There are moments in your life where your perception about an event, situation, or person changes so quickly it like glass shattering. Your perception of those things irreconcilably different and forever changed. Often it is the moment where you move beyond the surface, beyond your own fears and prejudices and for the first time can seem more of the entirety of that person, place, or event. A moment that gives you a better understanding of those things and allows you to love them in a way that you had never thought possible.
So it was with me and my perception of my grandfather, Marcus Rothkopf.
My first recollection of him is walking through a parking lot with a burlap bag slung over his shoulder jabbing at pieces of litter with a stick that had a nail in it at one end. He was a street cleaner and even at a tender age I knew that was a very menial job. It is hard to understand a child’s brain especially when the adult brain exists within the same cranium but seeing him do this job made me fear him a little. It was as if he had a virus or bacterium that I could catch and would condemn me to a life of cleaning streets for the rest of my life.
It did not help that I could not understand what he said to me. He only spoke a few words in English and the conversation with all the adults was in German. While on occasion he would try to engage us and say something to us it had to be translated which for kid made it feel like he was not saying anything at all as translations do not convert emotions and sentimentality very well. It made him foreign and not of our world.
Another issue for me was his mustache. It looked like the toothbrush mustache of Adolph Hitler and even at that young age Hitler’s name was enough to scare the bejesus out of me.
There was a hardness to him. Almost an anger. It manifested itself in a number of ways. I do not remember ever getting a hug from him. And back then hugs were my jam. Come to think of it the only affection that I can remember ever being displayed with him is when my father would say goodbye to him and his balding head. Even the presents we would receive from him and Grandmother Jenny were given by her, not him. She is the one who took us to the Buster Brown shoe store and “yoyed” as we tried on our shoes. I am not saying there were no hugs or kisses given. There probably were but I do not remember them.
He also preferred his own company. While we would all sit in the kitchen and watch my grandmother prepare Wiener Schnitzel for us all. He would sit in the living room, often in silence, but occasionally listening to the radio. I am not sure we were warned to be away from him while he was sitting in silence but I do know we avoided him our kiddie radar picking up on something that made us keep our distance.
The last time I saw my grandfather alive was when I was 9 years old. He was in the hospital being treated for pneumonia and my father and mother had decided we should visit him. I can remember being very intimidated and scared of being in the hospital. I had never been in one before and it seemed to me very scary to be in a place where they took sick people and where occasionally people would die. I hid behind my father when we entered Grandpa’s hospital room. What I saw did not comfort me. Marcus was bound to the bed with restraints to keep him from getting up and leaving. He wanted no part of the hospital and had tried to escape enough times that they finally had to tie him to the bed. His arms had huge purple marks on them where he had been bruised fighting his restraints and where no doubt, he had pulled out his IV’s. Needless to say I found the whole scene horrifying and did my best to merge with my parents legs in the hope that I would be protected.
As we were leaving the hospital room my grandfather said something to my father in German. My father nodded and turned to my brother David and said “He says, he thinks you look like a little soldier.” My brother positively beamed, and I felt cheated. Why didn’t he say anything nice to me?
Grandfather Marcus died about a week later. Family lore and an autopsy report I found it one of my father’s desk drawers stated he had not died because of disease but because he had begged his brother Max to bring him a beer while he was in the hospital. Uncle Max did not realize that the medication’s grandpa was taking would not mix well with alcohol and the combination killed him.
My last memory of Marcus is not of his funeral. Neither David nor I were invited as my parents thought us too young to deal with the grief of funerals. No doubt they were right as the fact that someone could die bewildered and scared me long after his passing. My last memory of him is actually of Grandmother Jenny. Where Marcus had been scary and aloof Jenny was warm and open. To this day I do not have to think too hard to remember her hugs, how loved they made me feel, and her smell which was as welcoming as that of baking bread. After my grandfather’s funeral she came to live with us for awhile. My enduring memory of her at that time is my father sitting with her in the backyard, with Dad trying to comfort her and her being all but inconsolable. I was not capable at the time of understanding the full emotion of grief, but I do remember thinking I must find a way to make my grandmother happy because I had never seen anyone that sad.
As time went on, and the more stories I heard about Marcus, the scene of Jenny weeping in the backyard puzzled me. The stories that I heard about him painted a portrait of an angry man who would often drink to excess and heap verbal and physical abuse on his only child. That as a husband he was a philanderer and abusive especially if Jenny had not cooked for him. It made me think of him one dimensionally. As a bad father, a bad husband. A person whom my father had to overcome to become the man he was. The person whose disrespect had made Grandmother that much sweeter as when you add salt to caramel.
Only rarely was this monochromatic image of Marcus challenged. Such was the case when going through some old photographs with my father. We came across a picture that had been taken of my grandparents on their wedding day in June 1925.
It shows a nicely dressed couple smiling smugly into the camera. The bride is holding a bouquet of roses and wears a cloche hat with a veil attached. The groom is in a suit and white bow tie. They both look self-contentedly happy. What it did not show was that Jeni was already pregnant with Dad. That this was a marriage dictated by circumstance. Marcus, though, had wanted this marriage and this child and for the rest of her life Jenny would talk about his kindness that day. That because he wanted her to have a proper wedding, he had purchased her entire wedding ensemble
But even this memory, and hearing the story of kindness that day could not break down my image of him as a bully of a father that Dad overcame and succeeded despite him as opposed to because of him. He was a beast who deserved little consideration in my pantheon of family heroes.
Years went by and I did not think about him. That changed in the spring of 2005. I began reading a book called “The First World War” by John Keegan. While a lover of history and more well-read than most on American History I had never ventured into learning more than the basics on the “War to End All Wars” despite a sister and a mother who were bonified experts on the subject. The book captured my attention from the outset. The politics that caused the war started fascinated me but what captivated me was the sheer carnage the war created. In a single day or a single battle an equivalent of entire city would die. The battle of the Somme 1,219,000 casualties. Verdun 976,000 casualties. Gallipoli 473,000 casualties. Put another way, casualties during those battles would be the combined population of Dallas, TX, Jacksonville, Florida, and Kansas City, MO. I felt the need to discuss my emotions about this with someone who would know what it was that I was talking about. And as I often did in those days, I picked up the phone and called home. That is to say, my parents home.
I think the thing that I miss the most about Mom and Dad, but especially Pop, was our conversations. They were both highly educated and highly interested. They could converse on most subjects not only because of their education but both were lifelong learners who read the ink off the New York Times daily. They listened. They loved talking to their children and their children loved talking to them.
That morning my father must have felt a little ambushed because I am sure for the first part of our conversation he did not get a word in edgewise because I was so full of new knowledge of WW1 that it must have come out of my mouth like water from a tap. We talked about how the spark that lit the war candle had begun with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in June of 1914. How alliances cobbled together over time made the nations of Europe fall into a war like a line of dominoes. How modern weapons such as tanks, automatic rifles and machine guns and tactics better suited for horse based calvary and static line offenses had caused casualties that were unimaginable. That the cruelness of the war was compounded by the fact that it was being fought by petulant cousins when family ties could have easily aborted the war.
When I paused to catch my breath, Dad asked if I knew what his father had done during the war. And with that question the perception I had held about Grandfather Rothkopf for over 40 years crumbled and a more colorful and nuanced portrait emerged.
He told me that Grandpa Rothkopf like all young men in the Austria-Hungarian Empire had been conscripted into the army in 1906 when he turned 18 years of age. He had served the mandatory two years and then for a while had bummed around Europe looking for work. Dad seemed to think that he had spent time in Paris and even London but had eventually made his way to Vienna. It was there in the early summer of 1914, after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, he, like so many others of his generation were recalled to the Army. He was 26 years old and sent to the Eastern Front in Galicia the same province where he had grown up. It was there, in one of the earliest battles of the war, where he was wounded, “bayonetted in the ass”, and captured. Eventually, he and many of his countrymen, were sent to Siberia in far eastern Russia, and placed in a Gulag, or work camp. There he stayed, eating onions (a food he would never consume again) until 1921.
Here I paused my father’s narrative. I asked “1921? Didn’t the war end in 1918.”
“So why did it take so long to repatriate him and the other prisoners.” Dad said he did not know. But that he suspected that while hostilities had ended in 1918 what reparations the vanquished needed to pay the victors would have taken far longer to be worked out to mutual satisfaction. That this was likely complicated by the fact that Russia was in the midst of a revolution.”
I rhetorically wondered “What must that have been like?. 6000 miles away from home. Locked up in a camp in the middle of a frozen wasteland. Eating nothing but onions. Knowing that the war was over yet still waking up every morning behind barbed wire. Waking up every morning with the hope that today may be the day we will get word on our release. And going to bed every night for three long years with your hopes dashed among snoring stinking men. “
My father replied that his father had not talked much of those days except he refused to eat onions for the rest of his life. He supposed that the memories were too unpleasant to recount and that perhaps he did not want to share those memories because they were so nasty and represented a time in his life he chose not to remember.
I went for a long run after my call with Pop. I was in training for the NYC marathon and needed to get my miles in. Runs are good for thinking because as you get lost in your thoughts the exertion seems less and the time seems to pass more quickly. This particular run seemed to disappear in a blink of the eye as for the first time I considered the full arc of my grandfather’s life. He lived a life that was as difficult as any that I had ever heard of. That I had viewed him for so long with only the eyes of child and never really considered him as a human being with all the nuance of understanding that life experience brings you. It made me want to learn more about him. To humanize and cherish him as the father of my father.
My father always spoke of central Europe that he came from the standpoint of a native. Similar to that of New Yorker assuming that you knew the difference between Soho and Tribeca. This was compounded by the fact that the part of the world he was born into was transmogrified by two world wars; countries had been created and other eliminated. Gone was the Austria-Hungarian empire and its hegemony in the region replaced by Austria, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Kingdom of Serbia, Western Ukrainian Republic. Semi-autonomous regions were gobbled up by foreign states such as Bukovia, Transylvania, and Banat and Ganat being joined to Romania and Galicia. It must have been difficult for those who lived in the region at the time to understand all the changes let alone a person such as myself born continent away in the latter half of the 20th century.
So when Pops talked about his father being from Galicia I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about but I knew enough to know it was a part of Poland even though I could not fully appreciate the seismic change that had happened in Europe at the end of World War 1. This lack of understanding was compounded by an additional problem. There are two Galicia’s. One exists in the NW corner of Spain and was considered the end of the world by the Romans and the other which lay on the border of central and eastern Europe.
Maps help. Below is a map of the Galicia Marcus was from at the beginning of WW1. It stretches from what is now the Ukraine all the way to Silesia in the Czech Republic. The sheer size of the region is one of the challenges when looking for Marcus’s birthplace. The second is the name of the town, Grodzisko. In Polish the word means fortified settlement. In other words, it is like finding a town called Washington or Springfield in the United States without knowing the state. There is Grodzisko Gorne, Grodzisko Dolne, Grodzisko Owidz to name just a few. The Grodzisko of our ancestors( Wikipedia refers to it as Grodzisko, Lesser Poland Voivodeship) lays in the far west of Galicia almost due south of Cracow and just 15 miles South East of the market village of Oswiecin. The Germans when they invaded in 1939 renamed this town Auschwitz.
I can tell you from personal experience that this part of the world is absolutely lovely. In the spring it is lush with wildflowers and deep purple lilacs. Rich forests, verdant crop lands, crystal lakes. Its beauty makes it easy to understand why the first Rothkopfs settled here. In the late 1990 your Grandfather Rothkopf was in Poland giving a lecture and decided that he wanted to visit the place where his father was born. I believe this adventure was more out of curiosity that of any great love he had for his grandparents as he never met them. What he knew of the place came from two men, his father, and his Uncle Max, both of whom fled the town as soon as they could. But they must have had told Pops enough about the place to pique his curiosity.
What he found was a wonderfully bucolic village with many homes that looked as if they had existed during his grandparents lives as they were made from logs directly from the forest as opposed to any construction material.
However, as the pastoral look on the outside something much darker lurked. Dad was searching for any sign that his relatives had lived there. Perhaps a synagogue that would have family records or at worst a Jewish cemetery where perhaps he could find some trace of our family.
Marcus Rothkopf’s parents: Saydl & Zacharias Rothkopf
Even though Dad had a translator the folks lived in the village seemed very reluctant to talk about the time before the war. Some claimed they had not lived here long enough. Other’s claimed ignorance of a Jewish Community ever being there. This, of course, contradicted common sense and records he had received from the Museum of the Diaspora. He knew from his father and uncle the town had their own Jewish schools and shul and had been a vital part of the community for centuries. Finally, just as Dad was getting ready to leave, one resident took pity on him and told him the awful truth. That after the German occupation of Poland all of the Jewish residents had been rounded up and sent to ghettos in Cracow and Warsaw and eventually to Auschwitz. There, most had perished only a few miles away from their homes. Those that survived never returned. After their departure, their lands had been seized, their synagogue torched. They had taken the gravestones from the cemetery and used them to line their sewers. Needless to say the destruction of the Jewish community in this town bothered Dad horribly as did the fact that he come all this way to fine some trace of his heritage and found none. But would stay with him the most was the fact that the people of Grodzisko Lesser Poland Voivodeship had erased all trace of them. People tend to forget things when remembering their behavior makes them feel bad about themselves and even more forgetful if recalling past events might make them liable for the theft of property and life.
We do not know much about Marcus’s early life except the basics. He was born on November 18, 1888 and according to a variety of papers he had no middle name. (Official paperwork gives him a middle name of Israel but they gave that to all Jews who had no middle name. His lack of middle name probably had a lot to do with his religious upbringing when Jews names are commonly your first name followed ben or son of and your father’s name. In this he would have been Mordecai ben Zacharai.) We believe he was the first of five children. Max was the youngest born, March 16, 1896. In between them were three sisters. Their names have sadly been lost to time. Dad could not remember their names and by the time I thought to ask there was no one else alive who would know. Pops memory was not faulty. He never met his aunts and they were abstract concepts as opposed to the Aunts, Uncles, and cousins he grew up with in Vienna.
Marcus’s daily life in the shtetl was not a subject that he liked to discuss very much. We know that his father was a reasonably successful cattle broker and that his education was primarily religious. He spoke and wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish but while speaking German, he was illiterate in that language. He clearly did not value education and stopped his schooling as soon as he could. For the rest of his life he believed education was a hoax, that it never put money on the table, and as a consequence was actively hostile to Grandpa’s educational dreams.
When Marcus turned 18 years of age in 1906 he, like all other males at that age, were conscripted into the army. Their length of service was 10 years but typically they served only 2 years and were taken from active service to that of reserve. It seems likely that he was released from active service in 1908.
We know after he finished his 2 years of service in the army he did not return to Grodzisko. Instead according to Dad, he bummed around Europe for a while looking for a place to plant his roots. According to the stories I heard he spent time in Paris and in London but decided not to stay in either place due to language issues and the inability to find a good job. Eventually he made his way to Vienna, a world capitol, and crossroads of Europe, where he not only spoke the language but where Jews were allowed liberties not granted in many other parts of Europe.
It was in Vienna he heard the news on June 28, 1914 that the heir to the throne of Austrio-Hungarian empire was assassinated in Sarajevo along with his wife Duchess Sophie of Hohenberg. This event, which happened more by happenstance than design, not only dramatically changed the world forever but the path of Marcus’s life.
End of Part 1