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Always Out There,
But Never Known To Me
By Elizabeth Ruderman Miller
Who were my ancestors? Where did they come from? What
were their occupations? Where is my extended family? As I
took this wondrous adventure of trying to bring my roots to
life, I realized that you can gain strength from your heritage
with the knowledge you gather each time you ‘meet’ another
ancestor or family member. We are custodians of
our family’s memories. It is our responsibility to
pass along the stories which we discover by means of the
I love being a detective. Perhaps, I missed my true
calling. Then again, I may not have appreciated the process
years ago. Not having been a jig-saw puzzle fan, I may never
have enjoyed the fascination of assembling the pieces and
solving the mysteries of my genealogical hunt. When I did
become preoccupied with the search for my families, I felt
NOTHING would interfere with the discovery of clues and
evidence which would solve my family mystery.
I do, however, want to warn readers that not everyone
contacted will have the same exuberance about finding
unknown family members. Although disappointing, you
must respect their decision. At first, I found it difficult
to accept a NO. You are not going to entice everyone or
change their minds. Yes, you will have holes in your Family
Tree. It’s their loss, not yours.
I am fulfilling a dream by leading you through my
exploration to find my family members who were always out
there but never known to me until I undertook the journey
of a lifetime. In the process, I found new family friends
and the history of those whom I, unfortunately, will never
meet in person. These connections to our family I will pass
down to future generations, so that their place in our story
will not be lost again or forgotten.
When I embarked upon this genealogical quest in the
summer of 2006, I had no idea of the successes that I would
amass by 2009. I had an insatiable interest in the historical
time period of my ancestors. I know that the next time I see
‘Fiddler on The Roof’, I will view the story through more
personal eyes. Little did I dream that what I believed was a
very small ancestral line would become the extended Family
Tree which has grown and continues to flourish with each
A shtetl was typically a small city, village or town with
a large Jewish community which was located largely in
Eastern Europe. Shtetls were primarily found in the 19th
century Russian Empire’s restricted Pale of Settlement and
in the Kingdom of Poland. It was in these villages, now lost
to history, that the remarkable culture of the Ashkenazi Jews
flourished until its demise during World War II.
Most residents were poor, superstitious and resistant to
change. They followed Orthodox Judaism despite outside
influence. Their Yiddish language became synonymous
with the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European shtetls.
Many of our thoughts invariably drift to scenes from
“Fiddler on the Roof” as the quintessential story of life in a
19th or early 20th century shtetl. While there was music and
dancing, the townspeople were tailors, butchers, fishmongers,
shopkeepers, peddlers and dairymen, who worked long, hard
days just to sustain their poor lives. Each shtetl was led by a
Rabbi who was respected by all Jews in the community.
Shtetls operated on the idea that giving to the needy
was not only to be admired, but was essential and expected.
The problems of those who needed help were accepted as a
responsibility both of the community and of the individual…
on earth, the prestige value of good deeds is second only
to that of LEARNING. The rewards for benefaction are
manifold and are to be reaped both in this life and in the
life to come.
As summarized in “Pirkei Avot” by Shimon HaTzaddik’s
‘three pillars’: on three things the world stands. On Torah,
on service (of God) and on the acts of human kindness.
It is this Tzedaka or charity that remains a key element of
While wealth was a secondary status, learning and
education were the ultimate measures of worth in the shtetl.
A hard working person was admired in the community, but
he who studied was considered most valuable of all.
My Ruderman ancestors resided in Kraysk or Kraisk
– now part of Belarus, then it was in Lithuania. With a
mere seven hundred residents, this was certainly one of the
smallest of the shtetls recorded in the First All Russian
Census of 1897. There are few records in existence for
Kraisk, none the less, I do hope one day to discover my
great grandfather’s occupation. I would assume, however,
that he may have been a butcher, farmer or dairyman, as my
grandfather was a butcher for most of his life in America.
On the other hand, the Bornstein and Hiller families
lived in the larger, more thriving community of Gritse,
today’s Grojec, Poland. Thanks to the stories left by my
grandmother, Annie, and grandfather, Sam, I have a clearer
picture of the lives they led in Gritse.
Bornstein Brothers Passport Picture 1920
Grandma Annie (Chana Yetta) and her mother, Bubba
(Grandma)Dina Borensztejn were skilled with a needle and
thread. They created beautiful table cloths, towels, and the
like. Grandma Annie told stories of how she and her mother
had a ‘push cart’ which they took from town to town, and
from which they sold their wares. Grandpa Sam Hiller’s
brother became an expert leather craftsman, carving saddles
and other leather objects.
It was Grandpa Sam, along with Grandma Annie’s
brother, Abe (Abram) who aspired to become scholars. I
know that my grandfather would have loved to become a
Rabbi, spending his days debating the aspects of the Torah
and the Talmud. When Sam and Abe fled the horrors of the
pogroms in Russia and Poland, they knew they would need
a skill in order to survive in their newly adopted country. I
remember when I was a child how Grandpa Sam continued
to visit the Synagogue in Paterson, New Jersey several times
per week to pray and study with other immigrants.
“Gone now are those little towns, where the
shoemaker was a poet, the watchmaker a
philosopher, the barber a troubadour. Gone
now are those little towns where the wind joined
Biblical songs with Polish tunes and Slavic rue,
Where old Jews in orchards in the Shade of
cherry trees lamented for the holy walls of
Jerusalem. Gone now are those little towns,
through the poetic mists, the moons, winds,
ponds and the stars above them have recorded
in the blood of centuries the tragic tales, the
histories of the two saddest nations on earth.”
“Elegy for the Jewish Villages”
Grojec (Gritse in Yiddish) is a small town in Poland. Jews
were permitted, to reside there and were recorded as early
as the census in 1754. The Jewish community numbered
1,719 in 1856 (68% of the total population), 3,737 in
1897(61% of the total population) and 4922 in 1921 (56%
of the population). On the eve of World War II there were
approximately 5,200 Jews living in Grojec.
With the entry of the German army on September 8,
1939, terrorization of the Jewish population commenced.
On September 12, 1939, all men between the ages of fifteen
and fifty-five were forced to assemble at the market, and
from there marched on foot to Rawa Mazowiecka, about
thirty-seven miles away. Many were shot on the way.
During the spring of 1940, about five hundred Jews from
Lodz and the vicinity were forced to settle in Grojec. A
ghetto was established in July, 1940, and the plight of the
Jewish inhabitants drastically deteriorated. They suffered
from hunger, epidemics and the lack of fuel during the
winter of 1940-41. About one thousand Jews from nearby
locations were brought to the Grojec ghetto that January.
On February 23 and 24, 1941, about 2,700 of the Jews in
Grojec were deported to the Warsaw Ghetto, where they
shared the fate of Warsaw Jewry. The Grojec ghetto was
liquidated in September, 1942. About 3000 surviving
Jewish inmates were deported to Bialobrzegi (a small town
on the Warsaw-Radom highway), and from there were all
sent to the Treblinka death camp. In Grojec itself, only three
hundred Jews remained, 83 of whom were deported after
some time to a slave labor camp in Russia near Smolensk,
where almost all were murdered. The last two hundred Jews
were executed in the summer of 1943 in a forest near Gora
Kalwaria. After the war, the Jewish community in Grojec
was not reconstituted. Organizations of former Jewish
residents of Grojec were established in Israel, France, the
U.S., Canada and Argentina.
Only one of my mother’s cousins survived the death
camps during the Holocaust. After the liberation of
Buchenwald, seventeen year old Benjamin Hiller came to
the United States to his uncle, my grandfather, Samuel
Grysk, Kriesk, Kraisk?
GOOGLE is a wonderful tool, but doesn’t do the
trick all of the time. In the case of trying to find my
paternal grandparents’ shtetl (the Russian village in which
they had lived), I couldn’t find anything resembling the
spelling Grysk, which appeared on my Grandfather Morris
Ruderman’s Declaration of Intention for
Immigration. Trying JEWISHGEN.ORG, I was able
to conduct a search for a surname or search
for a town. I revisited the JEWISHGEN.ORG website
countless times during my three year search. For Jewish
genealogical research, it is invaluable.
Grysk turned out to be Kraysk, which was the spelling
of the tiny shtetl (village) formerly in the Uyzed (district)of
Vileika in the Gubernia (province) of Vilna which in the days
of the 19th century was part of Lithuania. Prior to 1842,
the Vileika District belonged to the Minsk Gubernia. Since
World War I, the spelling of the village is primarily seen as
KRAISK, and now is part of the province of Byelorussia in
what is now Belarus.
I began with the understanding that the Ruderman
family lived near Minsk. KRAISK is much closer to the city
of Vilna/Vilnius, which had a thriving Jewish community,
and was often known as ‘the Venice of Eastern Europe’. At
the first all-Russian census of 1897, Kraysk had a population
of under 700, with slightly over 500 Jews. Joel Ratner,
Vilna District Research Coordinator for JEWISHGEN.
ORG answered my email with a statistical analysis of all
towns in the Vileika Districk with a population in excess
of 500 person for year. The book from which this extract
was taken was originally published in French, and the shtetl
appeared as Bourgade Kraisk.
January 2008 was the month in which I would contact
a Russian man who would provide many answers about
our family’s little shtetl of Kraisk. After discovering the
Jewish Heritage Research Group of Belarus
online, I began corresponding with its director, Yuri Dorn.
His email, dated January 20, 2008 thanked me for making
the contact and explained that his organization was, indeed,
familiar with Kraisk. Just months before my first note, the
local authorities of Kraisk built a new road through the
town. Unfortunately, the road was too close to the old Jewish
cemetery, which was located on a hill. After completing the
road construction, the cemetery began to slide down the hill.
Yuri added, “One person who merely drove by noticed this
and called us. We went there right away to investigate the
situation. What we saw was a gravestone already laying on
the road. We counted 48 tombstones in that cemetery.”
This disturbing news was intensified after a response
from a considerate Russian woman named Tatiana, whose
grandmother appears to be the only Jew residing in Kraisk.
Tatiana forwarded three pictures of the Kraisk cemetery,
including that of an exposed human skull in desperate need
Tatianas picture from Kraisk cemetery
It was obvious that this was one of the hundreds or
thousands of Jewish cemeteries which were in desperate need
of repair. Yuri noted that the majority of Jewish records for
Kraisk are prior to 1858 and that there were only random
records after that date, among which are: a revision(census
list) from 1874 and 1886; a list of male conscripts (draftees)
during 1862-1889; a list of tax papers from the latter part
of the 19th century and some foreign passport applications
from 1898-1905. It was during the years when the Russian
Czar allowed Jews in the country. Later, in 1836 Jews were
allowed to purchase land. According to census records, the
population consisted of 100% Jews at that time. The main
occupation of Jews of Kraisk was agricultural rural settlement
which was part Of the Vilna Gubernia. Unfortunately, there
are no formal records to tell the history of this shtetl.
Returning to JEWISHGEN.ORG and performing a
town search for the shtetl, Kraisk in Belarus, I retrieved six
researchers who were interested in the same community. This
didn’t appeared very promising. Six researchers represented
only ten surnames, none of which were my last name of
Ruderman or Cohen. I emailed each one of them and
received a note from all but one. Low and behold, the
person who was looking for a Ruderman in Port Jervis, New
York also appeared on this list from Kraysk, looking for the
surname, KASDIN, which was unfamiliar to me.
In the mid 1960’s, our family had a visit from Tuvia
Hofnung, mom’s cousin from Israel. He spoke very broken
English with a heavy accent, and I recall being aggravated
by his personal campaign to encourage all American Jews to
live in Israel. I was a teenager looking forward to my college
years, and I had no designs on traveling out of the country
yet, let alone volunteering in the Israeli Army.
Following the death of my Dad in 1983, I agreed to
accompany my Mom on a two week visit to England and
Israel. My insatiable interest in ancient history had not yet
evolved. Since I had been a Theatre Arts major in college, I was
more interested in seeing some British theatre productions.
Not only were we to visit our Israeli relatives, but we
would spend time with old family friends from Pennsylvania,
who were raising their Orthodox family in Jerusalem. I was
fascinated as I compared and contrasted the religious vs.
Zionistic views of this tiny country which was so often the
center of contention regarding world peace.
I had seen pictures of my twin cousins, who were the
daughters of Tuvia and his wife, Yaffa. Ora and Sarah were
a few years older than I – both were married and also raising
young families. Regardless of their very limited knowledge
of English, their children were learning the language in
school and assisted us with Hebrew/English translations
during our conversations. We ‘broke bread’ with our family
at their home in Tivon, and it was on that evening that I
learned about Tuvia’s connection with the fight for the State
of Israel, his earliest journey to Palestine and the fate of his
family in Poland.
Sarah Borensztejn, sister of Chana Yetta, Ruchel and
Abram Borensztejn, married Arie Hofnung and lived in the
shtetl of Gritse, Poland. The surviving Borensztejns, children
of my great grandparents, Dina and Tuvia, remained a
close-knit group even after immigration or deaths, (as was
the case of several sets of twins, stories told to me during
my youth by my Grandma Annie); most probably, my
twin cousin, Sarah was named for her grandmother, Sarah,
following Jewish tradition.
Arie, Sarah Hofnung with children Tzira, Menachem and Tuvia
Sarah and Arie Hofnung had four children. At fifteen,
looking to escape the atrocities in Poland, their son, Tuvia
journeyed to Palestine. After his initial stay, he returned
home to encourage his parents to bring his siblings to the
Holy Land. When they agreed to join him, Tuvia traveled
back to his newly adopted home. I couldn’t help the feeling
of intense pride and gratitude which I felt for Tuvia, when
I learned that he had been a brave member of the Haganah,
the underground military organization prior to the
establishment of a Jewish homeland. Tuvia fought beside
the likes of David Ben-Gurion for the statehood of Israel. I
did find it a bit odd, however, that at the dinner table, along
with Tuvia, Yaff a, their children and grandchildren, was
his former girlfriend and compatriot who had shared many
of the war experiences, nodding her head in affirmation
as the stories unfolded. When I chose to question certain
specifics about his experience during this turbulent time,
I was informed that certain information was better left
unsaid. This type of secrecy is perhaps why the Israeli
intelligence has such a worldwide reputation.
The Haganah was founded in June 1920 in Eretz Yisrael
(the Jewish homeland to be established in the general area of
Palestine) as an independent defense force completely free of
British authority. In the beginning, the Haganah defended
larger towns and settlement. After the Arab riots of 1929,
the design status of the Haganah changed dramatically.
It became a large organization encompassing nearly all
youth and adults in the settlements as well as several
thousand members from each of the cities. It initiated a
comprehensive training program for its members and ran
officers’ training courses. The Haganah established central
arms depots into which a continuous stream of light arms
fl owed from Europe while simultaneously, laying the basis
for the underground production of arms.
As a result of the British government’s Anti-Zionist
policy, the Haganah supported illegal immigration and
organized demonstrations against the British policy.
After the outbreak of World War II, the Haganah did
head a movement of volunteers from which units were
formed to serve in the British army. It cooperated with
the British intelligence, sending members on commando
missions in the Middle East. Jewish parachutists dropped
behind enemy lines in 1943-44. All the while, the Haganah
further strengthened its independence by instituting basic
training for the country’s youth. Haganah branches were
established at Jewish displaced person camps throughout
Europe. Members accompanied the ‘illegal’ immigrant
boats. During the spring of 1947, with the preparation for
an impending Arab attack, David Ben-Gurion took it upon
himself to direct the Haganah general policy. Finally, on
May 26, 1948, the provisional government of Israel decided
to transform the Haganah into the regular army which is
today the Israel Defense Forces.
The German army overtook Gritse on September 12,
1939. One of Grandpa Sam Hiller’s nephews was the first
person shot and killed while he was crossing the street.
This was verified by my cousin, Benjamin who was the
only member of either side of my family to survive the
Sadly, the Hofnung family was unable to depart Poland
before their capture by the Germans. It’s unclear as to the
year of Sarah Borensztejn Hofnung’s death, but I suspect
that she died prior to her family’s apprehension. This
deduction is based on my discovery of THE PAGES OF
TESTIMONY, records located in the Central Database of
Shoah Victims’ Names at YAD VASHEM, in Israel. In
memory of his family who were murdered in the Shoah
(Holocaust), Tuvia had submitted four pages – one each
for his father, Arie, his brothers, Moshe (born 1913)
and Menakham (born 1926) and his sister, Tzira (born
1916). The material does not include the year of and place
of death, and my suspicion is that either Tuvia did not have
that information, or perhaps the Hofnung family lost their
lives from hunger or an epidemic in the Grojec ghetto.
After Tuvia Hofnung’s death, Mom had been out of touch
with his family in Israel. Through The JewishGen Family
Finder, I visited the page looking for any researchers who
were interested in the town of Grojec, the Polish spelling for
Gritse. I sent several emails to people in Argentina, Germany,
France, Canada and received the following uplifting
I found your family in Tivon. They were very
happy to hear from you. They promise me
to contact you. I spoke with Ora… one of
the twin girls. (supplied address and phone
number) Good luck, and I was happy to
help you. By the way, we may have a family
connection? I see you married a Miller. With
my best regards.
Haifa – Israel
The following morning, I received an email from Ora’s
children whom I had met in the mid 1980’s with my Mom.
Anat and Ran were now both married with children. We
continue to chat via email and telephone. Anat became
my family genealogist, supplying me with the entire Israeli
family Tree, which, I’m happy to say, continues to thrive.
From Elizabeth Ruderman Miller's new release, How Will I Know Where I'm Going, If I Don't Know Where I've Been? For more information visit: www.howwilliknow.com
from the April 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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