May 28, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

While I Never Knew My Grandparents, I’ve Got the Picture

My friend Kevin sent me the link to a review of a new movie. A while ago, Kevin told me about the book upon which the movie is based. Written by his friend’s cousin, the story is now a documentary, which expands upon a three-minute family film shot in Poland just before WWII. That gave me pause.

No, I don’t have movie footage showing Eastern Europe before the outbreak of WWII, but I do have DVDs of movies taken in Newark during that era. Plus, some stills are floating around from family and friends, which depict our ancestral shtetl of Chudnov, Ukraine before WWII.

The unexpected discovery of the tapes started with an annual visit to the Chudnover K.U.V. Section of Talmud Torah Cemetery in Newark. That was the week between the High Holidays in 2008, on that sacred Sunday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in deserted parts of town when armed guards are stationed at the Newark Historic Jewish cemeteries.

On that end of summer day, I ran into my senior cousin Paula at the Newark cemetery located at South Orange Avenue. She was in the Chudnover Section of the commonly called “Grove Street Cemetery,” at the grave of her friend Elaine’s mother. Kaleky was Elaine’s maiden name.

While standing next to her friend Elaine, Paula nostalgically began to recap my grandfather’s bond with Elaine’s mother, Mrs. Kaleky, a fellow Chudnover. With that, Elaine then asked if I would be interested in the tapes her cousin Marvin, living in Florida, had from the Chudnover reunions. She didn’t have to ask twice.

Marvin not only sent the DVD formatted tapes, which he and others filmed of the 1935, 1940 and later reunions of the Chudnover Society, but he soon after visited from Florida and narrated a viewing for Paula, Elaine and my family. Eyes focused on our television as we all sat fully engrossed at the screen in our family room. That was cause enough to watch the tapes multiple times to discover the most intricate details.

After repeatedly watching, more family members almost magically became recognizable. Nearly breathless, one time, I screamed, “There’s Uncle Jerome!” I can recall his son at his age in the film, looking just like him. But I never before had seen pictures of my uncle at age 10. I knew him years after his service in the U.S. Seabees, to which, with the mandatory approval of my grandmother, he enlisted at the young age of 16.

The movies shared by Marvin also introduce my Uncle Harry and his young bride. Newly married, my father’s younger brother Harry, the first in the family to be born in America, was about to enter WWII as a soldier in the U.S. Army. For me, the priceless movies shared by Marvin shed new light on my uncles. Born in 1953, I was not old enough to remember them until more than a decade after their military service, where they bore witness to the horrors of WWII.

While these films captured a glimpse of the personalities of my grandparents, whom I never had the privilege to know, leaving an indelible void in my life, they also offered me a peek at my aunts at a young age. Seeing my stern Aunt Fannie as a teenager dancing was a joy to behold.

As our relatives in America were celebrating their lives in the land of the free while toasting their families abroad, alas, our family in Ukraine was painfully unaware of the tragedies to come. Not only were my grandparents featured toasting l’chaim, but my aunts and uncles appeared young and vibrant, in ways I never knew them. My uncles were naively unaware that they would eventually be donning military uniforms and trained to fire guns.

With their closest relatives mercilessly killed in Eastern Europe, the dichotomy of their family reveling in America, innocently captured on film by a teenaged Marvin Kaleky and other “Chudnover Children,”* was striking. Those Chudnover reunions, which our families attended together in Newark, were not only captivating, but the scenes, which tell their own important story, remain recorded for posterity.

Combining pages of the book I’ve written with stories penned in letters and memoirs by my relatives who lived through the atrocities in Eastern Europe, a dramatic tale of a large family from Chudnov, Ukraine is unleashed. A portion of the family made it to America pre-WWII, eventually sending their sons off to battle, while on the other side of the ocean, only a select few survived the Shoah and lived to tell about it.

More than 30 of our innocent family members lost their lives when viciously killed in our ancestral shtetl of Chudnov or on the battlefields. Restoring their stolen legacies is my goal. The silent movies of the Chudnover reunions show singing and freilich dancing in civilian life in America while war is raging in Eastern Europe. That underscores the powerful start of a movie in the making. Reading the review of the movie based on the book written by our friend’s acquaintance, gave me a burning desire to revisit the entire scene of my grandparents celebrating with fellow Chudnovers in America. Movie anyone?

*If you have family from Chudnov, join the Facebook group “Chudnover Children,” started and administered by Marvin Kaleky.

Sharon Mark Cohen, MPA, is a seasoned genealogist and journalist. A staff writer at The Jewish Link of New Jersey, Sharon is a people person and born storyteller who feels that everyone is entitled to a legacy. Sharon was acknowledged by two authors in their recently published books and is looking forward to the publication of her family history book.

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