by Barbara Krasner
I try to memorize my interview questions as I drive north on the Garden State Parkway. It’s been a long time since I visited my aunt in Woodcliff Lake. Sixteen years ago I came when I was first starting to trace my family’s history. The idea to learn more about my family came to me while convalescing from a case of bacterial meningitis during a fifteen-day hospital stay in 1989. I needed to connect to something higher. Once I returned to work, a colleague at AT&T mentored me in genealogy. He advised me to talk to living relatives, to gather names, dates, memorabilia, and stories. So I made a date to visit with my aunt, my father’s sister and youngest sibling. She was the first person to show me a photo of her father with hair. I had only known him as an elderly, bald man with a phlegm-filled cough. Over the last sixteen years, I have collected those names, dates, and memorabilia. I’ve found long-lost cousins, hired archivists in the Soviet Union, particularly Ukraine, to get at the roots of my grandmother, Eva Zuckerkandel Krasner, who died six years before I was born. I’ve been writing a lot about her and in my quest to learn more, I remembered there was one person who could possibly answer my questions. My aunt, the only surviving member of her generation in the family.
I park at the curb. There it is, the large white clapboard house with a connecting hallway between the two sections and a circular drive. What a difference from the behind-the-store apartment on North Arlington’s main street where my aunt lived with my father, two other brothers, and her parents. I remember those Sunday visits when our whole family came. Sundays meant family visits then, unless my father took us to museums or the United Nations in New York City or to stamp shows throughout the Tri-State area.
Now I take deep breaths and mentally rehearse my questions. I want to know the layout of the apartment they lived in. I want to know what kinds of meals my grandmother prepared. I want to know how the family interacted with the world outside their store. But I don’t want my aunt to know she’s being interviewed. That might make her apprehensive. She is too precious a source and I don’t want to take any chances in possibly offending her.
I ring the bell and know I will have to pace myself, to not show my desperation to know Eva. My cousin answers the door and we sit in the formal living room. We catch up for a bit on family news. I ask to see Eva’s photo album.
My cousin brings it out of a bureau and lays it in my aunt’s lap. She needs two hands to lift the album. It must have been a vibrant green once, but now its color is mud mixed with a leaf design that resembles paisley. The latch is brass-plated and the brass-plated frame on the cover lays bare as if the album’s life has passed on with Eva. Its innards have been picked clean. No photos have a permanent home. Just scattered photos with no indication of who these people once were.
I finger the short nap of the velvet. I rub it like Aladdin’s lamp, wanting the album to become my grandmother and I am transported. The inside back cover reveals the original hue of the velvet, that rich green. Was it a present? Was it bought in America or carried across the Atlantic? Since Eva traveled alone and her mother was still in Kozlow, she would have come with no featherbed, no Sabbath candlesticks. Only perhaps a satchel of belongings and her memories of the shtetl she would never see again, the parents she would never see again.
I take no chances with Eva’s album now. I snap pictures of the pictures: a young woman in cap and gown holding a diploma. I assume this is one of Eva’s American cousins, a daughter of her uncle Ben Zuckerkandel in Brooklyn. Another photo I recognize as the Pollack children, Eva’s cousins on her mother’s side, her mother’s sister Tschantsche (Jenny) Seife Pollack, who came to America as a widow and lived on the Lower East Side. This photo bears the photographer’s branding, J. Buxdorfa from Zborow. Oddly, the branding is in Polish, although Zborow, another Galician town, was in Austria-Hungary for about a century by the time this photo was taken. In the photo a little boy wears a Russian-style tunic and the little girl, Sarah, I think, grips a flowered purse. But the more I study it, the more that little boy looks like Murray Adler, the son of Eva’s maternal aunt Frieda, and perhaps the older boy is his cousin Izzy Pollack, and the girl is his sister Eva Pollack or it could be Murray’s sister, Eva. All these Evas are named for Eva (Chava) Sass Seife, their maternal grandmother. A third photo is a baby on a chair and that has to be my father’s first cousin Adele, the daughter of my grandfather’s sister Bessie. Two other photos confound me: one of a somewhat older woman leaning on a chair and one of a younger woman with bared shoulders. Can one have been Aunt Jenny and the other another American Zuckerkandel cousin?
There is no reason for me to know these people. I never knew Eva Zuckerkandel Krasner. But her hands once held this album, her fingers once turned the pages. I imagine her with my aunt in her lap, showing her the family photos, the only vestiges of the family she left behind in 1913 in Koslov. She’d come alone to America but Uncle Ben was here and Aunt Jenny, too. Other cousins on her mother’s side lived in New Jersey in Elizabeth. She would not be alone.
I visited her cousin Evelyn Zuckerkandel Bobker in Brooklyn in 1993. Evelyn, then 93, told me she remembered the day Eva came off the boat. She spoke no English. She probably wore that serge sailor suit I have a photo of. In it she stands proud and confident. She might have even sewed it herself or bought it in Tarnopol or Brody at a dress shop with money her father gave her. In the photo she grasps a curtain as if bursting through that curtain onto the stage of America, her left foot slightly ahead. She looks directly into the camera. This bold woman cannot be held back. And yet there’s a shyness about her as if someone pushed her onto the stage. She doesn’t announce, “Here I am!” Rather, she whispers, “Here I am. What do I do now?” No Mama or Tate to direct her. Only a maternal aunt and a paternal uncle to scold her when necessary and deal with the matchmaker.
I want to know Eva and I want her to know me. I think she would have been a loving grandmother to me and my sisters and she would have kvelled at our accomplishments. She would have said we got our brains from her side of the family.
How can I really miss a woman so much I’d never met? I have been cheated, that is it. When I was born I only had three grandparents. I deserved four, I deserved to know my father’s mother. I suspect she would have pinched our cheeks and muttered mamashaynele, although maybe not, since I don’t think she favored my mother. If Eva had still been alive, my twin and I would have stopped by her house on our way home from Kearny Avenue shops to show her what we’d bought. I think my sister Evelyn (named for her) and she would have had a special relationship as my son did with my mother, just as my mother had said, “Because he needs me more.”
It is fitting that the pages of the album are a humdrum gray. Without the photos, this is a lifeless album, the empty womb of a long-ago mother. How unlike my mother’s album, with photos pasted in with photo corners and captions handwritten in white on black paper. Eva’s album is a grave robbed of the bones, the rotting flesh. The soul would never have been there. I have countless dreams, Chagall-like dreams, of flying in the air along Kearny Avenue, my hand in my grandfather’s. This is noteworthy, because truth be told, he scared the beejesus out of me. He was so old and coughed a lot. But in my dreams, I hold onto him and I pummel him with questions about the family history. Things I had to research he would have just known. But he didn’t have the level of loss Eva did. He didn’t lose his entire family to the Holocaust. Eva lost seven of her eight siblings. Only her baby brother Leib survived, sent off to a Soviet labor camp. By then Kozlow became Kozliv and belonged to Ukraine. His wife and children, however, perished at the hands of the Nazis. Eva sponsored his journey to America from Förenwald, Germany and the displaced persons’ camp there. He remarried and had an adopted son and a daughter with his new wife, Rose. Eva died soon afterward of cancer and diabetes.
The last time I visited my aunt, the album seemed fuller, more alive. My aunt opened it and said, “Here was my parents’ wedding day.” One photo shows a slightly zaftig, high-heeled Eva beginning her new life in America, her wide eyes full of hope for the future and determination to make her May 1918 marriage work, even if she was a Galitzianer marrying a Litvak. Her right hand lingers on a wooden stand with a glorious, ribbon-bedecked bouquet, while the left—her wedding band prominent—rests on Max’s right shoulder. She’s already thinking of what she’ll cook for dinner to please her man, he with his own grocery business in the bustling metropolis of Newark, right on Market Street. Max stands as if he’s got a wooden board up his back. His tails hang on him as if he’s a human wooden hanger and his top hat makes him look like a nineteenth-century undertaker. His boutonniere takes up much of his lapel. He looks frightened, but at the age of around 40, it’s time he got off the pot and out of his mama’s house. Eva is 25. It’s a studio portrait with a fake background of vaulted ceilings and columns behind them. There’s no question who will be the head of the family.
It’s likely Aunt Jenny went with her to get her wedding gown and maybe some female cousins tagged along to some Lower East Side shop. It was Jenny who persuaded Eva to marry Max rather than her other suitor with a farm in the Catskills. Max, after all, had his own business. As a butcher’s daughter, Eva was used to the merchant life.
In 1920 Eva and Max moved to the borough of North Arlington, which must have seemed more like a shtetl to them with its mere 1,000 population. Eva probably thought about the business opportunity. My grandparents bought property on the main street, Ridge Road, across the street from the prominent Roman Catholic Church, Queen of Peace. They had a corner property. A store on the ground floor and apartments above. The family, which grew to four children, my father the eldest, lived behind the store.
I want this album now to capture their lives. To show my father and my uncles and aunts as they grew up. To show how my grandparents grew more prosperous. To show how they fared during the Depression and how Eva reached out to the community when a plastics factory exploded along the Passaic River. She donated dry goods and clothing from the store. Locals remember my grandfather for giving store credit during the 1930s.
The first time I saw the album I was more interested in gathering genealogical data, more interested in photos of my grandfather with hair. I hadn’t longed for Eva yet. Now I want stories. I still wonder how Eva reacted when her three boys came home from war. Who came home first? Were the boys much changed? Did she wonder about her own sisters, brothers, cousins, nieces, and nephews who were gassed, shoved in the ovens? Did she feel any guilt for being so far away in America, safe and sound? Two of her first cousins were safe, she knew. Murray and Bernhard Adler left Vienna for England in the late 1930s. I have photos of my father with them in London in May 1945. Murray eventually came to the United States and I met up with him in Marina del Rey, California in the early 1990s while I was on a business trip. I could touch aspects of Eva’s life except Eva herself. Murray called her Chava Pesia, I guess, because so many of the girls of that generation in the family were named Chava. Pesia was my great-grandmother, my Eva’s mother.
The photos now take hold of me in 2016 as they did in 1990. I want to take them home to enlarge them, study them. Who are the people in them? What are their stories?
When I return home, I do a little Internet research on the album. Seems like these velvet paisley albums were manufactured in the 1890s, mostly in America. They were meant to hold cabinet cards which went out of fashion by the mid-1920s. These cards had mounted photos on them. I don’t recall whether the photos in Eva’s album, those scattered portraits were cabinet cards or just plain photos. The cabinet cards were mostly portraits. Are there no photos of her parents because they, like many other shtetl Jews, believed photographs would steal their souls? There is only the one photo of European origin. The others are American. The album itself seems like it would have been an expensive gift, maybe a wedding present. I doubt it was brought over from Europe. It would have been too heavy to bring on her overland and ocean journeys.
The album is Eva’s assimilation itself. A single photo of her cousins, none of her siblings. Most of the photos I’ve collected for her family have come from her first cousins and one of her siblings came from another genealogist who happened to have interviewed Eva’s brother Leo in the 1980s. Digging a little deeper, reaching out to my cousin and aunt, the album is dated New York, 1895. Eva, my father, and my two uncles went into Manhattan. The boys bought it for her as a gift—from Woolworth’s. For the boys to do that—they were born in 1919, 1923, and 1925—the trip most likely would have happened during the early years of the Depression. It is a gift of love. And I’m holding it in my hands.
If I hadn’t been interested in the family’s history, all this would have been lost to me. Stories were not passed down. And my father’s memory was passive at best. I learned the hard way that I had to present information to him to trigger a response. But when I mentioned the surnames of Teich and Tierhaus to my aunt, she said immediately, “Those were the names I used to write on envelopes for my mother, to her sisters in Europe.” Perhaps because my aunt was the youngest or perhaps because she was the only daughter, she knows the stories. When I visit, she passes those stories on to me and to her eldest, who sits nearby. These stories, these photos, will not be lost again.
About the Author
Barbara Krasner currently teaches creative writing in New Jersey. Her works have been featured in The Smart Set, Jewish Literary Journal, Michigan Quarterly Review, Nimrod, Minerva Rising, and other journals.