Every few years, I type the name Brandwein into Google and see what comes up. Usually it’s a list of Brandweins I don’t recognize, but on this occasion my jaw dropped. An article from July 27, 1920 – or about 100 years to this very day – detailed the harrowing journey of my two great-aunts who had been stuck in Europe during World War I and had just arrived in Amesbury.
“Trapped in war-ridden Austria and Galicia since 1914, two attractive Galician girls, Hilda and Fannie Brandwein, have just been reunited with their father and mother,” the story began.
I quickly emailed the clip to my sisters and a few of Hilda and Fannie’s grandchildren. How the story made it to The Boston Post I’ll never know, but it did bring my aunts and the entire Brandwein family back into focus.
Long after their tumultuous voyage to America, and after Fannie and Hilda married and had children and grandchildren, they were frequent guests at our family’s house in Swampscott. There they’d spend nearly all of their days in the kitchen with their sister, Esther – my grandmother – who lived with us. There was always a lot to discuss and nearly all of the conversation was about family.
For 12 to 16 hours – depending on how hungry they were and how many stories they had to tell – Yiddish could be heard around the kitchen table and sometimes I’d stand near the refrigerator and listen. I couldn’t understand most of the Yiddish, but their inflections rose and fell with each story and there was always a lilt of melancholy as their words tumbled out: these cousins survived the Holocaust, those uncles did not; this cousin settled in Israel and had a child; another cousin made a fortune and disappeared.
And so the conversations would go on for years, and I would continue to listen. Their narrative did not match my suburban world, where my American friends and I would race around the neighborhood on our bikes, and play ball at the elementary school field across the street. My friends did not have Old World relatives. They spoke only English and barely left our circle of Colonial homes and finely manicured lawns. Our childhood stories were decidedly American – about baseball and girls and school – not pogroms, or family separations, or being forced to walk hundreds of miles during World War I, like my Aunt Fannie, or working for a distant relative as a teenager, like Aunt Hilda. On more than one occasion, when the sisters would start up their Yiddish conversations, I’d wonder if I really belonged to my family. Perhaps I’d been adopted? How else could I explain these conversations about life and death, and lost and forgotten souls who perished in Europe?
As a child, I grasped that the Brandweins were unlike any of my other relatives. Early on, I heard about their roots in Galicia. Tales of Jewish horse thieves, traveling rabbis, homes with dirt floors, and welcoming the holy Shabbat was part of the soundtrack I’d hear when I’d ask my grandmother about her hometown.
They had come from Przemyslany, outside of Lvov, and their cousins are considered the founding fathers of klezmer, including the eccentric clarinetist Naftule Brandwein, who performed at my grandparents’ wedding in Amesbury. There was also Leopold Kozlowski, who recently died at the age of 100 in Krakow and was the grandson of legendary klezmer musician Pesach Brandwein. Kozlowski had hidden from the Nazis in a cemetery and later escaped from a concentration camp as bullets riddled the accordion strapped to his back. Eventually, he started a Yiddish theater in Krakow and was the subject of the film, “The Last Klezmer of Galicia.”
If there is an eccentric and intellectual branch of my family, the Brandweins would occupy that perch. They loved loud conversation, food, card games, music, and beautiful people. They abhorred drinkers, snobs, cheapskates, and those with no common sense. And they had a talent for nearly everything they touched. They seemed to be the opposite of the rural border town of Amesbury.
By the time Fannie and Hilda had made their way there, much had changed in their family. Their parents, Miriam and Fishel Brandwein, had four more children. After her 10th child was born, Miriam told Fishel that she had enough. My grandmother, who was 13 when she arrived in Amesbury, doted over her brothers and sisters, and her parents. From all accounts, my great-grandfather Fishel felt most at home in Amesbury. There, he would start a rag business from his buggy, with his beloved horse, Danchik, at the ready.
With the horse and buggy, he was able to make his way to the Newburyport shul to daven, and would often spend most of his days studying Torah with his landsmen. Business seemed to be an afterthought for him, and on Friday nights after shul – in order to not violate the Sabbath – he could be seen walking back to Amesbury, side-by-side with Danchik as the horse pulled the wagon.
By then, nearly all of their kids were on their way to the Bronx and Manhattan. Even Miriam had enough of the country life, and also moved to the Bronx. Fishel stayed on in Amesbury and lived with my mother and her parents for years on High Street. For a time my grandmother was the only one who remained in Amesbury, eventually moving the family to Lynn.
Each of the 10 Brandwein children seemed to have their own exotic tale. There was my grandmother, Esther, who could speak four languages. One night during a card game in 1931, she excused herself and drove to the hospital where she gave birth to my mother. Meanwhile, Fannie married, had a daughter, opened up a shop on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx and sold evening gowns. Hilda also married, moved south and had two daughters, and opened her own store. Ethel eventually settled in Far Rockaway with her husband, a New York cop, and two children. Graycie moved to Connecticut and had two daughters; she was the youngest child and was considered the most beautiful.
Then there were the Brandwein boys. Peter and Harry worked in the news department of the New York Times; Bernard and Louis had restaurants; Morris eloped with an Irish girl from Newburyport and made his way to San Diego.
Harry, Fannie, and Hilda were the most frequent visitors to our house. Harry would always arrive unannounced, fresh off a Greyhound from New York. When I got older, I’d drive him up to Amesbury and as we’d steer through the streets of his childhood, I’d ask him about the New York Times and journalism. Fannie and Hilda seemed inseparable – once they called the house from Logan, and asked my father to pick them up. They had gambled for several days in Las Vegas and needed a respite before returning to New York.
Another time, we took them to the old JCC pool in Middleton. The organizers had bought dozens of chickens for a barbecue but had no idea how to cook them. My father stepped forward and got the grill ready. A torrential thunderstorm rolled through, and everyone ran to their cars. My family did too, and the place was soon deserted. But Fannie and Hilda were missing – a little rain was no match for the sisters. They ran toward the grill and scooped up the chickens. “Those are perfectly good chickens,” Aunt Fannie declared, and everyone in the car nodded as we drove through the rain.
Long after the last of the Brandwein siblings had passed, I drove up to Amesbury to interview the mayor there for the Globe. I left just before sundown, and somehow got lost a few streets away from City Hall. I didn’t have GPS and pulled over to try to get a sense of where I was. After a few moments I looked up and noticed that my car had stopped across the street from my mother’s childhood home. I looked around, and the street appeared frozen in time. It was congested; the barn where Danchik once slept was still there. The houses seemed tiny; the roads, crooked and strewn with broken asphalt.
A wave of calm fell over me and I sat there for a minute immersed in Brandwein lore. They say that everything happens for a reason, and I understood that there was a purpose for this unexpected visit. With all of its modesty, there was something reassuring about the location. It had not been a perfect first stop in America, but it had welcomed my family of immigrants, who understood that the town was an upgrade over the anti-Semitism they faced in Europe. Here, a person could learn a new language, get an education, and find their way to a big city, like New York. I began to drive, and the faces of the Brandwein siblings flickered before me. Soon I found myself back on the highway, with a little assist from my relatives.
Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.