Small family, big family

Like many Jewish families, tracing our history is often a sad and difficult task. Three of my four grandparents escaped Europe to found new families in America, giving me the illusion of having a small family, as Hitler uprooted and burnt the rest of my family tree. But the networks formed by immigrants were close, familial, and geographic, facts that were so obvious to them that they often didn’t talk about it.

For example, my paternal grandfather comes from a small city in Poland called Ostrow-Mazowiecka. His mother died of cholera shortly after he was born, and he was raised by various aunts. As a (very) young man, he escaped Poland and came to Detroit alone—I thought. It turns out he came here with his cousin. Each of them founded a new family in the New World.

Like many immigrants, my grandfather (Phil) did much better in America than he ever could have done in Poland. As a virtual orphan (his step-mother apparently sent him on his way), he relied on his wits and the charity of others. Detroit was a rapidly growing city, and like all growing cities, it was hungry. My grandfather, after a short stint in the U.S. Army in WWI, got into the food business, eventually turning a stall in a city market into a collection of supermarkets.

His cousin, Meisha, left different circumstances. His family had several large business concerns in Ostrow. As Jews, they were not allowed to own land, so rather than living as peasants in the countryside, they ran a lumber mill and other businesses in town. Still, Meisha apparently felt American held promises that Poland did not. He was right.

As was often the case, immigrants clustered geographically in America. Detroit developed a large Ostrower community as more people came over to join their families. In 1935, my grandfather took his family (my dad and aunt, my grandma and grandpa, and my great-aunt) to Europe and Palestine to visit family, and perhaps to get more people to emigrate. Hitler had been in power for two years, but anti-Semitism was nothing new. Ostrow was growing, business was good. A good number of my paternal grandmother’s and paternal grandfather’s family were already in Palestine and the U.S., and the rest were staying put. They were all murdered.

Back in the U.S., Meisha Beryl (now Morris) had started a family, as had Phil, and their businesses were going well. The family became purely American, many knowing of their various distant cousins, but as the “once removed” became more and more “removed”, and as the older generations died, the Ostrowers lost their sense of family. In a big city like Detroit, distant cousins were less important than immediate family, business associates, neighbors, etc. Old bonds faded, new ones formed.

Last night I had dinner with my folks. Also invited were some cousins of my father. They filled us in on the family of Meisha Beryl, their patriarch. As we looked through documents and talked about names we made many discoveries, including that my gregarious wife knows many of the cousins that I didn’t even know I had. Then the really fun discovery—a friend of ours, a woman who I’ve known since childhood, whose mother sold me our engagement ring, and whose daughter my wife teaches, is my cousin. OK, she’s my third cousin, once removed, but still…

Until last night, I still lived under the illusion of coming from a small family—and I do. But America has been good for us, and despite the decimation of my European family, we’ve done quite well here and in Israel. While we might not feel the same connection as our grandparents felt and needed, it’s still good to know that we’ve survived and thrived.


  1. Have a look on the BBC site for iplayer reruns of ‘Who do you think you are?’ , which deals with family history. They have had a couple of celebs on recently whose families barely survived the Holocaust, including Jerry Springer (I know, but its actually very moving). A search on the programmes homepage brings up some earlier stories with a similar story. They also do an interesting radio programme called ‘Tracing your roots’, which you can get via a Podcast.

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