In the 1970s, a handful of Jewish genealogists and amateur researchers began making copies of the extant birth, death and marriage records from Soviet-bloc countries. They found tattered volumes in cramped German, Russian, Hungarian, or Romanian handwriting, and they sometimes had to pay bribes to be given an hour or two to photograph everything they could find in neglected back offices and storage rooms.
Those pioneers and subsequent volunteers eventually indexed almost everything they recorded, and they have supplemented it with ongoing projects to translate yizkor books, catalogue still-standing cemetery headstones, and facilitate the exchange of genealogical information among descendants.
All of it is now available through the JewishGen genealogical association. Thanks to them, three generations after most of our ancestors were killed or forced to flee our European homes, it’s possible, from the comfort of a personal computer, to search hundreds of thousands of records in seconds.
When you search for Holdengraber, the earliest records all come from Câmpulung and the communities surrounding it: Suceava, Gura Humora, Vatra Dorna and other villages, shtetls, and hamlets within a day’s journey.
If the rarity of the surname weren’t enough to prove we share a common ancestor, then that fact should. Everyone born with that name – or descended from someone born with it – shares that place of origin and fits somehow into our extended family of, at this point, ten generations.
We know that our story – at least as much of it as history will let us glimpse at the individual level – begins in a Romanian village at a moment the Austrian Empire found itself briefly ascendant.
From there, we can trace the divergent journeys of at least 1200 individuals, some who saw first-hand the horrors of the 20th Century, some who made their way to a just-born state of Israel, some who found refuge in far-flung Jewish communities around the world, and some who flourished to one degree or another under the opportunities of the United States and Canada.
The earliest of the JewishGen records for Romanian Bukovina start in the 1850s. Each one gives a snapshot of an individual or a slice of a family, but it’s hard not to feel something incomplete in every case.
We have to assume the accuracy of each record – we have to assume that the families gave information to the best of their ability even though there are a handful of clear errors – but the inconsistencies and gaps stand out.
It doesn’t take long to notice, for instance, that most of the children in the earliest records were born “illegitimate.” According to the state, their parents were not married, largely because they’d have had to pay a registration fee in order to make legal what Jewish law had already sanctioned. Some subsequently made their marriages official, but that oversight is a glimpse into the larger context.
Our ancestors did not trust the state that was making the records that we now have. There’s a disconnect between the lives they must have led and the little we can see of them. I think sometimes of the homes they must have kept, of the jokes, teases, songs, and stories they must have told each other, and of the meals they must have worried over, cooked, and shared around tables nicked and worn into one kind of story of their shared lives.
That flavor of their daily lives is gone, and it’s irrecoverable except in the vaguest way.
I know, though, that Israel and Sara (née Pichler) Holdengraber walked into the Câmpulung courthouse on June 15, 1896 to legalize a marriage that went back at least to the early 1870s when their first children were born.
To them, it must have been a chore outside their lives, at best a bureaucratic obligation and at worst a reminder of the extent to which they remained semi-foreigners in a town where – if I am reading everything right – their great-grandparents had spent most of their lives.
To us, it’s almost all we have left to begin understanding who they were.
It takes a while to read each of the separate records because few of them tell us much in a vacuum. My great-great-grandmother Chane Kelner, for instance, gets recorded on different occasions as Chane, Chene, Chajne, Cheine, Chayna, Cheene, Chewa, Channa, and – for the birth record of her granddaughter Susi Schapira – Ruchel.
She appears almost like a whisper in the birth record for her son Simche. We have the child’s name, “Holdengräber, Simche,” and then his parents, Israel and Chane, “Maiden surname” Kelner. There’s a birth year of 1871 and almost nothing else.
The record confused me at first. My grandmother had given me what she thought was a complete list of her aunts and uncles. Long as it was – four sons and four daughters – Simche wasn’t on it.
I compared that first record, though, to another, a marriage record that, despite some confusing elements, I soon realized referred to my own great-grandparents.
My grandmother told me her mother’s name was Bessie Fischler. On November 16, 1905, Sosie Fischler married Simche Leiser Holdengreber in “Kimpulung.” Despite the slightly different first names, it became clear that “Sosie” and Bessie were the same person. (My grandmother and her sister would already have been born, and it’s likely that Bessie was even then pregnant with her last child, Morris.)
As a result, it also became clear that the mysterious Simche of the first record was actually my own great-grandfather. While we had known him as Louis or Leibisch, he turned out to have had the given name of Simche.
Yet another record, this one for my grandmother’s older sister Chane (whom we knew of as Anne) gives his name as Simche Leib, which confirmed my sense that most people referred to him by his original middle name.
I hope the details aren’t too confusing, but it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by them.
As a bottom line, it took crossing the three records for my great-grandfather before I could recognize him as the same man whom my father grew up with in a two-flat apartment in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood.
And it wasn’t until I had reached all of those conclusions that I could go back and apply that realization to understanding what I can about his mother, Chane Kelner Holdengraber and the many children she had.
It takes that kind of back-and-forth to make sense of each record, and there are roughly 400-500 records that refer to one or another of the extended Holdengraber family.
So, yeah, it’s easy to get lost in the details. And I have.
But things have started to come into focus, and I feel, for the first time, as if I can tell some chapters of the family story that we forgot more than a century ago.