A year ago I took part in a visit to Gombin in Poland, home town of my grandfather Lajb Frankensztajn. I went along with a few other members of the Gombin Society from the USA and the UK, all of us descendants of Jewish inhabitants of the town. We were there for a weekend of events commemorating the town’s former Jewish community, which was wiped out in the Holocaust. Several members of my own Gombin family perished at that time, including my grandfather’s two sisters, their husbands and most of their children, possibly his mother (though she may have died a year or two before the War, we don’t know), and many of his cousins.
Amongst the many moving moments of the visit, one in particular stands out for me. It happened on the Sunday, when we had a programme of walks around the town, followed by a few short films and talks in the afternoon.
It was 10am. We had just arrived in the town, and were standing around waiting for the local dignitaries to join us. A woman approached us, carrying a plastic bag, from which she pulled out a number of old, black-bound books. They were Hebrew Prayer Books, which she said had been found when her house was being renovated a few years ago. They had been hidden under the stairs, or maybe behind a wall, during the War. They must have been there for at least 75 years, as the Nazis deported all remaining Jews from the town to concentration camps in 1942.
Did we know who these books belonged to? She wanted to return them to the original family, and was reluctant to hand them over to a museum - and we had amongst us the Directors of two of the most important museums in Poland, the State Ethnographic Museum, who had organised the Conference, and Polin, the Museum of the Polish Jews, both located in Warsaw. But she insisted she wanted to give them back to the family.
She said the Jewish family who had lived in the house before was called Pindek. At that point I had not come across the name at all, and when I checked later, I couldn’t see it on any of the databases I had on my laptop. It didn’t ring any bells. None of the Jewish Gombiners amongst us recognised the name.
There was some writing on some of the blank pages at the beginning of one of the books, some in Yiddish, and a child’s hand practising letter formation in Hebrew and in Russian. A few people looked at it but no-one could make much sense of it.
Our hosts arrived, our meeting started. The lady put the books back in the bag and went off. We were busy all day and I didn't have another look at the photos I had taken.
Reading the Writing
Then at the end of the day, she turned up again, as we were all filing into a hall for some talks and films. I’m always stopping to take photos, and as usual I was at the back of the bunch to enter the hall, along with a few of our Polish friends from the Ethnological Museum. As proceedings began inside, those of us still outside had another look at the books. I can read a bit of Russian, albeit with difficulty, and I suddenly realised that the child’s writing - even reading it upside down, as someone else held the book - was that of a little boy learning how to write his own name: Lab Ran.
I have Rajn relatives, from Gombin. They are descendants of Gersz Ber Rajn and Rifka Laja Frankensztajn, sister of my great-grandfather. Plus, conversations with a newly-contacted cousin, Louis Kaplan, had confirmed that Gersz Ber Rajn, and Louis' great-grandfather Boruch Nusyn Rajn, were brothers, and that therefore what looked like two Rajn families in Gombin were really one. Plus, Boruch Nusyn's wife was a member of my Zegelman family.
So they're all relatives of mine, one way or another. They’re on my Family Tree, and my Tree is on my phone, and my phone is in my pocket …
There he was - Lajb Rajn, born 1901, from Louis’ side of the Rajn family. We checked the date of publication of the book: 1900. It could be him! I checked again in my notes, and there were indeed no other children called Lajb in the Rajn family at that time. It had to be him.
As Chance would have it
I showed the Museum people the entry for the Rajn family on my iPhone - so glad I’d bought the App! - and one of them explained what I was saying to the lady, Mrs Romanowska.
She was delighted to have found someone connected with the family, but I don’t think she realised what a massive part Chance had played in bringing us together:
Chance #1: I was on the trip in the first place - there were only 5 of us from old Gombin families; none of the others was connected to the Rajn family
#2: I was still in the street, and not already inside in the hall, when she came back in the afternoon
#3: I can read a bit of Russian; I don't think any of the others could
#4: I have a ridiculous number of relatives, confirmed and potential, listed on the genealogy app on my phone
#5: I had only recently been contacted by Louis, who had helped me to join some of the dots
We had a little impromptu handing-over ceremony right there and then in the street, and a little hug. I now have the Book.
More dots joined
So we had identified the child who had written in the book, but we were still in the dark about the Pindeks.
A few days later, back home, I was writing to Louis, who is from New Jersey, USA, to tell him that, on the Gombin trip, we had been given a book belonging to his family. While I was writing, I had another look at his Family Tree on the Geni website, and saw that since I had last looked, before the trip, he had added in some names and dates to his Rajn branch.
There they were: a Pindek married to a Rajn! Fool (probably a diminutive of Rafal) Pindek, married to Kajla Rajn! I already knew about Kajla - she’s a daughter of Boruch Nusyn, and an older sister of Lajb, the child whose writing is in the book. So Lajb's book had been found in his sister's house, and she was married to a Pindek.
Sadly, Louis also had dates of death for all 3 of them: Lajb, Kajla and Fool: 1942. All killed in the Holocaust.
I suppose the book had belonged to Boruch Nusyn originally, and maybe one of Lajb’s older brothers or sisters, possibly Kajla, used the blank pages to show him how to write his name. We were told by Barbara Kirschenblatt, Director of the Polin Museum, that the book is a Mahzor (a festival prayer book), that all families had one, and that they would have been accessible to the children.
We presume that Lajb, or maybe Kajla, would have kept the Books, and hid them when the Germans came. 65 or 70 years later, the house was being renovated, floorboards were pulled up, and the books were found.
The other three books, Barbara told us, were part of a series of commentary prayer books, Mikraot Gedolot, that would only have been used by a Rabbi or other synagogue officiant, or maybe a Yeshiva student. I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask for these three books at the time, but they clearly are all part of the same collection, and we are hoping that Mrs Romanowska will agree to return them to the family.
Meantime, there are a number of other mysteries waiting to be cleared up. Who was the Rabbi, or Teacher, or student, who owned the commentary books? It is probably Lajb’s father, Boruch Nusyn, but I can’t be sure as so far I haven’t managed to find out anything at all about him. Louis says he was in the leather business, and that’s about it. It could be Lajb himself, or perhaps Rafal Pindek. Again, we know nothing further about them.
Why are there only 3 volumes out of the 11 in the series? Did the Rajns/Pindeks originally have all 11? If so, where are the others? It has been suggested that maybe the books belonged to the synagogue, and that they were spread amongst the community at some point during the War in the hope that they might stand a better chance of surviving. We do not know.
There are further question marks over the house itself. It is located in Kilinskiego Street, which runs from the synagogue out to the Jewish cemetery, about a kilometre away. When the Germans created a Jewish ghetto in the town, this street became its centre. We do not know whether the Pindeks were living there before the War, or whether they were moved there when the ghetto was formed. We do not know whether Lajb Rajn and his family lived there at all. Mrs Romanowska says that her family bought the house from the Pindeks, and that she has some sort of documentation of this amongst her parents’ papers. At the moment we do not know when her family took over the house - before the War, or under the Occupation? Or after the Jews were deported to the camps?
She also says there are photos that might include the Pindeks. This leaves us wondering what the relationship was between her family and the Pindeks - were they friends, neighbours, business associates maybe? If we could see the papers and photos she has mentioned, it might help make the picture a bit clearer. We have asked.
Finally, the Pindeks themselves. Rafal and Kajla were killed in 1942, but their son Bernard (probably named after his grandfather Boruch Nusyn) managed, somehow, to survive. Louis, whose mother was a cousin to Bernard, recalls: “They had a son named Bernie who survived the Holocaust and I recall meeting him when I was a little boy. The legend was that he escaped into the woods and lived out the War in hiding.”
Bernie’s escape must have been from a concentration camp, as some of the cousins who remember him from their childhood recall the camp number tattooed on his arm. Louis remembers going to visit Bernie and his family, and playing with his two sons.
Bernie died aged 50 in 1967. Louis recalls the family saying he "died before his time”; his mother said that it was from “the trials that he was exposed to during the time of the Holocaust.” It has just struck me that this year is his centenary.
Six of Boruch Nusyn’s children had emigrated to the USA in the 1910s and 20s; Kajla and Lajb were the only ones who stayed in Poland. Bernie probably knew that his uncles and aunts were in New Jersey, and he managed to locate them there after the War. Other members of the Rajn family also remember family contacts with Bernie and his family. Three of them, Arline, Lauren and Dan, recently helped me to make contact with Bernie’s sons, and with a grand-daughter, Lilly. Until they saw my emails a few weeks ago, Lilly says they thought that her Grandfather’s family had all perished in the Holocaust, and they would never be able to find out who they were.
We have pooled our knowledge, and Lady Luck has played a part, but there are still many mysteries. Maybe together we will be able to resolve some of them, and recover at least some of the history of a family torn apart by the horrors of the Holocaust.
- photos from the Walk in Gombin, September 2016
- The Frankenstein Trail: posts on our family's history