1913/1914. Sara moved to Lodz in 1918 and Sara and Kalma married in 1924. Is Szajndla the child of an earlier marriage or did this relationship develop as Kalma struggled with loss and if so where did Sara and Kalma first connect? It helps to remember the human dimension as we consider how events unfolded.  And while we know something of Isser's future (Kalma's son from his prior marriage) what about those other children? Perhaps a third puzzle, albeit off the track of our inquiry.

Next Steps

I never wind up a search without suggested next steps.  Seldom is this work completely ended and tied with a bow. If there are mysteries, I consider how to tackle them.

Some record indexes were found with the organization CRARG. One was the military record of Kalma's son from his first marriage. The second was the marriage record between Sara and Kalma. A full translation of the marriage record could provide Chaia's maiden name. It's possible that they also hold other Gliksztajn records that I had not yet discovered that might help us gather more information on the timeline of Kalma's life.

A number of Cyralnik names are found in Yad Vashem from Narewka submitted by a survivor in 1999.  While I did not see anyone who shared a father with Chaia, it may be worth mapping out relationships and seeing if naming patterns reveal anything.  I would pay particular attention to Sonie Cyralnik who shared a maiden name, ancestral town and two addresses with Chaia. Sonie was a student in Lodz and was born in Narewka in 1919. There are records of testimony submitted by her sister who survived. It is likely that she is related and if so, we know that her sister who provided testimony survived.

When I started this search I had no idea where it would take me. I hit dead ends at the beginning as I searched their towns of origin unsuccessfully.  Records may not exist and even if they do, they may be buried in archives with no on-line index or hidden behind privacy laws.  Most archives do not do research for you so you need to be able to identify what you are seeking.  Keep in mind that everything I uncovered was solely from my computer and existing indices.  It was when I turned my attention to the registration cards and the Holocaust records that I began to find a way in.

Even when you identify a database, you still need to explore how best to mine it. That is where that art of genealogy comes in, finding connections between disparate pieces of data, always asking the next question. The person for whom I did this research described this work as a mosaic and spoke of weaving elements together.  I think that describes the process well. With each new piece of data or each new hypothesis, I had to go back to earlier sources to see how it fit against existing threads.

As I've noted,a genealogy search requires the ability to hold conflicting information in your head, always weighing it against a burden of proof and allowing for the possibility that transcription and translation errors may corrupt or alter the data.  You also need to consider the practices of the time.  Is a different given name from a double name or possibly an altered version of the original name (Chaim, Kalma) Could a religious marriage occur separately from a later civil marriage? Each piece of data opens up a new door to potential linkages, some of which will be dead ends and some which may just solve a mystery.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Making Sense of Records

Deciphering Handwritten Records
We had last left off awaiting records from the US Holocaust Museum. Of those that I received, Chaia's death record presented the most new information.  One side was in German, the other in Polish. This repetition was useful, deciphering handwriting often is easier when we get two shots at it in two different languages. Two witnesses were listed with ages and addresses.  Chaia's date of birth and death were listed as well as her parents Szlama and Szajna and here her maiden name looked like Wilowski although the Holocaust Museum had transcribed it as Witowski.  I was able to decipher individual words using Google Translate, but the handwritten text was often difficult to read.

As there were a few things I wasn't sure I was interpreting correctly, I sent the record off to ViewMate to get a more precise translation.  The response included two pieces of new data, a reading of Chaia's town of birth as Narewka in Bielsk. Back to the community database on Jewishgen where I determined that in that period Narewka was in the town of Bielsk and the province of Bialystok, all consistent with the area they were known to be from.  The family history says that Chaia was born in Jalowka so I looked at the relationship to Narewka.  The two cities are 18 miles apart, but I find a site that indicates that Narewka is actually the name of the municipality in which Jalowka (translates to Heifer)  is located.

The other piece of information was a different reading of the maiden name as Wilenski, not Wilowski.  Remember the maiden name the family believed to be Galinski. Could these be one and the same?  G's and H's are often interchangeable (Gersz and Hersz) just as are C's and S's (Cyralnik and Soralnik). It would be easy to read that first letter as an H instead of a W and conclude that it is interchangeable with a G. Having the actual handwriting presents possibilities that otherwise wouldn't occur to me.

As I contemplate the challenges of deciphering handwritten letters,  I go back to study the document and note that the same W in Narewka is read as an N in Wilenski. Still a bit skeptical as to whether the W is an N, I do a search for the names Wilowski and Wilenski. As far as common names, Wilenski wins by a landslide.  I am leaning towards this interpretation when I discover a listing on JRI-Poland of names from the Bialystok region and there is Wilanski as well as a Galunski. I confirm that Cyrulnik is on the list while I'm at it. 

When a "ski"  is at the end it was originally formed from a patronymic, the father's name and an ending that means "son of".  Families used patronymics before last names were required and while some may have turned the patronymic into their permanent name, it is possible that they took another name. Perhaps that also contributes to our multiplicity of maiden names.

Look at the Witnesses
The one thing I've learned about death records is to look at the witnesses as they are often family members.  In this record one of the witnesses was Szajna Ruchla Kaminska.  Remember Szajndla Ruchla, Sara's eldest daughter whose married name we were seeking, the one who is likely named after her great-grandmother Szajna? She was 28 which would have made her birth year 1913/14, exactly what the anecdotal information indicated.  What would be more natural than a granddaughter supporting her grandmother on her deathbed?  I was beginning to feel a connection to these people who were once just names as I imagined that human experience.

Choosing Your Search Engine
Now I had three surnames to search, Lape, Gliksztajn and Kaminska.   At this juncture I turned to the Lodz Ghetto Database which lists those who were trapped in the ghetto during the war.  There are a few doorways to it.  It comes up on searches in the Survivors and Victims Database at the Holocaust Museum and their search engine allows you to search on multiple variables which pull up a variety of records from many sources. Sometimes I like to pull up a broad universe of only one source and go through each record.  For that I preferred the Jewishgen gateway to the Lodz Ghetto Database. It returns results solely from that database instead of mingled with other sources, but allows a search on only one variable at a time. With more results on a page, you can easily use the find command to do a secondary search for additional family members by address.  You will find the search field at the very bottom of the page in the link above.

I began by searching for Szajna Ruchla Kaminska (i). The female form has an "a" at the end, but the male form has an "i". I used the find command to search each page for any names that were close and then verified the year of birth.  Once I felt certain that I had found the correct record, I shifted to searching for the addresses among that surname in order to find all family members.  It is a laborious process, but one with satisfying results.  By the time I concluded this effort I had found Szajna Ruchla's husband and two children.  I had also found Sara's husband and her younger two children who both carried the name Gliksztajn.  In addition I found the child of Sara's husband from his first marriage together with his wife and child.  Chaja Lape was listed with the maiden name of Cyralnik. Remember she had the maiden name of Soralnik in the 1916-21 registration cards. A name that survived decades is one to which I pay attention.

Now I began to drill down another level.  The records all indicated a year of birth, a name and an address.  Could that information verify anything about relationships?  I soon discovered that both of Szajndla Ruchla's siblings were listed at two addresses.  I imagined that they may have moved when their mother Sara died.  Their second address was Baluter Ring 6 Flat 3.  Szajndla Ruchla's address at the time of her grandmother's death was Baluter Ring 6 Flat 2.  This is where remembering the human dimension is valuable. What do people do in times of loss? They reach out to be near family.

New Sources Emerge
As I was proceeding down this road a new source emerged. Remember those Lodz registration records from 1916-1921? An email came out on the JRI-Poland email list indicating that all of the records were now posted. Previously I was only able to find the records for the Lapes. Now I returned to search for Gliksztajn and Kaminska. I was a bit doubtful of finding anything because Sara and Kalman didn't marry until 1924 and Szajndla was born around 1914 so was still a long way from marrying and acquiring her married name.  Nonetheless a good genealogist leaves no stone unturned.

In fact I met with some success on the Gliksztajn name.There was a record for a Chaim Gliksztajn that also listed Sara Lape as born in Bialystok and Szajndla Roza born in Lodz in 1914.  A newer address was listed than what I had previously found.  Chaim and Kalma are likely the same name and the link with both Sara and Szajndla together with the correct year of birth for Szajndla seemed to tie out.  So what about that marriage in 1924?  I am assuming it was a civil marriage as opposed to a religious marriage which may have preceded it.

As I continued to search I found an additional listing for Sara Gliksztajn with the maiden name Lape, born in 1893.  There were two addresses listed, one which corresponded to that of Chaia and Moszek Lappe and the second which corresponded to that of Chaim Gliksztajn.

The next entry that I found was for a Kalman Gliksztajn, widower.  It listed his father's name as Chil which differed from the marriage record which showed Leib.  Possibly it is a second name as was common.  It notes that he was born in Przyrow near Czestochova and lists four children, Chil age 7, Isser age 6, Jozef age 4 and Itta age 3.  I had found a military record for Isser that indicated he was born in 1910 so this puts the record date at 1916.  The address is the same as the Lape's address which points to a connection quite some time before the 1924 marriage.  I hypothesize that his first wife died at the time the youngest child was born in 1913.  Sara's daughter Szajndla Ruchla was born in late 1913.  But there is a notation on Sara's record of 1918 by an address, this notes when the person came to Lodz and to that address. Another mystery!  How was I to reconcile the timeline of when Sara arrived, Szajndla Ruchla was born and when the relationship, married or not, began with Kalman.

We've made a lot of progress, but uncovered some mysteries as well.  In my next post, we'll take stock of where we stand. See Taking Stock for our conclusion.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Holding Conflicting Thoughts

 Periodically I write of some of the genealogy puzzles that I take on for others, hoping that my process may prove helpful for those in similar searches.  Lately I've been trying to unwind a knotty puzzle that is based in the city of Lodz, Poland.  It was presented to me by a fellow genealogist who hoped to provide testimony to Yad Vashem on his family members who died in the Holocaust, documenting the core elements of their existence.  His dilemma was that he had some holes in his knowledge to fill in first.

Like stories of old it began like this...Once upon a time Chaia and Moshe Lappe had several children. Most had the good fortune to immigrate to America, but in the ghetto of Lodz resided their married daughter Sara and her three children, Szajndla Ruchla and her two younger siblings.

With that storytale-like introduction, I find myself settling back to hear their story.  Unfortunately beyond that, little was known. We feared that surnames were lost to history. This is where I was enlisted to help find that story. Stories unfold gradually and they often leave a few mysteries unsolved or raise new ones. So too does this story.

Where to Start
I always start a puzzle by asking two questions. What do you want to know? What do you know? What we wanted to know was Sara's married name, the names of her two younger children and Szajndla Ruchla's married name as well as any of her children.  We also hoped to discover the names of both Sara's husband and Szajndla Ruchla's husband. What we knew were the names outlined in the story's beginning and that Chaia and Sara died in the Lodz Ghetto and Moshe died pre-war.  All other family members were murdered by the Nazis in death camps.  We also knew the towns in which they once lived prior to Lodz.

A Geography Lesson
So where shall we start in unraveling this puzzle?  I began with where they once lived. Their towns and regions of origin were presented as Krinki (e), Jalowka and Wolkowysk. A search on the Jewishgen community finder places Jalowka in the district of Wolkowysk in the province of Bialystok. Krinki was in Grodno, also in the province of Bialystok, but Grodno is now on the other side of the border from Poland in Belarus.  Borders changed frequently and what was Poland once cut a broad swath. All of these towns were in close proximity to each other, but were over 200 miles away from their later home in Lodz. The story is Sara went to Lodz to marry. Just as many parents do today, hers followed her to Lodz.

What Resources are Available?
I begin my search process by identifying what resources are available. Every country and city has its own unique features to learn. Is there a Book of Residents? A Kehilalink (website through Jewishgen) on the city? Which records are on film at the Family History Library? If they are Polish records, has the Polish Archives put some of them on-line?  Where are records housed? My starting point is to answer those questions, to know what sources will inform my work.  Lodz was a big city. Surely there were substantial resources.

JRI-Poland Most roads begin with JRI-Poland. A search of JRI-Poland for Lappe in Lodz reveals a Mowsza and Chaia in the Lodz Cemetery with death dates of 1929 and 1941, both likely to be our Moshe and Chaia given that it matched up with names, fathers' names and anecdotal information as to dates of death. I was soon puzzled as I continued my search of JRI-Poland. I found no Lappe ( or variants on the name) in Jalowka, Krinki or Wolkowysk. Clearly their pre-Lodz life was not going to reveal much information.

Around this time the Polish Archives put some of the Lodz Registration Cards on-line for 1916-1921 and JRI-Poland linked to them alphabetically.  These cards were created by the Germans and were slightly different than a Book of Residents which only recorded those who were legally residents of a specific area. These actually record who lived there even if they were registered elsewhere.  Not all of the records were available yet, but fortunately the L names were among them. I found cards for Chaia and Moszek and a son. Ah-ha! The towns of Wolkowysk and Krinki were noted. Their early towns would at least help me determine if I had the right people. All records were at the same address linking these individuals into a family.

Mysteries Arise
But now we have a few mysteries. In one of the 1916-1921 records Chaia is noted as a widow and her  maiden name is Soralnik (can also be Cyralnik).  Remember Moszek didn't die until 1929 if the cemetery record is correct, so do these records extend further than 1921? I was beginning to suspect they did.  As with Books of Residents, they appeared to have several updates as someone moved from married to widowed or vice versa.  Another record for her husband notes Chaia's maiden name as Silversztajn at the same address as that which later gives her maiden name as Soralnik. Meanwhile the family thought her maiden name was Galinski.   Her death record gives the maiden name of Wilowski.   What about those four maiden names? One of the most challenging things in genealogy is we sometimes have to hold two and maybe even three or four conflicting thoughts simultaneously. So many factors in the records I had found were correct, that I wasn't ready to discard these as likely possibilities. Were they red herrings sending me down the wrong road or might there be a logical explanation that would arise in time?

One of the other challenges I was facing was that I needed records in the 1900s which was the time period in question. Frequently these records are not available due to privacy laws. I basically had the Registration cards and any Holocaust records I could unearth, but most of the JRI-Poland records were not going to be in this period.

Yad Vashem
I turned to the Yad Vashem index for those who died in the Holocaust. My client had a family member who had submitted known names, but they had the same unknowns for which he was trying to solve.  What I did find was a picture of the family with annotations. Now I could begin to visualize these people for whom I was searching.  The people who I sought to name included Sara's husband on the left and her two children in the front, family surrounding Moshe and Chaia. They already felt less anonymous as I could now picture them as people in a rich web of relationships.

A New Name from the Holocaust Museum
I circled the problem a little more looking for an entrance and decided to take the obvious route.  It was a Holocaust question so why not go to the on-line Holocaust Museum site? I had searched the Holocaust records in the past when they were far less robust and wasn't expecting what I now discovered. I pulled up the survivors and victims database and input my names with a few different spellings. Soon I  found a death record for Chaia in the index. I continued to search by inputting Sara Lappe.  An identity record for an Idek Glikstzajn appeared.  When I went into the record I realized that Sara was listed as his mother and the father was Kalma Gliksztajn, the gentleman on the left in the photograph.  Now I had a new data point on which to search, Sara's married name.  Entering that name, the first record to appear was her marriage in Plawno to Kalma.  Here her name had altered slightly to Sura Lapa.  Plawno was in the district of Lodz.  How did I know it was the right record? It gave her parents' names and her maiden name, or at least a reasonable facsimile. The record was identified by the Czestochowa-Radomsko Area Research Group (CRARG).

Seeking Original Documents
This appeared to be a second marriage for both Sarah and her husband. The marriage record noted his late wife's name and with this I was able to verify a child on JRI-Poland that he had in his prior marriage as well as Idek (probably Icek) who was a child that Kalma and Sara had together, in the front row of the photo.   Each new piece of information uncovered another, but it also raised some mysteries.  They hadn't married until 1924 and as I was to learn, the first two children were born before then.  It is likely that Sara had a previous marriage, but the status of it was not noted in her marriage record even though Kalma's prior marriage was.  The Holocaust records issued an invitation on several of the records to email for the original record.  I followed up with a request for Chaia's death record, Sara's hospital death record, and the identity paper of Sarah's son.

To be continued at Making Sense of Records with the original records and the Lodz Ghetto Database...

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Protest Writer

I come from a family that doesn’t suffer in silence.  We write letters. I used to assume that everyone did, but I have come to realize that it is a select few that frustration moves to the written word.  I suppose it makes sense as I come from a family that likes to write and has strong opinions.  Put those two qualities together and you have protest letters. Mind you I don’t generally bother with routine opinion letters to the newspaper,  but inadequate service will spur me to action.

Recently I was at my book club complaining that for the past several months the local paper has delivered my newspaper to my driveway instead of my doorstep.  I made countless phone calls. I then sent several letters protesting deficiencies in both delivery and customer service to the head of the newspaper and the Circulation department before I finally cancelled the newspaper delivery.  My letter offered these words among many.

"It is my preference to receive a paper copy and if you are trying to wean your customers off paper by lousy service, you are succeeding. It would be simpler if you just said so instead of testing my patience.”

As I shared my frustration at book club, I realized that apparently written protests are not the norm.  It is not that I expect action to occur although I am ever hopeful it will.  It is perhaps an optimism that pushes me to action as well as a sense of responsibility.  How can they fix it if I don’t call it to their attention?  At least then I’ve done my part.

My history of protests began early.  My mother kept albums of news articles on everyone in my family.  Surprisingly we all had our share. Our family got a lot of ink.  As I went through the albums I was amused to see that she had clipped out an article from the 1970s when I sought the disciplining of a judge who had commented on a rape victim’s attire as a contributing factor.  I had been outraged and immediately sent a letter to the judicial group, parts of which were quoted in the paper.  My mother apparently considered the content noteworthy enough to clip and file. 

It is not a bad talent to have, although those on the receiving end may think otherwise.  My step-daughter once harnessed this ability when she had shutters designed for her windows that didn’t fit properly.  Initially turned down when she protested, she asked me to write a letter.  I used the company’s own words and promises against them and they readily gave her what she asked when their inconsistency glared at them from print.   It is so satisfying when written words meet with success!

I come by this proclivity naturally.  My father was a protest writer.  When I went through his files after he died, I found many letters he had written protesting failings in products. He was adept at using humor to soften his underlying edge. There was the No No  Feeder which was a bird feeder that my father understood to be shaped so squirrels could not get to the bird food.  His letter termed it the Yes Yes Squirrel Feeder as his acrobatic squirrels were amazingly adept at gaining access.  He developed a lengthy and amusing thread with his correspondent on this topic who advised him it actually meant no wood or plastic.

He had a less humorous and more edgy protest letter to an insurer, a letter on a badly designed garbage bag and when they discontinued one of his Entenmann pastry favorites, he again wrote in protest.  As I went through family records, I retained those that seemed to capture the essence of the person. I found myself saving my father's protest letters. They were so him.

It is often these seemingly minor characteristics that define us, a feistiness and indignation that the world does not behave the way it should and a willingness to throw ourselves into the fray. Perhaps someday someone will save my protests too.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Lighting the Fuse

I recently stepped back through time to a childhood memory as I listened to a talk by Anna Quindlen, one of my favorite authors, speaking in the Pen Pals series. When I was a child I was a passionate reader. I lived in books and was seldom found without one. I had a particular chair in our living room in which I read, my legs over the arm of the chair, engrossed in whatever make-believe world I was conjuring up.  From there I could close out the noise and tumult of my childhood home and step into another world. Anna told a similar story down to the skinny legs thrown over the arm of the chair and her mother nearby cajoling her to go outside and play.  I had a mother like that too, who worried that I wasn't participating in the rites of childhood.  Instead I became a reader, just like my mother who worried so much about me living in books.

Years ago I pressed my mother to write her recollections after a vain attempt to interview her.  One day in the mail I received ten typed pages of what she remembered.  After her memory had fled she ran across this document and thanked me for "forcing" her to record her memories.  A central theme was the library. She fondly remembered Miss Jackson, the librarian at the public library who helped her find books. She wrote of how her sister introduced her to the Canarsie Library and the important role libraries played in her life, how she always had a library card in the seven states in which she lived.  She contemplated how books shaped her sense of right and wrong and her belief that righteousness would prevail.

I have similar memories.  My mother would take us to the library with a box and we would each check out ten books. We carried that box, laden with books, back to the house where my mother would record their titles to assure we could locate them to return the following week. I would read mine and then peruse everyone else's.  

Miss Roecker was my school librarian and a formative figure in my life. She must have recognized a fellow book lover in me and would pull me aside to tell me about books she was sure I would enjoy. One day I arrived at the library with my brother.  I remember they had a reading program where they gave you stickers of underwater creatures for each book that you read. You then pasted them on a page as you sought to fill it up. You had to do a book report to capture those trophies. After my brother gave his book report, Miss Roecker beckoned me over. "Would you like to do a book report?" she asked.  Painfully shy, I looked down, not meeting her eyes, and shook my head.  "Why don't you just tell me about it?" She suggested.  I was in third grade and the book was The Trouble With Jenny's Ear, so memorable that I reread it as an adult with pleasure and later tracked down used copies for my two granddaughters.  I had loved the book and happily shared its story with her.  Afterwards she announced that I had done my first book report and gave me that magical sticker. I was hooked.

Not unlike my mother, I like stories with a theme of redemption, not the religious kind, but more how we right something that is amiss. We are challenged through life by our own limitations or the challenges thrown before us by the universe.  Our universal story is how we meet those challenges, how we right the universe and how we grapple with our own humanity.

As Anna shared her stories of reading in her living room chair and the librarian who saved books for her, I looked around this room filled with readers all lost in reveries thinking of their reading chairs and their childhood librarians.  I realized how universal this experience is for a certain type of child, girls who grow up to be people like me.

Anna talked about how the expression, "I read" in Greek also means "I recognize"  and she spoke of how those librarians recognized us. This was at a time when there were few female role models save teachers, nurses and yes, librarians.  Books are powerful. They are how we learn to understand the world and the people within it. It is not a coincidence that the Nazis burned books and that laws prohibited teaching black slaves to read.  Books can be incendiary and those who recognize and nourish a reader are lighting the fuse of possibility.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Memory Palace

Cicero tells the tale of a poet who was attending a banquet when he is called away to meet with two young men.  After leaving the dining hall, the ceiling collapses killing all those who remained.  The poet was asked to identify who had been in the room.  He is credited with creating a system of mnemonics, a method of remembering, when he identified who was in the banquet hall by mentally placing them in their location at the table.  The term "memory palace" was coined to describe this method of recalling although it is often called the Method of Loci.  It is frequently used in memory competitions where you select a place you know well like a childhood home and mentally place objects in various rooms in unusual relationship to each other.  You then walk through the rooms and gather the objects.  The basic premise of course is that memory and spatial perception are closely linked.

 It occurred to me that my mother's home was a memory palace. I lived there from age 3 to age 17 and continued to return there for much of my life. When my mother was still alive, I began to go through the house and take pictures of the nooks and crannies within the house. I realized that there already were odd juxtapositions. On one shelf I found a figure of the Spanish princess Marguerite who was painted by Velasquez. The figure was next to a ceramic walrus from a trip to Alaska. In front of it was a menorah. All of this was set against a tray from my grandfather's surplus store in New York.

I never got very far pursuing this concept while my mother was alive and it took on a poignancy when she died and we began to dismantle the house. Recently I began to implement my idea. My objective is to create one foot by one foot paintings of different areas of the house and combine them to form a larger painting. The name of course will be the Memory Palace.

The central painting will be one of the chair she sat on when she composed her collages. A nearby chair has her sweater over it with the framework of the chair showing through. It is a painting of absence and yet presence, as if she has just stepped away for a moment.

Other paintings I have completed include her plates that sat in the windows with the light filtering through them. Some of them now sit in my window and I look at them through her eyes. Trees form a lattice behind them. In her lifetime those trees sprouted buds, leafed out and changed colors as they passed through all the seasons.I think of her at each new season, savoring the changes on her behalf.

On her bookshelf she had a winged figure, arms raised overhead holding a torch. On the base it says 1986-87 Beverly Manor School, Perfect Attendance. My mother taught first grade for just shy of 20 years. One day when I was visiting her she came into the living room in her flannel pajamas holding the statue cupped in her hands. I of course took a picture, her smiling broadly. It represented a period in her life that she loved. Behind it are books on opera, my father's passion, and nature field guides that were my mother's.

The last one I have completed so far is of her spoon collection. When we traveled together she would always get a spoon for each place we visited. Our travels were a very special part of her life and the spoons represented her memories of them.

When you paint a series of paintings you need to have some common element that connects them visually. When I painted a similar series on the former Jewish community of Radom, Poland, I used a limited palette that echoed the tones of a photograph. I wasn't sure what the linkage would be for this series and thought I should start painting and see what emerged. The first two paintings were very airy, the next two much darker with brown tones more dominant. Even in the two that were airy, brown was an accent, either the structure of the trees or the chairs. I am going to keep that idea in mind and try to create a mix that either uses brown as a structural element or a dominant color. Below you can see how they interact with each other.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Road Trip

Several years ago I traveled with two friends to a Madison retreat for the Jewish Artists Lab. We had such a good time on our drive there, that a road trip became an annual tradition. Our next one took us to see the Jeffers petroglyphs and then on to Pipestone, Mn where we learned of the significance of pipestone in Indian history and visited the Pipestone National Monument where it was mined. That was a hard one to top, but each has its own flavor and has been satisfying in content as well as company. This year's took us into Wisconsin to look at outsider road art in route to Baraboo. The backdrop of this year's trip was the upcoming theme for the artist's lab: Outside, Inside: Exploring Boundaries and Otherness. Outsider art seemed to fall nicely within this topic and we contemplated it as we drove through rolling hills of greenery interspersed with sculptural rock cliffs.

We stopped for lunch near Fountain City in what once was the Fountain hotel and chuckled at the photos of the past where the "working girls" perched in the windows, hands jauntily placed on hips, while locals gathered on the balcony and in front of the building. It too seemed to speak to that outside, inside theme, both literally and figuratively.

Our first outsider art visit was at Prairie Moon, an area with over forty sculptures created by Herman Rusch. When Herman retired he purchased a dance hall and turned it into a museum. The barren land surrounding it called out for something and he began his concrete structures in 1958. He believed that " beauty creates a will to live" and that certainly proved true for him as he made it to age 100. I stood back to get many of the sculptures in my camera lens when I suddenly looked around, feeling that I was being observed. I was startled when I saw a gentleman behind me on the right and laughed when I realized it was a sculpture standing behind a podium. I later learned that it was Rusch himself who decided he wanted to continue to survey his creations far into the future. He made use of concrete with a reddish tone accented by seashells and studded with stones. An elegant arched fence surrounded the property. Within it was a small church structure, tall spires, bird houses and dinosaurs.

One of the art sites we sought was built by German immigrants after they retired and created a new chapter in their lives. They drew from their life as they created their artwork. Paul and Matilda Wegner created Wegner Grotto composed of concrete sculptures and a small church building, all studded with shattered china, glass and seashells as well as a few unexpected surprises such as gunpowder casings and arrowheads.
Like Rusch, neither Paul nor Matilda Wegner received any formal training in art. They were inspired by the Dickeyville Grotto and in 1929 began their creation. Within the Wegner grotto is a 12 foot re-creation of the Bremen ship on which they emigrated in 1885. Their fiftieth anniversary cake is permanently frozen in stone and glass over 80 years later. A small church studded in glass has a Star of David over the door and structures of different churches embedded into the walls representing their rather ecumenical view of religion.

We settled in at a roadside motel which seemed to sync with our road trip theme. In the morning I went to the central building for breakfast and was charmed to discover Diane, my fellow traveler and a poet, reading one of her poems to Renee and Ethel, a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law librarian duo who were also on a road trip. I learned that Renee has written in a journal every day since her son was born, now in his forties. Ethel talked of how she tried to do something new every year since she retired. They spoke of how each time they came to a crossroads in their drive they decided which road to take. "Definitely kindred spirits", I thought. Ethel put her arm around Renee and said, "I couldn't do it without her."

Our last stop on this leg of our trip was Baraboo, home to the International Crane Foundation and the circus museum, but first we had a stop to make outside of town at Dr Evermor's Forevertron to see the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world. Much to our dismay, we had learned it was closed on that day but we were hopeful we might be able to see it from the road. We scouted the area only to be confronted with a fence with an ominous no trespassing sign beyond which we could see a number of sculptures rising into the sky. The fiction surrounding this unusual site is that Dr Evermor was a Victorian inventor who designed the Forevertron to launch himself into the heavens. The park is the creation of Tom Every from Brooklyn, Wi and includes Thomas Edison dynamos from the 1880s and power plant parts from the 1920s. Foiled in our search for outsider art, we stood glumly outside the fence looking longingly at those enticing sculptures inside.

Back in Baraboo we found our way to the International Crane Foundation where 15
species of these elegant creatures live. In the 1940s there were only 15 whooping cranes remaining. Through efforts of places like the Foundation they now number over 300. Much as it takes a passion and commitment to create outsider art, it takes a similar drive to create an organization focused on cranes. Two ornithology students undertook that mission in 1973. In this world the people are the outsiders and staff dress up in crane costumes to interact with the young birds so they won't imprint on people rather than their own species.
Lastly we headed on to the Circus World museum as we considered the fact that circus people are the ultimate outsiders, bringing glamour and excitement to towns and then moving on, always in transit or encamped on the outside of towns. The idea of running off with the circus
was an enticing idea to young people living in small towns, an escape fantasy that has become part of our folklore.

Before we returned to the Twin Cities we did one last stop in Menomonie where we wandered the stunning Mabel Tainter theater and explored antique and thrift shops. Diane was inspired to perform on the theater stage.
When we arrived home Diane gave us each a memento of a tole painted bowl from her thrift shop explorations and Susan shared some of the bounty from her garden. I, in turn, provide this meager offering as my thanks for my wonderful travel companions on our road trip journey.

Some interesting links we discovered in planning this trip:
Roadside America (sites by state)
Midwest Weekends
Dementia Concretia - don't care for the name, but the article is interesting as it seems to reflect a common theme