Last summer my mother, Florene Weitz, and I had the honor of visiting my great-great- grandmother’s grave. There were no stones placed on the headstone as no one has visited her since 1942. It was a beautiful cemetery that has been slowly restored by a non-Jewish local woman named Rita Vaivos. We met Rita at the cemetery and I asked her why she is spending countless hours by herself in the Jewish cemetery restoring and hand painting each headstone. She responded, “Because there are no Jews left to do this.”
The cemetery is illuminated with color. Rita scrapes and hand paints the Hebrew letters on each headstone in a rainbow of colors telling me that she is fulfilling OUR tradition.
Florene Weitz and Beth Katz in Jurbarkas, Lithuania - 2012
The headstone of my great-great-grandmother, Risa Gittel Freyman, is in a cemetery in Jurbarkas, Lithuania—or in Yiddish “Yurburg”—adjacent to the town’s mass murder site and mass grave. My mother and I had brought our blue Temple Chai Yizkor book and said Kaddish for her and for all the others who possibly haven’t had Kaddish read for them in 70 years.
We were able to locate Risa’s headstone because my mother had a photograph that had been taken in 1935 of family members standing next to Risa’s gravestone in Jurbarkas. After my great-grandfather came to America, his mother Risa died. His sisters and family in Lithuania wrote to say, “We need money to pay for a proper burial for our mother.” My great-grandfather sent the money and the family sent back a photograph of her grave to show him how the money had been spent. Seven years later, those family members left behind in Jurbarkas were killed by the Nazis and buried in the adjacent mass grave.
We also said Kaddish in the Polish cemeteries of Wysokie Mazowieckie and Ciechanowiec where my grandfather’s family was likely buried. I say likely because Jewish headstones were frequently taken and used for building materials such as foundation walls and wheels after the Jews were gone. There are no caretakers there and the headstones are now reverting back to field stones.
I need to take a step back and tell you how we got here. My family was watching the NBC show “Who Do You Think You Are?” which follows some of today's iconic celebrities as they embark on personal journeys of self-discovery to trace their family trees. My sons Bennett and Brett asked me if I would make our family tree. I thought...how hard could it be when Ancestry.com has those shaky leaves giving you all your hints?
Florene Weitz and Beth Katz with Polish Tour Guide Graznya Rychlik - 2012
I then spent endless hours on JewishGen learning more about the shtetles and the history of the areas through the Yizkor books. I participated in the Special Interest Group (SIG) chats and the JewishGen Discussion Group to learn more. After a few months of tracing the Freeman/Freyman family to 1750 Lithuania, I got hooked. I now have 2200 people in the Weitz/Katz tree and it has transformed from just being about “my” family to something much greater. We now have connections with new family from around the world who were also wondering “who they were, where did they come from, and who else am I related to?”
We found our amazing Polish guide Graznya Rychlik through JewishGen. She served not only as guide but was an incredible researcher, helping us find our Polish roots.
It was an honor and also a rite of passage to visit Lithuania and Poland. By creating this family tree I learned so much about the history of European Jewish life. This roots tour was an illumination to the sacrifices my family made by coming to America but also opened my eyes and heart to the Yiddish family names still in my tree where the branches end.
My friends and family wanted to hear details about each discovery every step of the way so… after overcoming fear of grammar and brevity I decided to tackle it by starting a blog, typing only with my thumbs on my iPhone. I blended my sense of humor and tears as I texted on the tour bus and in the hotel rooms. As of now, almost 4,000 people have viewed my blog from everywhere—from the US to the Republic of Korea! Here is a starter link to my blog: http://walkingmylineage.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/it-means-nothing-to-me/
Phoenix, Arizona, USA
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