Photos from author’s private collection
It has been just about 100 years ago when both sets of my grandparents came to America, landing in New York City via Ellis Island. My paternal set went to the Bronx, and my maternal to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
While I know people who can trace their family to the 14th century, I cannot go back beyond my grandparents. My knowledge of their backgrounds are pretty sketchy, but I what I do know are their stories of amazing heroism, bravery and of survival.
[1962: My brother, Benjmain, RBF]
My father’s father was born Benjamin Weintraub, in the Austria-Hungary Empire. He was in Hungary near the Russian Empire, and he spoke Yiddish, Hebrew, Hungarian, German, some Russian, and eventually a smattering of English. When he talked to my dad, he spoke Yiddish. My Zayda (grandfather, in Yiddish) was raised in a shtetl (village) that was poor and could have stood in for Anatevka.
The world around him was at war, though it only directly affected his village minimally. Well, at first, anyway. One day, an edict from the government was announced that declared the names of the inhabitants that would be conscripted into the army, and Benjamin Weintraub was on the list.
When Jews were called to the war, basically they were sent to the front and used as cannon fodder. Even before that, during the limited training period, they tended to be abused by the regular army. Anti-Semitism was a day-to-day occurrence in their lives.
I don’t remember ever hearing about who came up with the idea, but in the middle of the night, Benjamin put up a wooden grave marker in the village cemetery with his own name scratched into it, with a recent date (to explain the newness of the indicator). He then adopted his mother’s maiden name, and became Benjamin Franczoz.
As soon as he could, he sailed to America. This was 1910, and I know because I still have the ticket of passage. When he reached Ellis Island, the official gatekeeper asked him his name. When he said “Franczoz,” the guard wrote down “Francos” and said, “Close enough. Next!” To this day, when people ask me the origin of the name, I just say, “It’s half Hungarian, half Ellis Island.”
[Benjamin during WWI, on the left]
Benjamin went back to Europe in 1914 to fight for the United States in World War I. There is a great picture of him in his uniform and huge mustache, along with another soldier. He died in 1963 at the age of 80, of a heart condition that would now have been easily repaired with a pacemaker; I was 8 years old. My grandmother passed before I was born.
Because he spent most of the last 3 years of his life in a hospital due to his health condition, I was not allowed up to see him much (hospital rules about children), so my main memory is of his apartment in a housing project in the Bronx, and reading comics with my brother in the waiting room of the hospital nearly every weekend for the 3 years.
* * *
My mother’s mother had a much scarier time of it. I don’t know her maiden name, but her married moniker was Fannie Rosen. She spoke only Yiddish, and enough Hebrew to recite the prayers. Though born in Brooklyn, my mom did not speak English until she was in public school.
My bubbe (grandmother) also grew up in a shtetl, in Prussia, close to the Russian border. Because of the location, there were often pogroms from the Prussians, and attacks by the Cossacks, where violence was frequent, including beatings, rapes and killings. The thuggery was an oppressive, present and common occurrence.
Meanwhile, Russia and Poland were often having border and power clashes over territory. At some point, one such skirmish ended up with Fannie’s shtetl as the battlefield. Something in her snapped, from all the years of persecution, and she picked up a gun and started shooting anyone she didn’t know (i.e., not from her village). When she ran out of bullets, she picked up another rifle or pistol.
When the battle was over, the pre-Soviet Russians were victorious. And Fannie was arrested. As it turned out, and by quite a coincidence and not by intent, Fannie had killed way more Prussians than Russians, making their victory easier by her actions of cutting down a number of their enemies.
They gave Fannie a choice: either go to a Siberian gulag for life for killing some Russians, or go into exile, never to be seen in Eastern Europe again under threat of death. She packed up the family, and came to New York around the same period as Benjamin, and ended up in Brooklyn. Their neighbors and friends included drummer Buddy Rich and Melvin Kominsky, who would also take his mothers name and then shorten it to Brooks. Years later, Mel Brooks would literally set my mother on fire, but that’s another story.
[Brooklyn in the '40s: Relatives who came to US with Fannie, her father with the beard; I do not seem to have any photos of Fannie scanned]
While my maternal grandfather passed before I was born, Fannie died of a stroke in 1960, when I was 5 years old. I don’t have many memories of her, except she made great homemade jam.
My mom used to cry every time she heard Connie Francis sing “My Yiddishe Momma,” and I remember as a child not understanding this. I do now: my grandparents were not Tevye and Golde, but were probably more likely Tzietel and Motel, and I still tear nearly every time I see parts of “Fiddler on the Roof.”