Even if these essays about my immigrant forebears don’t receive publication, I know I’ve been able to somewhat piece together the fragments of their lives into a sort of biography. During a bout of insomnia the other night, I thought maybe I already had the name of the cemetery where my mother’s grandparents are buried. I searched through a list of Jewish cemeteries in the New York area. Not all had websites, and not all websites had a search function. But yesterday I opened my file cabinet to the drawer where I have hundreds of folders organized by an old numbering system from an older genealogical software package, Personal Ancestral File. I found the folders for Chaim Joseph Entel (310) and Estera Tauba Drewno Entel (311) and sure enough, I had death certificates for each of them with the name of the cemetery. Also in these files were agreements signed by my grandmother with the synagogue. So my great-grandparents must be buried in the synagogue’s plot at United Hebrew Cemetery on Staten Island. I could not find a search function for the interred, so I may have to call. I’m assuming my mother’s sister gave me the cemetery papers at some point. The name of the synagogue (Agudath Anshei Mamod, Society of Supporters of the House of Sages, Inc.) has led me to purchase Gerard R. Wolfe’s Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side, Second Edition.
But this search highlights one thing: Sometimes “old school” genealogy is more effective than all the Internet tools. I started my family history research in 1990, obviously pre-Internet. I have death certificates for my direct ancestors in America. I wouldn’t find them on Ancestry or on other genealogical information sites. I have my two grandfathers’ passenger records. One would not be able to find them in the Ellis Island database, one due to transcription error and the other, I have no idea why the record doesn’t come up. Again, “old school” efforts proved to be effective.
I spent some time last week typing up my raw material on Estera Taube (Esther Toby) and Avram Mendel Pryzant. Now I need to really sit with them and shape them into something that might be marketable.
I’ll be participating in at least three Amherst Writers sessions this week. I might start writing about my maternal grandmother, Rose. I also found four pages about Baron Hirsch schools in Sefer Galitzia, a regional Yizkor book. They’re in Yiddish. I hope they add information I can add to my essay about my paternal great-grandfather, Henoch Zuckerkandel, and his trusteeship of the Baron Hirsch school in Kozlow.
Inspired by Toni Morrison’s “Sites of Memory” chapter in William Zinsser’s edited volume, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, I began to think about my trip to my grandfather’s shtetl in 2008, recalling my thoughts about the shtetl when it was filled before 1939 with 2,000 Jews. This morning in Emily Stoddard’s Hummingbird session, prompts led me in the direction of “place,” and so I wrote down my observations as well as the landsmanshaft my grandfather joined in New York, the Zaromber Progressive Young Friends Society.
I still have not been able to identify the man with my grandfather in the photo I posted last week. This piece, which may have started out as a “snap shot,” is turning into a full-fledged creative nonfiction essay.
Photo of the home in Zaromb (Zareby Koscielne, Poland) that may have once belonged to my Pryzant family.
I still need to call the synagogue that’s been sending Yahrzeit notices to my cousin about our great-grandmother in my quest to find out where this ancestor is buried. I will continue to work on the essay about my grandfather Max Perlman (aka Avram Mendel Pryzant).
Years ago when I first embarked on my family history journey, I spent a lot of time at the local Mormon stake, ordering and reviewing scores of microfilms. One of the volunteers there said with absolute conviction, “Our ancestors want us to find them.”
And so it’s been with my maternal grandfather, Avram Mendel Pryzant (aka Max Perlman). I visited his shtetl in northeastern Poland in 2008 to research a novel that took place there (one of the many novels I’ve written that are under the proverbial bed). In the last week or so, as I’ve been exploring the details of his paper trail, I’ve come up with some revelatory moments:
- According to U.S. census records, he left school in the fourth grade, presumably kheder. That meant he was probably apprenticed after that in some trade.
- His passenger record shows he’d been a joiner.
- In America, he worked with his business partner, his cousin Ruchel’s husband, Mottel Smola (aka Max Cohen), as a paper hanger.
- The joiner and paper hanger vocations are somewhat related in that they require precision and math.
- He changed his name from Pryzant (pronounced “prison) to Perlman and his cousins Marsharin and Gittel Kruk (“crook”) changed their name to Cohen.
- He bought an apartment building in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn sometime between 1925 and 1930. He was living the American dream while his shtetl was about to undergo an antisemitic economic boycott.
Over the weekend, my cousin gave me this photo of my grandfather (left) with another man who may be Mottel Cohen, his fellow paper-hanger. She said they papered Ethel Merman’s apartment and the Empire State Building. My sister said our grandfather papered our entire northern New Jersey family home before we moved into it in 1959. That meant he was actually present in every room of the house.
I want to verify the identity of the other man in the photograph and see what other stories about my grandfather I can collect from cousins. I also need to follow up on a clue my cousin gave me about where my great-grandparents, Chaim Joseph and Esther Toby Drewno Entel/Antel are buried.
As for new writing, nothing comes to mind. I’ll have to see if anything bubbles up.
I’ve been writing about my maternal great-grandmother Esther Toby Drewno Entel through a “braided essay” class given by Marian Calabro at the Montclair (NJ) adult school. At our last session last week, I began to write about changes in headstone inscriptions the further we move away from the immigrant generation. I’d written about this before in an academic paper about Newark’s Grove Street Cemetery where my father’s grandparents are buried.
For whatever reason, I had it in my head that Esther Toby and my great-grandfather, Chaim Joseph Entel, were buried at Baron Hirsch Cemetery on Staten Island. The office there told me they were not interred there under any variation of the name. I checked JewishGen’s online burial registry and Jewishdata.com. I tried Ancestry. Zilch.
But I did remember that my cousin once asked me who Esther Toby was, because the shul was sending her annual Yahrzeit notices. I will see her this coming weekend. Maybe if I contact the shul, someone there can tell me where my great-grandparents are buried.
I have not written more about my maternal grandfather, Avram Mendel Pryzant, aka Max Perlman.
I am nearly at the halfway mark of this project, and I fear I’m running out of material.
Most of the “heirlooms” I inherited belonged to my mother, including furniture, wall art, the dress she wore to my wedding, and stories. I have my father’s 1946 address book and my mother’s 1936 junior high autograph book. I have my maternal grandmother’s watch and some of her Passover dishes. I used to have my paternal great-grandmother’s ring before I lost it. I have my paternal grandfather’s tallis bag with the tallis and phylacteries and my father’s bag too (no phylacteries). There may be something to write about using this inventory.
Three quick things this week:
- My contemporary YA novel in verse has finally been sent out into the world. It lingered with my agent for months. It’s been called “gritty.”
- Working hard on a new short story for my Displaced Person collection. No plot yet, although an idea came to me for the ending this morning.
- May 27, at 6 pm ET: “It’s Personal: Grandchildren Carry the Legacies of Their Holocaust Survivor Grandparents.” Two speakers representing 3GNJ and 3GNY address how their grandparents’ narratives shaped their own lives. The Zoom event is hosted by the Mercer Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Center. RSVP to HGHRCenter@mccc.edu
Four quick things this week:
- I have joined a Holocaust writing group. Other members are children of survivors. We meet on an ad hoc basis to share our writing and to generate new writing.
- I am no longer a literary agent. After long, hard thinking, I decided to give it up so I can concentrate more on my position as Director, Mercer Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Center and on my dissertation.
- Save the Date, May 27, at 6 pm ET: “It’s Personal: Grandchildren Carry the Legacies of Their Holocaust Survivor Grandparents.” Two speakers representing 3GNJ and 3GNY address how their grandparents’ narratives shaped their own lives. The Zoom event is hosted by the Mercer Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Center. RSVP to HGHRCenter@mccc.edu
- Save the Dates, June 3 and June 10, 4-6 pm ET: Educators Conference co-hosted by Echoes and Reflections and Mercer Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Center. The focus: “The Holocaust as a Case Study: Analyzing Propaganda and Teaching Media Literacy.” For more information, contact HGHRCenter@mccc.edu.