Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

The 1917 Telegram: From Russia to Celia…by Robert M. Katzman

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 12:07 pm on Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The 1917 Telegram: From Russia to Celia © August 26, 2020

From stories I was told as a child in the 1950’s. Even my cousins, the grandchildren of the four immigrants, are dying now, so it’s time to leave a record. Forgive any errors. I was so young:

My Grandmother, originally Celia Baumwohl, was born in 1901 in the tiny town of Dobra, in the southern Polish Galician region of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. The northern part of Poland was part of the German Empire. So for a while, Poland disappeared from the maps of Europe.

Her mother, Fanny Turkingkupf (1863-1945) is as far back as I can go with names on my mother Anne’s (1921-2001) side. Jews from that area were known around the world and maybe still are in America today, as Galitzianers. Not always a compliment. Rough, tough commercial people where getting an education, reflecting on the meaning of life, were subservient to making a living. 

Fanny’s husband Moshe’s father, my Great-Great-Grandfather also named Moshe came from a town called Belgarai in Eastern Poland near what was once Lvov, but is now part of Ukraine as Lviv. Town never moved. The older Moshe was killed by Cossacks during a Pogrom in Dobra in 1914. Two years later, his son Moshe was also killed in another Pogrom in Dobra. Celia witnessed this. He was beheaded by a man on a horse with a large sword, she told all of us many times. The word means “devastation” in Russian.

It is a Jewish custom to honor the dead through the living. My middle name “Michael” is in memory of him. Jews use the same first letter, in this case M, of the dead relative’s name to give a name to a newborn infant reflecting the local culture’s ordinary names in whatever country the family might currently be living in, i.e., France (Maurice), Italy (Marco), Germany (Max), Japan (Mizuki), so the child is more enabled to blend in better with the larger usually hostile majority population.

My Uncle Milton who died a few years ago, was Celia’s only son and named after her murdered Grandfather Moshe.

I am the last living person with any name connection to what happened to my family in Dobra, Poland between 1914 to 1916. I can feel the weight of that now over a century old history and it is a motivation for me to write all this down. Time goes by. People forget. Who knows to whom this very personal story may matter?

To Jews from Lithuania, north of Poland and part of the Baltic region of Eastern Europe, the center of revered Yeshivas of the entire Jewish world for one thousand years, Talmudic Universities in many fragile wooden buildings, were the opposite: Education was supreme. Period.

They called themselves Litvaks.

Though a tiny nation, the rest of the Lithuanian people referred to themselves as Lugans, so–God forbid!–they wouldn’t be confused with the Jews. 

I say this with no malice. I am writing here for the first time what I heard long ago. In fact, I have Lithuanian-Catholic friends today, who wouldn’t have a clue what a Litvak was if they tripped over one. Not everything from the Old Country manages to survive from generation to generation.

My Grandmother Rose, an orphan, originally named Gann, was born in 1886 in Vilna, also once referred to as the Jerusalem of Lithuania because of the relatively large population of Jews living there, and because of the famed Yeshivas and their Rabbinic scholars.

My Grandma Rose, I was much later told, was considered to be too plain a woman to attract a husband, so her foster family coldly packed her off to America by herself at 16 in 1900, so she wouldn’t be a burden to them.

But attract a man she did in Newport, Kentucky, of all places; a nice one: a thin carpenter about my height named Jacob Katzman from Mogilev-on-the Dneper River in Byelorrussia. They moved to Chicago (only about 30 years after the Great Chicago Fire) and she had five children, one of whom was my father, Israel, born in 1912.

As life would have it, I too became a carpenter–though not as a living–although my good-enough skills as a carpenter made possible my making a living from 1965 to 2011, building my newsstands and bookstore shelves. I inherited my Grandfather’s tools and treasure them more than gold. 

I also did my best to create businesses from age 12 onward, which I suppose reflected my Galitizianer side. I was the result of a tense mixed marriage and it wasn’t wonderful, you see. My family’s Litvaks would never have deemed me any sort of scholar, and my family’s Galitzianers would laugh if if someone referred to me as a businessman. A Galitzianer opening a bookstore is sort of a compromise, I suppose. 

Once, Grandma Celia was irritated with me–ok, she was always irritated with me–and accused me of being a Katzman, not a Warman, her married name after she arrived in America in 1917. I was perplexed by this since I didn’t think I had any choice in the matter, genetically. But I was aware that she meant it as an insult. She was 4 foot 10 inches, ferocious, and no one crossed my Grandma Celia twice. 

This story is about an incident during World War One involving my Grandma Celia, then a teenager. As it happened, my father’s family arrived in America much earlier and had soldiers in the American Army. 

My Grandma Celia had nine siblings, one of whom was a brother, Aizak, who was in the Austrian-Hungarian Army. So, before I was born, the two sides of my family were at war with each other. Then my parents married in 1946, and that old war resumed. 

This is what I remember:

Aizak was years older than Celia and married. He had a son with his young wife, Gitel. Then, as the war went on, he was captured by the Russians, when the Russian Empire was still ruled by Czar Nicholas ll. Aizak was sent to be, in effect, a slave laborer prisoner of war in a town with a candy factory near a railroad between Galacia and Russia, though it sounds to me like it could have been a lot worse for him.

The woman who owned the factory was a childless elderly widow whose Russian husband’s family originally founded the candy company. In time, the lonely old woman got to know Aizak.

Although Aizak’s principle language was Yiddish, a Germanic / Polish / Hebrew invention which arose about a thousand years earlier only within the Jewish community, as a practical matter, most Eastern European Jews were multilingual so they could communicate with the larger and frequently hostile Christian communities surrounding them. Therefore, Aizak also spoke Russian. Celia spoke five languages. 

The old widow became fond of Aizak, learned that he had a wife and son, and told him that the war wouldn’t last forever. If he would send for his little family, she would leave him the factory when she died. Long before the Godfather stories, this was an offer Aizak could not refuse. But also a very kind one. He telegraphed Celia who was caring for Gitel and helping her with Aizak’s son. The telegram briefly told Celia about the old woman’s offer and to make arrangements to send his wife and son to the town where the candy factory was located, including the address. Celia had to gather the money to make this journey possible.

A little time passed.

Within that time, the Russian Revolution took place. Czar Nicholas and his family were executed and the Revolutionary forces swept through Western Russia, freeing the serfs from their capitalist masters. This wave came to the old woman’s candy factory where, when the impatient Russians encountered Aizak, whom they naturally assumed was the owner of the factory, not some prisoner of war, they killed him. 

The elderly woman was spared and she rushed to send a telegram to Celia, warning her NOT to send Gitel and her son. Celia received the telegram in time and the train trip for Aizak’s little family never happened. 

Instead, more money was collected and Aizak Baumwohl’s widow Gitel and his son were provided with a ticket to America, whereupon after they arrived in New York in 1917, America swallowed them up. 

The story about all of them ended for me when I was a child, so long ago. 

I have sometimes thought about this.

Gitel, then about 17, would have been 50 when I was born 33 years later in 1950. Her son, name unknown to me, would have been about 34 then, and most likely dead by now, 70 years later. But if her son married and had children, they would have been the age of my oldest cousins, perhaps 15 years older than me.

Sometimes in my career, I wondered if ever I sold to a grandchild of Aizak a newspaper in Hyde Park. Or a corned beef sandwich from my deli, across the parking lot from my newsstand. Did I ever distribute any magazines to a store they owned or worked in, in Chicago? Did I sell a Wall Street Journal to some successful unknown cousin of mine who worked on the Chicago Board of Trade like Celia’s son Milton, my uncle, once did?

Would he or she have ever come to my bookstore, talk to me and want help finding a book to travel somewhere? Or at the end of my career, ironically would my cousin have sought to buy an original newspaper reporting in large black headlines that there was a revolution in Russia? Because I would have had it, or been able to get it. They might have come to me because I had one of the last collectible newspaper and magazine stores in America.

Maybe they might have heard about that and sought me out, never knowing that we were cousins, because their last name had long ago ceased to be Baumwohl, like Celia’s did. Like my Mother’s maiden name Warman ceased to be.

Only one time in my entire career, in 1990, as I was facing away from the cash register area in one of my stores putting stock away, maybe cigarettes or candy, a man’s voice spoke to me, calling me “boychik” and then I turned to see a face I never saw before. But, there was something…something so familiar in his eyes…and I instantly said to him, 

“We’re related!” 

He was my Grandma Celia’s older sister Mollie Cohen’s son. I never met Mollie who settled in Seattle, Washington. I never met her family. But in some mysterious way, I instantly knew that her much-older-than-me son, was connected to me, a cousin. I felt it so strongly. It was a shock. I don’t know where the words came from, bursting out of me. 

We spoke for a little while. He was visiting his aged Aunt Celia, by then 89, in Chicago and then he disappeared from my life. It was a “Twilight Zone” moment for me, a never-understood mystery of kinship. Of blood.

Rose, the Litvak, lived to be 94. Celia, the Galitzianer, lived to be 96. Today in 2020, I’m 70. By now, all the immigrants are dead, and their children, too. All the old stories are evaporating. Somehow, the once disparaged descendent of Celia’s, the hybrid Galizianer-Litvak Jew from the South Side of Chicago became the family chronicler, likely unread by his own family. That’s ok. Unlike when I was living with them, finally I am able to have the last word, so to speak.

One hundred twenty years later after the first of my shtetl dwelling ancestor immigrants arrived in North America from the Old Country, there must be hundreds of my cousins spread across America from coast to coast from the nine surviving Baumwohl children, all of whom made it to America before Hitler arrived, even including their mother Fanny, my Great-Grandmother who died 75 years ago in Chicago and whom I also never met, but whose picture hangs on my wall. She has penetrating dark eyes, like Celia’s.

I have eyes like that too, people have told me all of my life. I recently totaled up the ages of my Great-Grandparents, Grandparents, Parents, Aunts and Uncles when they died and averaged them. It came to 89 years old. One of them, Uncle Wolf, reached 100. If I’m very careful, will I still have 19 years left?

Sometimes I look into Fanny’s hard dark eyes, too.

Wondering.

After 40 surgeries, probably more than all of them had put together, I think about my chances. What I will I do with that possibly alotted time?

Of all my unknown cousins, the only ones I’ve wondered about are the descendants of Aizak and Gitel. It would be so nice to meet them, and maybe even their children. To put faces on the people from a story I first heard over 60 years ago. Maybe, with the magical internet, maybe one of them will know that same Celia story, and will recognize themselves when they read it. Maybe they might want to meet me too. 

That would be such a happy ending to this mysterious story of love, loss, wandering and violence from a century ago.

****************************************************

Publishing News! 

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him!
Vol. One: A Savage Heart  and Vol. Two: Fighting Words

Gritty, violent, friendship, classic American entrepreneurship love, death, heartbreak and the real dirt about surviving in a completely corrupt major city under the Chicago Machine. More history and about one man’s life than a person may imagine.

Please visit my new website: http://www.dontgoquietlypress.com
If a person doesn’t want to use PayPaI, I also have a PO Box & I ship anywhere in America.

Send me a money order with your return and contact info.
I will get your books to you within ten days.
Here’s complete information on how to buy my books:

Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words
My books weigh almost 2 pounds each, with about 525 pages each and there are a total together of 79 stories and story/poems.

Robert M. Katzman
Don’t Go Quietly Press
PO Box 44287
Racine, Wis. 53404-9998                                                                                                                    (262) 752-3333, 8AM–7PM

Books cost $29.95 each, plus shipping

For: (1)$3.95; (2)$5.95; (3)$7.95; (4)$8.95 (5)$9.95;(6) $10.95

(7) $11.95; (8) $12.95; (9)$13.95 (10)$15.95 (15)$19.95

I am also for hire if anyone wants me to read my work and answer questions in the Chicago/Milwaukee area. Schools should call me for quantity discounts for 30 or more books. Also: businesses, bookstores, private organizations or churches and so on.

My Fighting Words Publishing Co. four original books, published between 2004 and 2007 are now out-of-print. I still have some left and will periodically offer them for sale on my new website.

8 Comments »

Comment by Kumari

August 26, 2020 @ 12:19 pm

your story filled me with a wave of nostalgia for Hyde Park, your newstand (and bookstore) and people who are long gone.

Comment by Don Larson

August 26, 2020 @ 12:33 pm

Thank you, Bob.

I have a book for my Maternal Grandmother’s family going back to the 1500’s. It is interesting to read a little at a time.

Your information should provide the descendants of your prior family members a good place to exercise their own research.

Don

Comment by Jim Payne

August 26, 2020 @ 12:56 pm

I enjoy how you color the dates with little bits of info and the people with human foibles to make them more than history.

Comment by brad dechter

August 26, 2020 @ 1:59 pm

Dear Long Lost Cousin Bob,
Yes- I jest. But I had you for a second , huh? I joined 23 and Me, and now have close to a thousand cousins I did not know about. Unfortunately, I have never taken the time to try and build a family tree and figure out all that stuff.
You, however, might want to do just that. Take a DNA test- 23 and Me is good- and get to meeting all your cousins.
Good luck if you do it!
BTW- It’s science, so all you have to do is follow it/map it out. And Guess what? Taking Hydroxychloroquine won’t make it go away- it’s real science, not fake science.!
Good luck Bob!

Comment by Gail Garza

August 26, 2020 @ 3:44 pm

Dear Bob ~

I collect and am fascinated by your stories. I will keep them and in a few weeks (my break time) will happily share them with many others.

THIS IS HISTORY…HISTORY THAT MUST NEVER BE FORGOTTEN.

Comment by Beth Walsh

August 28, 2020 @ 1:08 am

Hi Bob, I lived this story. Finding family roots has been a passion of mine for a Decade now. Listen to your reader Brad Decther above. You wont get many more chances to leave this gift to your future generations. Test at 23andMe,
Ancestry.com, MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA (FtDNA)
It’s rewarding and fun and Jewish people are desparate to connect with family around the globe after the horrors of WWII.

Beth

Comment by Bob

August 28, 2020 @ 5:26 am

Beth, you remain as gentle and wonderful a person as you always were.In a way, by my writing stories like I do and posting them on a public Facebook page, I am reversing the process, allowing people who recognize old connections choose to contact me, if they choose to do that. My closest relationships at age 70 are with my friends. We know each other sometimes for a lifetime. At this point, we only offer humor and comfort to each other. Not too many families are so generous to each other. You have rejoined that sort of chosen family most recently, and you are very welcome, Beth.
Bob

Comment by Daryl Stone Anisfeld

April 9, 2021 @ 3:33 pm

Thank you for sharing that delightful story and your history. You may have been in school with my brotherMike Stone. I wish you success on any adventure you chose, after Covid that is. Who would ever think a virus could do this much in our modern age.

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