Jewish Genealogy from the Shtetl to the Holocaust and Israel

    April 2010            
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Schmuel Lieb Hiller and family in Gritse Poland


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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 genealogical process.

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 new generation.

Shtetl Life

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 Jewish culture.

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.”
    —Antoni Sionimshi,
    “Elegy for the Jewish Villages”

Grojec, Poland

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.

Holocaust Period

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.

Hiller Siblings

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 Hiller.

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 of reburying.

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.

Israel Connection

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 Holocaust.

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

    “Liz Shalom:
    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.
    B. Miller
    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:


from the April 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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