This past weekend, instead of knitting, I worked on a couple of alternative craft projects. One was constructing this banner from a Paper Source kit:
Lesson: Washi tape will hold UP a banner, but not for as long as you need it to.
I also made 70 name tags from a family tree on a spreadsheet, and placed a catering order with Zabar’s. (This involved at least as much math as grading a sweater pattern. How many people does a platter serving 15 serve? What if there is also fruit salad, vegetarian mezze, and three kinds of cake?)
I did this because I was expecting around 70 people for family reunion brunch on Sunday.
Here’s my name tag, as a proud member of the in-law contingent. I never knew my father-in-law, Paul Bergmann, but I knew one of his two sisters, Ruth, and I am still privileged to know one of his first cousins, Ann Dorzback, who is 96, or as her children put it, “going on 97.”
This is Ann:
Ann left Germany in 1939, when she was 17, after Kristallnacht. She was one of the youngest members of a large Jewish family in Laupheim, Germany. The German Bergmann family started with two brothers, Josef and Anton, who migrated to Laupheim around 1870, from Chotebor, a Czech town not too far from Prague. Josef and Anton set up shop as wigmakers and hair dyers. Eventually they lived in a two-story house, each brother’s family occupying a floor. There were 11 children altogether, of which one was Ann’s mother, Elsa. Elsa told Ann that as a child she made little distinction between cousins and siblings, all living together in that big brick house next to the wig factory and across the street from the Jewish school.
This is the side of the house, with the school in the background. Ann’s mother, Elsa, is at the far left.
We were getting together, really, because Ann is the last of her generation of first cousins, who all remained quite close even after they emigrated, by various ways and means, to the United States in the 1930s, as things went from bad to worse for Jews living in Germany. Everyone wanted to celebrate Ann and hear from her.
In a family that keeps its story, in a very detailed way–the word “obsessive” comes up– we all thought we knew the story.
Although we knew that the Bergmanns came to Germany from Czechoslovakia, the Czech part of the story is misty. Anton and Joseph had siblings that stayed in Czechoslovakia. They too were in the wig and hair dyeing business. The German and Czech families did business together, and met up for family gatherings. But when the bad times came, the link was broken. The German cousins, who had been so close in Germany, reconstituted their connection in the United States, but lost track of the Czechs.
After this brunch was on the calendar, through a series of the kind of coincidences that happen to relentless researchers like Ann, Ann found out that Olga Bergmann Grilli, a younger cousin from the Czech line, whom she’d last seen in the 1940s, was still alive. Not only was Olga still going strong, but she wanted to attend the brunch with her children. Ann lives to make this kind of connection! She added a few slides to her power point, I made a few more name tags, and we were good to go.
Sunday afternoon, while Ann was doing her sound check in my living room and early Bergmanns were starting to wander in, a pretty lady, bearing a giant floral arrangement and surrounded by tall children, appeared at my door.
This is Olga:
Olga and Ann sat together, smiling and holding hands and catching up. I bustled around with the lox and the bagels.
When everyone was full of lox and chocolate babka, Ann gave her presentation, full of wit and lively detail as always, but New & Improved: Now With More Czechs! We learned that Olga was the granddaughter of Josef and Anton’s younger brother Wilhelm, who had stayed in Czechoslovakia.
We also learned that in 1939, when Olga was 10, her mother put her on one of the now-famous kindertransport trains organized by Sir Nicholas Winton, which took her from Prague to safety in England. Olga’s mother and sister later died in the Holocaust.
You could have heard a pin drop. Until now, the family narrative that I have absorbed over the years has been of escape, of loss that was outpaced by luck. What a terrible, terrible thing, to have to think of as fortunate.
(For a short history of how Winton, a 29-year old stockbroker, happened to rescue 669 children instead of going on a ski vacation, this 2014 piece from 60 Minutes is excellent.)
Olga then spoke, telling her story very briefly. When she got to England, she lived there for some years. (I want to know more about this time.) The kindertransport had gotten her out of Czechoslovakia, but if she was ever going to be reunited with family members in the United States, she needed a ticket to get there, and she had no money. She told us that a cousin in London was kind to her, made her lots of nice dinners, and when it was time for her to go to America, the cousin paid her passage, and took her to a tailor to get new clothes made for the journey.
Someone called out, “What was the cousin’s name?” Olga replied, “Lore.” My brother-in-law asked, “Was it Eleonore?” Yes, it was Eleonore, nicknamed Lore, who had left Germany for her education, and at that time was a young woman, practicing medicine in London and putting up relatives who were in transit.
Eleonore was my father-in-law Paul’s older sister. Ruth’s sister. Ruth had gotten her teenage cousin Ann to New York, also after Kristallnacht, by sponsoring her, which involved considerable moxy for a newly-arrived 21-year old. The story of Ruth asking her (new) boss for the (considerable) amount of money she needed to show on her bank statement in order to qualify to sponsor her cousin, is an oft-repeated one in our family. (He gave it. Don’t worry, Ann Dorzback tracked down his children, too, who hadn’t known this story about their father.) Every time I think of it, I feel proud to have known Ruth. Now we learned that Ruth’s sister Eleonore had provided similar help to this little cousin, Olga.
Eyes were dabbed. Emails of Czech cousins were added to the Spreadsheet of Love. The story continues. How can you not try to live up to such examples?
I didn’t get much knitting done, but I feel like my weekend craft project turned out pretty well.
Photos by Sam Hollenshead