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They Called Me by My Name!

By Alfred Münzer

Before my mother and I immigrated to the United States, she had told me precious little about the town in Poland where she was born. Even the name of the town was somewhat of a mystery. It was “Rymaroc, Czechoslovakia” in her newly minted Dutch passport, a spelling error which moved the town several hundred miles north. When she was asked where she was born, she would say “Austria,” which was technically correct because the town was located in Galicia, which had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I when the Treaty of Vienna ceded it to Poland. Her mother, she told me, had even personally petitioned Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph to spare one of her sons from military duty. And of course, there was our family name, Münzer, with an umlaut, she would always fiercely remind me. My parents were cousins, so I was fortunate to be Münzer all around.

Shortly after our arrival in New York and while we were still staying with Hella and Max Vander Pool, who had preceded us to America by ten years, Hella summoned my mother to the phone, “It’s your tante,” she said. My mother was taken aback, after all she did not know of any aunts living in America; she picked up the receiver and audibly gasped and shook her head as she started a long, feverish conversation in Yiddish. She finally hung up with a sigh and told me the woman on the other end was her Ciocia Feige. When my mother first heard her aunt identify herself, she told me she had trouble keeping herself from shouting, “Du lebst!?” (You are alive!?) My mother had had an inkling of a substantial number of landsmen who had immigrated to the United States before World War II. She had proudly shared the name of Nobel laureate Isidor Rabi with me, as one from Rymanów who had done well in the United States. But the survival of Ciocia Feige and her son, Schrul, and daughters Gittel, Barbara, Bashia, and Daniela was a complete surprise. They had survived the terror of the Nazis by crossing into the Soviet Union and spending several years in Siberia, then a displaced persons camp, and finally were able to get refugee visas to the United States for the entire family. All except for Bashia, who remained in Germany, we learned later, because she had a mentally ill son, which barred them from immigrating to the United States.

My mother readily accepted an invitation to visit Ciocia Feige and her family the following Sunday. This trip entailed complex travel instructions because they lived in the Bronx, while we were in Brooklyn. We were told to take the Brighton line to Times Square, then change to the D train and get off at Tremont Avenue. To make it easier to find her apartment, Ciocia Feige offered to meet us on the platform of the subway. But the best and most memorable instruction she gave us was to look out for “the light.” “Look for the light,” she said, “Tremont Avenue is two stops after the train emerges from the dark tunnel into the sunshine.” What I remember especially of that long subway ride was seeing a large number of young Black girls and their mothers all dressed in their Sunday finery, so different from the shocking lack of a dress code among the Jewish population of Brooklyn we had met earlier.

Ciocia Feige was true to her word. There she was, a wrinkled, gray-haired woman wearing a kerchief and a flowery cotton dress, embracing her niece, my mother, 35 years after they had last seen each other and after a painful catastrophe that had robbed them of countless family members. All that, however, remained unsaid as Ciocia Feige and my mother walked arm in arm the few blocks to Ciocia’s first-floor apartment. That is when the long conversation started, in Yiddish of course, which I, at that time, could not understand. My mother did tell me that Ciocia Feige’s son and daughters would join us and that even with the little English I spoke, I would enjoy meeting our American family. I may have betrayed some boredom or impatience, so I was told I could explore the immediate neighborhood or spend some time in the lobby while waiting for their arrival.

Ciocia Feige’s apartment building was big, and there was steady traffic in the lobby. But then I saw a group of six or seven people coming through the entrance, and heard a voice calling out in my direction, “that is a Münzer, for sure!” The voice was my mother’s cousin and namesake Gittel. She and then all the others hugged and kissed me without any further verification of my identity. I was stunned and suddenly overcome with a joy I had never experienced before. Not only because it was my first encounter with actual relatives, but especially because they recognized me as a “Münzer,” and called me by that name and opened a whole new world where I, a “Münzer,” was suddenly the center of attention. I had been a member of the Madna family, who rescued me from the Nazis, and I am the son of a father and the brother of two sisters whom I only knew through photographs in a box and the stories my mother told me about them. I had been an adopted member of the Schumer family when my mother married Aaron Schumer in Brussels, but now I had living, breathing, hugging, laughing blood relatives.

The Rymanów circle of family, none, sadly, closer than cousins, expanded over the next few weeks and led us to trek to yet another New York City borough, Queens. There was even a Rymanower Landsmannschaft or benevolent association that my mother decided to join, only to be told it was only open to men. My mother set aside her scruples about the rejection, and at her behest, I, Alfred Münzer, was inducted as a proper son of Rymanów. Ciocia Feige, my mother would confess, had not been her favorite aunt, “just by marriage,” she would say somewhat derisively, “butchers, not tailors,” but she never forgot and always reminded me of the iconic image of Ciocia Feige waiting for us on the platform of the Tremont Avenue subway station.

© 2022, Alfred Münzer. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.