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Israel Katzman’s 70th Birthday, the Dead Man Who “Spoke” to Him and the Son Who Could Not…by Robert M. Katzman

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 12:11 pm on Friday, May 8, 2020

Israel Katzman’s 70th Birthday, the Dead Man Who “Spoke” to Him an the Son Who Could Not

by Robert M. Katzman © May 8, 2020

Now that I’m 70 years old myself, I think it’s time to tell this unusual story, because at this point, 38 years after my father Israel’s 70thbirthday on September 21, 1982, there is virtually no one else left to tell it. Not every family story is worth remembering, but this one is. First, a brief chronology: 

My Father’s Father, Jacob Katzman, a carpenter born in 1882 in Megilev-on-the-Dnieper River in Byelorussia (who was 70 himself in 1952), was one of only four boys born into my family since that date, until 1978. Israel-1912; his brother Milton 1916; myself-1950 and my son David (now Konee)-1978. It was rare for all four of us to be together in one room, but we were in 1982 at my Father’s 70th birthday party. My Grandfather Jacob, was dead since 1961, Milton was 66, I was 32 and Konee was 4.

There was an unusual situation occurring at that time, because in August 1982, a month earlier, I had two ribs transplanted to my face to recreate a left jaw lost to cancer in 1968, when I was 18. The fragility of this sort of surgery required me to have my mouth wired shut for four months.

Consequently, on this major milestone in my Father’s life, I was unable to speak. This was a difficult situation by itself for me on a daily basis, but on this occasion it was especially important for me to read something to my Father, because my voice was connected to the writer’s voice. A good friend of mine, Neal, read the letter for me.

Now, about that letter, the missing letter.

Jacob’s brothers lived in Windsor, Canada, across the Detroit River from Detroit. All of them arrived here, five of them, around the year 1900. Their own Father, Osher, came to America about 1925 and died in 1935 at age 85. 

In the summer of 1961, Jacob who lived with Rose, his wife of 60 years in Chicago, decided to visit his brothers in Windsor when he was 78. He was there for a while, for some reason decided to saw some wood to help his brother with some project and Jacob had a heart attack on July 27, 1961.

Jacob was rushed to the tiny local hospital which then called my Father on the South Side of Chicago to tell him that Jacob didn’t have much time to live, and my Father immediately drove east to see him. When he arrived, Jacob was unconscious and there wasn’t a cardiologist there at that time. 

Very distraught, and angry, my Father Israel wondered where the hell was a doctor who could help his Father and there was no one in this then rural hospital. So Israel sat by his bed and talked to his Father, not knowing what else he could do. At that time, it wasn’t commonly known that unconscious people could still hear, even though unable to respond.

They had been especially close while Israel was growing up in the twenties and during the Great Depression of the Thirties, as my Father and I would later be in the Fifties and Sixties. Then, suddenly, as evening fell in Windsor my father later told us, Jacob suddenly sat straight up in bed, saw Israel, grasped his hand firmly and shook it, saying to him,

“Son, you’ve been a good boy.”

Then Jacob fell back in bed and died on July 27, 1961. He was 78, my Father was 49 and I was 11. Eerily, in 2000, 39 years later, my Father died in my arms in Highland Park Hospital at 88. I was 50. I expect I will eventually recover from losing him, some day. 

When my father came home immediately after first arranging for the funeral in Chicago’s Jewish Cemetery, he told the story I recounted above to my Mother Anne, while they sat in the dark in our living room. My Father was in great pain and crying while talking to my Mother, which I never witnessed before and may be why I remember every detail of this incident, though so young at that time. My Father’s older sister Sylvia objected to my going to the funeral because of my age, but, my father told me later, death was part of life and I should experience all of it. She died the next year of breast cancer and I went to her funeral, too, at 12. 

Time went by. Decades.

In 1982 while living in a new house in Evanston, Illinois, I was unpacking a box of books that had been sitting with a few others which remained stacked up in a corner in our garage, even though my wife Joy and I had lived there for two years. There was no urgency, I felt, to unpack more books, since I owned a bookstore/newsstand at that time in Hyde Park, Illinois. But it was summer, I was idle, and I decided to finish unpacking the boxes to get them out of the way and to see what was in them. Some of the boxes were quite old, having been obviously recycled between our moves for a long time.

As I emptied the several boxes and the books piled up, I tossed the dusty boxes aside in an empty spot in the garage. Then, when I finished with the last box and threw it onto the same pile, a letter fell out of the box and fluttered to the floor. Curious, I picked it up and looked at it. It was sealed. The return address in the upper left corner was: 

J. Katzman/872 Chatham.E/Windsor, Ontario, Canada

The letter was addressed to:

Mrs Rose Katzman/420 Melrose Street/Chicago, 13, Ill.

There was a stamp with a young Queen Elizabeth (then 35, now 94) in the upper right corner.

The Post Office stamp between the return address and the stamp said, in a circle:

Windsor, Ontario/ 2:30 PM/July 28, 1961

I carefully opened the fragile twenty-one year old still-sealed letter. 

The letter was from my Grandfather to my Grandmother. It was written in the old country Yiddish language, and also in Hebrew letters, as was the world wide custom, even now. Yiddish was a language gradually invented over one thousand years ago, a patois of German, Polish and Hebrew. All Eastern European Jews spoke in it as their common language, no matter what their home country was. Same as Aramaic was the common language in Christ’s time in the various lands surrounding Jerusalem. My knowing this fact is an important part of what follows. I did not speak or (mostly) understand Yiddish.

Importantly to this story, my father was fluent in Yiddish, but never learned how to read Hebrew letters. 

I realized that the letter, dated July 26, 1961, was written and mailed the day before Jacob’s heart attack in Windsor, and two days later, July 28th, was sent out of Canada to Chicago, probably arriving there about July 31stor so. Except by then, Jacob was dead and my Grandmother probably tossed it aside with her other mail, because observant Jews like my Grandmother Rose sat “Shiva” (Hebrew for seven) for seven days after the death of a close family member and shut themselves off from normal activity, like opening mail. 

A similar custom like the Christians having a wake, except for a longer period, then. Friends and family would come to visit the grieving person at their home, bringing food to feed their family and other visitors. The letter was probably mixed in with a pile of other letters, eventually stored in a box, and forgotten. 

Years went by. Twenty-seven years.

My grandmother Rose, born in Lithuania in 1886, died in 1978 at 94. I have photo of her holding my son shortly after his birth that same year. That was why she and Jacob spoke Yiddish. His home country language would have been Byelorussian, and hers would have been Lithuanian. Yiddish was the bridge.

How that forgotten and never-read letter came to be in a box filled with my old books I will never know. Life sometimes offers a person mysteries. But I decided to solve this mystery in time for my Father’s 70th birthday, then about a month away. Here is how I did that.

My Mother Anne’s immigrant parents were both living then, and they too, used Yiddish as their bridge of communication. Celia, then 81, was from Dobra, Poland and Nathan, then 84, was from Minsk, Byelorussia. The Russian Tzar Nicholas the 2ndkept the Jewish population of his empire packed into a few Eastern European countries on the Western edge of Russia so he could keep an eye on the millions of them. Besides the countries I already listed, Latvia, The Ukraine, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were the other principal homelands of the Jews at the turn of the Nineteenth Century.

I went to Nathan and Celia, showed them the letter, asked them to translate it for me, and waited. It took longer than I thought it might, because though both of my Grandfathers were from the same country, they were from different economic spheres and used different colloquial phrases. My Grandmother had lived on a ranch raising cattle and my Grandfather’s family had a shoe-making factory. My Father’s parents, Jacob and Rose, were a carpenter and an orphan, respectively. I was aware that my four Grandparents were not fond of each other, each feeling somehow superior to the other. 

While this may seem extraneous detail to whomever reads this story, my Grandmother Celia was a “Galitzianer” from a sophisticated commercial area of Poland, Galicia. My Grandmother Rose, north of her, was from an area which was the center of Jewish Universities, Yeshivas, for centuries, and people from that area respected learning and teachers much more than in other parts of the Jewish Pale. She was a “Litvak”, or a Jewish Lithuanian. Catholic Lithuanians call themselves “Lugans” to avoid being confused with the Jews. Hitler wasn’t distracted by these social differences and all of my family still in Europe at that time were slaughtered during the Holocaust. 

So, consequently, my living grandparents on the South Side of Chicago were not so eager to accommodate their grandson’s request to translate the last letter from his, in their minds, social inferior other grandfather, even though I was a combination of all four of them. Truly a mixed marriage, folks. It didn’t help that I had to write my request down for them because my mouth was still wired shut then But eventually, working together, my two surviving grandparents gradually figured out what my Father’s Father wrote to Rose, twenty-one years earlier. 

The letter was chatty, about his time with his brothers and that he’d be coming home soon. An ordinary letter to a beloved wife of so many years. Except when he returned home, he was dead.

Shortly before my Father’s 70thbirthday party in my sister Bonnie’s (1947-2010) house, they returned the old letter to me, after dictating what each sentence or phrase meant in English, in their combined interpretations. They did not attend his party.

When September 21, 1982 came about, and many people, both our relatives and my Father’s old friends from the tough tenements on the West Side of Chicago, arrived at Bonnie’s house for dinner and gift-giving. Though I was unable to speak, when my turn came to present my until then dramatically unknown gift to my Father and read by a friend of mine, with both the Yiddish letter and my other grandparent’s translation of it framed together for him, there was a great silence in the room because the letter was the voice of a long dead man related to many generations in the room. Instead of laughter and conversation, there was a hush and then so many tears, including my Father’s and my own. I never expected such a response. 

My surprising emotional reaction to hearing that last old letter read in public for the first time, and the recent death of its universally beloved recipient four years earlier made the wires tying my jaw together tighten, and some of them cut into my gums, causing blood. I wanted the letter to bring surprise and joy to all these collected people, not my silence and blood and tears. 

My Grandfather had many times told my Father, in Yiddish, that “Man plans and God laughs”, which he then repeated to me when I was a child. I wonder if God was laughing during the presentation of the old letter? 

My Father kept the letter for eighteen more years until he died. 

Now, that nearly sixty-year-old surviving last letter has again, eerily returned to me. 

It hangs on my wall, I see it every day and remember all the missing people connected to that letter, that party, and what happened when it was presented to my Father. 

Written during this terrible time of the Great Virus, all of us should try to remember whom we have lost. Because memory is all we have, when the people we love eventually disappear.


Comment by Don Larson

May 8, 2020 @ 12:44 pm

Hi Bob,

Another great story stretching back through time.

Speaking of time…

You wrote: “Son, you’ve been a good boy.” Then Jacob fell back in bed and died on July 27, 1961.He was 78, my Father was 49 and I was 11. Eerily, in 2000, 39 years later, my Father died in my arms in Highland Park Hospital at 88. I was 50. I expect I will eventually recover from losing him, some day.”

Of course I hope you find comfort someday. 🙂

In my case, my father has been gone for 65 years this coming November. I never will recover from his loss and I accept that. But his blood runs through mine and my personality is partially like his was.

I wrote about “Absence” back in 2005 on my website. Maybe the content at the link below expresses my words here more clearly?




Comment by brad dechter

May 8, 2020 @ 1:35 pm

Great piece of writing. You made me cry!
I also want to point out that my wife and I moved into our home where we are now 17 years ago. Since in confinement, we have now gotten through about 8 unpacked boxes and hope to get through the other 15 while we’re sequestered the next 6 months to a year (hopefully not longer). Gradually the memories in these boxes get brought back into our lives for a short time, prior to them then being sent to our applicable son (as the stuff relates to each of the three ) or the round file called our trash can.
I was not close to my parents and don’t have much of our family history, so I will never have a story like yours. I am hoping I can find something useful in these boxes- like a brick of gold bullion. But, there are good memories that touch the heart.
Thanks for sharing this story!

Comment by Dan Perrone

May 8, 2020 @ 1:39 pm

You, sir, are an outstanding writer. I enjoyed this tremendously!

Comment by Bob

May 8, 2020 @ 2:46 pm

Thank you. Kind of you to write to me, Dan. Please share the link.

Comment by Steve golber

May 8, 2020 @ 5:30 pm

Bob, thank you for sharing.
A very good touching story

Comment by Herbert Berman

May 9, 2020 @ 11:07 am

A moving recollection, Bob.

Comment by Marty

July 10, 2022 @ 8:56 pm

You have incredibly good writing skills. I wish that I had your mastery of story telling. Your piece brought me back to
my grandparents born in Galicia and Russia and entered the US
around 1900. In Chicago they lived on the West Side and also Humboldt Park. Sadly, I have no amazing family reminiscences to relate. Bob, thanks for your very personal and heartfelt recollections.

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