“Twins run in the family, you know,” Stella ter Hart’s mother, Sophia, said to her nonchalantly when Stella was pregnant with her first child. That this was news to Stella is a first sign that there was a great deal about her family she did not know. In fact, she wasn’t aware she had much family at all.
Thus begins Stella ter Hart’s book Discovering Twins: A Journey into Lives.
As a high school graduation gift, Stella and her mother made the trip from Estevan, Sask., to Holland. There, she meets an endless web of confusingly related kin – almost all on her father’s side. A visit to the home of family on her mother’s side raises questions in the teenager’s mind.
“‘Oom Jacob and Tante Becca are Jewish,’ I stated rather than questioned, ‘no one other than Jewish people are named Jacob and Rebecca.’
“And, in a style completely out of character for her, almost resignedly, my mother replied, ‘Yes, they are.’
“There was no further clarification of her answer, no offering up of a tidbit of a childhood memory, as might be expected when revealing so vast a thing as religiously specific relatives for the first time.
“‘So, if Oom Jacob is your first cousin, and he has the same last name as your mother’s maiden name, then he is the son of your mother’s brother,’ my new skill of dissecting family relationships now sharply honed, I added, ‘so your mother must have been Jewish, too.’
“In a split second, she came back at me, her voice strident with an unexpected, insistent, and lashing response, ‘NO! My mother was NOT Jewish. According to the Germans, she was Italian because she married an Italian.’”
Whether that logic ever truly convinced her mother, Sophia, it did not sit well with ter Hart. After her mother’s death, ter Hart began a genealogical quest. Slowly and excruciatingly, she pieces together the tragic fates of almost the entire maternal line.
“Our extended circle of family, formerly numbering over 1,200, was reduced to the less than 20 who returned, or were known to have survived, creating a psychological tsunami shock-wave impacting existing and future generations,” writes ter Hart.
The book recreates ter Hart’s prewar extended family, flashing back from postwar comfort in Canada. She captures what must have been a dawning realization among Dutch Jews in the earliest months of what became the Holocaust, as relatives who were relocated to the east inexplicably never wrote back.
“How many ‘workers’ did this totalitarian German regime require for its slave labour force? Where was the food to feed them all going to come from and the rooms to house them all? Supplies were already hitting dangerous lows in the cities, and rationing was strictly enforced.
“The unsettling sentiment echoing throughout the community for months raised its voice again. What in heaven’s name would the Germans do with grandparents and babies? This didn’t seem like a necessary part of war. This was something else.”
As ter Hart’s research expands, numbers and dates leap off the page.
“The ages and dates are, each time, an emotional shock. The eye at first does not even see, let alone accept, the horrific truths the numbers expose. Mothers with all their young children around them all killed at the same time, or an elderly couple, obviously arrested and deported together, also murdered together. The gruesomeness and cruelty of it all is staggering and overwhelming,” she writes.
On Sept. 30, 1942, 103 family members were murdered at Auschwitz, the youngest 15 years old, the oldest 54. On June 11, 1943, 64 family members were gassed at Sobibor, aged 2 to 68.
The author seeks to build suspense, but her discoveries are, generally, no surprise to those with knowledge of the history. The emphasis on twins – across generations, the family seems to have an occurrence of twins about twice the average – gives the reader an anxious sense that, at some point, some family members are going to fall into the hands of the monstrous Dr. Josef Mengele.
“Not wanting to know, but needing to know, I researched the lists of Mengele Twins, now publicly available. None of our family were on that list, as most had been deported and killed before Mengele began his murderous experimentations. Small comfort,” she writes.
The narrative at the beginning of the book devolves near the end into something of a genealogist’s notebook, with records, short biographies and charts. Generally, the book hangs together, though an editor’s hand could have been firmer, to avoid easily avoidable clangers like misspelling Anne Frank’s name.
A few weeks ago, my husband got an email out of the blue from a distant relative in Israel. This Israeli was working on some family genealogy. He was stunned to discover that he had many U.S. relatives he never knew about. Together, my husband and this distant relative took on a big extended family project, even as COVID-19 shut down borders and isolated us in our homes.
Suddenly, my husband in Winnipeg and his dad, aunts, uncles and cousins in New Jersey were emailing, sending photos and stories to one another. They tried to iron out all the stories they’d heard and fit the puzzle pieces together. My husband’s paternal grandparents (z”l) were from Mezritch, Poland. They spent the Second World War on the run. They were in a Siberian Gulag work camp. Then, they lived in a shantytown near Tashkent, Uzbekistan. After the war, they stayed in a series of displaced persons camps in Germany before U.S. relatives found them. They arrived in the United States, with their three children, in 1950.
Discovering what may have happened to each relative 75 years ago, and documenting it, has taken on an urgency for both my husband and this “new” Israeli relative. In part, it’s because his oldest aunt, who was 9 when she came to the United States, remembered it all and discussed it with her mother in detail, over and over, as those who’ve gone through huge upheaval sometimes do. For my husband’s aunt, this childhood experience defines much of her worldview. Now, though, her mother, my husband’s grandmother, has died. His aunt is still alive, but unwell. She’s unable to recount the stories or identify the people in photos anymore. The family is racing to record as much of their family history as they can before even more of the pieces are lost forever.
In the midst of this nightly family email exchange, I read a book called Gateway to the Moon by Mary Morris. This novel makes connections between the Sephardi Jews who fled Spain after the Inquisition, the crypto-Jews of New Mexico and the history behind the family connections and modern-day Jewish practice. The author explained that the idea for the book came to her when she met someone long ago. This New Mexican seemed convinced that his family had been Jewish. Indeed, now we know through DNA analysis that many Spanish-speaking people throughout the world have Sephardi Jewish roots.
Gateway to the Moon was graphic, full of historically correct violence, and direct. It took me a long time to get through. It was powerful, but also hard to grasp the scope of the suffering faced during the Inquisition. This religious violence chased Jewish families for hundreds of years through Spain, Portugal, Mexico and beyond.
Morris does a good job of connecting people throughout history in her narrative. This was particularly powerful when a character tastes a lamb dish in Morocco, on vacation, and is instantly transported to her grandmother’s table in New Mexico. Even as their identity was hidden or forgotten, familiar recipes remained. Just the taste of that lamb stew connected the character to the family’s lost past and their Sephardi Jewish identity.
The ramifications of these huge experiences – violence, trauma, colonization, wars, genocides, terrorist attacks and pandemics – will shape us and future generations. We, as Jews, and as people, are forever shaped by these things. We’re about to celebrate Passover. It recounts a huge event in our people’s story – slavery, freedom and migration. This experience shapes us, though it happened (if it happened) long ago. As we say at the seder, Avadim hayinu: Once we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free. We’re commanded to remember this as though we personally left Egypt.
As I write this, we’re suffering a pandemic, another huge, worldwide and scary experience. My husband and I are Gen Xers. We’ve been shaped by the Holocaust experiences of our families and friends. We were raised hearing their stories and traumas, and it was part of who they, and we, are.
Now, I pray that we, and all our families, and everyone in our community, live to think about what the ramifications of this next event will be. It will impact us all.
My family and I wish you everything good – a chag sameach, zissen Pesach – a happy holiday. Most importantly, may you enjoy it in good health.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
Apart from an ambiguous hint dropped by his mother just after his father died in 1990 – and subsequently denied – Mark Loudon, a Brit of Scottish, English and Irish ancestry (so far as he knew), had no idea that the man he grew up with was not his biological father. A DNA test in May 2017 revealed a completely different DNA profile than what he was expecting – instead of Scottish paternal heritage, it showed an Eastern European Jewish and Spanish one.
With only a third cousin DNA match to a stranger in Chicago and some childhood memories from his aunt, who was only 8 years old when he was born, Loudon set out on a search for closer relatives. This involved not only family history records, but diving into planning records and old photographs for clues. One such photo, shown here, is of Henry Naftali-Hirts Hart and his wife Elizabeth Mendoza.
Loudon will discuss his journey to discover his biological father and its impacts at the next meeting of the Jewish Genealogical Society of British Columbia (jgsbc.ca) on Oct. 1, 7:30 p.m., at the Peretz Centre. All are welcome to attend.
This year, Jewish Federation honoured, for the first time, an organization outside of the Jewish community. The inaugural recipient of the honour was the Vancouver Police Department.
At its annual general meeting June 19, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver honoured four volunteers: Alex Cristall, Judi Korbin, Judith Cohen and Courtney Cohen. It also honoured, for the first time, an organization outside of the Jewish community – the Vancouver Police Department.
On June 18, L’Chaim Adult Day Centre celebrated its first 100th birthday, with program participant Beverly Klein.
On the evening of June 13, siblings Shirley Barnett and Philip Dayson were honoured with the B.C. Genealogical Society Book Award.
On the evening of June 5, Jewish Family Services held its first annual Volunteer Appreciation Event, celebrating the dedicated volunteers of JFS and the Better at Home program.
Louis Brier Home and Hospital has successfully achieved accreditation with exemplary standing from Accreditation Canada.
Among the B.C. Civil Liberties Association’s Liberty Award winners on May 17 were Ken Klonsky, for excellence in the arts, and Peter Klein, for excellence in journalism.
At its annual general meeting June 19, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver honoured four volunteers.
Alex Cristall was presented with the Harry Woogman Award, which recognizes a volunteer who leads consistently and conscientiously by example and has long-standing and diligent campaign involvement. Cristall is the outgoing annual campaign chair. His dedication and commitment to leadership excellence has made an enormous impact on Federation and the community as a whole.
Judi Korbin was given the Arthur Fouks Award, which honours leaders who demonstrate dedication to the goals and principles of Jewish Federation and who provide outstanding leadership to the annual campaign. Korbin is the outgoing chair of Federation’s endowment program, the Jewish Community Foundation, and is a past chair of the annual campaign.
The Kipnis-Wilson/Friedland Award went to Judith Cohen. As a past volunteer chair of women’s philanthropy, Cohen is no stranger to philanthropic work. She draws the inspiration for her community involvement from having grown up seeing her parents “pour their time and energies into the Jewish community.” She received the Kipnis-Wilson/Friedland Award from Jewish Federations of North America for demonstrating the highest ideals of leadership and involvement.
The Young Leadership Award was presented to Courtney Cohen for her extensive volunteer work with many Jewish organizations around Greater Vancouver. Just two examples among many are her involvement in Federation’s Axis program for young Jewish adults as the co-chair of the leadership development pillar, and her founding of Rose’s Angels, a care-package project created to honour her grandmother.
This year, Jewish Federation also honoured, for the first time, an organization outside of the Jewish community, with the first recipient of the honour being the Vancouver Police Department.
“Our Federation has had a long and valued relationship with the department and our staff have been able to count on their assistance and intervention during crisis situations and high-profile events attracting protesters, as well as being willing to provide education and training to our communal professionals on an as-needed basis,” said Bernard Pinsky, chair of Federation’s community security advisory committee, in presenting the award, which was accepted by Deputy Chief Lawrence Rankin on behalf of the VPD.
Pinksy expressed Federation’s “appreciation to constables Ryan Hooper and Dale Quiring for their support over the years,” and said Federation was looking forward “to a continued positive relationship with Constables James Hooper and Jacqueline Abbot.”
In introducing the video created for Federation’s 30th anniversary, board chair Karen James thanked “Jonathan and Heather Berkowitz, whose experience editing the Federation Magazine for many years was invaluable to this project, as well as past Federation president Sondi Green, whose father, Arthur Fouks, was a founder of our Federation, and Al Szajman, chair of our marketing and communications resource group for their work on this project.”
On June 18, L’Chaim Adult Day Centre celebrated its first 100th birthday, with program participant Beverly Klein. Four generations of her family, friends, fellow program participants, L’Chaim board members, staff and volunteers, as well as Jewish community leaders, threw a party at L’Chaim to commemorate her reaching this milestone.
Knowing her love of music, she was honoured with the musical talents of Allison Berry, who performed classics from the 1940s. Beverly was delighted to receive congratulations and warm wishes from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Queen’s representative, the governor general of Canada, Julie Payette.
Ezra Shanken, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, spoke about Beverly and said that she didn’t look a day over 40, to which she replied, “Hey, I like this guy!”
A much-loved program participant since 2013, the birthday girl was born in Poland near Warsaw in Meserich, and was one of 11 children. A story treasured by her children is Beverly’s childhood memory of preparing for Shabbat by “building a floor” and “doing the stove” – her home’s dirt floors had to be swept and pounded down, and Beverly would pile up the bricks for the oven, which was then whitewashed. Her family immigrated to Canada in 1929 with only the clothes on their backs, which were sewn from potato sacks. During the Second World War, Beverly came to Vancouver to spend time with her sister Ruby, and she met her husband Dave. They married and had two daughters and a wonderful life together.
Beverly continues to live in her own home because of the love and devotion of her family. The Turnbulls – Wendy, husband Steve and boys Ryan and Gavin – and the Blonds – Arlene, husband Les and children Amanda and Ben – are all devoted to their mom and bubbie.
Both daughters Arlene and Wendy gave heartfelt speeches at the birthday party. Arlene said, “It’s very reassuring to families to know that their loved ones have a safe place to go where they are not only stimulated but treated like family.” Wendy said, “L’Chaim remembers that older people deserve respect for a lifetime of achievements and all that they are today. The sheer joy with which the staff planned Beverly’s party touched all of us.”
The L’Chaim Adult Day Centre strives to improve the quality of life of its participants by providing a caring and stimulating group experience for those who might otherwise be socially isolated, while also providing support and respite for care-giving families and friends. It is funded in part by Vancouver Coastal Health, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and private donations from the larger community.
On the evening of June 13, siblings Shirley Barnett and Philip Dayson were honoured with the B.C. Genealogical Society Book Award. Barnett and Dayson were recognized for their book Don’t Break the Chain, which describes the journey of Abraham and Toba Nemetz from Svatatroiske in Ukraine to Vancouver and points in between.
Fleeing from pogroms in 1922, Abraham and Toba began a new life in Canada. One of the pages in Don’t Break the Chain outlines how their family of nine children grew into 196 descendants. Family trees and portraits – both individual and group – are part of a fascinating picture of a family whose lives became an important part of both the Jewish and general communities of Vancouver.
In her acceptance of the award, Barnett said that, while researching the book, numerous family members (known and previously unknown) were reached with 100% cooperation from all of them in helping to compile information for the book. The title comes from Ben Dayson, Barnett and Dayson’s father. Although he married into the family, because of his belief in the value of family ties, Ben Dayson often “ended his conversations and speeches with the sentence, ‘don’t break the chain.’”
Barnett thanked the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia for their support and rich accumulation of archival material. For more information, interested readers may access nemetzfamily.ca or the Jewish Museum at jewishmuseum.ca.
Congratulations to Shirley Barnett and Philip Dayson for being honoured by the B.C. Genealogical Society, who recognized the positive impact of their family and this book on the history and development of our province.
On the evening of June 5, Jewish Family Services hosted more than 70 people at its first annual Volunteer Appreciation Event. It was a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the dedicated volunteers of JFS and the Better at Home program, a government-funded service for seniors managed by United Way and administered by JFS. The guest speaker, Dr. Rotem Regev, presented on the value of human connection, empathy and the power of giving back.
Richard Fruchter, chief executive officer of JFS, spoke about the commitment of volunteers to the agency, describing “volunteers as the life-blood of JFS.” It was volunteers, he said, who founded the Jewish Family Welfare Bureau of Vancouver (JFS’s original name) when it opened more than 80 years ago to assist the poor and elderly living in Vancouver, and to help resettle new immigrants fleeing antisemitism in Europe.
“Your commitment to uplifting lives, for our clients and community, is an example for us all,” Fruchter said. “By stepping up to help, offering your time, skills and resources, you are the reason we can meet more of the needs in our community and accomplish the work that we do.”
There are more than 170 people who volunteer regularly through JFS and Better at Home, and some have been serving for more than 15 years. JFS’s youngest volunteers are in grades 7 and 8 from Vancouver Talmud Torah and King David High School who help regularly at the Jewish Food Bank.
JFS volunteers are responsible for a wide range of work. They support the Jewish Food Bank at the Peretz Centre; seniors lunches and outreach services, such as grocery shopping, visiting and driving to and from appointments; English-language practice for newcomers to Canada; interviewing skills for job seekers; mental health outreach; and administrative support in the office. Chanukah helpers, Passover hampers, Rosh Hashanah activities and Project Isaiah are all programs that rely almost entirely on volunteers. For many individuals and families, these Jewish holiday programs are the only connections they have with their Jewish heritage.
For more information on volunteering with JFS, contact Ayana Honig at [email protected] or call 604-226-5151.
Louis Brier Home and Hospital has successfully achieved accreditation with exemplary standing from Accreditation Canada.
Accreditation Canada is an independent, not-for-profit organization that sets standards for quality and safety in health care and accredits health organizations in Canada and around the world. Louis Brier Home and Hospital voluntarily participated in accreditation because it believes that quality and safety matter to residents and their families/significant others. Improving the quality of care is a continuous journey – a journey to which Louis Brier is fully committed.
As part of the Qmentum program, the home and hospital has undergone a rigorous evaluation process. Following a comprehensive self-assessment, external peer surveyors conducted an on-site survey during which they assessed the organization’s leadership, governance, clinical programs and services against Accreditation Canada requirements for quality and safety. These requirements include national standards of excellence; required safety practices to reduce potential harm; and questionnaires to assess the work environment, resident safety culture, governance functioning and client experience. Results from all these components were considered in the accreditation decision.
The accreditation survey team spent four days at Louis Brier, and reviewed a total of 19 required organizational practices (ROPs), 216 high priority criteria and 295 other criteria for a total of 551 criteria. The accreditation surveyors determined that the Louis Brier successfully met 100% of the ROPs and 100% of the criteria evaluated.
“I am very proud of everyone at Louis Brier Home and Hospital,” said Dr. David Keselman, chief executive officer. “Our staff worked and continue to work incredibly hard to make sure we meet the needs of our residents in every possible way, helping them and their loved ones maintain optimal health status, control and dignity every day, every time. Receiving exemplary standing from Accreditation Canada is a real testament to the changing culture and focus at Louis Brier Home and Hospital. Accreditation Canada standards and requirements will continue to guide us into the future as we continue to evolve and continuously improve our practices and care delivery efforts.”
He added, “I will, of course, be remiss if I do not mention the ongoing support and generosity of the LBHH and WR [Weinberg Residence] and the [Louis Brier Jewish Aged] foundation boards, without whom this journey may not have been as smooth or possible.”
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association’s Liberty Awards recognize outstanding achievements to protect and promote human rights and freedoms in Canada. Among the 2018 award winners were Ken Klonsky, for excellence in the arts, and Peter Klein, for excellence in journalism.
Klonsky, co-author of Dr. Rubin Carter’s Eye of the Hurricane, is a former Toronto teacher and writer now living in Vancouver. He is a director of Innocence International, the organization conceived by Carter to help free wrongly convicted prisoners worldwide. His artistic works call readers to action to defend civil liberties and improve the justice system. His art and advocacy on behalf of those who have been wrongfully convicted has contributed greatly to the advancement of human rights in Canada and internationally.
Klein is a journalist, writer and documentary filmmaker. He has been a producer for the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes since 1999, produces video projects for the New York Times and writes columns regularly for the Globe and Mail. He is the founder of the Global Reporting Centre, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reporting on neglected global issues and innovating the practice of global journalism. His record of groundbreaking broadcast journalism exposing human rights abuses around the world deserves to be celebrated. His efforts are empowering the next generation to continue to hold the powerful to account.
The other 2018 Liberty Awards were Miranda Hlady (youth or community activism), Stockwoods LLP (legal advocacy, group) and Dr. Pamela Palmater (legal advocacy, individual). Hassan Diab, Rania Tfaily and Don Bayne, on behalf of the Hassan Diab Support Committee, were recognized with the Reg Robson Award, which is given annually to honour substantial contributions to the cause of civil liberties in British Columbia and Canada.
Jewish Genealogical Society of British Columbia member Danny Gelmon, left, speaks with Hal Bookbinder. (photo Stephen Falk)
Why Did Our Ancestors Leave a Nice Place Like the Pale? That was the title of Hal Bookbinder’s March 14 talk at Temple Sholom.
Bookbinder was hosted in Vancouver by the Jewish Genealogical Society of British Columbia (JGenBC). He is involved with JewishGen, JewishGen Ukraine and the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles. He has published numerous articles on research techniques, Jewish history, and border changes; the latter a matter of particular import to Ashkenazi Jews researching their families’ histories in Eastern Europe. A former president of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, Bookbinder was honoured in 2010 with the association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
On March 14, Bookbinder gave a detailed and insightful presentation, all without using notes. “Pale comes from the Latin palus for a stake, the stakes which were used to mark off an area.” he explained. “It was also used for the English Pale, a territory within Ireland controlled by the English. The Pale of Jewish Settlement in western Russia was a territory within the borders of Czarist Russia where Jews were allowed to live.”
Bookbinder said, “Limits on the area in which Jews could live came into being when Russia attempted to integrate Jews into the expanding country, from which Jews had been excluded since the end of the 15th century.” From 1791 until 1915, he said, the majority of Jews living in Eastern Europe were confined by the czars of Russia within the “Pale of Settlement.”
Bookbinder broke up the history of the Pale into six periods, each approximately 25 years long: creation, confinement, oppression, enlightenment, pogroms and chaos. The first era, that of creation, arose from Russia’s westward march to seize new territories in Belarus, Poland and Ukraine, he explained. Russia didn’t want Jews within its borders, but, as it expanded its empire westward, it came to be responsible for millions of them, creating a “Jewish question” for itself.
Catherine the Great (who reigned 1762-1796) responded by ruling that Jews should stay in the Pale. The confinement era intensified efforts to keep the Jews in the Pale, so as not to “infect our good Eastern Orthodox brethren,” explained Bookbinder. During this era, Catherine the Great’s son, Paul I, initiated a new program aimed at assimilating Jews into Christian culture by making their lives so miserable they would rather convert than remain as they were.
This led to the period of the cantonists, during which Jewish boys were drafted into the Russian army. Some did convert, though most did not. Large numbers died from mistreatment, neglect and malnourishment. The military schools provided army training as well as a rudimentary education. Discipline was maintained by the threat of starvation and corporal punishment. At the age of 18, pupils were drafted to regular army units, where they served for 25 years. Enlistment for the cantonist institutions, which originated in the 17th century, was most rigorously enforced during the reigns of Paul I’s son Alexander I (reigned 1801–1825) and Nicholas I (reigned 1825–1855), said Bookbinder. It is estimated that around 40,000 Jewish children were stolen from their families during this period. The practice was abolished in 1856 under Alexander II (reigned 1855-1881).
Czar Alexander II took a more “enlightened” approach, continuing to seek the conversion and assimilation of Jews through gentler methods. Czar Alexander III, a rabid antisemite like his grandfather, initiated the era of pogroms after he came to power in 1881.
Starting in 1905, with the ascension of Nicholas II, the chaos period began. “Russia was in ferment,” said Bookbinder, “and it was the era of assassination attempts, the Bolsheviks, fighting between the Red Army and the White Army, the Cossacks – creating a situation that was so unpleasant that it prompted many of our ancestors to leave.”
But, Bookbinder asked, “Why did they leave then? They had lived through so many horrors, and this was far from the worst they had seen. I think it is because, during the more enlightened era of Czar Alexander II, our ancestors got a taste of a more dignified, more secure existence and took courage. When things descended again into chaos, they had had enough, and many escaped Russia.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
The author’s one photograph of her great-grandmother, Betty Brotman, “stiff-necked and corseted, with her dark hair combed tightly across her head.” (photo from Shula Klinger)
I have been researching my family history for many years, on and off. Much of my research has been online, using resources like JewishGen, the internet database of Jewish genealogical records. I have also found a home at Czernowitz-L, an email group hosted by Cornell University for people whose families come from what is now the Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi. Once known as “Jerusalem on the Prut,” Czernowitz – as it is still called by those who recall its Habsburg past – was once home to 50,000 Jews. Less than a third of this number survived the war.
Like many third-generation Czernowitzers, I write messages to Czernowitz-L in the hope that someone, somewhere, will remember hearing my family name and be able to point me in the direction of a lost relative. Very often, we hear nothing, but once in a blue moon, we strike gold.
That’s what happened when I sent out an email asking list members if they knew of the family name Brotman. I had just received an image of my grandmother’s birth certificate from Czernowitz in 1902, which showed that Regina Picker’s mother, Betty, had been born a Brotman.
Shortly after I shared this information, I received an email from a lady in Portland, letting me know that she had married into the Brotman family in Oregon. She asked me if I would be interested in contacting one of her in-laws, whose mother had been a Brotman. He was very well-informed, she said. A conversation with him might yield some results. Not knowing that I lived here in Vancouver, she told me that Cyril Leonoff here. Naturally, I was thrilled and eager to talk to him as soon as I could.
Having corresponded with Cyril’s daughter, Anita, for awhile, we set a date and I drove over to meet them both. My children were very excited to find out if this man was a relative. I fielded the same question from them over and over again: “Are we 100% for sure, for sure related to him, Mommy? Or just 99%, do you think?”
On arriving at the Leonoff home, I was greeted by Anita. She showed us into the house, where a beautiful table had been set with fresh fruit and homemade poppy seed cake. Anita showed the children where to find some toy ships and I brought out my family photograph: my one photograph of my great-grandmother, Betty Brotman, stiff-necked and corseted, with her dark hair combed tightly across her head. Betty Brotman, who passed away at a young age, leaving her husband and children behind to survive the fall of the Habsburg Empire and the devastation of two world wars. But, back to the present.
Cyril asked me about the photo. I was eager to ask him a host of questions. Was I about to discover something extraordinary? Would I learn, after almost 20 years in Canada, that I had been living a few miles away from a relative, all this time? And after growing up in England, completely isolated from my extended family, was this man one of my elders? What did he know? What could he tell me? What did he remember of his people and their original home in Europe?
I watched his face as he calmly – and silently – looked at my photo. I tried to guess at what he was thinking. He suggested that we sit for tea before looking at his records upstairs. I accepted, glad of the tea, but thinking that this was a wonderful opportunity to practise mindfulness. Peace. Serenity in the face of burning curiosity and decades of longing for grandparents that I could talk to, family members who were able to tell me about their journeys, their struggles, their triumphs.
We sat quietly and poured tea while I tried not to boil over myself. We drank our tea and talked about the delicious poppy seed cake, which Anita’s daughter had made. And then Cyril asked me, “What are you looking for? What brings you here?”
His gaze was direct, his voice was polite. I told him the truth: I have no story, and I need one. My family was fractured, over and over, between Czernowitz, Cairo, Haifa and London. What little I do know of our history was told to me by an unreliable witness. A witness who had not wanted me, or anyone else, to find other, more reliable witnesses. A man who went to great lengths to separate his children from their story, or anyone that might refute his own accounts. A man who may have survived the war – and wars – physically, but who continued to fight their battles every day of his life, until he died. And, when he did die and I was finally able to say, rest in peace, it was truly the only peace he had ever had. He was traumatized, barely existing, unable to communicate or listen, to tell the whole truth or make any kind of authentic connection with another human being. My father, who I spent a lifetime trying to love, but who would never let me.
Cyril is 10 years older than my father was when he died. His intelligent gaze was steady and he listened quietly when I answered his questions. Difficult questions whose answers may well have been a lot longer than he had anticipated.
He didn’t respond directly, but we finished our tea slowly and he asked me up to his library. He said he had a book to show me. We climbed the stairs and entered a room with a high ceiling, filled with books. It reminded me of the shelves of my own family home, now gone. My father’s books.
Cyril walked over to a shelf by the window and removed a small volume of poetry. He opened it on a table and said, “I think you’ll want to see this.”
“This” was the inside cover of an old book inscribed in sepia copperplate. “Betty Brotman.”
“May I take a photograph of it?” I asked, after a few seconds, feeling a little superficial but not knowing where to put my happiness or my hands, other than on a camera.
“Yes,” said Cyril, so I did.
When the emotion had subsided and reason returned, I considered the facts: Cyril’s Betty may not be my great-grandmother, but still: there have been not one but three women named Betty in my family and the first was Betty Brotman. It isn’t impossible that his Brotmans were cousins to mine. It’s tenuous but, still, it’s a trace. A faint trace that proves we exist. That we left our mark on the world somewhere. That I am still connected to my people, even with my father’s concerted efforts to keep us all apart.
Cyril brought me to another room, where he kept his family records. He laid out a map showing where his family had come from. Indeed, our families were from nearby cities, again suggesting a possible link. He showed me his work on the history of Jewish farmers in Canada, where his branch of the Brotman family had homesteaded in 1889, and gave me some of his books to read. I thought about taking notes but was too moved to multitask. Simply sitting down with a man who might be a member of my family, who cared so deeply about his roots and was so proud of his family’s achievements, was overwhelming. He had done his own research and he had written it down – he had not hidden from it, or excised the story from memory. He is devoted to talking about and preserving it, just as I am.
And not only that, he wanted to talk to me, and he wanted to listen. To find out what I knew that might prove to be an irrefutable link between our families. He was curious; wanted names, dates, places.
“How old are you?” he asked me.
“Forty-four,” I replied, and cringed, feeling self-conscious. There was a pause.
“That old, eh?” he said, sounding shocked. Then he smiled – with his bright blue, 90-year-old eyes.
We looked around the room at framed photos and other artifacts of his family’s past. His record was abundant, both in photographs and documents. He pointed out a carved wooden picture frame that had been made by one of his relatives. I told him that my great-grandfather and my uncle were both carvers, that our family had worked in the lumber industry in Czernowitz. That our family had worked with trees for generations, in one way or another – whether as lumber, through sculpture or carpentry, or tree-planting in Israel in the 1940s. Another connection. Maybe.
When it was time to go, my older son asked me again. “Is he a relation? Is he ours?” I told him, “Very possibly.” And, again, he wanted to know the percentage probability. “Ninety-nine percent, then,” Benjamin decided.
It was hard to leave. After so many years, I wanted to stay until I dealt with that niggling one percent of doubt. I wanted to be sure. I had to know.
I don’t know how much of Cyril’s story is really my story, which he has taken such pains to write down. I don’t know if his Betty knew my Betty, if they were cousins, second cousins, or even more remotely related than that – or not at all. And I may never find out.
But, then again, even if we are just an appendix to his main narrative, I had a chance to read between the lines. To meet the Leonoffs, to eat with them and to ask questions about our fractured family stories. Because what matters is that we tried to knit those fractures together, to heal the tremendous wounds created by the past and the efforts made by those who refused – or were unable – to heal them on their own.
Months later, my children still talk about “our 99% relative.” They are proud to have an elder in Vancouver and they mention Cyril regularly. I love to hear them talk about him with affection and respect.
When it comes to family, I have discovered that 8- and 4-year-olds aren’t too worried about evidence. They really don’t care about that missing one percent. And now, as my children are also my teachers, neither do I.
Shula Klingeris an author, illustrator and journalist living in North Vancouver. This article is written with grateful thanks to Anita and Cyril Leonoff.