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Communication is key
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Communication is key

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Placing a stone on cousin Tillie’s tombstone at the Chudnover section of the Talmud Torah Cemetery in Newark, I said, It’s Sharon, Benny’s daughter…Surah (my namesake) and Nachman’s granddaughter. I just made my yearly trek and visited their graves in the row behind you. You cousins certainly stayed close, even in death.

As my son Moss walked around the Charles Kimmel building at the Maplewood Jewish Center on Rosh Hashana, carrying the Torah dressed in all its glory, I touched my siddur to your name, so that when I brought it to my lips, I kissed the Torah, and you, for helping to establish my family in America. 

When my grandfather got off the boat just over 100 years ago, he headed to his cousin Tabl (who took the name Tillie in America). Finding that bit of information came from the various census records I was able to accumulate. The key to the family links came from a small scrap of paper in my aunt’s dresser drawer. 

Our connection was rather close, yet with my grandparents gone before I was born, and not yet a teenager when Tillie passed away in 1965, I cannot recall ever meeting her. Her mother Rose was the sister of both my grandfather’s mother, and my grandmother’s father.

Grandpa Nachman (Nathan) had come to America, leaving his pregnant wife (expecting my father) and young son Morris in Chudnov, Ukraine. His wife — who was also his cousin — known as Surkah by some, Surah or Sarah by others, arrived with their two young sons the following year. 

My paternal grandparents Nathan and Sarah were first cousins to each other, as well as to Tillie. As new immigrants, they were deeply involved in each other’s lives. The next generation, composed of her five children and my grandparent’s six children, apparently got together often, before life went on and there was a disconnect.

When my husband and I asked our parents to record their family histories, we saw how much they either never knew or had forgotten. It took some ingenuity to gather the family tales I had heard since my childhood, which I repeated at Tillie’s graveside:

While I never knew you, Cousin Tillie, the adventures of your life in America always fascinated me. That’s why as my father stood at your grave, the first year I ever visited it with him in the early 1980s, and the stories flowed, I’m so glad that I had the foresight to videotape his words for posterity. 

The tales were colorful and as we continued the video session at home, some of the details were off-color. You were a real character.

Eventually, I found and met two of your granddaughters living in New Jersey. Cynthia came to Moss’s bar mitzva in 2007 at the Maplewood Jewish Center and I was able to point out the memorial plaque with your name, not realizing at the time that there was a holiday Torah cover bearing your name. The inscription says “Pres. in Honor of Dr. M. W. Weinstein by Mrs. Tillie Gollin” and all I know is that Dr. Weinstein was the synagogue president and you were a first cousin to both of my paternal grandparents. 

My father, his older brother, and their sister often repeated stories of Cynthia’s father, Monte, the eldest son interred next to Tillie, who suggested to my father that he work for the post office. Yet their contact appears to have ended with Monte, for I only knew Cynthia’s name from that lone paper in my aunt’s drawer. 

I actually found Cynthia after reading her grandnephew’s birth announcement in the New Jersey Jewish News in 2001, simply by remembering her mother’s name and the scrap of paper my aunt saved, showing Cynthia’s brother’s name…the paternal grandfather.

My Uncle Morris met his wife at Monte’s house and truth be told, he had a crush on your daughter Sadie. There are remembrances of your other three children, Smitty, as the family called him, and Rose, who both lived in Maplewood, and Fanny, who died so young.

A perfect season to reflect and remember, I will contact your sister Clara’s son on Long Island, your sister Sheindl’s granddaughters, and your granddaughter Cynthia to tell them about my discovery on Rosh Hashana. That for sure will breed more stories of your life in the 20th century in America.

Without my recorded remembrances, you may not otherwise have had a legacy. That’s one more reason I wrote a book, the draft of which I presented to my children this year for their respective birthdays. It took me four months to write and five years to get it to the point where I am ready to publish. A family saga interspersed with how-to’s, with humor and poignancy, leaving out the lashon hora, it encapsulates who you were and the story of our relationship, along with all of my children’s other ancestors, including your own descendants. 

Seeing your name on the Torah cover, I discovered a new side of you. I also gathered another way of teaching others how to find more clues about their family members not suggested on popular genealogy websites.

While I never knew you, if it weren’t for you, would I be here now?

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