I wish I took the opportunity to ask a thousand more questions to my grandfather– about his family, his hometown, his struggles and his joyous moments. When I was twenty, I realized that I may not have my grandfather forever and with his photographic memory, he was a gateway to my Polish ancestry. But while I recorded him for several hours, I wasn’t disciplined enough to methodically ask about his extended family and what became of them. Instead I have hours of valuable divrei Torah which I cherish but precious little about his parents, brother, grandparents and many relatives. He did though leave a biographical testament called ‘three generations’ which gives us some details of a grand Polish rabbinic aristocracy. But there was so much more I could have learned.
How many of us know too little about our families who lived just three generations ago? Most of us are resigned to the notion that our past is beyond our grasp, and the few relics we possess, notes we have inherited, we relegate to history. After all, how much can we really uncover?
Dan Oren’s answer, meticulously described in his fantastic book, ‘The Wedding Photo’ (Rimmon Press, Connecticut, 2018), is one word—a lot!
Dan began his journey to the past in 1990 when he joined his first Genealogical society in search for his grandmother’s family, which led him to a 1993 trip to Poland with his mother, searching for remnants, perhaps a tombstone… he could not believe the lengths to where his journey would lead him.
What is most remarkable about Dan is the tenacity with which he pursues his quest; he never gives up. From the moment he saw a gravestone of his great-grandmother in 1993 he has been on a mission to piece together this mystery. Who was she? What exactly was written on the stone? Does it give any clues as to the date, time and context of his extended family? These questions and many more were on his mind for over 25 years and he keeps going.
Dan realized back in the pre-internet age that the task would be impossible without networking with other like-minded individuals who were seeking the same goals. Throughout the book we encounter new organizations and websites: jewishgen.com, ancestry.com, myheritage.com, Geni.com, as well as many Facebook groups–Jewish Genealogy Portal, Tracing the Tribe and his own moderated Facebook group, Jewish Genealogy Poland.
Each chapter of the book focuses on another journey into Dan’s and his wife, Jeanette Kuvin’s Family roots. Chapters one and two focus on Dan’s roots, deciphering a tombstone of his great-grandmother, found in her hometown of Markuszów as well as tracing the roots of his great-grandparents through Lublin, Siedliszcze and other places during the turbulent war period. Unfortunately, as with most of the stories from this era, the ending is often tragic, nevertheless, there is some comfort in following his journey as he uncovers the treasures of his past.
Chapters three and four turn to Jeanette’s roots as the search traverses the US and Canada, encounters famous personalities who turn out to be long lost cousins.
Chapter five bears title of the book as it focuses on a most remarkable picture found in a home in Vienna to a 107 year old great-grandmother’s sister who recently passed away. It is a wedding photo from 1926 in Berlin in which 77 friends and relatives elegantly sit and smile at a joyous moment. Dan goes about trying to identify every single person in the photograph, every relative, every friend, everyone connected to Margot Klausner and Jacob Rosner.
The penultimate chapter, titled ‘The Gaon of Markuszów’ hit close to home with me as it brings us full circle to the cemetery where Dan found the tombstone of his great-grandmother so many years ago. The cemetery, (like unfortunately many of the 1200 in Poland) was dilapidated, with vegetation grown all over it to the point of losing any and all identity. Rundown, abandoned, this is the lot of these memorials when the Jewish guardians have disappeared over the years. In their place, in some towns, righteous non-Jewish Poles have been guarding, surveying, and attempting to preserve the Jewish stories and memories of Jewish Poland.
I had a personal connection due to my own ancestors’ cemetery in the town of Króscienko, where my grandfather, great and great great grandfathers were rabbis for close to a century. I too had a righteous gentile named Dariusz Popiela who took it upon himself to preserve the memory of the cemetery as well as those Jews murdered and buried in a mass grave in the cemetery over 75 years ago.
In a truly multi-ethnic, multi-religious endeavor, Dan and his friends raised money and spent several days cleaning up the Markuszów cemetery, uncovering many more stones, even one belonging to the ‘Gaon’-the rabbi of the town, Chaim Jankiel Kohen, who was the Dan’s great- great-great (!) grandfather!
At least once a week someone contacts the JCC in Krakow in a quest to find their lost heritage. While there is a genealogist on staff there, a lot of work can be done by the family before sending information to a genealogist. Just open up the web, or facebook and look for sites relating to Jewish genealogy and after a few short clicks, you are on your way!
The book, ‘The Wedding Photo’, inspired me to try and find out more about my Polish family and to use the various tools that are available to make that family tree more accessible and meaningful. While we may never truly plumb the depths of our ancestry like Dan, we can nevertheless join some genealogical societies, get our names out there and start meeting relatives we had hitherto never known existed! Congratulations Dan on a fascinating book but more importantly, on never giving up on your journey to find out about your past and bring it into your future!