A few years ago, I shared with Queens Jewish Link readers the start of my genealogical journey [Treasures from the Attic, 2013], which recently reached an emotional highlight. To briefly recap, while sitting shiv’ah for my mother a”h in 2002, I was intrigued by the visits of cousins whom I had hardly known. That, coupled with the discovery of a suitcase filled with documents, from my grandfather (my mother’s father passed away in 1966), set me on a course where I have created a family tree with over 2,500 names.
The suitcase that had lain undisturbed for 36 years was a genealogical goldmine. Clearly, my grandfather had a sense of history and wanted the legacy of the extended family to be remembered by a curious descendant, such as me. My grandfather indicated that his wife’s grandparents, Leib and Chuma Honig, my second great-grandparents, had left America to live out the remaining years of their lives in Palestine. Through my research, I was able to fill in some of the gaps in the story and timeline. Leib and Chuma Honig arrived in the United States in 1879 with seven children from Mielec (in Poland). Family lore has it that after the marriage of their youngest daughter in 1899, they decided to move to Palestine. Curiously, Leib became a US citizen in 1899. I can only imagine that was at the behest of his son-in-law, my great-grandfather, Max Jorrisch. Max, I assume, felt it was wise, in advance of living under the Ottoman-Turkish Empire, to be a US citizen. That suggestion proved to be valuable, as in the aftermath of World War I, Max’s wife, Jennie, sent a letter to the Department of State requesting assistance in locating her mother, Chuma, whom they had lost contact with. Through extraordinary measures and multiple inquiries between foreign consulates, they responded that Chuma had passed away some 18 months prior, from “poverty,” in 1916.
In 2004, I contacted the Chevrah Kadisha in Yerushalayim, asking where someone who was indigent would be buried. After some back and forth, they were successful in locating them on Har Chasidim. Leib was niftar on Asarah B’Teves in 1906, and Chuma on the second of Av in 1916. I had tried in vain to locate their graves.
This past Yom Yerushalayim, I was inspired by my second great-grandparents’ aliyah and shared my reflections with the eighth grade girls at Bnos Malka. One need not delve into the political and halachic issues surrounding the State of Israel to agree that we all need to long for the return to Jerusalem. At our core we should all be ohavei Tzion. This year, I was especially moved by the fact that the elderly Honigs, in their mid-60s, left their large family behind to live under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. It is hard to imagine the living conditions and the day-to-day struggle for existence. I tried to impress upon the girls that when they left on that boat to Palestine, they knew they were saying their last goodbyes to their children and grandchildren. (Hard enough to do once in a lifetime, they had done this when they initially left Europe, 20 years earlier).
We live in an age where communication is instant and that one can be engaged with family an ocean away with the intimacy and frequency as if they lived next door. Our only challenge is navigating the seven-hour time difference. I expressed my admiration for the Honigs who possessed such a deep yearning to be in Eretz Yisrael, to willingly go and live under dreadful conditions. I added, to my embarrassment, that the extent of my Tzioni feelings is my posting on social media pictures taken of the Kosel and Machane Yehuda.
This summer, knowing I was planning a trip to Israel, I made a concerted effort to return to Har HaZeisim. I assumed I would not find a matzeivah for either of them. I could only rely on trying to identify the row and plot numbers in the Galicia section. With a tour guide from Har HaZeisim and the register list sent to me from the Chevrah Kadisha, we began the search for any clues that may lead us to the graves. Through some nifty detective work and the clear demarcation of graves that book-end my ancestors, we were successful.
I cannot begin to describe the wave of emotions as I stood and recited T’hilim at the graves of Leib and Nechama Honig. I am quite certain I am the first relative to have been zocheh to do so in over 100 years. Placing a rock on the foot of their kever brought tears to my eyes. I feel it is no coincidence that my search was completed on the precipice of the Three Weeks and days before her 103rd yahrzeit. The kinos that reflect the longing for Tzion and the haftarah of Nachamu, Nachamu Ami, will have extra meaning for me this year. Indeed, I have found nechamah, both literally and figuratively.
By Michael Salzbank