Wednesday, 18 October 2017

The Prayer Books of Gombin

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.

The Books
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.

Lajb Rajn?

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.

Whose Books?
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.

More Mysteries
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.

The Pindeks
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.

Links to:
- The Frankenstein Trail: posts on our family's history

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Tracing the X in Levin

Several of my cousins have now done a DNA test, and we are beginning to get some interesting results. Within the last couple of weeks results have come in for Beatrice, a 3rd Cousin to me, and for Dan, a 2nd Cousin. Dan and I share great-grandparents, Shliomo Dovid Ilyutovich and Mikhlya Levin, whilst Beatrice's great-grandfather is Mikhlya's brother Leib. So our connection with Beatrice is one generation further back, with the parents of Mikhlya and Leib, Berko Levin and his wife Sora Leya. Our Levin family is from a village called Streshin, in Mogilev province in the east of Belarus, and later from Gomel, a bit further south.

With these new results in, I was able to do a few checks comparing known Levin family members using the chromosome browser on the FTDNA website. Apart from my brother Brian and myself, we have results for Katy (the daughter of our 1st cousin Jenny, so she's our 1st Cousin-once-Removed), and for Patrick - a 1C1R to Dan. 

The Chromosome Browser shows us where we have segments of DNA that exactly match those of another person. These matching segments - especially the longer ones - must almost certainly have come from a common ancestor, although in many cases this ancestor will turn out to be too far back in time for us to be able to trace.

The first impression was that we all seem to match each other here and there, to a greater or lesser extent. Phew! I experimented comparing the group first against myself, then against Brian, then against Katy - and it was here that I encountered a major surprise.

Here is the chart for Katy's X-chromosome. The X has a different inheritance pattern to all the other chromosomes. It is passed from the Mother to all children, Male & Female, and from the Father only to a Female child. This makes the inheritance path quite complicated, but if you sit down with the Tree in front of you and a pencil in your hand, you can follow it through.
NB: the black background represents Katy, the green is Dan, the yellow is Beatrice. The blank lines you can discern on the right-hand side are where Brian, Patrick and myself would be, except we didn't get this X because we are all males, and our Levin line passes through our fathers. And as we saw above, fathers don't pass an X on to their sons. And none of us matches Katy on the left-hand side.

We see that Dan shares a long segment on the X-chromosome with Katy, and Beatrice also matches both of them in this segment in a couple of short stretches. Dan's match with Katy is 110cM, which I am told is unusually long for 2C1R - the segment has been passed down unaltered over 3 generations to Dan, and 4 to Katy. And although Beatrice's match is comparatively short, it is significant that she matches with both of the others at those points.

What is more, we know where this segment comes from, for any ‘match’ displayed in the Chromosome Browser has to come from an ancestor common to all the people who share the match, and our cousinship is close enough for us to know who those ancestors are.

We can trace one of Dan’s X-inheritance paths back via his mother Raya, and her father Shmuilo, to our great-grandmother Mikhlya Levin, and then on to her mother Sora Leya, born about 1830. 

Katy has a path that also wends its way back to the same place, via her mother Jenny, Jenny's father Michael, his mother Zlata, and back to Mikhlya and on to Sora Leya.

And Beatrice also has one that goes back to Sora Leya, via her mother Alice, Alice's mother Annie, and Annie's father Leib, Mikhlya’s brother.

Here's our Levin X-inheritance chart:

NB: girls are pink, boys are blue; and notice that none of these 3 paths pass through two successive males at any point - this would block transmission of the Levin X, which is why Patrick, Brian and myself can't share in the fun.

So we can trace this long stretch of X back to a known common ancestor. That in itself is nice to know, but it has further significant potential. Because anyone else matching Dan or Katy on that same stretch of X - or Beatrice, on her shorter stretch - will have got it from Sora Leya, or from her X-path ancestors, or their X-path descendants. That leaves quite a lot of possibilities, but at least we know what direction to look in.

I would say that this makes anyone matching either of Dan or Katy on the right-hand module of the X-chromosome worth following up - they will be related to us, and the relationship may be traceable. They won’t be close to us, the closest they could be is probably descendants of any siblings of Mikhlya and Leib - but it would be wonderful if we do find some! They would be 3rd Cousins to us - and that's worth knowing about!

Dan and Katy meet for the first time last year. At that point we didn't know about the X in Levin.

Two more members of the Levin X-club: Beatrice and Alice, celebrating Alice's 100 birthday in 2011 with a Yiddish song or two. Sadly Alice passed away the following year.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Something in the air

There must be something in the air ...
There I was, whiling away the time on the top deck of the Number 7 bus, scrolling through the emails on my phone. There was one from MyHeritage, so I opened it to see what news there was on the family history front. It was a list of 'record matches' they'd found for people in the Family Tree I've got on their site. One of them was for the family of Joseph Szapira of Brighton. In the 1891 Census they were living at 3 St James's Street.As I read this, the bus pulled up at a stop, and I glanced out of the window., as you do.
There it was, just behind me - Number 3, the yellow building currently offering organic Belgian chips. In 1891 it was a fruiterer's. Joseph Szapira, formerly a jeweller, seems to have taken over the business after the death of his father-in-law Samuel Joel. Apart from the shop-fronts, the row of buildings, with their bow-windows on the first floor, are more or less as they were in 1891.So was this email from MyHeritage primed to open at just this time, and just this place? Are they in cahoots with the bus driver?
Or is it maybe Kate Joel's way of reminding me that I haven't yet managed to link her family with that of Jacob Joel, who lived at 89 St James's Street? Or is it even Isaac Frankenstein nudging me again, from across the Atlantic - I haven't managed to link him to anyone at all.
Or .... ?