Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Trip to Remember - Day 1

I apologize ahead of time, this is going to be an exceptionally long post...though I may decide to split it into three (like The Hobbit...) Enjoy!

One of my favorite activities is working on family genealogy and helping others do the same. This entails a fair amount of time spent in cemeteries looking and and taking photos of headstones. Back in May I went to visit Rochester to see my mom and go walking through the two big Jewish cemeteries there (Britton Road and Stone Road) as well as take short visits to non-Jewish cemeteries where I also have family buried (Mount Hope, Riverside and White Haven). I did not glean too much new information from there as my mother's records and recollections are fairly complete, but I was able to take photos of many of my relatives' graves - many that I had never seen before.

Sophie Kremer was my great-great-grandmother and is buried in Stone Road Cemetery. Morris Raskind was my great-grandfather and is buried in Britton Road Cemetery. I'm actually named for him.
While my trip to Rochester was a lot of fun and I want to go back (as I have two family members who I still can't find in the cemeteries though I know they're there), my dream was to go to New York City and visit my father's family's graves. The only caveat was the fact that they are buried all over the place - Long Island, Queens, Brooklyn, New Jersey and Westchester County - in just about 15 different cemeteries. This doesn't even include people I still can't find (as in I don't know where they're buried). I knew I would need at least three full days to do so, but with doula clients due all summer long I really didn't have three days until *just* before school started. It also meant leaving Shmuel and the nanny with the kids for three days, but this was super important to me, so I packed up and left...before 4am on Sept 2nd. One thing I learned while driving that early in the morning is that my car moves faster than the earth rotates, because it was starting to get a tiny bit light in Boston as I left and got progressively darker as I drove south until the sun finally made her appearance. I was somewhere in Connecticut when my GPS decided it was sunrise and changed colors. I also learned that it takes just about an hour to drive from my home to the Connecticut border (in no traffic) and another hour to get to Westchester (in no traffic). I got to the sign that says "Welcome to Brooklyn" around 7am - just over 3 hours after leaving home.
My first stop was one of the most emotional. My father was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. More specifically in the apartment pictured below.
I believe my family went to see his childhood home at some point when I was a kid, but I wouldn't have recognized the place in a million years. I got out and took many pictures and was even invited inside by a lady who lives there and was out walking her dog. (Unfortunately she got locked out, so I didn't get inside.)
Do you see the "239" on the door behind me? Just proving I was there... :-D And if that didn't do it, this probably will...
You can see on the door buzzer where it says "239 Ocean Avenue." The lady you can sort of see in that picture is the nice one who was walking her dog. We stood there and talked for several minutes about our family members having lived in that apartment building for many years. Her mother may have known my father or my grandparents, but we'll never know...

My next stop was Washington Cemetery, which is also in Brooklyn. It's a very old cemetery, and I only have a handful of family members buried there. Most importantly are my great-grandmother Fanny Bellin (my grandma Sadie's mother) and her oldest daughter, Katie. A funny story goes along with Katie Bellin. My parents went searching for her grave many years ago and couldn't find it...because her headstone says "Tillie Bellin" on it. I know it's her because it has her exact birth and death dates and the correct Hebrew name. I was delighted when I found the grave. As Jews we put rocks on headstones when we visit them, and most of the graves I visited on this trip probably hadn't had stones in years, if not decades. Who knows who was the last person to visit Katie Bellin...
My next stop was Mount Judah Cemetery in Ridgewood, NY (that's in Queens). This was also an emotional stop because a great number of my family members are buried in a plot here. I call it the "Blumenthal Family Plot" though there are many Blumenthal plots that I visited. Among the people buried here are my great-grandmother Dinah Blumenthal (who my father was named for) and two of her sons (Maurice and Louis). I always referred to Uncle Maurice as "the famous one" because he was a well-known engineer in his day, but unfortunately he died quite young. I was particularly excited to visit his grave. His daughters, Beulah and Jackie, are also buried here. They were my father's favorite cousins, and I remember meeting Cousin Jackie many years ago.
Also in Mount Judah, but on the other side of the street, is buried Dinah's husband, Jacob Blumenthal. The poor guy is all alone out there buried at the very back of his section and probably hasn't been visited by anyone since the last time my parents were there. He died 95 years ago, and I was glad to be able to put a stone there in his memory.
After Mount Judah I picked up my friend David, and he joined me for my next two cemetery visits. We first went to Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery in Flushing where my cousin Joan's second husband and his family are buried. I remember Bill being at my Bat Mitzvah and can picture him, so visiting him was quite special. One thing I learned while walking with David is that cemeteries in Queens have swarms of little lizards running around. We played a "spot the lizard" game while walking. (Yes, I know we are incredibly inappropriate playing games in cemeteries...)
David and I then went to Mount Zion Cemetery in Maspeth, NY where I have some cousins buried. This is where I had one of my new finds! As I was searching for one grave, I happened upon a name that I knew - Maurice Blumenthal's father-in-law (Samuel Slote)! I was over there looking for Maurice's daughter Pauline, who had died in infancy, and figured out why she's buried here in particular, since it had seemed to me completely random. Unfortunately I could not find the baby's grave, since many of the stones for children were made out of a material that has degraded so much that it's impossible to read anything on them. The other family buried there are the Doloboffs, my grandma Sadie's cousins. The son, Reuben, served in WWI and sadly died from a flu epidemic on the boat back home.
After dropping David back at the subway station, I went to my last cemetery in Queens, Mount Hebron in Flushing. Several Bellins and one Doloboff are buried there, including my great-grandfather, Jacob Bellin (my grandma Sadie's father).
My final cemetery of the day was also the most special of them all. I rounded out the day at Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, NY. Now let me preface this by saying that I don't cry at cemeteries or even at funerals usually. I'm used to cemeteries, and I walk through one here in Boston on an almost weekly basis. But of course, there is a first time for everything... My grandparents, Raphael and Sadie Blumenthal, are buried at Beth David, and I visited their graves once before as a child many years ago. It took me a few minutes to find them, but once I did I set down my purse and sat by their stones...and then I lost it completely. I sat there and sobbed, telling them about how great of a job they did raising their son, about how I wish I could have met them, how I wish my mom could have met them...it went on and on.
I didn't want to leave them. While crying I checked my phone and saw a text from my best friend Heavyn. I asked her how it was possible to miss someone you never met, and she comforted me so that I could pull it together and visit the rest of the cemetery, where more Blumenthals are buried. (My great-grandparents had 9 children...I attempted to see 6 of them on this day)
By this point I was totally exhausted and my feet were killing me, so I headed to Far Rockaway where I was staying with friends.

To be continued...

1 comment:

Celia said...

You are lucky to be able to do this, my family did not/does not discuss the past. My Father's side was decimated by the holocaust and my mother's side does not talk about any family member that has done something upsetting. I never thought about it much actually til I realized I had no idea if I had any relatives with health problems while we were doing paperwork for infertility testing.