My father, Max (Mordechai Menahem) Knisbacher was born during 1913 in Berlin and died in the U.S. on June 2, 1995. Amazingly, he preserved various pictures, letters and documents from the stops on his odyssey that began with his flight from Germany in 1933 through France, Palestine, England and ended in the U.S. These documents were in a variety of languages, including German, French, Hebrew, Polish, and Yiddish. Since I had the good fortune to have worked as a translator and analyst for most of my career, I felt a duty to preserve my father’s memory and the memory of his immediate forebears, most of whom he never knew.
[Editor’s Note: The Knisbacher paternal line falls within AvotaynuDNA Project lineage AB-033. Contact AvotaynuDNA@gmail.com for details or visit www.AvotaynuOnline.com/DNA.]
I grew up with an early memory from age six when my family gathered around the radio and cheered in late 1947 when the United Nations announced the partition of Palestine and the recreation of the first sovereign Jewish state in 2,000 years. At that young age, all I knew of my father’s history was that he had been in the war and that members of both my father’s and mother’s families had perished. In later years, the horror of the Holocaust became something I felt compelled to come to terms with, and fueled what became my “genealogical imperative.”
How did I begin researching his family history? Apart from the pictures and documents, my father also left behind the name of his own father’s birthplace, a shtetl called Lysiec. Since my job sometimes required morning meetings in Washington, D.C., I took those afternoons off to visit the National Archives, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, or the Library of Congress (LC). At the Library of Congress, in 1995, I finally found a reference to Lysiec on a printed map, written in Cyrillic. The place existed!
Why had my father himself never mentioned Lysiec to me? The answer may be that his father, Isak Moses (Yitzkhaq Moshe) Knisbacher, had died in the 1918 flu pandemic when my father was only five years old. Dad was thereafter raised among his mother’s large family, and had little contact with his father’s relatives aside from brief contact with a paternal uncle Hermann (Hirsch) who arrived once from Königsberg to present my father with a red bicycle for his 11th birthday. Aside from that one contact, he only had a couple of photographs and the recollections of his mother (who was from the big city of Tarnow, not the shtetl of Lysiec) and even her knowledge was second hand. Still, when Dad was in his last days with a terminal illness, it became important to him that we know where all of his folks had come from.
I have acquired numerous other maps locating Lysiec, a village on the right bank of the Bystritsa Solotvinska river (a tributary of the Dniester), at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. The shtetl is 10 km south-west to Ivano-Frankivs’k and 8 km north-east from Bohorodchany.” [http://jgaliciabukovina.net/110665/community/lysiec?page=101]
Several other nearby towns that I discoved during my research also contained other branches of the Knisbacher family memers or in-laws, including Nadvirna, Mykulychyn, Kolomyya, Otyniya, and Tlumach. Collectively, I refer to this cluster of communicaties as “Knisbacher land.” The closest big city, formerly Stanislawow, Poland, is now known as Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine.
My father possessed two pictures of his father: one of his father and mother together, and another of his father, his father’s sister Sarah, and their parents, Dov and Cirl (née Bonner or Banner, taken in Stanislawow, as indicated on the back.
Dad had once told me that his parents were married in London. He never said why, and after his death I began to wonder if this was true. Searching for a British records source, I came upon a Family Records Center; Myddleton Place; Myddleton St.; London, EC 1, England. On July 1, 1997, I wrote to them with my request, and they forwarded to me their official “Application for Marriage Certificate.” After I filled it out and sent it back, I received the results later that year.
The marriage record described the groom as Isak Moses Knisbacher, a bachelor aged 23 and the bride as Cilli Szydlow, a spinster aged 24. They were married in London on February 27, 1911 and resided at 27 Tredegar Square.. His occupation is listed as “general dealer.” His father is Berl Knisbacher, a “hotel keeper.” Hers is Meier Szydlow, a “fishmonger.” Suddenly I had basic information on the family, in fact, much more than I had anticipated.
They did not remain in London for long. Their eldest child Mali (murdered in the Holocaust) was born in Berlin merely nine months later, my father was born there in 1913.
The initial map, two photographs and the marriage certificate were the only physical evidence I had at that point. Where to go from there? As I pondered, old memories came flooding back. Dad had once mentioned a very old “Aunt Shoshana” in Israel who was the widow of one of his father’s brothers. On another occasion, he enthralled us with the tale that one of his uncles, unnamed at the time, was in China, which sounded very exotic when we first heard it as young kids. In a childhood fantasy I imagined that my father had a pigtailed Chinaman for an uncle (During the course of this research, I learned that this was the same uncle Hirsch (Hermann) who had come from Königsberg to Berlin for Dad’s birthday in 1924).
Much more recently, the evidence of that journey has become available on the Web, via a Bremen passenger index [provided by Ancestry.com. The original data apparently from http://www.passengerlists.de/ where we have three of the four family members as follows:
Search results for knisbacher in the passenger names:
|Dina||Knisbacher||from Königsberg (staatenlos) travelled at 17 April 1939 on the ship ‘Neckar’ from Bremen to Shanghai, China|
|Hanni||Knisbacher||from Königsberg (staatenlos) travelled at 17 April 1939 on the ship ‘Neckar’ from Bremen to Shanghai, China|
|Hermann||Knisbacher||from Königsberg (Staatenlos) travelled at 30 Mai 1939 on the ship ‘Marburg’ from Bremen to Shanghai, China|
From the 1939 Shanghai business directory, on yet another valuable new source, the Genealogy Indexer, I found the exact address for Hermann in that city, 43 Chusan, where he is listed as a merchant (kfm. for kaufman).
Last year, I received this email from Judith Elam, [another researcher of Holocaust victims and survivors whom I had encountered on the GENI website.] It provides the exact death dates for Hermann and his wife Hanni from yet another source I had not known, the H. Richter collection on the Center for Jewish History website (Atara, their granddaughter in Israel, has since learned that graveyard in China where deceased Shanghai immigrants had been buried was destroyed decades ago in one of the Chinese Communist upheavals.) Hanni Knisbacher (Wartelski’s) birthdate on this record shows her a year younger than the date given on her Bremen passenger list (which I have not included here); i.e., this record has her born in 1882 rather than 1881.
Since I had compiled considerable information about Uncle Hirsch, I now set my sights on locating Aunt Shoshana, the very elderly aunt in Israel that my father had met on a trip there in his later years who proved to be the mother lode of information. During a telephone call with her, she provided an outline of almost the entire family. Although she was in her 90s, she followed up with a typed letter.
Shoshana (née Schreier) was the widow of my father’s uncle Eliezer, and she listed six of his siblings as follows: Frieda, Sarah, Tova, Shikl, Hirsch, and Isaac, my grandfather. Just this year, I learned that he had left a brief listing of his father’s family with my brother back in 1995, but I had never seen it. Apparently my father knew all the names except for Tova. Interestingly, Shoshana omitted Leib, but, as I discovered later, that was probably because he had been living in Berlin since 1922 and she must never have met him.
Shoshana’s family lived in Stanislawow, but her father worked in Lysiec, in a shoe leather factory that he owned, from Monday through Thursday, returning home only on Friday. He would regularly eat at the Knisbacher restaurant (presumably an actual inn since father Berl’s occupation on Isak Moses’ marriage certificate was listed as “hotel keeper”). Shoshana tells the delightful story how, at age 16, she came to a party in Lysiec and Sarah Knisbacher was so taken with her that she told Shoshana’s father she should marry Shikl (then 18) in two years, when Shoshana turned 18. But her father David Schreier became ill, closed his Lysiec factory, and contact with the Knisbachers ended.
Shoshana’s actual husband-to-be, Eliezer, whom she hadn’t mentioned, was in the Austrian army in World War I and then went to live with his brother Hirsch in Berlin. When he returned home for Passover in 1931, still a bachelor, his sister Sarah remembered Shoshana and sent someone to find out if Shoshana was still unmarried. Eliezer and Shoshana were engaged within the week and three weeks later, on August 2, 1931, were married. They moved to Königsberg and opened a restaurant. When Hitler came to power in 1933, they closed the restaurant and returned to Stanislawow and from there immigrated to Israel in 1935.
All of these details were completely new to me and opened up new avenues to pursue—especially to try and learn more about Tova and Shikl, about whom I had never heard before, to learn the birth order and to acquire pictures of them if any had survived. Since I knew that my father had been in Palestine from late 1934 through mid-1937, I was curious to know if he had met Eliezer at that time. Of course, I also had not known that Hirsch and Eliezer had been in Berlin when my father was still there. Again, had they met? It’s a question that still has no answer. My father never mentioned Eliezer in my presence and his only mention of Hirsch was that trip from Königsberg in 1924. Just how long Hirsch was in Berlin also still is unknown.
Amazingly, all this detail from Shoshana came after she said she didn’t know a lot about the Knisbachers because Eliezer didn’t speak much about the family! The rest of the letter dealt with her own family and the enormous losses it suffered during the Holocaust. She also believed that she and I had met in 1964 at Aunt Frieda’s house in New York. I was at Aunt Frieda’s house on a couple of occasions in 1963 when I worked that summer for IBM in Yorktown Heights, NY. It is possible that I simply don’t remember meeting her, or even being there in 1964, but it seems more likely that the meeting took place in 1963 or that she confused my father for me.
I wrote back to Aunt Shoshana asking for more details about dates, maiden names and the like; the reply came in the form of a handwritten three-page note and included a couple of very nice photographs of her and her family. The note was written by her son Dov (who had Hebraized his surname from Knisbacher to Eliaz, in honor of their father Eliezer) who explained that his mother really knew nothing more except to say that her own mother’s maiden name was Weidler.
I had recently acquired an email account and had created a family list with which I shared all this information as it developed. My next break came in a trip to the [US Holocaust Memorial Museum—thanks for catching that!!! in Washington, D.C. around that same time, in the Soviet Extraordinary Commission report on the Nazi atrocities in the areas that the German army had occupied. A search of often hard-to-read microfilm yielded a report of a Knizbakher family from Lysiec. The entries in this list are written in the Ukrainian language (although there are other lists in Russian) in a Cyrillic alphabet similar to Russian. Although findings of the Extraordinary Commission have since been digitized and are searchable on the Web, this document does not show up on-line. Those who can read Cyrillic may want to check out the original microfilm to be sure nothing has been missed.
Only a bare minimum of information appears, just names and the relationships, but it is enough to reveal something my family otherwise would not have known. It says: 79 Tsirlya, grandmother (stara matya in Ukrainian); 80 Simon, head; 81 Sura, wife; 82 Genka, daughter; 83 Montzya, daughter (very faded, name uncertain).
This was clearly one family, and part of my father’s family since Tsirl (or Cirl) was the name of my father’s grandmother. At the time, I was trying to get as much information as fast as I could because I wanted to memorialize [the Nazi murder victims] of Dad’s family on the back of his own tombstone. Since the unveiling would be about a year from the date of his death, I had no time to lose. Unfortunately this information caused some confusion, which found its way onto that stone. The name Simon here was new to me and I considered that he possibly was a Knisbacher son about whom neither Dad nor Shoshana knew. Consequently, these people are listed as such on Dad’s tombstone. In fact, I later learned that Sura was Dad’s Aunt Sarah. She was the Knisbacher, not Simon, whose real surname, we later learned, was Goldstein (via Yad Vashem Pages of Testimony submitted by a Meshullam Goldstein, as well as by Uncle Eliezer).
Though I did not know it at the time, I later learned that it was common, especially in Galicia, for Jewish children to carry their mother’s family name. Jews there were encouraged by their rabbis to marry only in religious ceremonies, which the authorities did not recognize. Consequently, the children bore the mother’s surname. I believe that my own grandfather Yitzkhaq Moshe decided to marry in London, where the religious ceremony was legally recognized by the government, precisely to make sure that his children carried his name and not his wife’s. Why do I think that?
A couple of years after the conversation and correspondence with Shoshana, I made contact with Dina Kahan, one of the twin daughters of my father’s Uncle Hirsch (aka Hermann) who had died in Shanghai. After a telephone conversation, she, too, sent me some documentation that turned out, over a decade later, to have amazing information that initially I had completely overlooked. Dina had sent a handwritten note and then a picture postcard from 1917 of my grandfather sitting in a chair in a hospital. The opposite side contained a faded note from my grandfather to his brother Hirsch, who was serving in the Austro-Hungarian army at the time, as was Eliezer. Dina refers to both her father Hermann (Hirsch) as Bonner, as well as my grandfather, Hermann’s brother.
I was so excited to get only the third picture I had ever seen of my grandfather that I largely neglected the reverse side of the postcard. Although I could read most of the message text on one part, I had substantial difficulty with the faded Gothic script on the rest of the card, and sent the enhanced version to the Jewishgen Viewmate service. Several people responded that the message was simply “Your brother Isak Knisbacher sends you his best greetings as a memento.” No only was his brother addressed as Private H. Bonner, but in the return address at the top right, Isak, my grandfather, also calls himself Private Bonner. So he clearly identified himself as Knisbacher, but the army knew him as Bonner (or Banner).
The real shocker, however, was that this card showed something we never knew, that my grandfather had served in the German army. The return address is to the Berlin military hospital (Lazaret); the pajamas are those of military patients; the postcard bore no stamp and only military personnel had free franking privileges. Three of the Lysiec brothers, Eliezer, Hirsch (Hermann) and Isak (Yitzkhaq Moshe) served in World War I, Eliezer and Hirsch in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Isak, in the army of its stronger ally, the German Empire.
We know a bit more about Eliezer from another serendipitous event. Because I had set up a family Internet group and now had an Internet presence of my own, a distant cousin found me on her computer at about the same time that I received my grandfather’s postcard from Dina in California. Before my father died, he had been contacted by a blind attorney in Washington, D.C., Paul Kay (may his name be for a blessing), originally from Vienna and originally a Knisbacher. Dad and his mother knew relatives in Vienna had owned a large tallis (Jewish prayer shawl) factory, but they did not know the exact relationship, which remains unknown as I write this. Nevertheless there is no doubt that we are all related, based on our many given names in common, but of more consequence, on a twelve-point FTDNA match between me and a Knisbacher male descendant from the Vienna branch.
Another member of this Vienna family, Bettina Knisbacher Graf, unaware of the contact that had previously been made with Paul and later with some of his other relatives, sent me an email in 1998 asking if we were related. After that initial contact, the next email was more substantive and included many photographs of her family from Vienna (originally from the area around Kolomea, in the same part of eastern Galicia as Lysiec) and then a wonderful find from the military section of the Austrian State Archives. Her family members, also had served in the Austrian army in World War I and Bettina was searching for the details.
The document showed Eliezer’s German name Leiser; his birth date, 1899—hence 18 years old on April 19, 1917, the date at the bottom, so he was of draft age; and documentary proof of his birth place, Lysiec, with the further details that it was in the district of Bohorodczany in the province of Galicia. One more very important detail was his father Berl, listed as point of contact. We know that Berl’s oldest child, Dad’s aunt Frieda was born in 1885, so it is likely that Berl was born in the 1860s. Bettina’s grandfather was born in 1860; this was the common forename no, Bettina’s grandfather- this sentence. Bettina’s grandfather and my father’s grandfather were both Berls, two early members of the same generation who, presumably, were named for the common ancestor of what became the German and Austrian branches of the family.
In addition, we learned that in 1917, Berl was not in Lysiec but in Teplitz-Türn, today Teplice in the Czech Republic, but back then just another town in the huge Austro-Hungarian Empire. Checking into the history of World War I in that area, I was able to find the reason for the move. The area around Lysiec was on the front lines at the beginning of the war, so many Jews headed west toward safer ground, and chose Teplitz because it had an established Jewish community and a large synagogue.
In 1998 I was also corresponding with a Stuart Levine in Israel. He, too, had found me on Web, and was researching his own family members in the States. We agreed to trade research. I would look up information for him in the U.S. and he would search Yad Vashem archives, which had not yet been digitized. One of his first and most important finds was this one, just as he forwarded it to me, with typos and other errors that I will explain:
Parents Natan and Taube
Birthplace/year Horen?, Chekeslovakia/1914
Death site/year (or age)
Witness/relation Alexander Knisbacher/Uncle
Shoshana had mentioned a sister named Tova who married someone named Groch. Clearly this was the family, with Taube being the Germanized version of Tova, and the husband’s name, Natan, now known. Most interestingly was the son Yitschak born in 1914, at the start of World War I, in Czechoslovakia. (it only became Czechoslovakia at the end of the war). I suspected that “Horen” was a misreading of Türn, the second half of Teplitz-Türn mentioned in Eliezer’s hospital record. Since the Page of Testimony had been submitted by a Knisbacher uncle, that meant that Tova was a Knishbacher just as Shoshana had indicated, and suggested that Stuart’s “Alexander” was a misreading of the Hebrew signature of none other than Eliezer. The actual record that I downloaded at the Yad Vashem website more than a decade later, showed that guess to be correct. On that document, Yitschak’s mother’s name is given as the Yiddishized Toiva
The name of Natan Groch later led, through Ancestry and further Yad Vashem Pages of Testimony (mostly from Eliezer and Shoshana), to the discovery of a total of three children, all murdered in the Holocaust, along with their parents, Menahem (b. 1909), Yitschak (b. 1914) and Dvora (b. 1935). Sadly, I have no pictures of most of them. Nor do I have any of Leib, but I know that his wife, Fannie Spira, also murdered during the Holocaust, has living relatives, as does my father’s Aunt Frieda. I still hope to find pictures for both one day.
Those additional Pages of Testimony, now easily accessible on the Web, led to another discovery. It turns out that Shimon Goldstein, who married Sura Knisbacher (the couple from the Soviet Extraordinary Commission report), came from the town of Mikulyczyn, at the very south of “Knisbacher land.” What is interesting about it is that Shikl Knisbacher, again from newly accessible Yad Vashem pages of testimony, was married to a Sima Goldstein, from that same town. My guess is that Sima and Shimon Goldstein were sister and brother who married brother and sister Shikl and Sura Knisbacher, respectively. This pattern was repeated in the next generation when two of my father’s sisters, Mali and Friedchen Knisbacher married two brothers, Louis (Israel) and Luser (El’azar)) Strassberg.
One of the greatest of our family Holocaust tragedies occurred when El’azar was unable to save his brother and sister-in-law while they were all in France desperately trying to avoid Hitler’s Vichy allies. All he could do was save his niece, Gisele, and watch in horror as the others were kept from him, shortly thereafter to be shipped off to Auschwitz.
These new documents have finally shown me the ultimate fates and likely birth dates of the members of my paternal grandfather’s generation. Of the eight siblings, only two had the opportunity to live reasonably full lives, the oldest Frieda (b. 1885), who married her first cousin Saul and lived in New York, and Eliezer (b. 1899). Frieda and Saul had four children and several living grandchildren and great grandchildren. Eliezer had served in the Austro-Hungarian army and later made his way to Palestine. He and his wife Shoshana Schreier had two sons Dov and Moshe, living with their own children and grandchildren in Israel.
The lives of the other six were cut short. My grandfather died in 1918 at age 30 in the worldwide influenza epidemic. He left behind a wife and three daughters in addition to my father. Hermann (b. 1890), died in Shanghai at the age of 53, an indirect victim of the Holocaust as he was not murdered outright by the Nazis but perished, along with his wife Hannah Wartelski, from disease induced by the privations of the war that their flight from the Nazis had forced upon them. Their twin daughters are now both deceased but there are grandchildren and great- grandchildren both in the U.S. and in Israel. Sister Tova (Groch), her husband Natan and their three children: Menahem, Yitschak and Dvora were all victims of Hitler. One of the sources for Tova says she was born in 1887. If so, she would have been a twin of my grandfather, something about which we never heard, but then we never knew he was in the German army either.
Uncle Leib (b. 1896) and his wife, Fannie Spira, were childless and were both murdered in the Holocaust. Leib would have been of draft age at the start of World War I, but we have no record to show if he ever served. If he served in the Austro-Hungarian army it would likely have been under the name Banner, as did his brother Hirsch, since Bettina’s search for Knisbacher in the Vienna military archives only turned up her immediate relative and Eliezer. If Leib served in the German army we will probably never know, since those World War I enlistment records were destroyed in allied raids on Potsdam near the end of the war.
Aunt Sura Knisbacher (b. 1893) with her husband, Shimon Goldstein, and their two daughters, now known to be Henya and Bronya (not Genya and Montsya as shown on the Soviet Extraordinary Commission report), all were murdered by the Nazis or their Ukrainian henchmen. Uncle Szykl (Yehoshua) Knisbacher (b. 1902), aka Shia and Osias, was murdered during the Holocaust with his wife, Sima Goldstein, and their son Dov (b. 1927). Because we assume Dov was named for his grandfather, Dov Berl, and because Eliezer, who submitted Pages of Testimony for all his relatives that he knew had perished in the Holocaust, did not submit any page for his father, we assume that grandfather Berl died before the Nazi invasion of Poland, between 1918, the last record of him showing up on his son Yitzkhaq Moshe”s death report, and 1927, the year of grandson Dov’s birth.
The story is not quite complete. Just this year, 2016, Hirsch’s granddaughter, Atara in Israel, was going through her mother Dina’s effects when she came across a trove of pictures. Apparently, Uncle Hirsch had sent his daughters, Dina and Frieda, on summer vacations back to Hirsch’s hometown of Lysiec. We found a picture of Uncle Szykl and his son Dov and a later picture of Dov alone. We still have no picture of Tova Knisbacher, but now we do have one of her son Yitschak, the one born in “Czechoslovakia” in 1914. From notations on the back of the photo we know that he went by the nickname Izo, pronounced Eetso. Finally, we also have a picture of Hermann’s twin daughters Dina and Frieda with their first cousins, Aunt Sura’s daughters Henya (the older) and Bronya (the younger) And there is one more picture, apparently taken at the same time and similarly posed shows the girls with Henya and Bronya’s mother, my father’s Aunt Sura.
Though my research into my father’s family is far from done (I have yet to pin down the origin of our surname or to establish the exact link between the various branches of the family that were previously unknown), I have learned an enormous amount about where they lived, how they lived, and all kinds of new sources to pursue that will likely continue to increase as time goes on. Although most genealogists do not have the language skills to tackle the documents that I have discovered, it is important to understand that discovered documents must be translated.
But, for me the greatest satisfaction comes from being able to provide a memorial of sorts for those human beings, members of my own family, created in the image of God, who were so savagely slaughtered that they never even had the right to a proper burial. I now know not just the names but at least a little bit about who they were, what some of them looked like, and an even greater appreciation for what was lost through their loss.