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  • Writer's pictureGamliel Beyderman

Genealogy and Escape Rooms, Part 2

Previously we discussed Arthur Kurzweil’s genealogical research into his father's side of the family. Now we will continue on his journey to uncover his mother's family history.

The story of Kurzweil's investigation into his mother's ancestors is far more intense than his father's. It evolves from research to becoming a question of identity. We hope to emulate the sense of adventure, those perplexing and puzzling moments in our escape room - where there is never a guarantee of figuring it all out.

At first, his mother's family history did not seem too genealogically promising, for she was born in the USA, and knew very little about her European background. He starts off his search by writing to his mother's cousin, Maurice Gottlieb, saving each letter exchanged between them as documented evidence. Maurice lets him in on some surprising facts, for instance, that his great grandfather had been ordained as a Rabbi.

But most shocking of all was his claim that the family last name was not truly Gottlieb, but rather Rosenwasser. Soon after he acquired that information, his mother's parents moved out of the apartment that they had occupied for years. Although they had always vehemently denied having any photos or information that would help his search, he goes to rummage through their vacant apartment anyway. This turned out to be a big opportunity, unlocking a wealth of clues and leads in his adventure of self discovery.

Indeed, he discovers a veritable goldmine of information and even photographs of both of his great-grandparents. Swiftly, he dashes over to cousin Maurice to exhibit his findings, triggering an outpouring of memories especially from the photographs. In the course of their conversation, Maurice mentions that he remembers being scolded as a child with unique words: “That's no way to behave, especially since you are an ainikel (grandchild / descendant) of the Stropkover Rebbe!”

Excited about this new clue, Kurzweil anxiously searches all available resources until he finds a Stropkover Rebbe by the name of “Chaim Yosef Gottlieb” which seems to fit into his genealogical picture. But is this truly his ancestor if cousin Maurice said that their family last name was not Gottlieb, but Rosenwasser?

Perturbed but hopeful, he mentions his belief in his descent from the Stropkover Rebbe in an interview on the radio.

This is his way of sharing what he has unlocked of the mystery so far, just as the players in an escape must share and pool their findings and information, for another person may have the key to unlocking your puzzle.

In response to his radio announcement, comes a wave of calls from many people claiming that they too are descended from the Stropkover Rebbe. As a result, he obtains the phone number of a certain Rabbi Israel, who had written a short biography on the Stropkover Rebbe. Praying that the mystery was finally beginning to unfold, Kurzweil gets in touch with Rabbi Israel, and goes to meet him in person.

Unfortunately, after talking for a while, it didn't seem like Rabbi Israel had any worthwhile information to offer him. However, having brought along that which he had collected on the Gottlieb family he presented it to Rabbi Israel to look over. Among all the documents and information, Rabbi Israel noticed a piece of stationary with a letter that read, “Bistritz and Vicinity Aid Society”. It also had his grandfathers name listed as secretary.

An old unimportant finding was now leading to new breakthroughs. Rabbi Israel directed him to the Bistritzker Rebbe whose Shtiebel, or small synagogue, was just a few blocks away.

Kurzweil makes his way there and enters a scene that fits right in his imagination of Pre-War Europe. The Bistritzker Rebbe warmly greets him and they discuss the Gottlieb family. The Rebbe knew the family, he had studied with Kurzweil’s great uncle. Part of the encounter in the words of Arthur Kurzweil in his book. We feel these passages do an amazing job of revealing the wonder of family history:

“One of the additional pieces of information I had discovered along the way was that my great-grandfather’s name was Shlomo. I knew this from the inside cover of my grandfather’s Bible, where many years ago he wrote brief genealogies of his mother and father. Rabbi Israel was unable to use this additional name for my purposes, but the Rebbe seemed interested. He looked through the biography of the Stropkover Rebbe that Rabbi Israel had written, and while flipping through the pages, he kept repeating “Usher Ben Shlomo, Usher Ben Shlomo.”

The Rebbe just repeated those names, the names of my great-grandfather and his father, over and over to himself as he looked through the biography. It was obvious that he was looking for the names, but I was sure he would not find them there. A few times while he was examining and reading the biography, a phone in the back room rang. The Rebbe was so involved in the biography that it was not until the fifth or sixth ring that he stood up and walked to the back to answer it. Each time the phone rang, the Rebbe took too much time to answer it, and it stopped before he got there.

When he returned to look through the biography again, he seemed happy that he didn't have to talk on the phone so that he could get back to his reading. In the meantime I just sat there, watching the Rebbe continue to read the book and repeat the names “Usher Ben Shlomo, Usher Ben Shlomo.”

I sat staring and looking around the room. My imagination was active during those minutes, wondering what it was like when the room was filled with praying Hasidim. Suddenly, the Rebbe spotted something on a page. He brought it to the window, since the light in the room was rather poor. He came back and sat down and said, “Shlomo was the son of the Rebbe.”

I didn't know what to do. I knew that he was wrong; Rabbi Israel had told me each of the names of the Rebbe’s sons. But I was not comfortable telling this Rebbe that he was incorrect. Somehow it just didn't seem right to contradict a Rebbe. I decided to say “Really?” in a confused and somewhat doubting voice.

He looked again and said “no, no, no, no, no.” He shook his head in apparent disappointment in himself and sat in silence for a few minutes staring at the book. He then looked up and told me that where he was from it was a custom to take a mother's last name rather than a father's. In fact, he said, this was so in almost 50% of the cases in his community in Europe. Then he said, “ The Rebbe Gottlieb has a daughter Gittel. Her husband was Shlomo Zalke.” He paused and then said in a deep, confident tone, as if he were making a proclamation, “This is your Shlomo. You come from them and take her last name. This is my opinion.”

This was unbelievable information, for it solved the question of his identity. His great great grandfather, Shlomo Zalke Rosenwasser, took his wife's last name Gottlieb, so really his identity was bound up with both names."

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