The Flat: A film by Arnon Goldfinger


The other night we watched a fascinating movie, The Flat. It is a documentary made by Arnon Goldfinger about what he learns about his grandparents after his grandmother dies and he and his family clean out their apartment in Tel Aviv. His grandparents had lived in Berlin until 1936 when they left for Israel. Goldfinger and his family, including his mother, had almost no knowledge of the grandparents’ lives before they left Germany.

I do not want to reveal too much about what they learn because each viewer should be able to experience the revelations as they are uncovered in the course of the film. But I will say that this is a film that anyone interested in family history and the ethical dilemmas that are created when you learn something surprising and perhaps troubling about the past should watch. What is our obligation to reveal the truths we learn to those left behind, even if they were innocent of the past actions of their family members? Why do people hide from the truth? Why do some of us ask questions and seek answers whereas others prefer to avoid uncovering the past?

But this is not only a film for genealogists. It is a film for everyone who has an interest in human nature. The film addresses important questions of identity and nationality. What makes people identify with a country, a religion, a family? How do we pick our friends? How does denial play into our sense of who we are?

Finally, this is also a film about our legacy. What will our families do and think after we are gone?  When the family throws out bag after bag after bag of the treasured belongings of the grandparents, I couldn’t help but think about the way we all collect objects—clothing, books, jewelry, letters, photographs—that our descendants will toss away with barely a thought. We have to leave something else behind besides these material things—our good name, our good deeds, our stories, and our love. All else will vanish.

Brotmans, Resslers, Rosenzweigs, and Goldschlagers: All Roads Meet on Pacific Street in Brooklyn

Gussie and Isadore

Gussie and Isadore

This is probably the most moving discovery yet for me personally.  I am so excited that I don’t know where to start.  This story involves the Brotman family and the Ressler family AND the Rosenzweig family and the Goldschlager family.  It’s the final piece of the puzzle about how my grandparents met.  It came as a posthumous gift from my much beloved Aunt Elaine, who truly was not only our family matriarch, but also our family historian.  Aunt Elaine, you always wanted to tell me these stories, and I was too young and dumb to care.  I know you would be so happy that I am finally interested and recording them for all time.

Fortunately, someone was interested in her stories back then.  It seems that not only did my brother listen to my aunt, so did my cousin Jody’s husband Joel, my aunt’s son-in-law.  He interviewed her about the family and took careful notes.  Jody and Joel just found his notes while going through some boxes in their house, and Jody emailed them to me.  There is so much information in there that it will take me a while to digest it all and write it up for the blog.  Joel’s notes cover stories and anecdotes about the family and reveal some new things as well as things we now know but that I did not know a year ago.  But here’s the story that made me say out loud, “Oh, my God!”  And then to stop and sit in amazement.

You may recall that a while back I wrote a post about how various members of my family met their spouses, including my grandmother and grandfather.  I wrote:  “My grandfather Isadore supposedly saw my grandmother sitting in the window of her sister Tillie’s grocery store in Brooklyn and was taken by her beauty.”  That was the family story passed down the generations.

When I wrote about this story recently, what I couldn’t figure out was what my grandfather was doing in Brooklyn.  He had always lived in East Harlem since arriving in New York and did not live or work in Brooklyn in 1915. So what would have brought him to Brooklyn from East Harlem when he first saw my grandmother?

The answer is revealed in the notes Jody and Joel just sent me.  The story begins with my aunt telling Joel that my grandmother Gussie Brotman used to go to her sister Tillie’s grocery store after school.Gussie at Tillie's storeIn case you cannot read that, it says, “After school on Friday Gussie would go to Tillie’s house in Brooklyn at her grocery store.”

In 1915 Tillie and Aaron were living at 1997 Pacific Street in Brooklyn.    As Joel’s notes continue:

Isadore sees Gussie

“Isidore Goldschlager visiting a cousin who lived down the street from the grocery store. As he got off the trolley he saw Gussie on milk box and said to his cousin there is a very beautiful girl.  Isadore said he wants to meet her.” (emphasis added)

 In  1915, the Rosenzweigs were living at 1914 Pacific Street, right down the block from 1997 Pacific Street where Tillie and Aaron Ressler lived. When I wrote that post back on February 5, I did not yet know about Gustave Rosenzweig and his family.  I had no idea that my grandfather had cousins living in Brooklyn on the same street where my grandmother was living.

Rosenzweigs 1915

Rosenzweigs 1915

Gussie living with TIllie 1915

Gussie living with TIllie 1915

So the cousin that my grandfather was visiting was one of the sons of Gustave Rosenzweig.  In 1915, Abraham was 26, Jacob  was 21, and Joseph was 17.  Abraham and Jacob were in the Navy, and Joseph was working as a driver’s helper.  My grandfather was 27 in 1915, so my guess is that he was hanging out with Abraham, who was closest to him in age.

Isadore age 27

Isadore age 27

I have wondered whether my grandfather ever saw these cousins once they all got to NYC, whether he knew them well.  Well, obviously he did.  If he had not been close to them, he would never have come to Brooklyn.  He would never have seen that beautiful red haired woman sitting on the milk box.  And this would never have happened:

Isadore Goldschlager and Bessie Brotman  marriage certificate

Isadore Goldschlager and Gussie Brotman
marriage certificate

Isadore and Gussie marriage cert 2And if that hadn’t happened, then my Aunt Elaine and my Uncle Maurice and my mother would never have been born, and then all my first cousins and my siblings and I would never have been born.

That little stroll down Pacific Street brought the Rosenzweig/Goldschlager family together with the Brotman family and thus created my family.  How could this not be my favorite story ever?

This is another one of those moments when all the time spent studying census reports pays off.  If I had not found the 1915 census reports for the Resslers and the Rosenzweigs, I would never have known they lived down the street from each other.  If I hadn’t looked at all those other documents, I would never have learned about my grandfather’s cousins and his uncle Gustave.  If I hadn’t started this blog, Jody and Joel might never have found these notes in their boxes of papers and provided the last piece of the puzzle. If Joel hadn’t listened to his mother-in-law, we wouldn’t have her memories and stories to tie it all together.  It should remind us all to ask questions and take notes and listen to our parents, our aunts and uncles, and our grandparents  so that we can learn everything we can while we can.

Thank you, Jody and Joel.  Thank you, Aunt Elaine.  Thank you, Uncle Gustave, for moving to Brooklyn.  Thank you, Aunt Tillie, for taking my grandmother to Brooklyn. And thank you, Abraham Rosenzweig, for taking my grandfather for that walk down Pacific Street so that he could meet and marry my grandmother.

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As I wrote earlier, my cousin Jody sent me some new pictures yesterday—pictures I had never seen before.  These are pictures taken in the 1940s, except for one that was taken in 1953.  Here are the first three.

First, a picture of my grandparents, my uncle Maurice and my aunt Lynn, and my aunt Elaine.  My Uncle Phil probably took this picture because he is not in the picture, plus he was always the one taking family pictures, thank goodness.  Jody, his daughter, has taken over that role in our generation.

gussie elaine  lynn maurice and isadore

Next is a picture of my grandparents, apparently taken the same day.  You can tell how short he is, since my grandmother was only about 5’2 herself.

Isadore and Gussie
Isadore and Gussie

Here’s a picture of my grandmother Gussie alone—notice those remarkable Brotman cheekbones.


The next two are very special to me.  First, this is my grandmother Gussie with my cousin Jeff, Jody’s brother.  She is obviously proud of her first grandchild. She was never much of a smiler, but you can tell (well, I can tell) that she is happy in this picture.  This picture was probably taken in 1946 or 1947, as Jeff was born in April, 1946.

Jeff and Gussie c. 1946
Jeff and Gussie c. 1946

Finally, my favorite, a picture of my grandfather holding me on his lap with Jeff lying in the kiddy pool at his feet.  This is my favorite for two reasons.  First, it shows how much I loved my grandpa and vice versa.  As I’ve said before, he died before I was five, and I only have vague, non-specific memories.  Pictures like this one reinforce my emotional sense memory that my grandfather and I loved each other.

Jeff, Amy and Grandpa 1953
Jeff, Amy and Grandpa 1953

Also, these last two pictures are special because they bring back memories of my cousin Jeff.  It’s ten years ago yesterday that we lost Jeffrey, and it still seems unbelievable that he is gone.  He was my first crush (after my father, of course), my role model, the one who teased us, the one who helped at every birthday party because he was the oldest cousin, the one who tolerated having seven younger cousins and a sister all chasing him around.  He taught many of us to swim, to ski, to dive. He was always making us laugh; he was always fun.  We all adored him, and despite the fact that we probably drove him crazy, we all knew he loved us.  We miss you, Jeff.

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Big Brotman Family Update!

I’ve been focused on the Goldschlagers these last few weeks, but I have not at all forgotten my Brotman cousins.  I have just not had anything new to report as I am still awaiting a few documents and also hoping to break the brick wall that prevents me from finding out about our Galician home and our earlier ancestors.

But today I actually have some news about the Brotman family.  My first cousin Jody sent me the document depicted below:

Family Tree drawn by Elaine Goldschlager Lehbraum

Family Tree drawn by Elaine Goldschlager Lehbraum

It’s a family tree written by her mother, my aunt Elaine Goldschlager Lehrbaum, my mother’s sister.  At first I didn’t realize there was anything new about it until I read it over a second, third and now fourth time.  My aunt provided the names of all the other children of Joseph Brotman, including Max and Abraham, confirming what we already knew, that is, that they were Joseph’s sons from his first marriage.  But now we have the names of the other two children from that first marriage: David and Sophie!  This is huge news for me and gives me a new start to researching the other Brotman cousins.

Also, note that my aunt said that Joseph and Bessie were first cousins.  (No wonder our gene pool carries so many repeating traits—like those distinctive cheekbones.)  That may help me locate them in Europe since we now know that they had the same grandparents.

Finally, I never knew that my aunt’s Hebrew name was Esther.  That was Gisella’s mother’s name—Esther, married to David Rosensweig.  So my aunt was named for her great-grandmother.  I wonder if she knew that.

Another one of those days when a small document can just bring tears and smiles to my eyes.

Jody also sent some wonderful pictures which I will post later.  Thanks, Jo!

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I wrote about how I started doing this research and what resources—human and otherwise—I’ve used to do it.  But I’ve given a lot of thought also to WHY.  Why am I doing this?  Why spend all this time, energy, money, etc. doing this?  What is it for?

Part of it is the fun and the excitement of hunting down information and then actually finding it.  Part of it is the reward of learning that I am connected to all these other people I never knew—that we shared ancestors and DNA and a history together, even if we’ve never met. And I hope that part of those rewards will be meeting you all in real space, not just cyberspace.

But it is more than that.  Someone involved in genealogy research told me that most people do not get involved with this kind of project until they are in their sixties.  I turned sixty last summer when I first started doing this.  Sadly, by the time we’re sixty, our grandparents are long gone, so our principal sources of information about our ancestors are not around to help.  But why do we get interested in our sixties? Obviously, as we start to face our own mortality, we must yearn for a sense of purpose.   Will anyone remember us in 100 years? That leads to—where did we come from? Who were the people who preceded us that we no longer remember? We’re all part of a long line of family history, and at some point many of us yearn to figure out what that history was.

I never, ever thought about my great-grandparents until I started this project.  I knew I was named for Bessie, my great-grandmother, but I never wondered what she was like, what was her life like, why did my parents choose to name me for someone who died when my mother wasn’t yet four years old.  I still don’t know the answers to all those questions, but I know more than I did a year ago.  She was a brave woman who married a man with at least two children from a prior marriage, both of whom were young boys in 1881 when she married him.  She had at least five children of her own with him, and probably others who died very young.  She left everything she knew to come with her young children to America, and then she lost her husband not long after doing so.  She picked herself up, remarried and helped raise more children.  She lost a leg to diabetes.  I know she loved animals because the one clear memory my mother has of her was that she played with kittens in her grandmother’s bathroom as a very young child.

And Joseph?  I have learned to admire him as well.  He came to the US before Bessie, establishing himself as a coal dealer.  He worked very hard at back breaking work to support his family and died just four months after his youngest child Sam was born.  From his footstone inscription, we know that his children and wife loved him and appreciated the hard work he did to bring them to the US and support them when they got here.

So what does all that mean to me? It means I came from people who were strong, brave, hard-working and dedicated to their family—all traits I admire and aspire to myself.  They obviously raised children who adapted well to America and made successes of themselves.  Those children, our grandparents, raised Americans, our parents, who moved to the suburbs, owned businesses, became professionals.  And then there is us—the fourth generation.  We are spread all over the US, we are involved in all different types of careers, we are the American dream.  Wouldn’t our great-grandparents who were raised in a shtetl and escaped poverty and anti-Semitism be amazed at who we are today?

So why? Because we need to know how we got here, why our lives are what they are.  We need to be grateful for those who left Europe, avoided the pogroms and Hitler, and gave us all the opportunity to live in freedom and to pursue our own dreams.