Friday, December 08, 2006
Oytsres: Treasures from my Father's Side.
Digging around the family pictures is one of the more interesting things to do when I am back at my parents' house. I found a bunch of photographs scanned into my father's computer that I had never seen before. Today is the first time I ever saw a photograph of my paternal great grandfather.My Grandmother, Betty Tzarevkan, was born in 1893, in Teleneshti, Moldavia, then part of Russian Bessarabia. Above is her father, who was a rabbi. My great-grandmother was the daughter of a rich textile merchant in Telenesti, and when the marriage was arranged for her to marry a rabbinical student, and not the man she really loved, she fell into a state of depression of almost catatonic severity. This was well before Oprah, y'all. My grandmother is on the left in the photo below. After the 1905 Kishinev (today: Chisinau, Moldova) pogrom, the family fled to Odessa, where they opened a kritchma, or pub. My Grandfather's family was living in Kishinev at the time of the second Kishinev pogrom. My Grandfather remembered that when the pogromchiks first attacked the Jewish ghetto, his brother - part of an early Jewish Defense League - went into the family attic and came out with guns. The Jewish defenders went on the roof and shot down onto the attacking Cossacks. They then fled Kishinev to Odessa. My grandfather actually met my grandmother sometime around 1908 at her father's pub in Odessa, but subsequently moved to Kiev and started a family. That wife abandoned him during the first World war. Or so we were told. My Grandfather, Morris Cohen, was born Moshe Onetskansky in 1890 in Kriuljany, Moldavia, across the river from modern Dubossary. A jeweler by trade, he served as an artillary soldier in the Russian Army in World War One, and was then arrested by the Bolshevik forces in 1919 on suspicion of having hidden jewels from the revolution. While arrested and being marched to jail, he convinced his Russian captors that they needed a drink, got them drunk at an inn, and escaped through the bathroom window. He crossed the Dnyester river on a sled made by freezing his overcoat, only to be arrested as a Bolshevik spy on the Romanian side of the river (Romania had gotten possesion of Bessarabia after WWI). Condemned to be shot, he was saved when the Police Chief turned out to be his brother (he had 11 Brothers...) My Grandfather met my Grandmother in Stefanesti, where she was in prison for smuggling cigarettes (family tradition has it that she took the rap for her sister. Family tradition also had it that she was imprisoned for "illegally peeling potatoes." So much for family tradition.) She recognized my grandfather walking down the street, and since a married woman couldn't be kept in jail, convinced him to marry her. They moved to Iasi and worked to make the money to get to Hamburg, where they spent a year working to get the money for the passage to New York. When they reached Ellis Island, the immigration officials couldn't spell "Onetskansky" so they asked my Grandfather for his "Jewish" name: and so we all became Cohen. They arrived in New York in 1925. Like many immigrant Jews, they immediately joined a landsmannshaft, or burial society, which kept a cemetery reserved for any Jew from their region, but was, essentially, a social club and insurance association. Above, Betty and Morris Cohen , second row right, next to the mirror, at a meeting of the Orgeyver Society, for Jews from the county of Orgeyev (today: Orhei)) in Moldova. Above, a family portrait from around 1937. My Aunt Fran, Aunt Gerry, my father Jack, (in his stickball uniform - great knickers and early punk rock sneakers) my Grandmother, and my Uncle Eli. Stickball is a real New York sport - a form of baseball designed to be played on the street using a broomstick for a bat and a rubber "spaldeen" ball (which is soft enough not to break windows.) Other members of his team included Tony Schwartz, remembered as the only kid on the team who couldn't speak Yiddish. Schwartz later changed his name when he bacame and actor known as Tony Curtis. Uncle Eli, my brother Ron, and Jack Cohen today. My Aunts - both of whom grew into talented artists - have all passed on. Yours truly, Day Camp registration, 1962.