Sunday, August 22, 2010

Blurb Received from Elie Wiesel

"The Accidental Anarchist is a profound testament to the power of faith, and to the continued survival of the Jewish people."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Calling all Maratecks

Yesterday I met my cousin Sam Marateck, a professor of Computer Science at NYU. We compared the stories were had heard growing up, and he told me that what his grandfather had said about my grandfather was that you couldn't be in the same room with him without laughing. We worked on drawing the family tree, and I pulled out a list of both phone records and death records listing Maratecks in the U.S. -- there aren't all that many -- and he was able to tell me who most of them were. It turns out that there is one Marateck still in Shenandoah, PA (but as to my question regarding how in the world the family ended up there, of all places -- and my apologies to anyone who lives in what I understand is a beautiful area -- all he could tell me was that it was a Polish area, but not necessarily populated with Polish Jews). I also learned there is one branch of the family in Ft. Myers, FL (we couldn't figure out from which of my grandfather's brothers that family is descended, so I'm looking forward to calling that cousin) as well as in Marietta, GA.There aren't a lot of us, so I should be able to reach most of them.

So if you happen to know of anyone with the last name of Marateck, there's a good chance it's a close relative, and please ask him or her to contact me.

One final observation: Sam and I were speaking of our grandfathers, and there was so much that we didn't know -- about their siblings, who left Poland and who remained and perished, and so on. That's only two generations. If you have grandparents, ask questions; that information doesn't stick around forever.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Found a Relative!

One would think that, after asking my mother so many questions about what happened to her father's brother and sister that she might have thought to tell me that we have a couple of cousins, ironically in New York City, where I am now, and one in Florida, where I was before coming to NY.

The relative in Florida is a professor of computer science at NYU, and I'm looking forward to meeting him, giving him an advance copy of the book, and finding out what family history he knows. (Unfortunately, my grandfather didn't write nearly as much about this brother, who was a Torah scholar, so he won't find a lot in the book about his father, but at least there's something).

But neither he, nor the cousin in Florida, is from either of the other two siblings about whom I have not been able to learn anything. I checked the Mormon database, Shenandoah, PA death records, and what little still exists of Jewish records from Poland. I suspect that the sister, Malkah, and the oldest brother, Mordechai, who saved my grandfather's hide so many times, never made it out of Poland. I just don't understand why my mother knows virtually nothing about this aunt and these uncles (she says it wasn't something that was talked about). None of this makes sense to me, but I'm excited to have the chance to connect with these other branches of the family. It's another way of bringing my grandfather's story to life.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Amateur Researcher, Part II

Since Czarist Russia wasn’t big on gathering, or sharing, information, I haven’t found any resources that identified the location of these prison camps. Most of the time, the camps didn’t even record the names of the prisoners in their custody – at least not at the transit camps. I guess they figured that identifying them would be easier when there were many fewer who survived the entire journey.

There are a few clues in the book, however, to help us figure out where the transit camp he had escaped from might have been. Our story so far:

1) When my grandfather and his partner (and 19 other convicts) had escaped from the camp, they were told (by the guards– do you think they’re reliable sources?) that it was only a five-day walk to the railroad tracks.

2)   Considering that my grandfather had escaped with an older comrade (only in his fifties, but back then that was old) who wasn’t in the best of shape, I assumed that they could only walk about 20 miles a day, which would meant they were about 100 miles from a train station (unless the guards assumed they would cover greater distance in a single day)

3) The camp was either in or near the woods, and they spent the first night deep in the forest. The Taiga? That is the world’s largest forest, so it doesn’t help us narrow down their location.

3) After not having eaten for about four days – their meager half-loaf of bread didn’t make it much past the second day of freedom -- they found an isolated cabin in the woods. The woman who lived there fed them and let them sleep in the barn that night.

5) She described living conditions in this remote area as better than the “real” Siberia, which I interpret, and the information supports this, that she lived in Western Siberia.

6) Her home was not far from a military base where her husband, an army colonel who was sympathetic toward the coming revolution, was stationed

7) The colonel and advised my grandfather and his partner to travel east, toward Asia, rather than in the more predictable direction, west, toward Europe and home; in particular, they had been advised to head toward the city of Irkutsk, about a five-day train ride away

8) No fuss was made about it being a long distance to a rail station, so I presume they were pretty close to one of the stops on the TransSiberian Railway, much of whose construction had been completed by this point (1907)

9) Their “guide” put them on a train facing in the wrong direction, so instead of traveling 5 days east, they travelled 2-3 days west, which put them in the city of Chelyabinsk. (Chelyabinsk is not on the current route of the TransSiberian railroad, however it was on the “original” route, the one in use in 1907.)

10) The distance between Chelyabinsk and Irkutsk is 3388km (or 2105 miles). Thus, the city on which they boarded the train was either 2/7 or 3/8 of the way between Chelyabinsk and Irkutsk, or 968 and 1271km, respectively.
The red line on this map reflects the current route of the TransSiberian railroad, whereas the blue line that connects to the red reflects the original route.
Chelyabinsk was the first station on the original TransSiberian railroad.
11) Using the distances from Irikutsk (since Chelyabinsk is no longer on the same rail line), that means we’re looking for a station 2420 or 2217 km from Irikutsk, give or take

12) According to the distances between rail stations shown in Lonely Planet’s The Transsiberian Railway, the stations at which my grandfather and his partner were most likely to have boarded the train were Omsk (2469km from Irkutsk, or 49 miles off our calculation) or Barabinsk (2150km from Irkutsk, 33 miles off our calculation). Both cities had been founded by that time, although Barabinsk was a much younger, and smaller city, having been founded in 1893 when it became a stop on the Transsiberian railroad. According to Wikipedia, Omsk was the administrative center of Western Siberia in the 19th and 20th centuries; currently, it is the second largest city in Siberia (after Novosibirsk). Given that my grandfather and his partner were on the run, I think it’s less likely that they would have boarded a train in a large city, hence, my analysis leads me to conclude that they boarded the train in Barabinsk.

 Now it’s just a matter of trying to find a labor camp about 100 miles from Barabinsk, but as I said, the Russians didn’t keep records of those things, and I’ve already spent too much time on this exercise (thought more of what I’ve learned may come up in future posts). I hope you'll forgive me if I don't pursue it further.

A side note: Omsk is where my goddaughter and her family lived—briefly—when her husband, a famous Swiss goalie, was recruited to play for the Russians, but then the NHL went on strike, and with all of the American (including Canadian) players suddenly available, most other foreign players were displaced. We had planned to visit them in Omsk that summer, but they weren’t there long enough.