Finally learning about my dad’s family
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FIRST PERSON

Finally learning about my dad’s family

Our correspondent and her family find her family’s graves

These are the graves of Tzivia Bieler’s paternal grandparents, along with closeups of the photographs on the tombstones. (All photos courtesy Trivia Bieler)
These are the graves of Tzivia Bieler’s paternal grandparents, along with closeups of the photographs on the tombstones. (All photos courtesy Trivia Bieler)

My father was a gentle, kind, simple, quiet person who worked hard his entire life and was, as they say, “a man of few words.”

He came to this country as a young boy with his mother, his two sisters, and his paternal grandfather and as a young teenager already was working in order to help his family make ends meet. His own father had come to the United States at an earlier point and ultimately arranged for his family to join him. I know this only from my older brother Moishe; my father never ever spoke to me about his parents. Definitely never about his father. And the only detail he ever shared about his mother with me, when I was 19 years old, was about a conversation between the two of them that was so difficult that to this day, when I think of it, it makes me so very sad. I carry his mother’s name, but I am a very different person.

My mother died more than 32 years after my father passed away. As I stood in the cemetery that cold winter day, I noted in the midst of my mourning that everyone buried there was from my mother’s family. I thought about that often, and months later, as we were preparing for the August 2012 unveiling of my mother’s tombstone, I finally asked the question of my brothers that had been gnawing at me for months: “Where are Dad’s parents buried?”

Tzivia Bieler, left, with her older brother, Moishe Rosen, and his wife, Laurie.

It took me a lifetime to ask this one small question. My brothers never even thought to ask it. And no one had a ready answer.

My initial annoyance was with my two brothers and me. Why had we never asked where those grandparents were buried? Why had we not asked any questions about them? My goodness, two of us were named after them! Why weren’t we curious about our namesakes? Why didn’t we care? And without a single photo of my father’s father — we did have one of his mother — were we not bothered by the fact that we had absolutely no idea what our grandfather looked like?

And then my thoughts took a 180-degree turn and I began to wonder why those grandparents were some kind of secret that my father kept close to his chest. They weren’t really a secret in the usual sense, that is, but more simply details not to be shared. Why didn’t he ever talk about them? What were they like? How long was his father in the United States before he sent for them? Why didn’t anyone ever suggest we visit their graves?

Ms. Bieler is in Arizona with her brother Lobby Rosen.

And an even deeper question that almost made me cry: how dark was my father’s relationship with his mother and father? And is it likely that he never visited the graves himself?

Too late, I thought; these questions will go unanswered forever. And yet, for some inexplicable reason, I needed to feel some connection to those grandparents, to make their souls know they are still remembered, to see the last point of their physical existence. So about a month before I flew to Chicago for the unveiling, I told my brother who lives there that I wanted him to find the location of those graves. The old Jewish cemetery on the West Side of Chicago is a vast unit, all under the auspices of one organization. He and I discussed some of the details that would likely appear on the graves. But my brother was busy with his own life and lacked the fire that was burning in my head. He never made the call.

I grew impatient, took the number, and made the call myself. Twenty minutes later, the mystery was solved:

Ms. Bieler’s father, Harry Rosen, smokes contemplatively at his daughter’s wedding.

Buried in Waldheim. Section called:
Drohitchen Kelihilath — Gate #48.

Dad’s father: Harry Rosen — Enoch Leib
Died June 15, 1931 — 52 years old
Buried in lot 75 — Section 2 — Row 75 — Grave 2

Dad’s mother: Sylvia Rosen — Tzivia
Died January 7, 1941 — 56 years old
Buried in lot 63 — Section 1 — Row 63 — Grave 41

Dad’s grandfather — his father’s father:
Jacob Rosen — Yankel
Died January 24, 1949 — 93 years old
Buried in lot 44 — Section 1 — Row 44 — Grave 4

Ms. Bieler’s father was 4 when this photo was taken, with his mother and his sisters. They were in Poland.

A treasure trove!

And then I excitedly asked the next question: “What if there are cameo photos on the graves, like so many old graves have,” I asked my brother. “Would we finally know what Dad’s father looked like?” “Don’t get your hopes up” was his annoying response. Always a downer, I thought to myself. I’m still the kid sister whose older brother does not share her excitement. At that point, he was 78 years old and I was 64. Some things never change.

My mother’s unveiling was very meaningful and uplifting. When it was over, my two brothers, one sister-in-law, and I got into the car and drove about five minutes to the older part of the cemetery. The section was very old, the graves were very close together, the August weather was hot and humid, and we searched for a good 20 minutes. But nothing could deter us. Absolutely nothing.

Ms. Bieler holds her first child, Lara, on her first birthday, as her parents flank them, beaming.

How do I describe our excitement when we finally found those three graves? Every grave, as I predicted, had a cameo photo. That alone was remarkable. Together we read the words on the stones, we took pictures, we laughed, we shared what little information we had, we speculated about their lives. Finally, finally we knew what our grandfather — my brother Lobby’s namesake — looked like! Our shared joy — and I do not say that lightly, because having everyone on the same page was nothing short of a miracle — perhaps is best described by my sister-in-law Laurie’s comment: “You know someone watching the four of us might think we are having fun!”

Fun is probably not the best word to use when referring to a cemetery visit. But there was such joy of discovery, the feeling of being connected in some small way where there had been no connection before, the new knowledge of our grandparents’ and great-grandfather’s final resting place, the belief that even so late in the game, we had done something right.

And equally important, these were graves we would continue to visit.

Fred Messinger, shown here during World War II, was Ms. Bieler’s friend’s father.

It’s a meaningful story for sure, but not as unique as I had originally thought. Fathers keeping information to themselves is not such an unusual occurrence. A very close friend had recently discovered something about her own father that she had known absolutely nothing about, and she was astounded. What she did know was that her beloved father, Fred Messinger, came from Frankfurt to the United States as a young man and made a comfortable living traveling around the country on his own as a costume jewelry salesman. Unlike my own father, he was an outgoing, charming, happy-go-lucky man who spoke a number of languages. As his daughter remarks, “he could happily and effectively talk to a street sweeper or a president.”

She knew her father had served in the army during World War II and was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. He was often careful to shield his only daughter from any difficult details, and so he simply had told her that he loved the years he served in the army. She knew he had received the Purple Heart, but she always assumed it was because he had been wounded.

What she did not know, however, was that her father was one of the illustrious but little-known Ritchie Boys. By happenstance, a friend of hers found her father’s name listed in the appendix in “Sons and Soldiers,” a book Bruce Henderson wrote about the Jewish young men who served in this unit.

He had his own mysteries that he kept from his family. This is the Purple Heart he won as a Ritchie Boy.

So who were the Ritchie Boys? With Hitler’s rise to power, young Americans, most of them firstborn sons who spoke German fluently -– almost 2,000 of them Jewish — were recruited into the U.S. Army and used their German language and trained psychology techniques to interrogate German prisoners of war. They were called Ritchie Boys after the Maryland camp where they trained. Despite the danger of being captured, they were part of a secret military intelligence group skilled in espionage and psychological warfare.

So there you have it — two very different fathers who made the decision to keep some things to themselves. We can only speculate on their reasons. I believe my father’s words were silenced by his difficult memories. It was easier not to share. My friend’s father, on the other hand, was a man who savored everything in his life, and so perhaps being a Ritchie Boy was simply one more piece of the many wonderful parts that formed his greater whole. No big deal. “Who is the rich person?” my friend quotes when describing her father. “The rich person is the one who is content with his lot in life.”

I have no idea if my father was content with his lot in life, despite its difficulties. He was loved and appreciated and treated with respect and care -– all good reasons to be content. And I never heard him complain. I admit I lack the assurance my friend has of how her father viewed his world. But I like to imagine that my father watched us from above that hot summer day as we discovered his parents’ and grandfather’s graves, and that he definitely approved and smiled. And my friend’s father? Surely there were smiles and laughter in heaven as he watched how surprised she was to learn of his wartime experiences. On reflection, the “not knowing” is okay for these two loving daughters — and I’m sure for my two brothers as well.

Everyone has secrets. The blessing of fathers who loved us is all we really need to know.


Tzivia Bieler and her late husband, Bruno, moved to Teaneck in January 1974. She retired as the executive office director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and spends time with children and grandchildren in United States and Israel.

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