Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Family Heritage: A Rosh Hashanah Tribute

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.”


  1. That is the story of me; Alan Abramowitz. Robert and I met in Hebrew Educational Society sleep-away camp (H.E.S. for short) in Bear Mountain State Park. That entire adventure deserves a blog of its own.
    The first day upon entry in our bungalow all the teenage boys made a mad dash for the bunk beds. New to sleep away politics, I realized immediately in a quite panicky state, that the race was for the best beds for various personal and hierarchical reasons. I saw Robert as a harmless guy even shorter than I. This was very important in teenage power plays. I rushed to the lower mattress on his bunk and asked if I could sleep there. I’m sure Robert was amazed that I asked this. To this day I’m kidded about this request.
    So Robert and I became good friends at 15.
    The mindblower came three years later. I was researching the family tree and decided to interview my maternal grandmother Ethel Allweiss. Her maiden name was Winitz. She gave me a list of relatives all over the world including a cousin Benjamin Francos. In the 1930’s he came to visit her in the Bronx and borrowed some money. She never saw him again. I thought “how many Francos’ can there be in New York”?? And is my friend Robert a relative?? The phonebooks gave a clue. Most Francos’ were Spanish or Italian and there were very few; 3 to 6 in each borough. Robert dismissed this as too fantastic. Nevertheless he mentioned this to his father Leopold. He too thought it was too ridiculous.
    And there the issue remained for 5 years. Suddenly quite unexpectedly, Robert gave me a wallet size photo of Benjamin. I showed the small black and white to grandmother. She confirmed it as her cousin Benjamin.
    We were related but how? Benjamin Francos was married twice; my grandmother had told me. Was the connection through the wives or through Benjamin himself? Years later the final jigsaw piece fell into place. You see Weintraub was Winitz. Jews living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire lived among Germans and Poles as well as Hungarians. In German areas some Jews retained the name Weintraub meaning a wine merchant. Others traveling into Poland or as my grandmothers family Ruthenia (western Ukraine) translated the name into Polish…Winitz. You can see the word ‘”vine” as the root embedded.
    So you see, Robert and I are 5th cousins.

  2. Actually, Benjamin was married four times, I believe, by the time he died. His wives would die (for example, my grandmother died of a stroke when my dad was a young teen), and he would marry another. The last one, which is the only one I met, died in the very early '60s. Needless to say, I don't really have any memory of her. As for Alan being my cousin, that was too priceless a coincidence, no matter WHAT the "times removed." Though, to Alan's face, and just to annoy him, I will continue to deny it...otherwise, he may still ask for that money back, LOL!