When I came to live in Israel fifty years ago, and even before that on my occasional visits to the country, my father equipped me with a typewritten list of names and addresses of relatives. I dutifully visited most of them, and so I got to know the numerous cousins of my parents, but mainly those of my mother.
It seems that back in pre-WWII Germany many of the descendants of the eight children born to Elias Hirsch, who was himself born in the small Polish town of Gollub in 1785, and Miriam Jakob-Koski, who was born in Mattebuden in 1786, lived first in western Poland and later in eastern Germany, in and around the region known as Silesia. The various generations of the Hirsch family seem to have succeeded in running small businesses, being able to maintain their families in relative comfort.
The development of the railways enabled the families who were scattered throughout the region to visit one another, and these periodic visits were highlights of the family routine. The faded photographs my mother brought with her when she left Germany show well-dressed and well-behaved children enjoying their annual holiday in the countryside, or even swimming in the river on the outskirts of Sprottau, the town where my mother’s family lived. One of her cousins, who stayed with them every summer, told my sisters and me of the hide-and-seek games they used to play in the house, the fun they had in the surrounding countryside and the kindness of my grandparents (whom I never knew), who would always send her home with a pair of new shoes from their shoe-shop.
My mother’s parents, Max Hirsch and Paula née Jacobson, were second cousins, and theirs was not the only marriage between those two families. Between them Max and Paula had seventeen siblings, and all of them seem to have been on good terms with one another. In the event, most of those families managed to get out of Germany in time, though scattered all over the world, and a fairly large proportion of them ended up in pre-State Israel. Whenever my parents came to Israel, whether on a visit or when they moved here permanently after my father’s retirement, the meetings with those cousins were always a source of enjoyment.
And so, on my visits to the relatives who were just names and addresses on the page my father had given me, I found individuals who in many ways were very similar to my mother. Sometimes we found communication difficult because neither my German nor my Hebrew were fluent, and neither was their English. But they were all welcoming and friendly, and I knew that I could always find a good meal, and ample coffee and cake, in their homes. These were my mother’s cousins, as well as her sister, and it was comforting to be able to ‘touch base’ with them, though the exact nature of how we were related was not always clear to me. Today I have an extensive graphic family tree that I can refer to and see how everyone is connected.
Over the years the older generation has gone the way of all flesh, and now it is my generation that bears the torch of maintaining the family ties. However, because everyone has their own family and various occupations and concerns, we don’t manage to get together very often, and in fact this tends to be only on occasions such as weddings, bar-mitzvas, etc., when it’s not so easy to sit down and chat in comfort.
So when one set of cousins decided to invite the current generation (most of us by now in our seventies) to mark their move into the modest house they had inherited from their parents and had spent two years renovating, bringing it to a standard of comfort and aesthetics that is a joy to behold, some twenty of us were able to get together and share experiences, admire photos of grandchildren, recount tales of activities and interests, and renew our common bond. Without much ado we found ourselves at ease with one another even though we hadn’t met for several years. Some backs were a bit more bowed than they had been and some knees more stiff, but on the whole we seem to be holding up well, enjoying life, finding new spheres of interset in our retirement and reveling in the achievements of our grandchildren. Our chronological age is one thing, and the way we feel and behave is quite another.
Silesia, the part of Germany where our ancestors lived, was annexed by Poland after the war and the entire German population banished. The place names were changed, so that Sprottau is now Szpratawa, for example, and the only language that is spoken is Polish. Yes, you could call it a kind of Transfer, I suppose.
As the evening wore on, I looked around at my second and third cousins and wondered what our grandparents and great-grandparents would have thought of our reunion. I hope they would have been glad to know that the connection and affection between us is still clearly in evidence in this very different time and place, that we still subscribe to their values of hard work, honesty and decency, and that we are proud of our ‘yekke’ heritage.