Posts categorized “Genealogy”.

Lockdown Cinema: Todo Sobre Mi Madre (1999)

When you love movies, you have favorites. but it is not always possible to re-watch them all the time. Some movies always show up on cable (like Hitchcock’s The Birds), and some, like anything by Pedro Almodovar, never happen to show up.

Luckily, Turner Classics Movies in January 2021 decided to show about eight of Pedro Almodovar’s early movies, from 1980’s Pepi, Luci, Bom… through 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, to 1999’s Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother).

I could tell you a lot about the movie and it’s many wonderful devices of mirroring and foreshadowing and dualites, but you should see the movie for yourself, if you have not.

And if you aren’t totally gutted by the 18-minute mark, I would have to wonder what is wrong with you.

So the thing about a favorite movie that you have not seen in a long time–in this case, it’s been 22 years–is that the movie is the same, but you are not.

I saw this movie when I lived alone in Manhattan, my parents were alive, I had lovely friend, and I had two black cats. I was unhappily in the publishing industry.

Today, I live with my husband in New Jersey, my parents are now long gone, some of my lovely friends have also died (mostly female), and my cats are also long gone. But, I now have a masters in library science and I love doing research for a living and as a hobby.

Since 1999, I have done a lot more genealogy work, and DNA tests have helped me find the families of my birth father and birth mother. Genealogy and DNA has lead me to study even more women, and even more mothers.

Todo Sobre Mi Madre is a study of women, the women they are and the women they want to be, and also about men who become women. It is very difficult to watch this movie and not thing about your own mother, the other women in your life, and think about who they were, what they wanted, who they wanted to be and whether things worked out that way.

As a person who loves research and genealogy, in the time between 1999 and 2021, I have also studied genetic family members I will never get to know, from the birth mother brutally killed in an unsolved crime, to the wife of a great-great uncle who died in a Jewish old age home in Berlin in 1942, to a great-great-grandmother who, at the age of 78, wound up taking over the family business (the manufacture of Turkish cigarettes) in 1912 when her husband died–even though she had two sons right there who could have taken oven.

I am lucky to have some of my birth mother’s letters, and the great-great-aunt. So I have been able to get a peek into their lives and their minds.

What’s wonderful about Todo Sobre Mi Madre is how these women make a community for themselves, simply by being there and sometimes just listening. And what’s wonderful in Almodovar’s movies is that he often concentrates on female characters. This is in part thanks to the post-Franco era. Almodovar explained that in the Franco era, men were simply encouraged to be macho and not have feelings; consequently, women just seemed much more interesting to him.

And they will to you as well, and will serve to remind you to find what is interesting in the women around you.



When I speak to Eric’s cousin Liese about her own grandmother, Karolina Wolf (died 1932), she always says, “She was a real grandmother type.” I know exactly what she means. My grandmother, Sadie Bookey, was just that type. My father would take us to see her and my grandfather every Sunday, first when they still lived on Montgomery Street in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, and later in Little Neck, in Queens, about 20 minutes from our house in Great Neck. Grandma did many of the typical Jewish Grandmother things. She would bake cookies and send them to us when we were up at camp in Connecticut. Every Sunday we pretty much had the same meal–chicken noodle soup, meatballs and overcooked peas, roasted chicken, challah, and more. She was upbeat and positive and if you brought your friends to see her, she liked them also. And if you weren’t so keen on something, neither was she. She often invoked the Shma prayer as she was always thankful for so many of the blessings in her life–and even for smaller things, like our rental car in Seattle in 1979.

Grandma lived to 100 and I got to have her in my live for 33 years. So most of the time I knew her, she was retired from the workplace. My grandfather had had a stroke and her job was looking after him 24/7. But it didn’t seem like a job to her. This was her life. She never complained and she probably should not have, in her 80s, been the primary caregiver to another senior. She did have some help. My aunt and uncle lived nearby and helped her with much of the shopping. A woman from Haiti, Suzette, would come by a few times a week to help out also. Grandpa could barely walk or talk by 1980 but Grandma would get him out of bed, to the bathroom, to the table, to the couch.

Grandma was the third child to be born to my great-grandparents here in America. Before her were twin sisters, Gertie and Rose, born two years earlier. All three of them were born on the Lower East Side. But before her parents came here, the had three children back in Radzilow, Poland. Annie, the oldest, and two boys, Avram and Nisl. Their father came here first and then Baba got on the boat with three children, and disembarked with only one. The two boys died of an illness going around the ship, and were buried at sea. It’s impossible to imagine how any of them felt when Baba and Annie met Zayde at Ellis Island and he asked, “Where are my sons? Where are my sons?”

Zayde was a butcher and had his own butcher store on Henry Street. At one of the buildings were they lived, the entrance to their apartment building was in the middle, between two stores. His butcher shop was on one side and the Shers had a grocery store on the other. In the 1990s those stores were a laundromat and a videogame store. The building is still there. In 1900, living in one apartment was my grandmother, two parents, the twins, Annie, her brother Irving, and the baby, Sarah, who was born in 1899 and died in 1900. Also living with them were Baba’s brother, a furrier, and his son. In 1910, two cousins, the Levines, were living with them.

Their father had asthma problems and it was advised that they move to Williamburg, where the air would be better. Probably bigger apartments, probably a few less people per apartment. They lived on Roebling Street and you could see the statue of George Washington on horseback in the park near the bridge. Zayde died in 1915 and his dying probably saved Grandma from dying, as she had a bad appendix and he was deathly afraid of her having an operation. He died and she got  the operation. Baba then had a chicken store–handling larger animals proved too difficult. At some point, Aunt Rose, one of the twins, was teaching piano and singing, and a neighbor above or below them (I am not sure which) heard the singing and decided her ten-year-old daughter should get lessons. That woman was my aunt Mary. At some point my grandfather Sam Bookey got a look at my grandmother and to ask her out, he wound up asking out Grandma and her twin sisters Gertie and Rose. I think by the third date it was just Grandma and Grandpa. By 1922, they got married. And three children followed in the next five years.

What also followed were many apartments. The Depression led to the entire family moving in with her sister and her four children at some point. When things were better, Grandma would go up to the country with the kids and by the end of the summer, my grandfather found them a new apartment. It wasn’t until the 1940s that they spent longer periods of time in one apartment.

When my father was six he contracted polio. A telltale sign was being unable to touch your chin to your chest. Grandma bore the false burden of believing he was actually fine when she took him to the hospital and felt he contracted it there; but my father says otherwise. Part of the reason the family moved around in the 1930s was to have my father closer to his doctors. Sometimes, the one relative with a vehicle, Uncle Toby, would take them to the doctors in the truck he drove to deliver butter and eggs.

In the 1930s there was no real awareness of disabilities and there were a lot of stupid people and their comments. My grandparents didn’t treat my father like he was any different from anyone else. When the forerunner of the March of Dimes was founded, Grandma was involved on some level raising money. Grandma also worked, sometimes as bookkeeper. Not sure if she worked in my grandfather’s businesses where he made women’s and children’s clothing, but she worked. When I would visit her for dinner on my own in the 1980s, she told me her first job was to paint small designs on the handles of brushes and combs. Her father had taught her to write and one job she had was just writing numbers on shoeboxes at a store. Her earliest job was to deliver meat from her father’s butcher store to the Upper East Side, on the Second Avenue El, to a customer who had done well financially but moved to a neighborhood without a single kosher butcher shop. Grandma was about 8 at the time. People would ask her, why she wasn’t in school; she did go to school, but after she made this delivery. She took the El because the subway didn’t go to the Upper East side yet! Another early job was looking after her oldest sister’s children. Aaron, her nephew, called her “Mama” before he figured out Annie was his mother, not Sadie.

Grandma believed in Judaism and she believed in America and its  institutions. She always voted, and she believed in public officials, and was genuinely horrified when they fell from grace. Even decades later, she remembered names of teachers and other educators. She sometimes mentioned a woman named Julia Richman. I was surprised one day, after moving to the Upper East Side, that the school at Second Avenue and 67th St. is the Julia Richman Educational Complex. Grandma kept kosher at home but was never very heavyhanded  about it. As I got older I saw that she lived by a lot of Jewish principles without lecturing. One thing she never liked to do was gossip. When she lived in Little Neck, she kept away from a group of women who would sit in the courtyard and gossip about everyone. We certainly had relatives that were gossip-worthy but Grandma rarely had a bad word to say about anyone. The only time I heard her complain was about a bad cab driver and a repairman who seemed nasty. “I don’t know what the problem was. I think he was a Catholic Jew hater!”

Even in her late 80s and early 90s, she did some traveling. When she went to her granddaughter’s wedding in Seattle and was still dancing when the marimba band was ready to call it quits. We went to another wedding, on Staten Island. We left at 1 am. Grandma wasn’t ready to leave until 3 am.

I could go on and on about my grandmother, but I can say this without reservation: She was the major source of unconditional love in my childhood. My mother had a variety of problems, and my father came from a conflict-free background that didn’t make it easy for him to protect us from her anger. But Grandma was a constant source of positivity and a role model for loving. In recent years I discovered my birth mother’s family and have heard very little good about my birth mother’s parents. A relative told me, “They clothed us, they fed us, that was about it.”

I was always thankful to have Grandma in my life, but finding out how horrible my life might have been if I had been kept in that family? I feel thankful 100-fold now.


Finally, a Stolperstein for Cilly Stiebel

Today is the UN’s International Holocaust Rememberance Day, as it was today, 65 years ago today that Auschwitz was finally liberated. Auschwitz is often synonymous with the Holocaust, and with just cause. It was the largest of the concentration camps built by the Nazis, and 1.1 million people were killed there.

By coincidence this week, I received an email from a man in Frankfurt who works with the group that puts Stolpersteine in German streets. Also known as “stumbling blocks,” these are memorials put into public spaces to commemorate people who were deported and later murdered by the Nazis. I had written to them in 2007 before my trip with Eric to Germany, but I never heard back, until this week, when this man asked me if I was still interested in a Stolperstein for Cilly Stiebel.

And who is Cilly Stiebel? She is my boyfriend’s grandmother’s grandmother. I discovered her name while doing genealogy research, and she was the nearest relative left behind when the family left Frankfurt am Main. She was either too old or unwilling to leave, and maybe they couldn’t get permission for her to leave. Within two years, she appears on the Nazi’s “Minority Census” in a Jewish nursing home. In 1942, all the residents were deported to Terezin, where she died two weeks later, in her early 80s.

So, imagine your own infirm grandmother in a nursing home being herded up and sent to a concentration camp to die. It’s hard to imagine it, Yet this happened all over Germany, as many of the people who couldn’t get out wound up in this situation. “Luckily,” another cousin of Eric’s told us that her grandparents escaped this fate because they died before the deportations, but they were so poor they are buried in unmarked graves in their town’s Jewish Cemetery, kept decent only by the good graces of the one Christian man in town who wants to remind them that yes, the Holocaust happened there too, even in a small Rheinland town.

Before I did my genealogy work, for myself and Eric, I never thought my family suffered any Holocaust deaths. And, in time, I found that most of the relatives my parents had in Europe were in fact killed. And then doing Eric’s genealogy, I found that 10 relatives died in Terezin, including his great-greatgrandmother, and another  10 in Auschwitz, and one each in Sobibor and Izbica. The tales are tragic. One man gets stir crazy hiding in a Dutch home in the countryside. He goes for  a walk and is immediately spotted, winds up in a death camp. Another one is arrested and the Matthausen records claim, “shot while trying to escape.” A patent lie, and yet they are recorded meticulously by the Nazis. And how awful it is to hear an 89-year-old cousin tell us that her 9-year-old sister died of starvation in the Riga Ghetto, her parents helpless to do anything about it, and later dying in Auschwitz themselves. Also horrible, the uncle who disappears and there’s no record of what happened to him.

But in all of this horror, there are glimpses of humanity and survival. One cousin tells us of the neighbors who left them food in a basket on the doorstep in the dead of night–good Christian friends who risk being publicly shamed for “helping Jews.” We all know about the recently deceased 100-year-old  Miep Gies, the woman who saved Anne Frank’s diary after risking her own life helping keep the families she hid fed for two whole years. We recently reconnected with cousins of Eric’s in Israel via Facebook, who tell us that their ancestor saved himself by literally walking over the Pyrenees to Spain to save him from being rounded up in France, where he escaped initially from Germany. And so, an ignorance of our own personal relationship to the world’s most horrible genocides are replaced with a horrible new knowledge, but also, connections to family members and people separated from us temporarily by history.

And, finally, there will be some sort of memorial for Cilly Stiebel, out  in front of the address where she once lived. Not exactly a tombstone, but also not hidden away in a cemetery, either. A stumbling block of reality for passersby on the Ostend of Frankfurt.

Your Grandmother’s Census

I went to a session at SLA 2009 entitled something like “2010: Not Your Grandmother’s Census.” Well, it was not as interesting as I had hoped it would be. I also pondered what MY grandmother might ask on a census…

  1. Are you hungry? You look hungry.
  2. Are you tired? You look good. But you look tired. Are you hungry?
  3. Did you eat already? I made you something. Are you hungry?
  4. Did you drink an ice cold drink too fast? You shouldn’t do that. Are you hungry?
  5. In 1920 we lived at 225 Roebling Street. Are you hungry?
  6. That boy/girl is fine for now, but later, you want to marry that doctor, don’t you?
  7. Aunt Rose used to eat fried eggs right out of the frying pan. Are you hungry?

Grandma feeding a new generation in 1988.

Grandma feeding a new generation in 1988.