How I Discovered My Rabbinic Ancestry
by Arthur Kurzweil
I looked dejectedly at Rabbi Israel, but continued a general conversation about my research. He, too, had the hobby of genealogy, and he showed me some of the material he had collected on Chassidic families. Since he was showing his collection, I decided to show him what I had brought with me. I gathered whatever I had concerning the Gottlieb family and showed him pictures and other documents. One piece of paper in particular interested him. It was a piece of stationery, with a letterhead that read, "Bistritz Vicinity Aid Society." It also had my grandfather's name on it listed as financial secretary. I had found the stationery in my grandparents' apartment.
Rabbi Israel looked at and told me that there was a man in the neighborhood who was from Bistritz. He was known as the Bistritzer Rebbe. Rabbi Israel suggested that he might be able to help me. Handing me his phone, Rabbi Israel looked up the rebbe's phone number and told me to call him. Thinking back on that morning, I'm glad I was forced into it. I doubt very much that I'd have the courage to call a rebbe myself. It's not something that I'm accustomed to doing. When I dialed the number from Rabbi Israel's home, a man answered the phone. He asked me if I could speak Hungarian and I said no. I asked him if he could speak English and he said "A little." I told him that I was a grandson of Zalman Leib Gottlieb from Bistritz, and I asked him if he might have known him. He told me that he knew Pinchas Gottlieb. Pinchas was a brother of my grandfather and I was excited to hear that I was speaking to a man, a rebbe, who knew a great-uncle of mine. I also knew that Pinchas had been killed in the Holocaust.
The rebbe asked me to come to his address which was just a few blocks from where Rabbi Israel lived. I quickly left Rabbi Israel after thanking him for his help. I was disappointed by what had happened, but was distracted by my imminent visit with a rebbe.
When I arrived at the address, I was surprised to be at a synagogue. I expected an apartment or a house, but there I was standing at the steps of a synagogue with a sign in Yiddish announcing it to be the Bistritzer synagogue. The rebbe came to the door and asked me to come in.
At that moment, what I entered was not just another synagogue run by another rabbi, but a different world from the one I had known. The shul was a room, a square room, crowded by benches and long tables, books spread upon them. The room was dimly lit, tallisim hung in several spots around the place, and I stood there for a few moments taking it all in. It was unlike anything I had ever seen, except in photographs of shtiebles in Europe. And then I knew that I was in a shtieble, just like the ones my ancestors prayed in, and the fact that this one was in Brooklyn and that my ancestors were in Europe made no difference once the door was closed. The rebbe was an elderly man, bearded of course, and slightly bent from age. Yet he was very quick and his eyes were bright. His face was serious, but friendliness came through. He asked me to sit down, and I did, at one of the long benches in front of one of the long tables. The rebbe said he would be back in a moment. I examined the room from every angle, imagining the activity that must occur each day at prayer times and each Shabbas. What was then a silent room must burst with religious energy, the same kind that my great-grandfather, with his long coat, wide-rimmed hat and beard with side-curls must have had just three generations ago. I was truly in another world and was delighted by this opportunity.
The rebbe returned and we spoke briefly about my family. He knew my grandfather's brother, and also knew he had been killed in a Death Camp. He told me they had studied together. After he had run out of things to tell me, in his broken English, about my family in Europe, I decided to tell him the story of my search for a connection with Chaim Joseph Gottlieb, the Stropkover Rebbe. I told him every detail, like a fool, as if he cared. But he listened with intense interest, asking questions along the way. I concluded by saying that Rabbi Israel had been unable to help me, and I wondered if he remembered whether my family descended from the rebbe.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this whole encounter was the seriousness with which he took what I was saying. He communicated to me, by his questions and his comments, that what I was doing was very important. He never explained why, but continued to indicate this to me. I, on the other hand, wondered if I was taking up too much of his time by talking to him about what I thought must be dead ends. He never once seemed impatient, however; on the contrary, he seemed eager to spend as much time as I wanted in discussing the matter.
One of the additional pieces of information I had discovered along the way was that my great-grandfather's father was named Shlomo. I knew this from the inside cover of my grandfather's Bible where many years ago he wrote brief genealogies of his mother and father. Rabbi Israel was unable to use this additional name for my purposes, but the rebbe seemed interested. He looked through the biography of the Stropkover Rebbe that Rabbi Israel had written, and while flipping through the pages he kept repeating "Usher ben Shlomo, Usher ben Shlomo, Usher ben Shlomo." The rebbe just repeated those names, the names of my great-grandfather and his father, over and over to himself as he looked through the biography. It was obvious that he was looking for the names, but I was sure he would not find them there. A few times while he was examining and reading the biography, a phone in a back room rang. The rebbe was so involved in the biography that it was not until the fifth or sixth ring that he stood up and walked to the back to answer it. Each time the phone rang, the rebbe took so much time to answer it and it stopped before he got there. When he returned to look through the biography again, he seemed happy that he didn't have to talk on the phone so that he could get back to his reading.
In the meantime I just sat there, watching the rebbe continue to read the book and repeat the names, "Usher ben Shlomo, Usher ben Shlomo, Usher ben Shlomo." I sat there staring and looking around the room. My imagination was active during those minutes, wondering what it was like when the room was filled with praying Chassids. Suddenly, the rebbe spotted something on a page. He brought it to the window, since the light in the room was rather poor. He then came back and sat down and said, "Shlomo was the son of the rebbe."
I didn't know what to do. I knew that he was wrong since Rabbi Israel told me each of the names of the rebbe's sons. But I was not comfortable telling the rebbe that he was incorrect. Somehow it just didn't seem right to contradict a rebbe. I decided to say, "Really?" in a confused and doubting voice.
He looked again and said, "No, no, no, no, no." He shook his head in apparent disappointment in himself and sat in silence for a few minutes staring at the book. He then looked and told me that where he was from it was a custom to take a mother's last name rather than a father's. In fact, he said, this was so in almost 50 percent of the cases in his community in Europe. Then he said, "The rebbe Gottlieb had a daughter Gittel. Her husband was Shlomo Zalke." He paused and then said in a deep, confident tone, as if he were making a proclamation, "This is your Shlomo. You come from them and take her last name. This is my opinion."
His remarks sounded final, and he ushered me to the door. There was something unreal about the whole thing, especially the way it ended, but the rebbe seemed absolutely convinced that his opinion was right. When I left, I looked at the biography and reread where it said that the rebbe's son-in-law was named Shlomo Zalke, not just Shlomo. For some reason, the name Zalke sounded familiar. I rushed home and looked again at the genealogy written by my grandfather in his Bible. There it was. He did not just write the name Shlomo, but Shlomo Zalke! I had forgotten about this! It was now obvious. And it was obvious that I was, in fact, a descendant of the Stropkover Rebbe. Everything matched: the names, the dates and even the story about the name not originally being Gottlieb. We had taken the name of the rebbe's daughter rather than his son-in-law. I had finally found the link.
The rebbe in Brooklyn was able to solve the entire issue for me. The fact that my great-great-grandfather, Shlomo Zalke, took the name of his wife, Gittel Gottlieb, explains the fact that Maurice was told the name was not originally Gottlieb. I couldn't wait to call my mother and share the news with her. When I did she was delighted to hear all of my stories. My father, whose family I had researched for seven years, stood by with a smile on his face, as I detailed the generations of my mother's family back farther than I was ever able to get with the Kurzweil family.