My father who is no dad stereotype, whose million voices are the cacophony of comfort I crave, whose long letters I receive with deepest joy, whose stories I carry in my clenched fists, whose laugh lines and ruddy cheeks I wear, whose affinity for wit and laughter and empathy I strive to reach, whose creative and abundant spirit is bound up in kindness and love and the same crippling nostalgia as my own. I love you to the moon and back and back and back.
Grandma Lillian’s mother Clara was a Reznikov, or Reznikova, the female version of the name. We know she came from Elisavetgrad, which was renamed Kirovograd in 1939. Clara was born about 1894, and had a much older brother named David Reznikov who was born around 1872. She also had a sister whose name we do not know, and possibly a brother named Rubin, who may have traveled to South America and was killed in a May Day parade — or so the story goes. We do not know if this is true.
Clara’s sister had four children. We think this sister (whose name could have been Minnie) died of tuberculosis in Russia. Her husband brought the four children to New York to live, where he apparently remarried and had another child. If I could find out her first name or better yet her married name, that would open up a whole new limb to the family tree, as I might be able to trace her four children: Morrie, Gertrude, Helen and Joey. Gertrude married and she and her husband went back to Russia in the 1930s for political reasons; my grandma assumes they were killed. I have a series of photographs from 1928 when Clara and at least three of her children, including my grandma Lillian, went to visit these nieces and nephews before visiting her other nephew in Rochester. This nephew was Jack Ross, the son of David Reznikov, who changed his name to Ross when he arrived in Canada. More on them soon.
There is some hint that perhaps Clara’s sister’s married name was Drubachevsky but I have never been able to trace this and do not even know where this came from. It’s my hope that one day, I will be able to find out their last name and trace the descendants of Morrie, Gertrude, Helen and Joey.
What I do have is an incredible photograph of Clara’s sister and mother along with the children. I see the family resemblance strongly in both Clara and Clara’s mother, whose bone structure is similar to mine.
Here are the photographs from 1928 of Clara visiting her sister’s children in New York. Do you recognize these faces?
Note: In writing this post, I have discovered that just last year, Kirovograd became Kropyvnytskyi. According to Wikipedia, Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko signed a bill “banning Communist symbols on May 15, 2015, which required places associated with communism to be renamed within a six-month period. On 25 October 2015 (during local elections) 76.6% of the Kirovohrad voters voted for renaming the city to Yelisavetgrad. A draft law currently before the Ukrainian parliament would prohibit any names associated with Russian history since the 14th century, which would make the name Yelisavetgrad inadmissible as well. A committee of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) chose the name Inhulsk on 23 December 2015. This name is a reference to the nearby Inhul river. On 31 March 2016 the State Construction, Regional Policy and Local Self-Government committee of the Verkhovna Rada recommends to parliament to rename Kirovohrad to Kropyvnytskyi. This name is a reference to writer, actor and playwright Mark Kropyvnytskyi, who was born near the city. On 14 July 2016, the name of the city was finally changed to Kropyvnytskyi.”
Mysterious, dark-eyed, great-grandma Rose, the much beloved mother of my grandpa Hy.
Of my four great-grandmothers, I probably know least about Rose. She died in 1950, when my own mother was only four years old, and the stories faded with time. Here is what I know: She loved to sing, as did my grandpa and his brother Art. I even have a fuzzy recording of her singing in Yiddish. She was born around 1892 in Russia and arrived in Chicago about 1911, likely in the footsteps of her older brother Harry Sherman, who opened a successful car dealership in Chicago. There are stories too of a brother who traveled to South America and was killed in a May Day parade.
Here is what I think I know: Her maiden name was Sherman, or Sheefman. Her father was named Ari Lieb, but perhaps his name was Pireus Sheefman — the father’s name listed on her half-sister Leah’s death certificate. Leah’s grandson Gordon, who is nearly 90, told me the family name was Sheefman, and that Rose’s mother was named Casha. She was the second wife, after Leah’s mother — whose last name was Shactman — passed away. Sheefman, Shactman, and then Sherman.
Gordon told me that Rose and her family were from Kalinoka, a shtetl near Kiev. My great-uncle Art had told me that Rose was from Zhitomir. This is where it gets a bit confusing, as Zhitomir is both a town and an oblast (or province). I have been unable to locate a town called Kalinoka, but I have been able to find a town about halfway between Zhitomir and Kiev called Kalinovka, also called Kalynivka. JewishGen has a series of websites called KehilaLinks (“kehila” is another word for “shtetl”) and I was able to find quite a bit of information about Kalinovka, even if I can’t exactly locate it on a map. Gordon traveled to Kiev a handful of years ago and drove through Kalinoka/Kalinovka.
But here is the very disheartening news:
After all these years of not knowing exactly where we are from, I’ve been handed the key to finding out what became of our relatives—and it is not happy news. In the summer of 1941, the entire Jewish population of Kalinovka was murdered by German Nazis and buried in a mass grave.
Apparently there were some Jews who left Kalinovka for Tashkent in early 1941. According to one witness:
“All the Jews were killed in a mass grave, except one young woman who survived. She was buried under the dead bodies of fallen victims. Miraculously she stayed alive. Naked she ran to the nearest house where she was sheltered by a local Ukrainian family. She was somewhere between 15 and 20 years old. She managed to survive Nazi occupation hiding in a Ukrainian home till the end of the war.”
Yad Vashem lists the names of Kalinovka residents who were killed—I do not see any Shermans or Sheefmans, or any Gelfonds (Leah’s husband’s family), so it’s possible that our entire family was able to leave, and that Rose’s parents had died prior to the second world war. Let us hope that is the case.
Back to Chicago: Rose must have married Jacob Foreman in 1912, shortly after she arrived in Chicago—but we don’t know how they met. Their first son, Morris, was born in May 1913, and their second, grandpa Hy, was born in April 1915. Jacob worked as an automobile glazer in the Ford factory and became ill with “black lung”; a doctor told him if he continued to work there, he would die. But the family was poor and Jacob kept on working until he died in 1922, when their third son was only seven months old.
Rose was forced to put her two older sons, including my grandpa, into an orphanage for a time. I wish I knew more about this time in my grandfather’s life, but I never asked him explicit details. At age 7, he was on the streets of Chicago selling newspapers. He never breathed a word of discontent against his mother for having to put him into an orphanage. He loved her fiercely and protectively, and was heartbroken when she died in her sixties from cancer.
Rose remarried Max Lomonosoff in 1936, who was known affectionately in the family as Grandpa Nuss. After the war, they moved to California with the entire extended Brodsky-Foreman clan and settled in Los Angeles. Today they are buried in the Hollywood Forever cemetery. She would be tickled to know she is sharing real estate with Marilyn Monroe and Rudolph Valentino.
My great-aunt Annie, born Anna Brodsky, became Levine in 1941 when she married Harold, an enchanting, handsome lawyer whose family ran a booming luggage company. It was a faerie tale for the littlest of the Brodsky-Reznikova clan who, according to legend, didn’t speak a word until she was six. But just a few months into their marriage, a bomb dropped on Pearl Harbor and Harold clamored to do right by his country. He joined the Marines and went off to training in San Diego before he was shipped overseas to the Pacific.
Annie and her sister, my grandma Lillian, moved in together in Chicago, with their two young daughters, Susan and Robin. The details of their everyday lives are recorded in the daily letters my grandma sent to my grandfather, who was stationed in the south: what they fed the girls for dinner, when they could afford new bed linens, which grandparent they visited with over the weekend. As anxious as both women must have been with their husbands away, I can’t help but think how wonderful it might have been for the little girls to have each other and for the sisters to go through it all together.
But the faerie tale had no happy ending for Annie. On July 22, 1944, when his daughter was 16 months old, Harold Levine was killed on the beaches of Guam, 7,364 miles away from home. Annie received the news on Monday, August 14. No one would believe it. Not his parents, not his wife.
Harold’s death lingers in our family. It feeds a story of lost love, of lost hope, of neverending grief. It’s hard to explain what that generation in my family was like — my grandmother, her brothers, her sister; my grandfather and his brothers. All of them, and all of the children, and all of their parents, would vacation together, would supper together, would trade kids for the summer and go on road trips. Harold’s death must have felt like a hole drilled in her center, for her whole life. She married twice more, and her third husband was an extraordinarily kind, gentle soul who was with her until the end. But the work she had to do, compared to her sister, must have felt unconquerable.
When I was growing up, my great-aunt was a fanatic for health food and yoga, long before it was en vogue. My favorite memories of us are on the wide deck of my parents’ backyard under the mulberry tree, cross-legged on towels, her always dressed immaculately in draping white, teaching me to straighten my back and telling me over and over again to breathe.
I started this iteration of my blog (and corresponding instagram @instagrandma_100) as a daily ritual to remember and honor the women from whom I came, and to share their stories. But I wouldn’t have stories (or grandmothers) without all the fathers too. So today I share a letter fragment from my own beloved and exceptional dad, who made the startling point that I am “the next daughter” after dear Agnes and Margaret, both of whom died as children in 1911 and 1912. His own father and mother had only the two boys, and my father’s brother had no children of his own—only a son through marriage. His mother’s three siblings died in childhood, never married or had no children of their own—again, one son through marriage.
So it was my father and mother, seventy years after the last little girl died, who brought the next O’Connell daughter into the world.
Will and Alene would, if they were omniscient, be pole-axed at the idea that the only modern-day (and next) daughter of their family would be the one family member to visit their baby girls after 105 years. Sweet old Alene would gather you to her capacious bosom for sure!
In memoriam of the O’Connell girls and who they might have grown up to be, and to the mother and father who loved them.
Today I visited my great-aunts Agnes and Margaret, both of whom died in childhood.
They are buried in the children’s graveyard at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. The sea of graves crowned with cherubs and lambs broke my heart, and I read every name as I walked through the rows searching for my girls. I met a man who feeds the cemetery’s feral cats and is followed by a murder of crows — birds so black and glossy they look cartoon. I told one stalking me to at least be useful and lead me to my O’Connell babes.
Finally I found them, a few rows away from where the nuns are buried.
The engraving was unlike any other I saw and I wondered if my grandfather, who was an artist in addition to a lawyer, had done the lettering himself, decades after his sisters died.
I spent a solid twenty minutes with a spray bottle and a toothbrush, uncloaking the stone of its chartreuse lichen and giving the lamb back its face. I don’t know who last visited their resting place, and my father has never seen it, but it’s been a good thirty years, if not much much longer.
When I visited my family in Ireland last year, cousin Ted told me it’s family duty to clean family graves. So here I am, in 2017, carrying on the Irish tradition of my ancestors in a Catholic cemetery in California.
Meet my great-grandma Alene, or Lena, or even sometimes Aileen. Born to the Wallace family in Essex, Ontario, Canada, in 1877, she and her sisters pursued medicine; her sister Margaret was one of the first female doctors ever, but more on her later.
Alene was a nurse in Hot Springs, Arkansas, when she met my Irish great-grandfather Will O’Connell, recovering in a hospital after more than a decade of prospecting and silver mining in the Yukon, Colorado and Utah. They eventually settled in San Francisco, at 588 Jersey Street in Noe Valley, and had two beautiful little girls, Margaret (b. 1907) and Agnes (b. 1909). But tragedy struck, and both girls died in childhood. My great-grandfather never recovered from the loss, and his son—my grandfather William Wallace O’Connell—felt haunted by the absence of his two sisters.
In a recorded history he made for me in those precious few years between my birth and his death, my grandfather said:
“My mother had a more philosophical mind. Of course it was a very great loss, a great sadness to her, but she had a child to care for — a son. And she also had a nice sense of fun. So I grew up in a cheery enough household, as far as my mother could keep us together…and keeping a stiff upper lip.”
It is also largely due to Alene that I have so much information on her side of the family, as she kept notes on birth and death dates, catalogued photographs and letters, and wrote names on the backs of photographs. I like to think she knew I’d come along sixteen years after she died and pick up the story where she left it.