Saturday, July 4, 2009

Discoveries from Radom, Poland

With my trip looming two weeks away I’m finalizing my trip planning, I’m trying to travel light and to that end have purchased a netbook and a Kindle. The Asus 1000HE netbook is 10 inches, weighs about 3 pounds and gets about 7.5 hours of battery life. I can bring it to class and to the archives and I am envisioning pulling it out in the cemetery to locate tombstones by their photo. The Kindle will replace the 5 books I would typically bring with me. In my pre-trip planning I’ve learned how to load files from my computer onto the Kindle. I’ve downloaded the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, which I plan to recite at the tombstone of my great-great grandfather. Somehow reading it from a Kindle in an old Jewish cemetery in Belarus seems like the ultimate in new meets old.

I always try to read on the theme of my trip, so have identified a number of books that fit that requirement. I couldn’t restrain myself and already finished one book which I highly recommend called The World to Come by Dana Horn. It is fiction, but melds a true story of a heist of a Chagall painting with Yiddish literature and Jewish mysticism. Horn artfully weaves characters from modern day New Jersey with Russian Yiddish writers during the time of Stalin. It has a very magical quality and draws heavily on Yiddish literature. The author won the National Jewish Book Award for her first book and is working on a doctorate in Hebrew and Yiddish Literature at Harvard. She has a solid grasp of her material and it helped to lay some groundwork for my upcoming adventure.

Genealogy has also been in the forefront this week as I received information from both Belarus and Poland. From Belarus I got a CD with photos of the tombstones in the Dunilovichi cemetery which I am busy labeling with the tombstone inscription. I am also arranging for a transcriber to work with me in translating the tombstones in the Glebokie cemetery. When I return from my trip I will be doing Shtetlink pages on those two communities for Jewish Gen where I plan to include that information. I am convinced that with the use of immigration records, Holocaust records and the tombstones, it may be possible to map out large segments of the community and their interrelationships just as I did with my great-great grandfather. Immigration records state nearest relative in Europe, Holocaust records frequently state parent’s names and tombstones both here and in Europe offer the father’s name. Then it just becomes a sophisticated match game. The research that I plan to do at the Vilnius Archives may help to connect some dots.

There is one mystery in the Dunilovichi cemetery that I hope to solve. The earliest burials with legible tombstones were in 1761. There were no burials from 1939 to 1943 and it was in November 1942 that the Jews of Dunilovichi were murdered by the Nazis. Then there is a burial in 1944 and the final one in 1950. I was particularly curious about the last one. Who buried him? Was he in fact the last Jew of Dunilovichi and why did he come back and why did he stay? When I found the photo of his tombstone I discovered that it was in Russian.
All of the other tombstones from 1761 forward were in Hebrew. I assume there was no one left who knew how to inscribe a Hebrew tombstone. I’ve asked my Belarus contact if he knew the story of the last Jew of Dunilovichi and will share what I learn.

This week I also received a CD from the Radom Archives with documents that I ordered from the Radom Book of Residents (a kind of census), metrical records (birth, marriage and death) and identity papers. It is a complicated process to order, communicating in English, getting responses in Polish and then wiring money to the Archives. I posted several of the death records on Viewmate on the Jewish Gen site and was fortunate to have several people assist in translations. I learned that I had in fact located the death records for my 2nd great-grandfather and 2nd great-grandmother. To put this in context the Dunilovichi 2nd great-grandfather is on my paternal grandmother’s side. Radom, Poland was the home of my 2nd great-grandparents on my paternal grandfather’s side. The grandchildren of these couples from Radom and Dunilovichi married and became my grandparents.

From the record I learned that my Polish 2nd great-grandmother was born in 1812 and died in 1904 at 92, a pretty ripe old age for the 1800s. Her death record confirmed the parents’ names that I had already learned, but for whom I’ve been unable to locate further information. When she died she was living with her son’s family and the address was the same in both her record in 1904 and the 1881 record of her husband’s death. With Google Earth newly loaded on my netbook, I found their address with a satellite view of Radom complete with several three dimensional buildings as reference points. When technology meets genealogy, amazing things happen.

The record of my 2nd great-grandfather’s death gave me some important new information with the names of his parents, Berek and Hai. For several years I have been going out to Utah to the Family History Library where I’ve built databases and collected scans of records of family names from the Polish/Russian records. Now that I had the names of my 3rd great-grandparents, I had only to turn to my database to see if I had stumbled across them previously, but not had sufficient information to identify the relationship. A search for the names revealed that I had a death record for Berek Rubinstein from 1839 and two marriage records for Bayla and Rocha Rubinstein from 1824 and 1825, each indicating Berek and Hai were the parents of the bride. The death record indicated that Berek died at age 65 which would put his birth date at 1774. Jews in Poland didn’t get last names until the 1800s and they aren’t in much evidence until 1822. Prior to that time they went by patronymics, an ending added to their father’s name.

With the names of both spouses, I was curious if I might find a record of the couple with patronyms. I reviewed data I had from that period and found a record in 1811 for a birth of a son Israel to Berck Herszkow age 40 and Haia Herszkow Berckowiczowna age 36. There is a later death record for the infant. My hunch is that this is the correct couple despite the lack of a surname. It is the only record of a couple by those names. Berek’s birth date is within 3 years of the date generated by his death record, close proximity at a time when correct ages received little attention. It is not uncommon to find a different birth date in every record for the same person. If his patronymic was Herszkow his father, my 4th great-grandfather was named Herszk. Looking down the family tree I see that Berek Herskow had a grandson named Hersz Berek born in 1842, three years after his death. He was his son's first male child named after that child’s great-grandfather and grandfather, exactly what one would expect based on naming patterns. My next step will be to get the records translated that I have on hand and to secure a copy of the birth record from 1811 when I next visit Utah. In a matter of weeks I’ve learned the names and burial place of my 2nd and 3rd great-grandfather in Dunilovichi. I’ve identified my 3rd great-grandparents and 4th great-grandfather in Poland (6 generations back). I’ve learned that my 2nd great-grandmother died at age 92 and I’ve identified siblings to my 2nd great-grandfather. This is what we call a good week in genealogy circles.

One other piece of information from Poland intrigued me. During the early 1940s the Germans required Jews to take out identity papers. Frequently these include a photograph and parents’ names. I have no pictures of family from Radom. When they perished at Treblinka, any family keepsakes were long gone. I was curious about these family members who I had researched so thoroughly and hoped to secure photos from the only record that was still maintained, the identity paper required by the Nazis. I had requested a list of names and received a handful of records. One in particular intrigued and saddened me. It was of a lovely young woman named Szajndla Wajnberg, age 19 in 1941. She was my second cousin, named for the great-grandmother that we shared.The photo was set in an oval and looked much more like a keepsake for a boyfriend than what one would expect on an official document, a document to identify her existence so she could be murdered by those same Germans one year later. Her signature still had the precision of youth. For some reason the staple mark on the photograph made me wince, symbolic of the destruction of the person obliterated save for a photograph and a youthful signature. I never was given a Hebrew name, but have often thought I would claim the name Szajndla for my own. I believe Szajndla is the diminutive of Sheina and actually is a Yiddish name, not unlike the Yiddish derivative "Susela" that my father used to call me as a child. As the name of my great-grandmother, it would have been my likely name. Perhaps that is why I felt a sense of identification with Szajndla Wajnberg. My grandfather, the youngest brother, immigrated to the United States. His oldest brother, her grandfather, stayed in Poland. And it is with that twist of fate that my branch of the family survived and hers did not. I hope to find a way to work with this information in a collage or painting, so more to come.

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