Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Land of My Family's Past

Have you ever wondered what the neighborhoods where your parents lived their formative years, looked like? It is an especially poignant question to anyone whose parents, like mine, immigrated from another country, be it to escape hardship or oppression, or simply to seek a new life in a land considered to have more robust opportunities.


My mother left Lodz (Łódź), Poland’s second largest pre-World War II Jewish community, before she was four. Subsequently, Lodz meant very little to her and so engendered little fascination in me. Traveling with her mother, brother and two sisters to reunite with her father in New York, Sylvia Gerson arrived at Ellis Island in 1921 shortly before a more restrictive immigration policy for southern and eastern Europeans went into effect.


The family lived in The Bronx, eventually moving to an apartment on the Grand Concourse, the height of 1930s sophistication, said to be “the Park Avenue of middle-class Bronx residents.” Her father owned a successful jewelry store.


I’ve driven that broad-lined thoroughfare many times, but, not knowing her address, never stopped in front of her building.


My father’s history, on the other hand, imbedded in me a curiosity about his hometown shtetl of Ottynia and his early adult years in Danzig from where Kopel Fürsetzer emigrated to New York in January 1939.


I’ve come to know facets of life in Ottynia from a benevolent association of Ottynia immigrants (of which Kopel was a long-time president), from pamphlets with pictures produced by several members, and from a few of my father’s family photographs.


Often, when one thinks of a shtetl one conjures up images of pious bearded Jews with curled sideburns. To be sure, Ottynia had its share of Hasidim. A famous rabbinic dynasty and its adherents, the Viznitz Hasidim, came from there. They now are a major sect living in Israel in Bnai Brak outside Tel Aviv.


Ottynia was much more than an Anatevka-like village. It had a thriving cohort of young, athletic looking men and women organized by several Zionist groups.


Visually, Ottynia is mostly a mystery to me. When my family toured several Eastern European cities in 2008 I entertained the idea of an unscheduled trip over the Ukrainian border (Ottynia was removed from Polish jurisdiction after World War II), but our guide in Krakow advised against it.

  

A few years ago I came across two 2013 YouTube posts by a New Jersey dentist who visited Ottynia. It was, he reported, more backward than before the war. 


Still, I would have liked to see it. I also would have liked to walk the cobblestoned streets of Danzig (now called Gdansk) where my father spent nearly a decade and a half. He spoke very little of that time, perhaps because it coincided with the rise of Naziism there. Though Danzig was called a “free city,” neither part of Poland or Germany, its population was overwhelmingly German. The government instituted repressive laws against Jews similar to what Hitler enacted in Germany. 


Perhaps Danzig might also have reminded Kopel of the first love of his life, Dora, who did not leave with him for America because she felt obligated to go with her parents to Australia.


My paternal thoughts, or is patrimonial a more apt word?, are prompted because Tuesday The New York Times ran a story on a 70-minute documentary that expands on three minutes of film taken in 1938 in a different shtetl outside Warsaw. Three minutes was all that could be salvaged from a full reel of video of a visit to the ancestral home of the filmmaker (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/03/movies/three-minutes-a-lengthening-documentary.html?smid=em-share).


And, more importantly, my fascination with the past is heightened because today, January 5, is my father’s birth date. Either in 1911 or 1912 (in a previous blog I explained why the year is unknown: http://nosocksneededanymore.blogspot.com/2012/01/marking-birthday.html). 


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