Anyone Want (To Buy) a Holocaust Ner Tamid?

The summer of 2017 marks the 4th anniversary of Witek Straus grabbing strands of barbed wire off the perimeter wall of the ruins of the Hasag labor camp in Czestochowa, Poland as we were touring Hasag on a “roots trip” to Poland. Thousands of Jews and non-Jewish Poles were slaves in this camp during WWII. These included many members of Ruth’s extended family of whom only two survived – her mother Sala and aunt Mania.

Since then, the wire has been incorporated into a Ner Tamid by internationally acclaimed artist, Claude Riedel. The Ner Tamid can be visited at http://www.clauderiedelart.com.

It has been a interesting and sometimes frustrating but never dull journey to find it a home. We have chased down leads in New York City, New Jersey, Chicago, Toronto, Los Angeles, Poland and Israel.

Original plans called for it to be placed in a Holocaust Museum. However we eventually learned that without the proper documentation for the barbed wire no Holocaust Museum would take it. At one point we were even accused of thievery from a memorial site, a veiled accusation that saddened us. As we step back and reconsider the placement we realize that the Ner Tamid falls between the cracks of a ritual object on the one hand and a work of art on the other.  We are giving up on Holocaust Museums and turning our attention to places of worship and education. Our only stipulation is that the Ner Tamid be used in ongoing Holocaust education.

The new “marketing plan” calls for research into ongoing renovation in synagogues and educational institutions. For instance, the JTS in New York in undergoing a $100M renovation including a new auditorium and library. A perfect fit. Maybe. If anyone reading this blog knows of any other renovations being planned please let us know. We are confident that this beautiful Ner Tamid will grace a wonderful institution somewhere. If it lands in Hawaii it will fulfill a wish of Ruth’s mother who when offered a trip to Poland said, “I’d rather go to Hawaii.” So it goes.

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Further Adventures of the Ner Tamid

After our abortive attempt to find a home for our “Hasag Holocaust Ner Tamid” in Chicago, there has been a flurry of new developments. No home yet, but we are getting closer. Two parties in the country to our north have expressed solid interest. By that I mean they want it. However, certain contingencies prevent us from making any commitments at the present time. That means we are not sure we have found the right home.

Our dear friend Lea Wolinetz, who seemingly knows everyone related to Czestochowa, Poland has been making connections for us all over the world. Two of them are in Los Angeles. One is a Rabbi with a pulpit in a large (nine rabbis) reform temple, and the other is the west coast director of the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Lea says he “knows everyone” and for her to say that means a lot. We will be leaving for Los Angeles on October 14 and have made appointments to meet the Temple Rabbi (his grandparents were in Hasag also) and we will also meet with the USHMM Director. While there we will visit the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust ( LAMOTH), the Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball Museum. We have mixed feelings about the Ner Tamid landing in LA, since it is so far from home, but there is a connection since Ruth lived in LA from 1956-1980. Also there is a significant Czestochowa Landsmannschaft in Los Angeles. We are not sure whether the 3rd generation of survivor descendants is keeping up the relationships that the Czestochowa survivors had. Perhaps they are. We will find out.

Well we have returned from the left coast and had some exciting meetings. Everyone we met was so enthusiastic about the Ner Tamid and its story. We now have several “advocates” in Los Angeles who are moving the light along, so to speak. Not sure I am ready for the Ner Tamid to land somewhere. We are having so much fun in the process. Next, the Ner Tamid travels to Orlando to be exhibited at the Reform Biennial.

The adventure continues. We will keep you “posted.”

A Brick Wall Crumbles

In an earlier post I looked forward to the day when I could find record of Ruth’s other grandmother, Rochma Hoffer nee Szacher, sister of Bluma. As any genealogist can tell you, if you chip away at your brick walls, you will finally break through. Rochma’s Yad Vashem record created by her niece Mania Genislau in Herzliyah Petuach, Israel states that she was born in 1884 in Bresc, now in Belarus. This turned out to be another dead end when a thorough examination of Bresc records turned up no trace of Szachers. Working with my Polish colleague, Piotr Nazuruk, having exhausted the vital records of Biala Podlaska and neighboring communities, and ending up in dead ends in Belarus records, I asked Piotr if there were other records such as tax records or housing censuses that we should be examining. He said there might be and proceeded in his methodical way to track them down.

In the Radzyn Archives Piotr discovered an early 20th century housing census of Biala Podlaska. An exited email message highlighted the discovery. The records were in Russian and there were some notes in Polish. There was David Hoffer and his wife Rochma Szacher from Slawatyzce. She was born in 1889?? to Szlama Chaim and Estera Frajda Wiernik. Bingo! Another scribbled note indicated that David and Rochma were married in 1923. What? Their first child Sara was born in 1907 in Czestochowa. Interesting. Now what? Now a search ensued for their marriage record. Poland abides by the 100 year rule which means that all vital records are kept private for 100 years. So did I have to wait until 2024 to get their marriage record? Now the fun began. Letters and calls went out to the Archives in Biala Podlaska, Slawatyzce, and Czestochowa. Nothing in Biala Podlaska nor Slawatyzce but yes, there was a marriage record for 1923 in Czestochowa. I am summarizing a process that took several months. Fees are paid. Power of Attorney is given over. The marriage record arrives. The marriage was clearly registered in Czestochowa in 1923. But when were they actually married. Probably between 1900 and 1905 in Slawatycze – but no record remains. That would make Rochma anywhere from 11 to 16 when she married. I would rather believe the Yad Vashem birth date of 1884 and sure enough there it was in the “official” marriage record.

Some mysteries remain. Biala Podlaska and Slawatycze were in Russia in 1900. Why did the Hoffers move to Czestochowa, 450 kilometers away? Moving from Russia to Poland is extremely rare according to several sources. And why Czestochowa? This may forever remain a mystery.

Discovering New Cousins

Usually when I conduct my genealogy research, I discover relatives in Ruth’s family. Why? Because my family has been thoroughly researched by Cousins Roy Stern and Gary Ridolf along with the invaluable assistance of Manfred Schmidt in Germany. This work involves mostly my patriline, ancestors of my father. Now that I have started working on the matriline – my mother’s ancestors, I have made some interesting discoveries. First, I have Dutch ancestry. Second, I have cousins living in Iowa and Nebraska. And third, there is a WW2 war bride in my family history.

My Second Great Grandfather Isaac Schoenfeld was born in the German village of Wachenbuchen in 1816. In 1840, he married Hennel Reinhard and proceeded to have six children, including Gustav Schoenfeld, my Great Grandfather. One of Gustav’s siblings, named Minna, was born in 1854. She married Julius Mendel Mueller at a place and time unknown to me. However, and this is where it gets interesting, there were three children from this marriage all born in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. The time period is the 1880’s. A wild guess is that Julius and Minna sought better economic conditions in Holland than Germany. In any case, Julius did well. On the birth certificate of his first child he is mentioned as a worker in a mattress factory. Upon the birth of child #2, he is a supervisor in the factory. By the time child #3 is born, he runs the factory. Child #3 has a name, Johanna, born in 1889. She marries Karl Hauser.and has one daughter Irene, born in 1920 in Mannheim, Germany. I am not sure how we now go from the Netherlands back to Germany but I am sure that Germany was in the midst of a terrible inflation in the 1920’s, so this move is counter intuitive. Trying to decipher the “story” of relatives during the Holocaust is always difficult. Irene is 13 when Hitler comes to power. In 1946 at age 26, she becomes the war bride of John William Ebert from Hancock, Iowa. Johanna and Karl, her parents, also survive the war. I’m sure there is a story there, but I just don’t know it.

Later in 1946 John and Irene move to Hancock, Iowa, have two sons Fred and Ken. Irene passes away in 1998. Johanna and Karl move to Hancock in 1948 and stay until 1960 when they move back to Germany. After Karl dies, Johanna moves back to Hancock to stay.

I am in touch with Fred and Ken who are my third cousins. They are assembling family data for me so I can add some third cousins once removed to the family tree. Will we ever visit Fred and Ken and their families in Nebraska and Iowa? Perhaps. It sure is closer than Germany.

The Mezuzah at 14 Targowa Street

Yesterday we went to Framestyles, a delightful frame shop in South Minneapolis to drop off the bronze cast of a mezuzah that originally was affixed to the door at the courtyard in Czestochowa, Poland, home of David and Rochma Hoffer nee Szacher and their children, Batia, Israel and Sarah. Maybe David and Rochma’s parents too, we don’t know. Israel was Ruth’s father who survived Hasag and Buchenwald. We started to tell the tale of the mezuzah in earlier posts, but the story goes on as it usually does.

It all started with a surprise from Tomasz. Tomasz Jankowski that is – a Belarus-based tour guide, genealogist and friend who we hired to conduct some genealogical research on the Hoffer family tree in Czestochowa. After sifting through the archives, Tomasz noticed some tax records and located the home address of David Hoffer, Ruth’s grandfather.

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Tomasz, without us asking him to, went to the address and photographed the imprint of a mezuzah on the Hoffer doorpost.

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After we received this amazing photograph, we framed it, hung it on our wall and went on with our lives.

Then in the summer of 2013, we attended the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland and I was dragged kicking and screaming into a “Let’s make something Jewish” workshop. Yes, two young Poles brought in a ton of art supplies and our task was, once broken into groups, to make a challah cover, a kiddush cup, a menorah – you get the idea. Not exactly my cup of tea. But Ruthie was having fun so I graciously sat on the sidelines, grumbling occasionally, and watched the class of mostly non-Jews doing their Jewish overnight camp thing.

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At the close of the class Ruth and I approached the two instructors and engaged them in a brief conversation. “Where are you from? “Any Jewish blood flowing in your veins? What do you do when you aren’t teaching non-Jews how to make kiddish cups out of coffee stirrers?” “Oh, yes, my father was Jewish, says Helena, and I am converting.” “We also have a company called Mi Polin, she says.” “What does Mi Polin do,” we ask. “Oh, we make wooden art mezuzot and sometimes Jewish people who have identified a mezuzah at an ancestral home ask us to go there and make a bronze cast for them.” “Holy, jumping turtlewax,” I said. “We have one in Czestochowa, will you go there, how much will it cost, how soon can you do it,  and isn’t it a small world????……”

I surmise that you can feel how excited we were. It turned out to really not be a difficult process. We sent the photograph and the address to Alexander and Helena.

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Ruth wrote something for the Mi Polin Facebook page. We decided what should go on the sides of the mezuzah. And then Mi Polin did their thing.

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A few weeks later a rather heavy (for its size) package arrived from Poland. It was the mezuzah, perfectly executed, and impressively beautiful. All who have seen it, felt it, held it, have been touched. It is an honoring of family history to have this object that once marked the entrance to Ruth’s ancestral home. Now it will go into a beautiful Plexiglas frame, along with some dedicatory words, to be hung on a wall where soon the fifth (or perhaps 6th) subsequent generation can admire it.

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An unexpected turn on the Ner Tamid road

As we continue our search for a suitable site for our beautiful Ner Tamid, we decide to drive to Chicago, visit the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, the Spertus Museum, and say hi to Arthur and Laurel Feldman, friends from high school days (Dear High, Dear Central High). Arthur owns a Judaica store and has many connections that might help us in our search.

We break up the trip by stopping in Madison, eat at the Sardine restaurant, have a marvelous meal and drive the next day to Skokie. Greeted by charming Hilton staff with chocolate chip cookies, we proceed to check in early and get ready for our drive to the Holocaust Museum. The cookie doesn’t agree with Ruth (a premonition). Once in the Museum, Ruth feels terrible and wants to leave (unprecedented). So much so that we go to Urgent Care, get a preliminary diagnosis of an obstructed bowel, and are sent to an ER in Skokie. Once there (of course) we know the ER doctor, who turns out to be Peter Himmelman’s cousin, and a St. Louis Park native. Ruthie is in terrible pain only somewhat alleviated by intravenous narcotics. After a scan followed by an ultrasound we hear that there is a mass on the right ovary. We tell the doctors and nurses that Ruth had a complete hysterectomy in 2012. A “complete hysterectomy” meant removal of the ovaries – complete, right.  It is now 2:00 AM, Ruthie is flying on narcotics, the radiologist insists that he sees ovaries, and we feel we are in Brobdingnag. Of course in retrospect this all made sense since Ruth had a complete hysterectomy which of course in medical terminology, means incomplete. Only the uterus and cervix were gone and the ovaries and Fallopian tubes remained. A so-called “radical’ hysterectomy would have removed the uterus and the ovaries. But of course we didn’t know that, causing all kinds of 2:00 AM miscommunication. Against doctor’s orders, we leave the ER, believing we are in the hands of incompetency, and go back to our hotel. 

Once there, we still manage a visit to Arthur’s Judaica shop and the Feldman home. Upon entering the house, Ruth spies the Feldman couch, and she is out for the entire visit. We decide to spend the next day in the hotel to rest up for our drive back to Minneapolis. Ruth sleeps for 15 hours straight. The next morning we pack up, get Ruth comfortable in a reclining front seat position, and I drive the 8 hours back to Minneapolis with only one pee break.  Ruth sleeps the whole time even though I am blasting music on the radio to keep me awake, or at least alert. Using Bluetooth, we contact Ruth’s doctor’s office and arrange an appointment with her general medicine doc for early the next day. There we find out the difference between a total and a radical hysterectomy, feel suitably chastened, and in a very nice Minnesota way are told to get an appointment with an Oncology surgeon ASAP. I proceed to call Gynecologic surgeons for a urgent appointment. It is Thursday and we get an appointment for the following Tuesday. Guess what is in between Thursday and Tuesday? Two Seders! One was supposed to be ours but in a last minute shuffle, is moved to the abode of our dear friends, the Okens. To the utter befuddlement of those at the Seders, Ruth participates normally, or seemingly so. 

Monday we see Dr. Tina Ayeni, a Harvard, Duke and Mayo trained surgeon and by Tuesday at 7:30 AM, Ruth is in surgery. Dan and Naomi join me in the waiting room watching the clock. Liora and Sara join us later. Expecting a one hour arthroscopic procedure, we see one, two, then three hours elapse. Word from the OR is that all is fine. We have no clue as to what this means. We are prepared for the worst. Dr. Ayeni had warned us that if the procedure took a long time, it probably meant that pathology had reported a malignancy and an extra few hours of surgical work would be required. Dr. Ayeni finally appears, and utters the word “benign.”  

Ruth stays in Abbott for 2 more days. Dr. Ayeni visits and tells us that the tumor was benign. “You mean to tell me that what you told us right after surgery could change,” I ask hyper incredulously. “Yes, but it is very rare,” is the reply. What an interesting medical system we have. Communication does not seem to be its forte, but all’s well that ends well. 

What about the Ner Tamid you ask. It is still in Claude Riedel’s studio, waiting for its place of honor. I guess it won’t be in Chicago.

The Mystery of the Two Grandmothers

In our tradition, we say that when you save a single life, you save the whole world.  Our travels into the world of our roots has beckoned me to save the world of our ancestral families, and I do what I can.

Six million Jewish lives lost has always been unfathomable. Strangely, with this genealogical work, the number grows greater.  Nevertheless, every new find feels like a victory, a recovery of our families and our people.  These are the latest recoveries.

For 2 1/2 years I have been searching for the parents of Ruth’s two grandmothers. Since they are sisters, there is only one set of grandparents. Yad Vashem records were incomplete and inaccurate.

Szlama Chaim Szacher was born to Icek Leib Szacher and Sura Ester Lin on 12 October 1867 in Slawatycze, Poland, right near the present day border with Belarus. He married Ester Frajda Wiernik and thereby became Ruth’s Great Grandfather in keeping with Ester Frajda’s Great Grandmother designation. Hence, one half of the mystery of Ruth’s missing grandmothers is solved. They are the parents of Bluma Szacher who married Abraham Gruen, in 1921 in Czestochowa and who became the parents of Mania, Dadek, and Safta Sally. Sally’s husband Israel Hoffer also had a Szacher mother, namely Rochma, Bluma’s sister, married to David Hoffer. She is the other half of the mystery.

As of this writing the only trace of Rochma is in birth records of her children, Sara (1907), Israel (1909) and Basia (1913) in Czestochowa, many miles from Slawatycze. The search goes on for the birth record of Rochma and her marriage record with David Hoffer.

In a Yad Vashem record created by Michael Weiss, Rochma’s son-in-law, Rochma is mentioned as having been born in Brzesc in 1884 to Shlomo and Ester. She along with her sister Bluma were murdered by the Nazis in Czestochowa. Rochma was only 58, Bluma 47.

Brzesc is not far from Slawatycze (home of the Szachers) and Biala Podlaska (home of the Hoffers). A new train line from Brzesc to Biala Podlaska had just been built.. As the first born, perhaps Rochma was married off to David Hoffer, in her late teens, sometime at the beginning of the 20th century, Rochma married and the Hoffer family, seeking better economic opportunities moved to Czestochowa, over 400 km west. Why Czestochowa – we are not sure.

The Szachers had been in Slawatycze for over 200 years, so this must have been a wrenching move. Other Szachers accompanied the married couple. By 1907, Rochma was giving birth in Czestochowa. Bluma, her sister, born in 1895 in Slawatycze most likely was in the entourage to Czestochowa. There she met Abraham Gruen, born in Truskolasy, and married in 1921. Safta Sally was born in 1924.

It makes you wonder what life was like for the Szachers in Slawatycze.  It was just just a little shtetl. Of the approximately 2000 inhabitants, half were Jews. How religious were they? What did they do? Rochma’s husband David Hoffer is mentioned as being a merchant later in Czestochowa. A brother, Abram Majer, dies at age 10 in 1898. There is no diagnosis on the death record.

We genealogists are used to “brick walls.” This term means the point you reach conducting genealogical research where the data allows no further progress. I am curious about so many things. Where is Rochma from? Why can’t I find a record of her birth? What are the circumstances leading up to her ending up in Czestochowa? Where is a record of her marriage to Abraham Gruen? In those days, probably, not everything was recorded. Or if it was, World War II obliterated some of the records. How do I climb over the brick wall, or around it? I am too old for pole vaulting.

Having found Bluma, one grandmother, makes me even more obsessed with finding her sister, Rochma, Ruth’s other grandmother. It is unusual to have two grandmothers who are sisters, but that should actually make the genealogical task easier, not more difficult. Are there other researchers who may have Szachers in their family tree? Have some records, untouched by the comprehensive tentacles of JRI-Poland and the Mormon Church, been waiting to be discovered? Perhaps there are others in Blogland, or Slawatyzce/Czestochowa Genealogyville who will read this and offer help.

I wait by the brick wall and hope.