Danny Miller, Itshe Meyer Korolnek, Susan Miller
As the one-year anniversary of my blog approaches, I’ve been thinking of all the cool things that have happened as a result of writing in here. I met a bunch of great people—fellow bloggers as well as regular commenters (and the occasional sociopath). One of the most exciting developments has been to find people who have connections to my family dating back to our ancestral town in Poland, the shtetl called Staszow. This is where my family lived for hundreds of years until my great-grandparents Itshe Meyer and Alta Toba Korolnek left in 1910 for a new life in Toronto, Canada. My grandfather Sam (Shmuel) was three when he left Poland but for some reason his adult passports always listed Canada as his birthplace.
For years I did research on Staszow (my family always used the Yiddish phonetic spelling of Stashev) but never met anyone else whose family came from there (except for the actress Judy Graubart from “The Electric Company” whose grandfather, Rabbi Judah Leib Graubart, was a good friend of my great-grandfather’s and later joined him in Toronto). Today Staszow's once-thriving Jewish community is a distant memory. Staszow was occupied by the Germans on September 7, 1939 and in 1942 all of the Jews (about 5,000, half the population of the town) were forced into a ghetto. They were then shipped off to the extermination camp of Belzec, near Lublin, where they were all murdered upon arrival. The only people to survive were those few who were young and brave enough to escape into the forests and find a hiding place. There is no longer a single Jewish person living in Staszow.
My great-grandparents died when I was 12. We used to visit them often in Toronto and they would frequently visit their three sons in Chicago (who had changed their name from Korolnek to Karoll when they moved to the U.S. in the 1920s). Visiting Itshe Meyer and Alta Toba was like paying respects to royalty. They were very kind, but it was clear we had to behave a certain way and treat them with great deference. I remember visiting Alta Toba when I was young enough to see her relaxing without her shaitel (the wig orthodox women always wear in public). Itshe Meyer used to look at the long hair on all the boys in my generation and say, in his heavily accented English, “Are you a boy or are you a girl?” I remember the twinkle in his eye and his ever-present smile, but little else. Oh, how I wish I could talk to him today (he’d be 121 years old) and ask him endless questions about his life in Staszow, his childhood, his various jobs as a child (grooming the Cossacks’ horses, dealing in feathers, and his ultimate livelihood in bottles), his arranged marriage to my great-grandmother (hey, don’t knock it—it worked better than most non-arranged marriages in my family!), his devotion to Jewish education, his singing, and his life in Canada. I think I’d need about a week to ask them all the questions that are swimming in my head about their lives.
Recently, after mentioning Staszow in a post about “The Wizard of Oz” as a Jewish story, I got an email from a writer in New York named Jack Goldfarb. It turns out Jack’s parents were from Staszow and he has not only visited the town every year on a pilgrimage for his lost family members, he has single-handedly recovered many of the discarded headstones from the old Jewish cemetery in the shtetl and has had it rebuilt. It is an amazing story full of roadblocks and intrigue and every descendent of Stashever Jews owes Jack a huge debt of gratitude. The Nazis tended to plunder the Jewish cemeteries and use the stones for construction projects or cobblestone. The fact that Jack was able to cut through so much Polish red tape and reconsecrate a Jewish presence in this town, even if it’s just through the cemetery, is incredible. Among the stones in this cemetery are those of many of my Korolnek ancestors.
Just a few weeks ago, on the 63rd anniversary of the liquidation of the ghetto in Staszow, students at the local high school prepared a multimedia presentation about the life of the former Jewish community there. They went to the Jewish Cemetery and, after a moment of silence, recited some ecumenical prayers. Professor Micha Czajkowski, a member of the Polish Catholic Bishops Council Committee for Dialogue with Judaism, said that “today’s memorial program in Staszow creates a new history on the ruins of the tragic and gruesome.” I had breakfast with Jack and his son yesterday. They were in town to help bury one of Jack’s old friends, a German actor who knew Gestapo leader Hermann Goering (but that's a whole other story!). Between his activities in Staszow, his yearly trips to Albania where he has been researching the incredible acts of bravery of the Albanian people during the war to protect “their Jews” from the Nazis, and his endless list of fascinating friends and acquaintances, I wanted to turn every anecdote Jack told me into a screenplay. There was something very moving about sitting with a man whose ancestors and mine were so connected. I also heard from a man in North Carolina whose family is from Staszow and just got back from spending three weeks there researching a book. Amazing.
Even more incredible was the email I got last weekend from a woman in Switzerland named Danya who had just discovered that Itshe Meyer Korolnek was the half-brother of her great-grandfather Hershl Korolnik. Who knew? Apparently Itshe Meyer had two half-brothers who emigrated to Switzerland about the time he went off to Canada. The spelling of their name is slightly different but I was thrilled to find out that I have a bunch of Korolnik and Korolnyk relatives in Zurich and other European towns. I can’t wait to learn more about this newly discovered branch of the family. Rumor has it that still other relatives were flung to faroff places such as Odessa and Australia.
This is a picture of Itshe Meyer and Alta Toba on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1952 with their children and some of their grandchildren. Those grandchildren had many children and those great-grandchildren (myself included) now have children of their own. Two people responsible for several hundred descendents, none of whom would have been born if Itshe Meyer hadn’t had the good sense to hightail it out of Staszow when he did. Here is an excerpt from a conversation between a cousin and my great-grandmother Alta Toba Korolnek recorded shortly before her death in 1972:
Zelig: When did you meet Itshe Meir for the first time?
Alta Toba: We were living in Staszow. My mother and I happened to be visiting Szydlow where an uncle of ours was living. Itshe Meir came to Szydlow for the Sabbath and with his father dropped in to my Uncle for Shalesh Seudos. That’s when I saw him and his father. I was four and Itshe Meir was five.
Zelig: Did you speak to each other then?
Alta Toba: We were only children. We laughed and quarreled as children do. Later when Itshe Meir’s father died I was five and a half, he was a year older. His mother remained in Szydlow with her three children. She was constantly in tears. Who will teach Mendel (her oldest son)? At that time Itshe Meir’s father came to her in a dream and said, “I will teach Mendel.” That week Mendel died. When her child died she left for Lodz.
Zelig: Your mother-in-law?
Alta Toba: Yes. She went with her two children, Itshe Meir and his younger brother Simcha. Her husband came to her again in a dream and said, “Itshe Meir will not be a workingman.” When this dream occurred on two more occasions she saw that this was somehow quite serious. She went back home and got married in Staszow. Itshe Meir was then nine years old.
Zelig: When did you get engaged?
Alta Toba: I was fifteen years old and he was sixteen. There was another candidate aside from me, quite a nice girl, her name was Tziril. Itshe Meir’s mother preferred the other girl, and she asked Itshe Meir which one he preferred, and he said “Alta Toba.” Two years later we got married on the nineteenth of Sivan—June 24, 1902.
Zelig: How long did you live with your parents?
Alta Toba: Until we left for America—that is, from 1902 to 1910. It’s true that I didn’t want to go to America. But Itshe Meir was stubborn and nobody could talk him out of it. His mother wept bitter tears—she didn’t want him to go to that godless country. He promised me that if he was convinced that he could not bring up children in the true Jewish path in America he would return. He said good-bye to everyone except his mother—she didn’t want to say good-bye to him.
Zelig: How many children did you have when Itshe Meir left?
Alta Toba: Four children—two later died, a young boy named Pinchas and a girl named Miriam Esther. There was an epidemic of scarlet fever; all the children got sick, two died, and two, with God’s grace, remained alive.
Zelig: When did Itshe Meir find out the sad news about the children?
Alta Toba: Several months later. He was surprised, for I would send greetings and regards from each child separately, and later I wrote merely, “the children send their love” without mentioning their names. He realized something was wrong. He kept asking me for more details about the children. I didn’t know what to do. Finally I went to the Rabbi to seek some advice. The Rabbi told me to write that for the money he sent I made suits for the two children and then he would understand that the other two were no longer alive. He received the letter and was very puzzled and in despair. At that time a woman from Staszow came and the woman told him the news and Itshe Meir sat shiva according to Jewish law.
I love the mystical elements of their lives which sound like an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, and I was blown away by that last part—what a way to find out that two of your children have died with you so far away. And what twist of fate was it that my grandfather was one of the children who survived? Alta Toba then goes on to talk about their journey to America, their life in Canada, her seven children (she gave birth to five more in Toronto) and their families, and Itshe Meyer’s bottling ventures which led to the Consolidated Bottle Company, still a family business 95 years later.
I could go on for hours about my family history but I think I will go to bed and perhaps dream of life in pre-war Staszow. I am collecting information on my family and our past for my own daughter in the hopes that she will one day be interested in exploring her roots. I’m sorry she won’t ever have any firsthand experience with the people who once inhabited this vanished world and who for a time lived with those of us who were born in such wildly different circumstances. Today when I think of all the family gatherings in which the old generation from Poland reigned over the younger generations, it’s as if I’m visualizing a strip of film that has been double-exposed—one side in sepia-toned black and white, the other in blazing, saturated color.