Raboyseyee and Ladies,
Searching for Cousins
With the advent of genealogy searches, where companies such as 23andMe, Ancestry.com and others use DNA to help search the family tree and identify relatives, many have been tracing their lineage. Some to find out if they are -or are not- of American Indian descent. These days it’s good to be an American Indian as members of each tribe are supposed to share in millions of dollars in profits from tax free casino operations as well as other benefits. Does that happen? Likely not! Others test for health reasons, or stam azoy to learn more about their backgrounds.
And while the heylige Ois has yet to take the test -but is planning to in the coming weeks- and as he gets older and more nostalgic, it’s always exciting when connecting with someone he meets -or talks to- turns out to be a relative he never knew existed. And with that introduction, I wanted to share a story which began in 1982, continued in 2014 and was awakened just four weeks ago while traveling through parts of Europe along the Danube River with the good people of AACI (check them out here http://aacitravel.com – ask for Carole; she’s givaldig)!
The year is 1982 and the future Ois -still single- is spending Shovuis alone in Lugano Switzerland at the only glatt-kosher hotel – then known as Gefen. My employer -not kosher, at least at the time- dropped me there Erev Shovuis and told me to board a train back to Zurich the morning after Yom tov and that we were leaving to Vienna, Austria, Zagreb Yugoslavia, Madrid Spain, Italy, and a few other countries. Vienna Austria? OMG: I was born there! I was excited; my first time back. With this information, I called my father to ask for the contact information of a man about whom he had spoken with great admiration many times while growing up. That man – Boju Guttmann helped secure “papeerin” (immigration papers) for the family. Sadly, those papeerin were stolen by another relative who used them for his own family. That other relative -now deceased- was the kvater at my bris. Thankfully, he wasn’t the moiel! Having heard of Mr. Guttmann’s generosity so many times, and returning to Vienna for the very first time since immigrating to the USA in 1956, I decided to find him, introduce myself and thank him again on behalf of the family. Sadly, my father had not spoken to Mr. Guttmann since 1956. He had no idea how to find him. I recall sitting in a phone booth in Lugano calling the Chabad rabbi, also with no luck. When -for the very first time- I asked my father what he did while in Vienna, he advised that he worked as a mashgiach in a glatt-kosher restaurant. He gave me the name which I wrote down. That was my only clue.
At approximately 10:00 AM, my boss and I arrived to Vienna and checked into the Intercontinental Hotel. As an aside, less than 30 days ago, while touring Vienna, we passed the hotel several times. Amazingly, it stands where it did in 1982, under the same flag. I had the chills passing it as I recall with great clarity exactly where we jumped out of, and back into a taxi in search of Boju Guttmann.
The chances that a Glatt-kosher restaurant would be around in 1982, 26 years later? Very slim but that’s the only lead I had. We checked into our rooms, and moments later hailed a cab. I recall my words to the taxi driver, “WEIBURGH RESTAURANT BITTA” (please). I figured he’d either start driving to the location, ask the dispatcher for help locating this place, or telling us to get out because no such place existed. To our complete astonishment, he began driving and not more than a few minutes later stopped. We got out and there, at an intersection of two streets, stood a restaurant by that very name. The time, approximately 11AM. The place was empty but for one person using a cloth to polish the wood around the bar. The restaurant was larger than I expected. I approached the gentleman and asked for Boju Guttmann.
Using his cloth, he shooed me away. Not understanding, I repeated the question. Again, he shooed me away. Somewhat dejected, I walked out the front door. There sitting at a table (brassiere style tables and chairs) sat one man, eyes closed and asleep. The establishment was no longer kosher and the man asleep was without a kippa, typical for most in Europe. What motivated me to wake this man up and ask about Boju Guttman, I will never know but so I did. I tapped him on the shoulder, and woke him with two words: Boju Guttmann? He was startled for sure and because I asked in Yiddish he responded with “ver freygt” (who is asking). I answered that I was Yankel Grossman’s son from America. He responded with two more words “vart du” (wait here). He walked off down the block. In my mind, I still see him walking down and away from the restaurant.
Close to 30 minutes went by and I still had no idea if the man was coming back, or if the man himself was Boju Guttmann. My boss was losing patience and insisted we leave. Leave we just about did, when that very man -now accompanied by his beautiful wife- were heading back towards us. The man seated outside the restaurant, the very first person I encountered aside from taxi driver, was in fact Boju Guttmann. The moment was surreal. We spent time together, walked the streets of Vienna and eventually made our way back to either his or his daughter’s flat (I no longer recall). Moments I shall never forget. The story has been retold many times; it never gets tired.
And just about now, many may be wondering how it was even remotely possible that the first man I met -aside from the gentleman cleaning the bar and the taxi driver- would be the man I was looking for? What was he doing there in 1982 – years after it ceased being the kosher establishment it was in the 1950s? I have been thinking about my good fortune ever since as it never made much sense. To the many who have heard the story, you are forgiven if you thought the story exaggerated. But in June of 2022, almost 40 years later to month and date from my visit to Vienna in 1982, it all became clear. Read all about it further below.
It’s 2014, 32 years later, when the family -for some odd reason- decided to spend Pesach with a new operator over in Ft Myers Florida. That program -while nice- was one and done. But a very curious thing happened on the very first night. Following the sedorim, a number of guests -to include the eishes chayil and I found ourselves in what we believed to be one of the shabbis elevators. There we stood shoulder to shoulder with more than could fit, but the elevator would not move. It was not the shabbis elevator. Positioned near the door, I walked out and hinted to the reception desk that we needed to get the elevator going and buttons pushed. With the elevator now on the move, an elderly woman made a comment in Yiddish, I answered, but gone was she and her family seconds later when the elevator stopped at her floor.
At lunch the next day, I walked the entire dining room, found her table and we exchanged pleasantries. Known as Dori, she asked where I was from, I answered Vienna. So was she; I shared my Boju Guttmann story. She listened patiently and when done, shocked me with this: She is Boju’s first cousin. Her full name, Devora Bloom/Weiss (nee Guttmann). Boju’s father and Dori’s mother were brother and sister. Dori Guttmann’s parents were second cousins, both were Guttmann.
Well, blow me down! I spent good quality time talking to her, her daughter Agi, and her son-in-law Rachmil (Milu to his friends) Jacobowitz over the rest of Pesach, found out that we are cousins, took a few pictures together and said goodbye. I saw Dori but one more time a few years back at a family simcha.
And here we are in 2022. In January, we flew out to Los Angles for a long weekend to visit with our son Jonathan and to meet his girlfriend’s family. More on that another time. It’s Sunday evening we’re out to dinner -literally sitting outside in a covered tent at PATS Restaurant – a long established Glatt kosher restaurant and party place. Los Angeles was still on Covid protocol. Following a beautiful dinner -especially beautiful because we were happily surprised when Rachel’s family picked up the check, we walk our hosts to the corner (they live mamish around the corner). We thanked them again, exchanged pleasantries and made our way back into PATS. Why? While having dinner, we notice a private event going on behind the curtain. It’s a sheva brochis and we come to learn that old friends -going back 40 plus years- are hosting. We make our way back, say hello to Marilyn and Jaime Sohacheski. In Sohacheski style, we are immediately seated. Dessert is served and the last speaker is introduced. She speaks confidently, is certainly learned, and has an excellent delivery. She also has a heavy European accent. When done, she’s by chance seated at the very table we find ourselves at. I compliment her speech, inquire about her accent and shoin. She’s from Vienna Austria. That’ all it took for me to share my Vienna story. When done she shocks me with this: Boju Guttman was my father’s very best friend for many decades. I have the chills. Rebecca Nissel has just brought my Boju story back to real life. Check out her book here https://www.amazon.com/We-Are-Still-Here-Survivors/dp/9652293741 . We exchanged information and are now in contact with one another.
In late May we began planning a trip, a river cruise along the Danube. About to book with one cruise operator, at the last minute -because of a must attend wedding back in New York on the 16th of June- we switched to another cruise operator. Knowing that the itinerary included one day in Vienna and knowing that Boju had passed away some years back, I decided to reach out to his son. I know he has a son as we spoke back in 1982. The issue: I knew not his name nor his contact information. What to do. I called down to Washington DC where my cousin Dori was living with her daughter Agi and her family. I reached her son-in- law who advised that Dori had just passed away in the past few months. I was saddened to learn of this news. Dori lived to be 93 and ½. Shame on me for not keeping in touch with her. Milu advised that he did not have contact information for Boju’s son but did recommend that I call a Rabbi Yossi Strasser over in Yirusholayim.
Who is Rabbi Strasser? Taka an excellent question and here we go. Back in 2014, a week or two after Pesach, on a motzei Shabbis the house phone rang. As an aside, back then, people still answered their house phones. Today? A nechtiger tug: not one person the Ois knows answers the house phone. Veyter: who was calling? Our backyard neighbor Nuchem Aber and it’s the first time we’ve ever spoken by phone. He tells me that he is hosting a cousin of mine who would like to meet me. A cousin? At the Aber home? Five minutes later, the bell rings and there is Rabbi Yossi Strasser, a Rosh Yeshiva (Head of school and more) out of Yirusholayim. When I hear Rosh Yeshiva out of Yirusholyaim, I’m thinking shakedown for money but no money or donation is spoken of. Instead, I hear that he’s Boju’s Guttmann’s nephew and that he had spoken at Boju’s levaya. I’m saddened that I never kept up. Well blow me down! We spend an hour together and I have never again seen this man. Seeing him in 2022 is likely not a freebie.
Where were we? Back to the 2022. Milu had advised that perhaps Rabbi Strasser over in Israel might have contact information for Boju’s son; he shares the rabbi’s information on the good rabbi. I call the Rabbi Strasser and taka he has what I’m looking for. It’s good to be the Rosh Yeshiva; they have everyone’s phone numbers, addresses too.
Armed with contact information to Boju’s older -also Yosie- I make contact via WhatsApp. The son advises that he has no recollection of ever talking to, or meeting me, though I distinctly recall talking business with him back in 1982. Shoin, not the first person to forget, or want to forget me. Veyter. He also advises that he and his family will be way in Israel while we’re in Europe; an opportunity to meet him missed. A day or two later, via WhatsApp he further advises that his machatunim will be aboard the same river cruise.
As an aside, though not at all related, we did have the opportunity to meet the machatunim, Malka and Shimmy Pine, and spent quality time with them. Originally form Manchester and now retired to Israel, Shimmy has a beautiful voice and spends a good amount of time studying the folios of the heylige Gemora. His lovely wife Malka is a Lopian by birth, she of the famous Lopian family. Her grandfather was Reb Elya Lopian who was known as Reb Elyah and was a leading rabbi of the Mussar Movement. As a disciple of the Kelm Talmud Torah method, he was known for his strictness with respect to order and self-control. Reb Elya had 13 children, his granddaughter Malka but one of his many granddaughters. Malka told me she has at least 65 first cousins. As well, we met her brother Dovid Tzvi Lopian, whose learning in depth I interrupted to share my story and to his lovely wife Annette. More than once during our seven days together, Malka Pine told me how much I resemble Yosi Guttmann, Boju’s older son.
The itinerary, as mentioned, calls for one day in Vienna and there we are with the group waiting to enter the Jewish Museum located on YuddenStraase (Jew Street). We’re on line because the museum is not very large and we must wait for another group to exit. And while my eishes chayil -a rule follower for sure- is on line, the Ois is wandering about the square. I notice a few with yarmulkas busily getting ready for some event. I approach and learn that a jewish festival is scheduled for later in the afternoon. Makes good sense to me; where else to have a Jewish festival than one Jew Street? Well, blow me down. I head back to see if it was time to enter and thankfully, the group is still waiting. The eishes chayil reminds not to wander off -at all- and certainly not too far. She’s the rule follower, not me, if you chap. I engage with another gentleman who advises that he’s running security for the festival. I mention that I was born in Vienna and that I have family here. After mentioning the name Guttmann, he advises that he knows the family, that he expects family members to be at the festival and that he’s a personal close friend and associate of Boju’s Guttmann’s younger son Davies.
OMG! I don’t recall knowing that Boju had another son. I can barely contain my excitement. The good gentleman takes out his device and is calling Davies (aka: David Guttmann). No answer. He calls the wife, also no answer. We exchange contacts and he promises to reach out later with updated information. And so he does. Shoutout and kudos to Danny Fuchs and to Martin Lanczmann who were both kind enough to exchange contact information and follow up to make sure David Guttmann would hear that I was in town. Dinner on me -I owe you- next time I’m in Vienna or should you find yourselves in New York. Later that very evening I was in WhatsApp contact with Natalie Guttmann, David’s wife and moments later with David Guttmann himself. A new cousin found identified, verified and we’re engaging by WhatsApp from London. To properly introduce myself, I had sent Natalie the article I had written back in 2014 about David’s father Boju. I imagine she was astonished -as was he- and as am I, even years later when I retell the story. Moments later -via WhatsApp- David and I had several exchanges. Yes, he too was amazed. We’re meant to meet up on Wednesday morning. We schedule a train from Passau Germany back to Vienna to meet him at the airport for a cup of coffee. Alas it was not meant to be. An hour into the trip a new WhatsApp message arrived advising that he had an unexpected levaya to attend. We never met. Hopefully that will change one day in the coming days, weeks months or years. Bottom line: Hitler did his work, but over the years, many of us have managed to find relatives here and there.
And I close with this by sharing a few exchanges I had with Boju’s younger son Davies. These helped me better understand how it was that Boju was sitting outside the WEIHBURG RESTAURANT in 1982 just as I walked in looking for him. That place was in his kishkes. It was a place he had known -as you will read just below- since the 1950’s.
[9:46 AM, 6/16/2022] Davies Guttmann: my father was called Buju. The Restaurant was Weihburg (btw. I had my Brit Milah done in Weihburg)
[10:10 AM, 6/16/2022] Yitz: Wow and ty; what is the street name of that Weiburg restaurant?
[10:11 AM, 6/16/2022] Davies Guttmann: it was on Seilerstätte corner Weihburggasse (hence the name)
[10:12 AM, 6/16/2022] Yitz: Yes, I recall it was a corner and your parents coming up the block to the left of the restaurant—it’s emblazoned in my memory
[10:13 AM, 6/16/2022] Davies Guttmann: if you would want to translate “Weihburg” in a literary way it would mean “sanctified castle”, and really it was for a number of simple “Dorf-Jiden” by the time. Their whole social and religious life was there (in the 50ies and 60ies)
[10:14 AM, 6/16/2022] Yitz: As you read my father worked there in the 1950’s….
[10:14 AM, 6/16/2022] Davies Guttmann: yes actually my parents lived around the corner from there (and my mother still lives there), as well as I do with my family for the last 20 years now.
And so it was, and is. Or is it? Late last week, Agi told me to contact another cousin by the name of Shaindy Bendel. Who? I never heard of this person. This past Friday, an hour before candle lighting. I connected with Shaindy who shocked me yet again when she told me that not only were we cousins but that my father, OBM was her shadchan. I’ll be back with more in the coming weeks.
The Heylige Oisvorfer Ruv