It Takes A Village
Local man hopes to help local landsmen reconnect.
Landsman — it’s a term familiar to many Jews of baby boomer and older vintage. A landsman is someone from the same town in the old country as your family. More specifically, landsmen are Eastern Europeans who emigrated from the same place — generally during the late 1800s through the 1940s.
Whether they came to the U.S., Canada, South America, South Africa or what was then Palestine, many Jewish immigrants chose to develop connections through benevolent societies, landsmannschaften, comprised of former residents of their hometowns. These were social and philanthropic organizations whose members came mainly from villages and towns throughout Poland, Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine.
Through landsmannschaften, immigrants helped each other find jobs, learn English and adjust to a new life. These societies sometimes operated cemeteries and provided financial assistance for burials. They also sent money back to their European hometowns to help landsmen there.
In 1938, the federal Works Progress Administration reported 2,468 landsmannschaften in New York. The Jewish Genealogical Society of Michigan reports at one time 25 such groups existed in Metro Detroit and one in Bad Axe. The numbers dwindled as immigration slowed and European Jews assimilated successfully.
Some Still Active
But some groups continue to meet, donate to charity and honor those Jewish communities decimated during the Holocaust. They are descendants of landsmannschaften members, continuing the benevolent society tradition in memory of deceased relatives and out of curiosity about their familial roots in Europe.
“I was 5 when my father showed me the building in Detroit where the Bereznitz Society met. They sent money to Israel, to Europe and locally,” says Richard Stoler, D.O., of Bloomfield Hills. For 12 years, Stoler has devoted many hours to researching Bereznitzers worldwide and has visited Bereznitz in Russia.
Now he is hoping local individuals from other, once-active Detroit organizations will be motivated to reconnect.
“If we don’t do it now, it will be forgotten,” he says, speaking of the heritage of Eastern European Jewish immigrants.
The Jewish Genealogical Society of Michigan recently presented a panel of representatives from active Detroit-area landsmannschaften whose European hometowns once had large Jewish communities. Roz Blanck of Franklin had a grandmother born in David-Horodok, who was active in Detroit’s David-Horodoker women’s organization, established in the 1920s. David-Horodok means David’s town; David was a Lithuanian prince, she explains. The town is now part of Belarus.
The David-Horodok group has more than 500 member families and has traveled to David-Horodok four times. They have held an annual dinner in Metro Detroit for 81 years. For 15 years, the group has held a memorial service for the 7,000 Jews massacred nearby by the Nazis and local residents in 1941 and 1942.
In 2017, 31 Detroit David-Horodokers, including 10 in their 20s and 30s, went to Cuba, once home to some landsmen; a trip to Argentina is planned for 2019. Blanck says there is a group in Israel as well.
The Detroit group helped to organize and fund a permanent exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. The exhibit includes photos of David-Horodok from the 1800s-1900s, many of families with members now in Detroit.
Jews from Radom, Poland, created the Radomer Aid Society in Detroit in 1920. Sandy Tuttleman of West Bloomfield became active in the group through her late husband, Oscar. Today, she says the 50 member families have an annual banquet and hold dinners five times a year. Through membership dues and contributions, the group has donated three ambulances to the American Friends of Magen David Adom (the Israeli version of the Red Cross) and funds to 10 other charities.
The Radomer Aid Society has a separate section and small structure within Hebrew Memorial Park cemetery, where members take care of graves and monuments. They meet there every September and share photos and stories of relatives, including those killed in the massacre of Radom’s Jews on Feb. 19, 1942.
Suzanne Shawn’s grandfather emigrated from Pinsk, a town in Belarus, in 1914 and was a founder of Detroit’s Pinsker Progressive Aid Society in 1927. Shawn of Farmington Hills says the society was a big part of her life growing up and, when it was going to dissolve, she became active about 12 years ago.
“We have quarterly meetings, an annual brunch and the younger members — those under about 75 — have get togethers. We have a couple of millennials,” she says.
According to Shawn, the organization has traditionally been “very philanthropic and very social.” During World War II, funds were collected for war bonds and later to buy an airplane for Israel. The group has an annual beautification day at the Pinsker section of Hebrew Memorial Park.
Today, Radom, Bereznitz and David-Horodok have no Jewish residents. Stoler said when he visited Bereznitz nine years ago he found a Torah scroll, Kiddush cup, the building that had housed a Stoliner Shul and the house where his cousin’s father was born. The town reminded him of the village in Fiddler on the Roof.
Individuals seeking to learn about or reactivate their landsmannschaften can contact Richard Stoler at email@example.com. Stoler says resources are available at the Temple Beth El Archives, Holocaust Memorial Center Library, Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library and the Wayne State University Walter Reuther Library. •