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.

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Transformation

Mining our trip to Germany and Poland continues to yield its riches and mysteries, and Walter and I find it important to explore and record our experiences.  One story especially stands out.

My Polish born parents survived the Holocaust and emigrated to the United States in 1948.  They never wanted to go back to the country where their families were decimated and the life they knew was destroyed. So it was long after they died that Walter and I went to trace my roots in Poland. We and our cousins hired guides and made some informal connections through social media.   What began as a trip to say Kaddish became also a witnessing of budding  sparks of Jewish life.  The trajectory of our journey led us to a cache of young Poles searching their Jewish roots and non-Jewish Poles supporting a rebirth of Jewish culture.  The void we felt in Poland was mirrored  in the people we encountered who have chosen to make their life’s work to try to understand their country’s past and the culture lost to them.

We were walking around the concentration/labor camp, Hasaq, where my parents spent 1941 to 1945 in forced labor, where they were threatened with deportation and death, and where they lost most of their large family and many friends. Hasaq is a short distance from what had been the Czestochowa Ghetto. We were with a Polish father and son, Kristof and Vitek Straus, who had volunteered to meet and guide us around the sites of Jewish Czestochowa.  While imagining the horrors of my parents’ and our people’s daily struggles to survive, we saw Vitek approach the pylons of the perimeter wall of the camp and reach up to break off strands of the now more than seven decades old brittle barbed wire that held 5000 Jewish people at any one time enslaved until “selected” for death in Treblinka and other Death Camps.

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Vitek handed me five three foot strands of barbed wire.  Shocked, I said that I do not take anything away from memorial places.  He said that while the plaque to memorialize the Hasaq prisoners would remain on part of the outer wall, the camp would be demolished to make way for new construction.  Knowing that Vitek’s impulse to give me these wires came from a caring place, I accepted.  But now there was the dilemma of what to do with this paradoxical gift given to me during the summer of 2013.

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Home, Walter and I turned to David Harris, Director of  RIMON, the Minnesota Jewish Arts Council. We brainstormed many ideas, but nothing clicked until we went to a RIMON fundraiser the following April.  P’chatchka, a Jewish adaptation of a Japanese presentation style, gives a group of Jewish artists 18 slides and 18 seconds per slide to describe their Jewish art to the audience. The answer to the question of what to do with the barbed wire revealed itself when we saw Claude Riedel’s presentation on Nerot Tamid, Eternal Lights.

Working with blown glass and metal, Claude creates beautiful Nerot Tamid that now illuminate Jewish synagogues around the world.  Hearing about the wire and the idea of incorporating it into an Eternal Light, Claude immediately resonated with the idea and invited us and David Harris to his studio.  The synergy between us was palpable!

As we shared our experiences, thoughts and creative ideas, the Ner Tamid began to take shape in our minds.  Then Claude turned them into reality.

Yes, a Ner Tamid! But why weld barbed wire into the chain of a Ner Tamid? For Claude, as for each of us, the wire gives voice for the call to always “Remember – Zachor.”  The barbed wire meant to hold Jewish people captive until sending them to their death is here transformed.  The Ner Tamid is eternal as is our memory of those who suffered and perished in the Holocaust, the Shoah.  The beauty of this lamp reflects the Jewish life that was lost.  In its light, our memories will never be extinguished.  In it we see the strength and resilience of our people, the “tikva”, the hope and light out of darkness. The barbed wire of Hasaq is part, but not the essence, of the chain of our continuity, just as the Holocaust is part of our Jewish experience, but not its essence.

Now the Ner Tamid is ready to go into a place of honor. The next part of its story is about where the  Ner Tamid will shine in all its beauty and significance for generations to come.

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