Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 13. Enjoy!
We headed back from Altoona Saturday night, as something was brewing at work that needed Simon’s attention. The kids and I spent part of Sunday with the Egyptian mummies at the Brooklyn Museum, and the rest just relaxing at home. I had given myself and Jack Gelberman a day off, not including the several hours spent at my computer after they went to sleep and before Simon got home, exhausted and grumpy.
Now it was Monday, and back to work. Though I hadn’t done much on Sunday, others had been working on my behalf. The call I had gotten on Saturday afternoon at Horseshoe Curve was from Shuki, Ronit’s boyfriend, with the results of some legwork I had asked him to do. Shuki worked for a moving company and his hours were irregular. He was always glad to make extra money helping me out. He had been in an elite unit in the Israeli army for three years—though he was on the short side, he was tough and didn’t scare easily. It had been hard to hear him over the noise of the freight train rounding the curve, but I heard enough to know that he was willing to spend a few hours on Sunday walking around the East Village.
I had sent him to scout out the address Sarah provided, in the hope that it was real even though the phone number wasn’t. But surprise, surprise—there was no 47 East Second Street, or rather, there might have been at one time but now it was a vacant lot that had been taken over by community garden activists. But Shuki was a smart guy, not to mention persistent and resourceful. He was being paid to do a job, and he was going to get the job done. He went to 45 East Second Street, and 49 East Second Street. Then he crossed the street and went to 46 East Second Street. Not finding anyone or anything that seemed connected to Sarah Gelberman at any of those buildings, he walked down the block and visited 74 East Second Street.
The lock was broken on the front door to the building, a barely gentrified former tenement most likely now occupied by the graduate students, musicians, artists, and fledging filmmakers who were drawn to the gritty, downtown neighborhood with its surfeit of Indian and Polish restaurants, all-night coffee shops, and independent book stores. He went in and looked at the names on the bells. And there it was–Gelberman, 3B. He rang, but no one answered. Being not only smart but patient, he waited in the vestibule until he found a tenant willing to talk to him. Apparently there had been someone living in the building who fit the description of Sarah Gelberman, but she had moved out about a week ago.
On the e-mail front, there was also some interesting news. I had stayed up late Saturday night when we got home from Altoona, sending off some questions via e-mail and responding to the several messages that were waiting when I signed on. I queried an expert in Polish shtetls about the variant spellings of Halizch, and he verified that Calicz was indeed the same as Halizch. He also pointed me in the direction of the Halizch Yizkor book. Since whole communities were exterminated during the Holocaust, the survivors had created memorial books recording the history of their birthplaces, stories about the people who had lived there, and lists of names of former inhabitants. The publication of Yizkor books was in keeping with the Jewish insistence on remembering our history and our dead. The Halizch Yizkor book, if I could find it, could be a goldmine. And I had made preliminary contact with an Israeli researcher, to find out how to trace Holocaust records, since this was the first time my research had touched on this area. She wrote back with several possible avenues to continue my investigation and I quickly responded with a note thanking her and offering work.
There was also a surprising message from Bird.
Got an interesting proposition. How’d you like to come work for my firm full-time? We’ve got an opening for someone with your skills–think about it–benefits, stability, security, health insurance, paid vacations, 401k, you could still work from home but not have the worries of being freelance. Little direct dealing with clients. Wills, dead-beat dads, straw corporations, background checks, fraud, etc. Doesn’t it sound great?????
Let me know what you think ASAP.
I stared at the screen in disbelief. This job was tailor-made for me. Simon would be thrilled. Yet while I knew I should be begging for an interview, part of me wanted to delete the message and pretend I had never received it. It was everything I should want, but didn’t. I enjoyed the unpredictable nature of what I did, never knowing who the next client would be and what I would learn. I enjoyed being my own boss, setting my own schedule, and dealing with my clients. I liked the thrill of the chase.
Just a few clicks, and the message was archived in some deep, secret place far inside my hard disk. Gone from the screen, gone from the new messages. I definitely couldn’t think clearly now. I knew Bird meant well, but she had thrown a wrench into the precarious balance of my life.
I promised myself that I would seriously consider the offer as soon as I wrapped up the Gelberman case. In the meantime, I had to get organized. At this point, I was going in three directions at once. On my dry-erase board I made three columns. The heading on the first read: Is JG grandson of H Rebbe? Although all signs were pointing to yes, I still needed to do some work to get concrete verification. The heading on the second column read: Why is everyone sure he died? There was clearly a discrepancy, what with such a critical piece of Halizcher lore being that both grandsons had died. More research was needed there. And heading the third column I wrote: Brother? It was time to start actively trying to locate information about the brother. Then, reluctantly, off to the side of the board, heading a fourth, smaller column, I wrote: Arieh F.? What was the story with this man, who clearly did not want me talking to his grandmother? What was his connection, if any, to Sarah Gelberman? Under each heading, I wrote a list of places to check for information and ideas for ways to proceed.
Up to this point, most of my attention had been focused on finding information about Jack Gelberman himself. I hadn’t done badly so far, though there was much more to do. But it was time to go in a different direction and see if Leib Gelberman was alive and well and living in the United States. Or anywhere for that matter. I didn’t think that finding him was going to be easy, because if it was, they wouldn’t have hired me to do it. But before I used any fancy tricks, I needed to cross some of the basic methods off my list.
I went to the on-line Social Security Death Index, just in case he a) had survived the war, b) had immigrated to America, and c) had died here. If all those things were true, and assuming he would have arrived here between 1940 and 1965, and not died earlier than 1965, he would be listed in the Death Index. The Social Security system was computerized in 1968, retroactive to 1965. It was a long shot, but if I did find anything, I would be able to get his date of death, the zip code that the place of death was recorded and the zip code of his last residence. All of this would obviously not help Jack Gelberman meet his brother, but it could provide information that would help him learn what happened to his brother after the war, and might lead him to his brother’s descendants, if there were any. The chances were slim that his brother had survived the war at all, and even if he had, he could be anywhere in the world. He could have changed his name, for that matter. Sometimes genealogy was like playing the slots.
There was also a good possibility that even if he was alive and well, he didn’t want to be found. Terrible things happened during the war. For all the heart-wrenching stories of goodness that emerged from the camps, stories about how complete strangers cared for each other and helped ensure each other’s survival, there were also the other stories. The stories of parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives who betrayed each other for scraps of bread. Why would two brothers not have looked for each other in the last fifty years if they truly wanted to be reunited? What had happened during those years? This was Sarah’s mission, presumably financed by her parents, but was this really what her grandfather would want?
I got nowhere with the Social Security Death Index and promptly put a line through that idea. Either he died during the war, he never came to this country, he changed his name, or he was still alive. Onwards. I went to www.SSN.com again, and made another $24.95 offering to the gods of the Internet. Next I went to findthem.com, where my monthly subscription fee made it convenient for me to find information about anyone in the United States who had a listed phone number. I did a search for Leib Gelberman but turned up nothing. Apparently Gelberman was not an extremely popular last name in this country. I did a modified search for L* Gelberman, expecting to have to wade through several hundred, but only three turned up. There was an L. Gelberman in New Haven, Connecticut, a Leonard Gelberman in New York City, and a Leon Gelberman in Los Angeles.
Cold calls. It was one of my least favorite aspects of genealogical research. But it could be extremely rewarding. I dialed the Manhattan number first. A man answered affirmatively when I asked to speak to Leonard Gelberman. I explained that I had been retained by the Gelberman family to do research on their family tree, and that I was looking for relatives of Jacob Gelberman, from Halizch, Poland. Leonard was interested, but said he had been born in this country, as had been his father and grandfather on his Gelberman side, and didn’t think he was connected to my Gelbermans. I thanked him politely and hung up. Next I dialed the number in New Haven and got the answering machine of a Lisa Gelberman. Another probable dead-end, but I left her my name and phone number with a brief explanation of why I had called. You never know. By this time I needed a cup of coffee badly, or better yet, a double espresso. But I called the third number, hoping to get Leon Gelberman in Los Angeles before he left the house for the day. A man with a slight trace of an accent answered the phone. Once again, I identified myself and explained my reason for calling. He paused and cleared his throat. I felt a slight tingle of excitement, then chided myself for thinking that it could be this easy. After a moment he spoke, and his words burst my bubble of hope.
“That’s not me what you’re looking for,” he said. “I was born in Palestine.”
I could have sworn that he was about to continue, but he remained silent. I thanked him very much and apologized for taking his time. Just before he hung up, he spoke again.
“Good luck with your search. Don’t give up.”
Afterward, I sat staring at my phone. I was left with a totally irrational gut feeling that he had been challenging me to read between the lines. As I sat there, trying to decide if I was simply overdue for some caffeine or if he had really been trying to tell me something, my eye was caught by the sketchy and incomplete Gelberman family tree hanging on my wall. Ruchel, the oldest daughter of Yosef Yehudah, had also married a Gelberman, Yitzhak Gelberman, the brother of Nossen Shlomo. As both Rabbi Springer and Mrs. Freiburg had told me, two sisters married two brothers. It wasn’t uncommon in those days. But she had also told me that the two brothers had been different. While Nossen Shlomo was a shy, soft-spoken Chasid, a devoted follower of his father-in-law, his brother Yitzhak had been a Zionist. Mrs. Freiburg didn’t remember them well, because they left for Palestine when she was a child. Could this Leon Gelberman of Los Angeles, who was born in Palestine, be their son? Could there have been two Leib Gelbermans in one generation? Could Leon be an Americanization of Leib? But if so, why hadn’t this Leon Gelberman reacted with familiarity to the name Halizch, Poland, or any of the family names I had mentioned? If he really was another grandson of the Halizcher rebbe, had he simply not been told his family history? But that didn’t account for the feeling that he had been trying to tell me something. It was unusual for a Jew today to use the name “Palestine” instead of Israel. As farfetched as it might be, could he have used that name on purpose, trying to help me place him in a certain generation? Could he have been trying to tell me that he was another branch of the family I was researching, the branch that had split off ideologically and gone off to Israel in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s, when it was still called Palestine, the branch that escaped the Holocaust? But then why couldn’t he just tell me straight out? My head was now spinning. I was probably making a mountain out of molehill, reading far more into the short conversation than was warranted. But these Gelbermans and their family secrets were making me nuts, and I no longer knew which way was up. If I didn’t get that cup of java soon, my head was going to explode.
[To be continued….]