June 2018 Newsletter from the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey
Our newsletters are currently being written by a revolving group of Board members and guest writers drawn from our membership list. We encourage readers who wish to submit prospective future newsletters to do so. Topics can range from neighborhoods, businesses, camps, or community centers and could include family memories or personal experiences you have had in the north Jersey area. Jack Zakim, a member of our Executive Board, has written our June 2018 newsletter.
MY VISIT TO BIALYSTOK
All four of my grandparents emigrated from Bialystok, Poland to Paterson in the early 1900’s presumably after the deadly pogram there. Bialystok is located in the northeast corner of Poland about a 3.5 hour drive north of Warsaw, not far from the Belarus border. The first accounts of Jewish settlement date from 1658. Tradition has it that Jews came in mass numbers to Bialystok in 1749 at the invitation of Count Branitsky who built homes and stores and a synagogue for the newcomers. Throughout the city’s history, it had a predominantly Jewish population. In June 1906, there was a major pogrom initiated by the Russian czar which resulted in a mass migration abroad. I am told my grandmother remembered hiding under her bed during the melee. In June 1941, the Nazis occupied the city, which at that point, had approximately 50,000 Jews and approximately 350,000 Jews in the province. The Jews that were not massacred were herded into a ghetto and deported to concentration camps. After the war, there were approximately 1,100 Jews left in the city that previously had a population in excess of 100,000.
I never understood how my ancestors got to Bialystok, why they emigrated from Bialystok to Paterson shortly after the turn of the 20th century, or why they rarely spoke of the old country.
I am a pure bred Patersonian. My mother and her three sisters were all born and raised in Paterson, married Paterson men and raised their families in Paterson. Growing up, my universe consisted of the insulated Paterson Jewish community; and, while not forbidden, I do not recall any discussion in my maternal grandparents’ home about the old country or their extended family in Europe
My mother’s parents Benjamin and Jenny Shanofsky, to my recollection, almost always spoke Yiddish and generally did not assimilate into the new culture. My grandmother passed away shortly after my Bar-Mitzvah in 1958 and my grandfather passed away the following year. Most of our communication was at the dinner table with the extended family occurred when I was too young to engage them, so I didn’t know much about their earlier lives other than that my grandfather was a tailor by trade and my grandmother was a classic balabusta(“head of the house/homeowner”).
While my grandparents were alive, I was exposed to their Eastern European orthodox Jewish culture and I had the impression that their life in Paterson was not much different than their lives were in Bialystok absent the ethnic and economic oppression that presumably motivated them to emigrate to America where the streets were said to be ‘paved with gold’.
On the other hand, my father’s family also came from Bialystok and assimilated easily into the American way of life. My grandmother Gussie Bialystotzki was also a ‘balabusta’ but I did not know until recently that she left her parents and two brothers behind when she followed her older sister Rose Rubin to Paterson. My grandfather, Dave Zakim, was a well-known character amongst his cronies in Paterson. He came from Orla, a shtetl outside of Bialystok where our family name was ‘Zak’.
My paternal great-grandparents Efriam and Esther Zak had six children between 1886 and 1900. My grandfather David was the fourth child and he followed his older brothers and sister who had earlier settled in Paterson under the name of Zakim. I am told that happened when my great-uncle Morris transitioned through Ellis Island.
My great-grandparents died in Orla shortly after their sixth child, Chia Dvoshe (Aunt Ida), was born in 1900. All six siblings were born in Orla and apparently each one eventually lived and/or worked in Bialystok before they emigrated one by one in the early 1900’s to Paterson. I am not sure why or how my father’s Uncle Morris landed in Paterson, but apparently his settlement in Paterson is why the next generation of Zakims were born and raised in the ‘Silk City’.
The six Zakim siblings born in Orla produced approximately 18 children, 50 grandchildren of which I am one, and probably 100 plus great-grandchildren including my children. To my knowledge, none of the six siblings or any of their descendants ever returned to Bialystok. To this day, I am not sure why I had such a yearning to breathe in the same air my grandparents had left behind. Perhaps it was because my dear cousin, Lenny Zakim, of blessed memory, made it to Poland as part of an ADL mission but he could not include Orla or Bialystok in his itinerary despite his desire to do so. Perhaps I felt that I wanted to posthumously fulfill his dream.
Despite an eight year age difference, Lenny and I were buddies and close with our grandfather who often engaged us and occasionally regaled us with stories of his youth in Bialystok, sometimes with tears and sometimes with laughter. I remember one anecdote he shared about his voyage to America. He was so worried where his next meal would come from that he kept a fish in his pocket for days. The fish emitted a foul odor and everyone on the boat shunned him like the plague. He would chuckle as he told the story in vivid detail.
In the early 80’s, my wife Lydia and I undertook a project to create family trees for both of our Ashkenazi families. That spawned my initial quest for info about my heritage and inspiration to return to the old country. Lydia’s family came from Latvia and the Ukraine.
When my father’s Aunt Ida (aka Chia Dvoshe) hit her 70’s she penned her life story starting in Orla where she was orphaned as a baby. She was sent to Bialystok where her older siblings became her surrogate parents. I have read her book cover to cover several times hanging on every word which served as part of my inspiration to breathe in the air of Bialystok.
I was forewarned by those in the know there were few if any remnants of the once thriving Jewish community in Bialystok but I had to see for myself. Lydia located a combination guide and genealogist from Warsaw on the internet who advised us to skip Orla and concentrate on Bialystok for a variety of reasons including the fact that there was not much to see in Orla. He arranged for a knowledgeable guide to pick us up at the Warsaw Airport and drive us to Bialystok.
So, on a beautiful spring Saturday morning, we found ourselves in the center of Bialystok, a vibrant immaculate small city with modern buildings, churches, parks and outdoor cafes with hardly a trace of the former Jewish community other than a monument to the Jewish resistance which was not dissimilar than the Warsaw ghetto uprising monument but on a much smaller scale. As we wandered through the city, camera in hand, I soon learned that those Jews that did not flee in the migration between 1890 and 1915 were mostly wiped out by the SS in the 1940’s. The few that survived fled to Israel, the United States or other safe harbors where their relatives had settled earlier on.
Right before my departure, my uncle Gerry Zakim entrusted me with a family treasure consisting of a huge book published in 1951 titled “Bialystok Photo Album of a Renowned City and its Jews the World Over”. The book features hundreds of photos of former Bialystok residents disbursed around the world. It includes a page devoted to my Grandma Gussie’s family because her older brother Zalman Bialystotzki was a respected labor leader in the community who died in Bialystok in 1935. I felt surely Zalman and his parents (my great-grandparents) and other family members were interred in the Jewish cemetery in Bialystok so that became my destination.
While walking around town I stumbled upon a Polish sign on a building that read ‘Zak Financial Services’. Since it was Saturday the building was locked tight but I figured since all of the Zaks (aka Zakims) fled Bialystok more than 100 years earlier, that particular Zak was probably not related to me.
I didn’t find a single synagogue in town but I was taken to a spot where a synagogue once stood and took photos of a plaque on a building with a Star of David and some Hebrew letters on it on our way to the cemetery which was located in the midst of a residential neighborhood. The gated cemetery was huge with hundreds, if not thousands of graves but it was Shabbos and the gate was locked tight. As I stood outside the gate peering over the fence taking photos and knowing my relatives’ remains were there, I spoke to them from my heart. That emotional moment in and of itself made the entire journey well worth the effort of our trip.
That evening we returned to Warsaw which I found to be very impressive. Virtually the entire city was decimated by the Wehrmacht and the SS in 1943 and 1944 and rebuilt after the war. This pristine city has numerous memorials and monuments to both the desperate and brave Jewish ghetto uprising in 1943 and the “Warsaw Uprising” of 1944 by the Armia Krajowa, A.K. (“Home Army”)against the German Army and Waffen SS. There is virtually a living memorial to those who perished including a fabulous new museum dedicated to the Jews of Poland where I learned how my ancestors came to live in Poland. Poland was once one of the few places on the planet where Jews were welcomed and permitted to live in peace. At one time, Poland was home to more than 50% of the world’s Jewish population before the great migration began.
I always wondered why my relatives never thought of us as Polish and why I knew nothing of the Polish culture. In the museum, the answer soon became clear. The Jews of Eastern Europe resided in places where national borders shifted frequently. They lived autonomous, segregated lives in insulated communities for centuries until the later 1800’s when Jewish life became very difficult. This led to mass emigration to include the Zak siblings who were lucky enough to get out decades before the Holocaust.
I thought my mission was complete with my visit to Bialystok and Warsaw and I was ready to embark on my grand tour of Prague, Vienna and Budapest, in that order, with an expectation of great dining, architecture, museums and lots of laughs, but I soon learned my mission to capture my ancestral history was far from over.
Whenever Lydia and I travel we try to enmesh ourselves in the local Jewish culture usually hiring Jewish guides. So too on this trip when we visited the Jewish quarter in each city. We soon learned the Jewish culture in those eastern cities includes countless memorials to the victims of the Holocaust because that’s where it happened! We visited fabulous synagogues in Prague, Vienna and Budapest, met survivors and saw incredible sites but more often than not, it was a very somber experience, particularly our trip to Hitler’s ‘model’ town, Terezin (Theresienstadt), in the Czech Republic . That was where Hitler interned notable prisoners of the Reich and allowed the Red Cross to visit. He cynically proclaimed Terezin a “model town” or a “spa” where Jews could live happily and safely. Sure….. We also visited the Danube River in Budapest with 60 pairs of abandoned bronze shoes are lined up on the river bank in the same way as Jews were lined up, shot and their bodies dumped in the river.
I completed my mission and took many great photos to reflect on. I feel more connected than ever to my grandparents and the great-grandparents who I never knew. I plan to visit my grandparent’s gravesites soon in the cemetery on McBride Avenue in Woodland Park (W.Paterson) where all of the headstones bear familiar names as soon as time permits to share my experiences and thank my grandparents for the life they created for my parents and the opportunity to raise my own family in the new world and on safer shores.
Jack Zakim, Member of the Executive Board of the JHSNJ
The above left photo is the Jewish cemetery in Bialystok. The above right photo is the Budapest Danube River bank memorial with the bronzed shoes.
The above left photo is of Jack and Lydia Zakim in Bialystok. In a lighter vein, the photo on the upper right is Zero Mostel in his famous movie role playing Max Bialystock in “The Producers.” Zero’s dad was a Polish Jew.