My grandmother, Chaje Fayga Kurlander
My mother’s mother was born in Tykocin in 1893. She left for America in 1907 at the age of fourteen with Russian identity papers that indicated she was of average height, had auburn hair, and was of the Jewish faith. Her father’s name was given as Arie. With the surname Kurlander might her father’s family have come from Courland in what today is Latvia? I have encountered no record of other Kurlanders in Tykocin.
Chaje set off for America from Tykocin by horse and wagon loaded with a small trunk filled with her clothes, a quilt, and some personal belongings. The first leg of her long journey was to Bialystok. At the slow pace she travelled along poor roads the trip to Bialystok may have taken five or six hours. Surely her strong-minded mother Lebe and perhaps even her other-worldly father were with her in the wagon. From Bialystok she boarded the train to Warsaw and then from there crossed the entire continent to the port of Rotterdam all alone, as far as we know. There, on August 17th, she boarded a modern Dutch steamer, the Ryndam, as a steerage passenger headed for the Port of New York. It is not hard to imagine what Chaje must have felt at the edge of the great sea, very likely a mix of fear and excitement as she first set her eyes on that immense ocean liner that would carry her to a world she could only imagine.
The Ryndam docked in New York harbor on 26 August 1907 after ten long days at sea. 1907 was the peak year for Jewish emigration to the U.S. Chaje seems to have traveled alone on the steamer, as there are no other family members listed with her in the ship’s manifest, which is the way the manifest is set up, family by family. Maybe her mother arranged for a friend or acquaintance also emigrating to New York to look after her during the long and presumably daunting journey. Did her parents know then as they kissed Chaje good-bye at the railway station in Bialystok that they would never see their daughter again?
Times must have been very hard for a mother and father to send off all their children, but one, a handicapped son named Jozef, to such a faraway land. America: the dream destination. But how important could America have been to a fourteen year old girl at the price of leaving her mother and father, her sister and brother, her friends, and the familiar world of her little town which she called Tiktin in Yiddish like all the other Jews? Chaje was the third Kurlander child to go, following in the footsteps of two of her brothers, Chaim and Moishe. She may very well not have known that she would be reunited in New York with her younger sister Mindel again in three years. And how must Mindel, the youngest one, have felt, then left behind with an old mother and father and a handicapped brother, all the rest of her siblings in America?
Times were bad, but Chaje’s mother could never have even conceived of how unspeakably horrific things would become for the Jews of Tykocin in the summer of 1941 when the Germans invaded eastern Poland. I encountered her name on a list of murdered Tykocin Jews compiled for the 55th anniversary memorial of the massacre as the wife of someone named Jozef Smurla. Her name was spelled Liba Kurland, probably as a result of the vagaries of transliteration from the Yiddish or Cyrillic characters. Her son Jozef from her first husband was also listed as murdered. Chaje’s father had died many years earlier, in 1915. There is a burial record for a man with the name Arie Kurlander in the Cmentarz (cemetery) Farny in Bialystok.
It is apparent from the only photograph of her that remains that Chaje’s mother Lebe was a tough, strong-minded woman, seemingly carrying the burdens of the world on her shoulders. She managed her own textile dyeing business to support the family, as her husband, virtually non-existent in family memory, made an occupation of prayer and religious study until he passed away in what must have been his mid-fifties, a moderately long life span in those days in places like Tykocin. Very likely the lugubrious photo of Lebe was taken after she had already sent two sons and two daughters off to America before the First World War, had lost her husband at the beginning of it, somehow surviving in Tykocin with a handicapped son to care for. Sometime after that she married Jozef Smurla, the man described as her husband in the list of victims. But she appears not to have had any children from him. Lebe was probably around 45 when her first husband died. We don’t know when she remarried, probably as soon as possible, for she surely needed the support a man in the house could offer. But too late for more children. In any case, why would she want more children if she had sent all but one of her own to America and was just barely getting by? Lebe had sent her second daughter Mindel in 1910. Mindel had $12 in her pocket, or at least that’s what she declared when she arrived in the Port of New York. By that time there were two brothers already in New York City as well as her big sister Chaje. Mother Lebe continued writing to the girls until 1941 and they to her, putting a few dollars in each letter sent to Tykocin. On August 25th she and her son along with over 1500 other Jews in Tykocin, the total Jewish population of the town except for a few incredibly lucky ones, were transported to the nearby Lopuchowo forest where they were murdered.
Chaje’s passage was paid for by a brother already in New York, though, as it turns out, she was to be met in New York by someone else, a man named Jacob Pakewitz, listed as a step-brother in the ship’s manifest, and who carried the same name as the maiden name of her mother, originally spelled in Polish as Piekarewicz. There are number of Piekarewicz’s listed among those murdered by the Nazis in Tykocin. It stands that Jacob was more likely a cousin or uncle than a step-brother. It’s odd that he rather than her actual brother was to welcome her to America. What must it have been like for young Chaje to be greeted by someone she may not have ever known and with her mother, father, sister, and brother now so far away? She was not well when she arrived, and was kept in quarantine for a few days at Ellis Island before being released. How scared she must have felt wondering if someone would be there for her, whether one of her brothers would show up to meet her. She spoke no English. She had travelled nowhere before leaving for America. All she knew was her tiny town of Tykocin and also maybe nearby Bialystok. But what could a fourteen-year old girl know about a crowded, cosmopolitan industrial city like Bialystok? Chaje had $7.50 in her pocket upon arrival, or at least that’s what she declared in New York. In today’s money that’s a little under $200. Her train fare from Bialystok to Rotterdam might have cost the equivalent of $15 or $20, and steerage fare to New York about $35 or $40. In today’s money that’s a total of more than one thousand dollars. Her struggling young brothers in New York somehow managed to put together that considerable amount of money for her, and then again for their sister Mindel three years later. That’s what is declared in the ship’s manifest.
Her brothers found her a place as a border with a family named Horowitz from Minsk in a lower Manhattan tenement building teaming with immigrants like her. The clothing industry in New York was overwhelmingly Jewish so it is not surprising that they found her a job in a bloomer factory. Everyone had to pull their weight in those days. As it turns out, in 1917 she married one of the Horowitz boys, who by that time was known by the American name of Harry. Harry was born in 1892 and arrived in the United States one year before Chaje in 1906. By the time she had married, Chaje had already changed her first name to the more American Ida. The photograph of her as a young woman, the earliest one that exists, was taken some years before her marriage at the age of 24. Perhaps she was 17 or 18 then. Ida gave birth to three children: Irving in 1917, Edith (my mother) in 1921, and Marvin in 1926. Edith had three children: myself, the oldest, Marcia in the middle, and the youngest, Laura, who was named after Lebe, her great-grandmother from Tykocin.
Ida became a U.S. citizen only in 1943, the year I was born.
She died in New York in 1976. She never saw Tykocin again after leaving in 1907. She never made reference to having been born in a country named “Poland.” Her official identity was as a Russian. “I was born in Russia,” she would always say. Never Poland. There were Poles, but Poland as such did not exist as a sovereign nation then. Her personal identity was, above all else, as a Jew. She spoke Yiddish as her native language, and then English with a distinctive accent. She may also have spoken Polish or Russian, as did her husband Harry. Chaje was very proud to be an American, an American Jew.
I am the first family member to visit Tykocin since our more immediate family left before World War I. During World War II when my father was away in the navy my mother moved in with her parents. I spent the first five years of my life in my grandparents’ house in the thick of Jewish New York and in an old-world household where Yiddish as well as English, and often an idiosyncratic mix of the two, were spoken. It was only in 1948 three years after the war, when my family had put together enough money for a down-payment on a house of our own, that we moved to the suburbs of New Jersey. It was only then that we really separated ourselves from the world of the old Jewish Pale of my ancestors and made the giant leap into the American “Melting Pot.”
My grandmother’s Russian passport brought her to America and was, in a way, my passport back to Tykocin and the world once that of my family. The original passport is now in the collection of POLIN, the Museum of the Jewish People in Poland in Warsaw and in electronic format in the Synagogue-Museum in Tykocin.
Alan Duben October 10th 2016