Unlocking tales of family treasure

Holidays are a great time to rummage around in old boxes, where long-lost items wait to be rediscovered.

September 24, 2008 15:12
Unlocking tales of family treasure

fmaily photos 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Asked about her collection of family heirlooms, Linda Silverman Shefler will likely say that as a child, she was somewhat of a nudnik! As far back as she can remember, she would pester her grandmothers with questions: Who were those people in all the photographs? What did those documents she couldn't read really say? To whom did this or that object belong? Eldest of the 10 grandchildren on each side of the family, Shefler was the only one who showed interest in the family history: "I believe that's what made me the logical candidate to inherit so many wonderful family treasures." Shefler began researching her family 23 years ago after her grandmother died and she inherited a drawerful of photographs. She began to research a previously unknown Cleveland, Ohio branch, and her journey of discovery has gathered 80 direct ancestors, 10 generations and more than 11,000 relatives, going back (in one branch) to the late 1600s. "There's still so much research to do," she adds. Shefler, an interior designer, made aliya with her husband in April; they live on Moshav Mishmeret. Her most treasured heirloom? Her family wall, which features 50 old family photographs and documents that were cleaned, repaired and preserved by an archivist, then matted and framed. "My maternal grandmother gave me her mother's brass candlestick that she brought with her from Russia," said Shefler. An appraiser said the candlestick dated to circa 1850, and Shefler wonders if it originally belonged to her great-great-grandmother. Likely one of a pair separated many years ago, it was always on her grandmother's dining room sideboard, and is prominently displayed in Shefler's home. That's not all her treasure trove offers. Some items were inherited from her grandmother; others came to her because no one else cared enough to want them. The collection includes old Kiddush cups, a great-grandmother's jewelry, 1920s "flapper" dresses, old prayer books and a century-old Haggada, in addition to letters written by members of three different generations. A collection of small items (crochet, a shoe buttonhook, business letterhead and more) was combined into a hanging for her office. "Each of these connections to my past is a treasure to me and I feel very blessed to have them," she says. Another prized possession is Shefler's paternal grandmother's monogrammed (M for Marx) century-old silver. "My grandmother wanted me to have this and it fascinates me to think of who used it." As a child, Shefler would polish it before family events. Shefler has often wondered - and worried - what she will do with all these treasures: "Who will become the guardian of the past when I'm not around?" Someday, when she has grandchildren, she hopes to instill in them a fascination with their family history. "I hope that I will be able to spend hours with them, like my grandmothers did with me, patiently explaining who the people were, to whom the 'treasures' belonged and entrust these pieces of their past to them." The difference, of course, adds Shefler, is that she'll be able to hand over a history - one her grandmothers didn't know - with the heirlooms. Shelly Levin, 51, a former genetics counselor and current "domestic goddess," wishes she knew the family stories of her three-century-old candlesticks. "If only [they] could talk," she sighs. Levin can imagine the stories they'd tell if they could "and the genealogical questions I would ask." Rachelle Berliner of Atlanta, Georgia, also has her grandmother's candlesticks. Rachel Golda Zagona and Joseph Jacobs (Eichler) - from Przasnysz, Poland - arrived in London in 1865, and sailed to America in 1880, with three brass candlesticks. Berliner's mother, the youngest of 11 living children, inherited them and gave them to her daughter. In London, her grandfather ordered a watch chain with a design representing a Torah cover. Her mother made it into a necklace and Berliner wears it every day. For Australian-born genealogist and author Chaim Freedman of Petah Tikva, his great-great-grandfather's tefillin - which might go farther back than that - are worth more than diamonds. In 1950, when he reached bar mitzva age in Melbourne, his mother gave the tefillin to him and said he should treasure them, as they belonged to her father's grandfather, Shlomo Zalman Komesaroff (Komisaruk). They had belonged to Shlomo Zalman's grandfather, Rabbi Pinkhas Komisaruk (1830-1897), and might even be from Pinkhas's own grandfather, Rabbi Dov Ber Komisaruk (1776-1843), Freedman says. He only has to glance at the tefillin to remember his family's history, as they migrated from Raseiniai, Lithuania in 1847 to the Ukrainian Jewish agricultural colony of Grafskoy, later journeying to Australia in 1913 and, finally, to Israel in 1977. Meryl Frank, 49 - the mayor of Highland Park, New Jersey, and mother of four - is the guardian of her grandmother's trousseau. Her grandmother, Meryl Kagan, was the daughter of tinsmith guild master Reb Duvid Kagan. In 1890, Frank's grandfather came to Vilna to apprentice with Reb Kagan. On his first day at work, a woman walked into the shop to have a new "brass limb" made. The guild master took the old brass limb she had brought in and threw it to Frank's grandfather, saying "Here, kid, make something from this." Today, two beautiful brass kettles sit on her mantle in New Jersey. Frank's grandparents were married in Vilna in 1901, and her grandmother's trousseau includes embroidered pillowcases, a table runner with Kagan's initials embroidered in Russian, a cotton nightgown, an engagement present pocket watch, and Shabbat candlesticks made in Warsaw. Bernard Israelite Kouchel of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, also has his grandmother's candlesticks. In 1902, Sarah Israelite of Novogrudok, Belarus carried her precious possessions (three children, four candlesticks) to rejoin her husband Michl, who had left for Brooklyn in 1899. Kouchel, a retired contractor, inherited the candlesticks from his mother. "I envision Shabbat candle lighting rituals with Bubba waving her hands over the lit candles - it endures in my memory," he says. He has also tracked down the details of the candlesticks - they were made by Norblin, a Jewish Polish metal maker which became a subsidiary of the famous German WMF firm. In 1990, Meyer Denn, executive director of the Jewish Education Department at the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, visited Bardejov, Slovakia with Actors Studio West founder Jack Garfein, who was born there. Garfein was deported to Auschwitz at age 11; he was the only member of his family to survive. As Garfein and Denn walked through town, a resident asked if they were Jewish; Garfein said yes, and said who he was and where he used to live. "Good - come to my house," the man said. "I have something that belongs to you." After vodka and cookies, the man pulled out two little candlesticks from a cabinet and told his story: When the Hlinka Guard (Slovakia's Nazi henchmen) rounded up and deported the town's Jews, their houses were left vacant. The Guard went through the houses and took valuables; children would break in and look for anything that had been hidden. The man had found the miniature brass candlesticks, about three inches tall, in the kitchen oven, where the owner - rushing to leave - had thrown them. He looked Garfein in the eyes and said, "I am returning these to you this day… they belong to you… your people." It turned out they had belonged to a young cousin who perished in Auschwitz. Garfein said he was keeping one for his three-year-old daughter, so she would learn to light it every Shabbat in memory of the cousin who couldn't light candles for herself. He gave the other to Denn as a memento. Denn began researching his own family at age eight or nine; there were no heirlooms, and he keeps his family history alive by telling stories about the people and events to his still-young children. The candlestick sits in his china cabinet, waiting for his own three-year-old daughter to reach an age when, "I can explain the significance of this story, so she too can light the candle in memory of the soul of that child who lost the opportunity to light her own Shabbos candles," says Denn. While visiting Slovakia, Denn spent a Shabbat in Presov and received a pair of tefillin from a drawer filled with old velvet bags belonging to unknown Jews. "Not a day passes that I do not think of that day, or the soul of the unknown Jew with whose tefillin I pray every day," he says. Who gets what and why "A wise mother or father will make arrangements in his and/or her lifetime as to who is to receive which family heirlooms and artifacts - either in their wills or by handing them over before," says genealogist Stanley Diamond of Montreal. "In addition, s/he will discuss who gets what with the children and make the ultimate decision if the children cannot agree. My mother gave away virtually everything of sentimental value before she died. Her will mostly focused on how she wanted her children to remain friends." "The larger question for me," says Helen Horwitz of New Mexico, is who will take these beloved items "when the younger generation either have fallen away from their religious heritage and/or find the 'style' doesn't mesh with their tastes?" "Passing down precious family heirlooms, such as candlesticks, is an important responsibility," wrote Ann Rabinowitz in the journal Scattered Seeds. "Something more critical, though, is to give your descendants a sense of how these heirlooms played an integral part in the history of your family and the Jewish people." She advises guardians to learn more about their heirlooms, take digital photos and attach histories of the objects. "You won't be sorry you did this - and neither will your descendants." Frayda Zelman Naor of New York city says she has always made a point of discussing her ancestors and her past with her children. "I feel that this is even more important than the objects themselves." "I feel privileged to own a part of my history," says Ina Levitt Yanover of Canada. Every holiday, she says a prayer and a heartfelt thank you to her ancestors who had the courage to leave their homeland and come to Canada. "Their bravery enabled us to have life and to live it as we choose." Schelly Talalay-Dardashti is the author of the popular Jewish genealogy blog, Tracing the Tribe: http://tracingthetribe.blogspot.com Sharing family history Suggestions to inspire relatives:

  • Books about family history, in general, or related books on names or geography.
  • Copies of your own family history, photographs, documents, letters, video.
  • Hand out heirlooms now, if you can … Get them into good homes.
  • A family recipe book with ethnic favorites from family holiday celebrations.
  • Family genealogy chart. Guarding heirlooms
  • Learn how to preserve special items: Talk to experts. Different materials require different care. Protect items against light, humidity, heat, and creepy-crawlies.
  • Label: Identify each object, photograph it and keep records. Research and record the item's history and condition.
  • Archivists recommend low humidity (45-55 percent) and a temperature not above 72F (22C) for storing documents. Store away from sunlight and fluorescent light. Do not keep them in basements, attics, near exterior walls or heat sources. Keep items away from non-archival plastic, glue, adhesives and staples.
  • Be careful with restoration; amateur repairs are dangerous. Consult experts, who can be located through local universities, museums, historical societies, libraries, archives and other organizations.

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