By Phyllis Mindell
When my mother left the shtetl of Jaworow in 1925 to go to America, her family and friends gathered for a farewell event at which they signed a blue velvet autograph album and added their names to a list of guests at the event. Participants in a flowering of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe, they signed in five languages – later another friend and my father signed in English. The album traveled, along with postcards and other documents, with her to New York and later to Brooklyn. When she died in 1989, the album moved to my home and later my apartment in Washington, D.C. It won little attention until I trained to be a guide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and decided to have it translated and printed as a memento.
Three questions guided my quest: What fates awaited those who signed the guest list? What did they write in the album (translated to English)? How do the postcards, photos, and documents illuminate the album and other aspects of my mother’s biography?
What started out as a simple effort to answer these questions about the little 90-year-old album grew into an extensive, costly, frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful venture, one which I was notably ill-equipped to pursue. Not that I wasn’t capable of writing: I take some pride in knowing not only that my four published books met critical success but that my editor used to call me the “fastest gun in the west” because my manuscripts arrived on her desk so quickly. No, I had no idea how to pursue this particular project. So, after nearly four years of work, several translators, two computer helpers (to compensate for my computer illiteracy), thousands of dollars in consulting fees, it dawned on me that there’s no book here. So the unfinished product is posted, with humility, here on the web for those who seek to glean something or add one of the missing pieces.
So, yes you gaze upon a failure. And yet…
A joyous failure. This most difficult intellectual task, this abject failure of a document, brought much joy as the facts unfolded, as the lost were found, as the links connected. From the muck of confusion emerged the name and photograph of the little brother who died, the only known document written by my mother’s beloved grandfather, the amazing stories of friends who emigrated and had distinguished artistic lives, the precise names and addresses of places my mother spoke of. Missing details sometimes turned up on postcards or old notes. This part of the job reveals the excitement of the historian: imagine finding the exact address Bronia was looking for on her first day of work on a postcard mailed to her from Paris! Or the name of the cafeteria listed as “inaudible” on the transcript in handwritten notes from a conversation. Or coming across an old photograph (below) of three children and realizing that they are Bronia, her sister Anna, and Shlomo, the little brother who died of cholera.
All of these artifacts can be found on this website, and I encourage you to share them with friends, family, community members, historians, academics, and whoever may be interested.
The brief biography of my mother (which can be viewed here) synthesizes what she told me, what research unearthed, and what can be gleaned from a tape recording made when she was in her 70s by my cousin Marion Mohl. Where possible, names and other specific information missing on the transcript have been added; I’ve also moved some of her words around and undertaken minor editing. Wherever they appear, her exact words are italicized. Missing details sometimes turn up on postcards or old notes. This part of the job makes one understand the joy of the historian: imagine finding the exact address Bronia was looking for on her first day of work on a postcard mailed to her from Paris! Or the name of the cafeteria listed as “inaudible” on the transcript in handwritten notes from a conversation. Or coming across an old photograph of three children and realizing that they are Bronia, her sister Anna, and Shlomo, the little brother who died of cholera.
The saddest failure is the quest to learn the fates of the guests. Because 90 percent of the Jews of Poland were murdered by the Nazis and their allies, we must assume that most of those who didn’t emigrate did not survive the war. My parents learned that Bronia’s beloved Dauermann grandfather and grandmother were shot in the Jewish cemetery when the Nazis came to town. Two Dauermanns signed the album, one of whom was that loving grandfather, Yehoshua. That entry alone brings him back into our lives.
Those who wrote in English and other friends, Nathan and Sheva Ausubel, Max Wohlberg, and Sol Gross (my father) emigrated to the United States, where they lived long and fulfilling lives. Nathan Ausubel became a scholar and chronicler of Yiddish literature and folk tales; Sheva (whose postcard from Paris is included here) was an accomplished artist; Max Wohlberg was a renowned cantor and composer whose works are sung in synagogues all over the world. Sol Gross’s delightful letter to the grandchildren is added here to preserve his version of the family history in his own distinctive voice.
Thanks to Eric Goldwein, whose sweet temper blends journalistic skill with infinite patience for my computer failings and who guided this job to its current state, Nicholas Smith, who undertook the job of organizing information and images from many sources into a single form; to Grazyna Zareba, who translated the Polish entries; to Lotti Einhhorn, who translated the German entry; and to the cousins who helped flesh out dates and names.
If you’d like to get in touch, send a note to phyllismindell [at] gmail [dot] com. Thanks for visiting!