|Joseph, his lovely family and me.|
Tuesday, March 1, 2016
The first thing I wanted to confirm was if Bronya and Frima were really buried in Philadelphia, as they had passed away in New York. Joseph confirmed that their graves were in Philly. So I flew there with a plan: my dear hosts Avivah and Gabriel Pinski would pick me up at the airport and kindly take me to the cemetery and then Joseph's house. And that's what happened.
During the 45-minute drive from the airport to Shalom Memorial Park cemetery, Avivah, Gabriel and I introduced ourselves to each other. I soon understood that my hosts were very much into genealogy, and that Gabriel also had Bessarabian ancestry - which always helps.
As we approached the cemetery, I feel uneasy. Following the map and directions sent to me by the cemetery's office, it took us about fifteen minutes to find the location of the plot. Soon after I located the back of the grave with the inscription "Fishteyn". I gasped instead of saying "found it!. Avivah and Gabriel followed me. It's not a small tombstone and was all written in Russian. Luckily Gabriel can read some Cyrillic and told me their sad, and somewhat sardonic epitaph: "That's it..." Frima was born in 1928 and died in 1997. Bronya was born in 1929 and died in 2001. I put a stone on the grave, took some photographs, and headed for Joseph's house. I noticed that another stone had been placed on the Matzevah. Later, I found out it was Joseph himself who had placed it there.
Joseph welcomed me like family (although we never discovered if Arianna is related to me; she may be related to the Fishteyn side of the family after all). His five grandkids played in the house as the rest of the family slowly started to arrive. At some point, there was a full house. Soon a table and chairs were opened up and we all sat down to a generous spread of Russian food, going from herring to shish kabob - and cognac and Bulgarian wine. Delicious, to compensate what I was about to hear.
Joseph's wife, Arianna, was the only relative Frima and Bronya had in the US, so they came to her as soon as they got there in 1990, with the help of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). However, Joseph already knew them from Czernowitz, so he could tell me about their life there. They lived in a small house, one went to college and studied accounting. Frima had a chance to get married, but her father disliked the financial position of the groom to be, and forbid the wedding. Frima and Bronya never got married. They survived the War just like Joseph's family, fleeing east to Mid-Asia. Their mother, Surke Tolpolar (my grandfather's sister), is buried in Czernowitz.
Bronya and Frima managed to sell their house before leaving for the US. The buyer asked for two days to give them the money, but they had to leave immediately. The sisters asked a friend to receive the money for them and send it to America. That never happened, as we know from Raia's testimony.
Joseph also confirmed they never received their belongings from Czernowitz and that they indeed lived in a basement for five months - his basement. But it turns out this place was made into a comfy room with beds and a bathroom, and Joseph's own family had lived there before. Joseph gives me some new facts: Bronya and Frima had a relative from Caracas, Venezuela, a lawyer with the Barsky surname. Upon their arrival, already in their 60's and penniless, they asked for his help. He sent them a US $ 1,000 check with a note: "this is my last mail, don't count on me anymore".
Bronya and Frima never learned English, never worked, and lived in poverty, with financial aid from SSI (Supplemental Security Income), and they could barely get enough to eat. Nevertheless, during their ten years in Philadelphia, they managed to save a little. And they spent it all on only one thing: a place in the cemetery. But why did they die in a nursing home in NY? Because, at the time, it was the nearest Russian speaking nursing home.
At some point Frima was in a coma and on life support for years. Arianna and Joseph would visit them about once every 2 months, but at some point, Joseph could not see her anymore. "They didn't let her die" he said, referring to the impossibility of turning life support off.
Joseph finished the way he started: "The sisters were very unlucky, never had anything good in their lives". And then he showed me their picture. It's the first time I saw Bronya and Frima, and to my surprise, Bronya hauntingly resembles my father.
It's already 7:00 PM, I'm tired and trying to digest this unfortunate story about my cousins. Would their lives be better had they stayed in the Ukraine? I feel bad, I feel like hugging them if they were still alive, I can't take my eyes out of their faces printed in the photographs. I go to bed thinking of them and about Joseph's latest concern. He feels the youth of today is losing connection with family, he sees his grandchildren in their kindles/computers/iPhones all the time, unable to establish a human, more direct, relationship. He tells me "Cassio, you should not spend so much time and energy with the dead. You have two kids, you should think more about the living."
Well, that is the closest I will ever get to these two direct cousins. And the funny thing is that it probably never crossed their minds one day somebody from Brazil would make the effort to look for them, that a relative thousands of miles away was actually thinking of them and giving value to what they were and represented.
Next day I have the Mamaliga Blues screening at the Main Line Reform Temple. I thank Avivah and Gabriel for following me into this journey of family discovery. It's been a very busy weekend.