When I first saw this photo in the summer of 2011, I knew almost nothing— I didn’t know who was in it, nor even my grandmother’s maiden name. I figured the older couple was my grandmother’s parents. Were the others their children? Could one of them be my grandmother? And who was the boy in the front row?
My brother Chris and cousin Krysia almost immediately recognized the woman on the bottom left, as our grandmother. With her coquettishly tilted head, her stylish clothes, and her hand resting on her mother’s wrist, it seemed likely to me, too. But I wanted to be sure.
This photo has proven to be an essential clue in my search for family history. Many of the cousins I have met are familiar with the photo and helped me identify everyone in it. In fact, it has helped me establish connections with cousins, and served as proof that we are actually related. When I contacted Pini in Israel, he was skeptical at first that we were cousins. But when I sent him this photo, he responded, “Welcome back to the family.” And he meant it. I feel embraced by the large clan of descendants of my great grandparents, the elderly couple in the photo whom I now know are Hinda (nee Walfisz) and Hil Majer Piwko.
Hil Majer Piwko
And it is indeed my grandmother Halina in the bottom left corner.
Halka Piwko, my grandmother
This photo has led me to living relatives, and back to the time depicted in the image. It helps me see and feel what family life was like back then, and adds depth to my understanding of the dry genealogical facts I have gathered.
Even my uncle Stanley Winawar has spoken to me from the grave in the form of a letter he wrote to Pini in 2002 (just two years before his death) in which he identifies everyone in this photo, and lists many of their descendants as well. One of my regrets is not having started this search sooner so I could have talked with Stanley and others before they died. At least through the letters, I’ve had a taste of the conversations we might have had.
So let me introduce my family:
Starting at the top left, most people identify the elegantly dressed woman as Sara (Piwko) Winawer, Uncle Stanley’s mother. Born in 1880, she was the second daughter of my great grandparents. On a list compiled by my Aunt Pat (probably based on a conversation with my grandmother’s sister Hanna/Nunia), she is described as having “beautiful hair.” She married Saul Winawer in 1899, and they had four children (Nathan, Milton, Stanley, and Paulina). My mom stayed in touch with her aunt Sara in the United States, though she was known in my family as Lusia (apparently no one besides our branch of the family called her that). She died in 1964 when I was 6 months old. She was too sick to visit me, but told my Mom on the phone that she would watch over me from heaven. I only heard this story once or twice when I was a child, but it left an impression on me. I liked the idea of having a guardian angel of sorts. Who knows? Maybe it foreshadowed this search for deeper connections with my mother’s extended family.
Next in the top row is Jakub, the oldest son born around 1874. Aunt Pat says he had four wives, including Helen Esther Kirsten, Genia Ellinberg, and Rozalia Kirsten. She (Nunia?) describes him as blond, delicate, of medium height, resembling his maternal grandfather Natan Walfisz. He was a Zionist and member of the governing board of the Jewish Community of Włocławek from December 1917 until resigning on March 3, 1922. He was also a representative on the City Council from 1917-19 (see virtual sztetl). Jakub died in 1942; by one cousin’s account he owned a small hotel in Otwock and was shot by Nazis for being out on the street after curfew. He had a son Natan who emigrated to Israel and a daughter, Pola.
In a letter to Pini, Stanley (Sara’s son) wrote, “The space missing between Jacob and Liba was obviously reserved for Yona…” Abraham/Abram, the second-born son, was called by his middle name John/Yona/Janas. Born around 1876, Pat (Nunia?) describes him “devil eyes, tall, brunette, liked girls and girls liked him, 6’ 2”-6’ 4”.” He was the first in the family to come to the United States, arriving in New York in January 1906. His wife Bertha/Blima (they married in 1901) followed in May 1907 with their children Nathan, Paula/Pauline, and Ewa. A fourth child, Sarah, was born in New York. Abraham owned a bakery in Brooklyn until his death in 1925.
In the middle of the top row is the oldest child Liba, born around 1872. Aunt Pat’s list (Nunia’s description?) says she was tall, blond, and beautiful. At the age of 17 or 18 she married Jakob/Jankiel Winawer. I don’t know how he was related to Saul Winawer (Sarah’s husband), but some say they were cousins. Liba and Jakob had four sons—Nusen, Sol/Saloman, Max, and Morris. In 1928, Liba and Jakob came to the US, where their three younger sons were living. Jakob died there in 1932, but I haven’t found a record of Liba’s death. Did she die in the US? If so, why isn’t it documented? Could she have returned to Poland, where her oldest son still lived? Could she have died in the death camp at Treblinka in 1942, as some say Natan did?
Next to Liba is Hanna (born around 1886), though everyone in the family called her Nunia. I’ve already written about her, but briefly, she married Stanisław/Samson Cytryn and had one daughter, Teresa. She and Samson lived in Warsaw where they ran a shop that has variously been described as a pharmacy or a supplier of lotions and toiletries. Maybe she was an herbalist and so offered products that crossed the boundary between health and beauty? She took over the shop after her husband’s death in 1927. Nunia spent World War II in Warsaw under the false identity of Maria Weglinska (the name she kept until her death in 1984) After the war, she lived in Paris, and then in 1951 she moved to the US.
Next is Philip/Efraim, described by Pat (Nunia?) as “six foot, blond, pock marked, shy, sweet.” Born around 1882, he came to the US a couple of years after his brother, at the end of 1907. He, too, owned a bakery though I don’t know if it was the same one as his brother or a different one. Philip married Goldie. They never had any children of their own, but they took care of siblings, nieces, and nephews as they immigrated to the US. Many of the cousins remember him as the glue that held the family together in the US. Philip died tragically in an auto accident in 1947 on his way home from Boston.
At the far right of the top row is Rachel, who was born around 1890 between Hanna and Halina (my grandmother). Pat (Nunia?) describes her as shorter than her sisters, with thick thick hair. She married Pinkus/Pinchas Kolski, the widow of her older sister Regina who died giving birth to a son, Natan. Rachel raised Natan, and had four more children with Pinkus—Samek, Abram, Naftali/Maniek, and Mirka. They settled in Włocławek, where they had a store right in the center of town. After the war broke out, Rachel, Pinkus, and Mirka (who was just a teenager—she was ten years younger than her youngest brother) were moved to the ghetto in Warsaw. Pinkus, who was in ill health, died there in 1940, and Rachel and Mirka escaped and lived on the Aryan side under false papers. After the war ended, they joined Natan, Abram, and Maniek who were living in Israel. Rachel died in 1969.
On the bottom left, as I have already said, is my grandmother Haja/Halina, born in 1894. Seated beside her is her mother, Hinda (Walfisz) Piwko, while her father Hil Majer Piwko is on the far right. The young boy is Natan, the son of Regina and Pinkus Kolski. Perhaps he was there in his mother’s place, just like a gap was left for Abraham/John? Natan is said to have spent a lot of time with his grandparents. His position between them suggests they were very fond of each other. And I almost forgot one more member of the family—the dog under the couch behind Natan’s feet. Could this have been Natan’s dog? Another sign of the favor of his grandparents? I don’t know but I like to think of it that way.
So that’s my grandmother’s family, excluding only Małka who died as a teenager and two other siblings who died as infants.
Considering Natan was born in October 1905, I would guess this photo was taken near the end of the 1910s, maybe in 1919. Natan looks like he’s about 12, like my son is now, or maybe a little older. It seems unlikely the photo would have been taken during World War I, especially because of Philip’s presence. Philip was living in the US already (he is listed in both the 1910 and 1920 US census) and I don’t think he would have made the journey during the war. I don’t know enough about the history of fashion to be sure, but Halina’s dress seems scandalously short for the period, and even Rachel’s hemline is a few inches above her ankles. Still, I read that hemlines started to rise in Europe in 1915. I wonder, as well, whether Hanna’s comparatively simple dress was because she was less well off than her sisters, or perhaps was rather due to a more practical nature (which fits with how I remember her).
The photo is a window into the past. In it, I see a large, affluent, close family, but one in which social and cultural divisions were growing through the generations. While father Hil’s thick beard, black cap and long coat were characteristic of a conservative, religious Jew, his older son (the Zionist) had a shorter, more trimmed beard, and his younger son, by now an American citizen, sported only a moustache. The twenty-two-year gap between Liba, the oldest sibling, and Halina, the youngest, also seems apparent in the way they carried themselves and dressed.
I’ve learned a lot since I pulled this photo out of the envelope my grandmother had marked “Do Not Open.” And yet it all remains fragmentary. Most of the richer details are tentative, based on stories I try to piece together into something more substantial. But the fragments stand stubbornly apart from each other, and sometimes even in opposition to each other. Did Rachel accept her sister’s son Natan as one of her own, or did he spend much of his time with his grandparents? Perhaps it was both, since Hinda and Hil also lived in Włocławek later in life. Why does Liba seem to be retreating into the background? Is it just an accident of the lighting or a reflection of her character? Why was my grandmother holding her mother’s hand like that? Was it a sign of affection or perhaps an assertion of autonomy? The more I sit with this photo, the stronger I feel a connection with these people. And still, how distant they remain from me.