My Skype screen glowed and there he was, his 66-year old voice as clear as a bell, a bald head with a kind face beaming at me. Bob Newmark looks a bit like a kind-faced Kojak, or perhaps Yul Brynner in his prime. Once again my friend Roger Joslyn, genealogist extroardinaire, plucked an arrow from his magic quiver, struck a bulls-eye for me far across the Atlantic, and a sea of time.
Szaja Rotblatt is six feet under at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens, laid next to his wife, Helen three years after her death in 1946. I hesitate to use the common saying. “Laid to rest” he certainly wasn’t, as he’d left Helen for another woman and run off to Florida, leaving her bitter, to raise her daughter Eleanor, alone in the Bronx. The memorial plaque in my most recent blog post Dumped… to the memory of Szaja Rotblatt, honored officer of the United Hatters Sick and Benevolent Society, found in a street-side pile of demolition debris in midtown many years ago by Andrew Weinstock, finally can be returned, Szaja’s memory honored at least by one.
Eleanor was Bob Newmark’s mother. She never spoke of her parents; Szaja died when Bob was only four, and Helen three years earlier. Bob’s parents shlepped him twice a year to Mt. Hebron cemetery where they had one of the old men, who apparently earned his keep this way, accompany Bob to the gravesite and say mourner’s kaddish for Bob’s grandparents. Szaja, known as David to the family, had come from Warsaw, via Paris, before the First World War, with his wife and his children, a blocker in the hat trade. The family was poor; Bob’s two uncles never attended college, nor did his mother, Eleanor, who aspired to become a lawyer, but had to settle for secretarial school.
The story spilled from Bob’s lips. He’d known nothing of his maternal grandparents. I’d suspected such misery: a large bronze memorial plaque in a pile of trash? There must have been pain. All of the sudden, the image on the Skype sceen changed: Bob went into a back room in his Amsterdam apartment, and re-emerged with a sepia-toned photo, tears pouring from his eyes. There they stand, Szaja, in a straw boater and well-tailored suit, oysgeputst, as they say in Yiddish, all dressed up. Next to him is Helen in a fabulous lady’s dress, her hat a gaint milliner’s confection with broad brim and all manner of accoutrements. In front of them in an orderly row stand three of their children, the middle little Eleanor in a lovely smock, two brothers on eaither side. Tears of joy rolled on.
Bob’s a native New Yorker, Sheepshead Bay born and bred, a Brooklyn College graduate. After a few years on the West Coast, he moved, 42 years ago, to the Netherlands, where he has worked for decades as a professional Dutch-English translator. A brilliant, gentle, simpatico, sensitive man. His father, Max Newmark, married Eleanor in 1931, and worked in the fur trade until it, too, fell apart. I’d tracked this couple to Florida many months ago, though a distant Rotblatt relation, but it took my buddy Roger Joslyn to find Bob Newmark. Imagine my thrill.
What does it take to close a circle? I’ll hand-carry the plaque to Bob in the coming spring. Peysakh, Passover, is a time of renewal, the Jewish predecessor of Easter, a myth reborn. What sort of sacrifice should I make in thanksgiving? The dead now are raised, a circle closed and a bond opened. Bob will tell me more and you’ll read as the story is more told.