A Gift to Remember
Growing up in pre-war Germany, my grandfather was extremely close with his grandfather Simon. The two shared a particularly special bond, as my grandfather was the oldest grandson. He always looked up to his grandfather, who was just about the most important and influential person in his life. Throughout his childhood, he admired Simon’s dignity, knowledge, and kindness, not to mention his military record—although pushing 50, Simon had proudly served in the German home guard during World War 1.
Some of my grandfather’s best childhood memories are of Passover seders led by his grandfather during the late 1920s and early 1930s. An immigrant from Galicia to Germany, Simon led the family seders and continued to uphold the Eastern European Jewish traditions of his youth. When some of the younger children became unruly during the seders, he would calmly pause and intone, “ich hab’ Zeit” (“I have time”). In other words: the more unruly the children behaved, the longer they would have to wait until Shulchan Orech (the festive Passover meal).
As a teenager during the early days of the Hitler regime, my grandfather helped quite a number of other Jews escape from Germany. In the months leading up to World War 2, he worked closely with the Palamt. Going underground in Berlin after his permission to reside in Germany had been officially revoked, he assisted countless German Jews with the so-called aliya bet (Jewish immigration to the British Mandate of Palestine despite the British government’s official ban). He was able to receive an agricultural visa for himself and escaped to England in August 1939 on one of the last boats out of Germany before the war broke out. Tragically, although he was able to save many others, he was unable to secure a visa for his beloved grandfather who perished in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943.
An Astonishing Find
As a genealogical researcher, I often focus not only on official birth, marriage, and death records but also on a wide variety of unofficial documents. Such historical documents can greatly add to our knowledge from more traditional sources, and include items such as city directories, telephone books, and other non-government records.
Using Logan Kleinwaks’s Genealogy Indexer site (www.genealogyindexer.org), I stumbled on a find that was truly life changing. At the bottom of the search results for the city of Lemberg, which included business directories, calendars, and other material, I found a section devoted to school yearbooks. The one from 1881 was where I saw it: the name “Penzias Simon” appeared on page 68. In his third year at the Gymnasium (a type of higher education in Germany and Austria), Simon was listed as student number 23 in his class. Born in 1869, he would have been twelve years old that year.
Unlike today’s school yearbooks which contain photographs of students and descriptions of extra-curricular activities, nineteenth-century Gymnasium yearbooks gave summaries of the knowledge imparted during the year. I was astonished to discover that my grandfather’s grandfather studied Latin and ancient Greek! He also took rigorous courses in mathematics, literature, Polish or Ukrainian, and comparative religion.
The Best Way to Present
You might think that the first thing I did when finding the yearbook was to pick up the phone and call my grandfather. In fact, I had already dialed the first three or four digits of my grandparents’ phone number when I got a better idea. Instead of telling him right away, I decided to keep it as a surprise for the moment. Then I began to make my plans.
Searching through Yelp, I found a print shop in South Los Angeles that looked very promising. After requesting permission from the archive, I downloaded the file. I then cleaned it up as best I could to remove extraneous marks that had come up in the process of scanning the physical book. Next, I brought it to the print shop, and had it printed on very high-quality yellow-brown paper. Finally, I took the 37 individual printouts to a book binder I found on South Broadway just outside of downtown Los Angeles.
As soon as I entered A-1 Bookbinding shop, I felt that I had left 2018 and entered 1968. Greeted by all kinds of fading posters, old machinery, typewriters, and the loudest parakeet I had ever heard in my life, I eagerly awaited Mrs. Blau in her office. A kind, grandmotherly lady in her late 60s with lit cigarette permanently attached to her lips, she told me that her biggest customer base is doctoral students from USC who come to her with their dissertations. She also does antique book repair. When I told her about my project and what it was going to mean to my grandfather once I surprised him with it, she said that she had absolutely never had a project like that before, but she felt honored to be a part of it.
A week later, I got a phone call from Mrs. Blau. When she said the book was ready, I was unbelievably excited. When I came into the shop and saw her work, it looked just like a real book from 1881! It was absolutely perfect in every way! I had it gift wrapped, and could hardly contain my excitement. A few weeks later, I flew from Los Angeles to New York and arranged to meet my grandparents at their home in Long Island. I still hadn’t told them about my discovery.
A Moment to Treasure
The relationship I have with my grandfather is in many ways similar to the one he had with his. He is undoubtedly one of the most important influences in my life, and I have always admired him as he had admired Simon. No matter where I have been or what I have done, my grandparents have always been there for me and supported me. In everything I have accomplished in my life, part of it was to make them feel proud of me. My grandmother is 91 years old and my grandfather 97, so I treasure every moment I have them in my life.
When I got out of the car after the drive from my father’s house in New Jersey, my heart was practically leaping out of my chest. After weeks of waiting, the moment had finally arrived, and I presented my grandfather with the book. The expression on his face when he unwrapped it and realized what it was, the look in his eye as he was transported ninety years back in time to some of the happier parts of his childhood— this is something I will never forget. The memory of that moment is one that I will treasure for the rest of my years.
Gifting the Important People in Your Life
Genealogy is, of course, about researching history and collecting facts. But more than that, it is about connections from one generation to the next. And sometimes it can be an incredibly precious gift.
If you are interested in researching your family’s history, perhaps as a gift for a loved one, please feel free to contact me at 1-888-96LOSTRTS (1-888-965-6787), or at https://lostrootsfamilyhistory.com/contact. We just might discover the gift of a lifetime.