OUR SILVER CANDLESTICKS AND OTHER FAMILY HEIRLOOMS FROM CIECHANOVIEC IN POLANDCategory: Jewish Scene Issue No. 155
For nearly half of our forty seven years of marriage, a pair of silver candlesticks has graced our living room. My wife's maternal grandmother, Golda Zilberberg [born Yaffe], received them as a wedding gift from her parents-in-law, Zilberbergs from Suwalki, Poland, prior to World War One. They subsequently were inherited by my mother-in-law, Tehila Ashlagi, who together with her husband Haim was among Moshav Kfar Vitkin's founding members. When she passed away in 1991, they became ours.
Every Jewish family home required candlesticks for the mitzva and the custom of lighting Shabbat and Festival candles, and rich and poor families alike kept them. Grandmother Golda's later home in the largely Jewish township of Ciechanoviec, Poland was no exception.
When the Pesach festival approached this year, we brought the candlesticks to a local silversmith for a small repair. With an expert eye, he assessed them as over a century old though lacking a date or place of manufacture. As the family lived in Poland, they presumably acquired them there. At the base of one I managed to decipher four barely visible letters of the Zilberberg name in Hebrew, inscribed in a faded, black ink. One can whiff faint odors of burnt candle and wax remnants in the sockets.
This year, at our recent extended family Seder held at Kfar Vitkin, my wife Erga, as Golda's eldest granddaughter, placed the candlesticks at the ceremonial head table and lit candles to mark the beginning of the holiday. She then related how Golda and her spouse, Avraham Meir Zilberberg, had lived in a tight knit Jewish community, maintaining an observant, Hebrew speaking and traditionally oriented lifestyle, often inviting Jewish visitors to join them for Friday night meals and stay for Shabbat hospitality. Golda managed the family household and a flour mill they owned, while Avraham Meir was a scholarly Hebrew poet as well as a talented chess player and a devout, yet culturally knowledgeable, modern Jew.
Grandfather Avraham Meir passed away in 1928 aged 49, his hopes and dreams of leaving Poland to settle in the Land of Israel, like those of his own father, Yosef Tuvia Zilberberg who had died in 1921, thwarted by fatal illness. Traveling in 1998 with relatives, we visited their graves in the main old Jewish cemetery in Warsaw 'Beit Olam' and also spent a few hours touring Ciechanoviec, the town they had left in their unsuccessful efforts to reach Israel.
Grandmother Golda left Poland in 1935 as a middle aged widow, accompanied by her elderly mother Doba Yaffe and her two youngest daughters to a new life in Eretz Yisrael. Her additional six children and two brothers had come years earlier as young pioneers; all raised families here. She passed away in 1963.
There's a close link between family heirlooms and history and genealogy. Among a family's most precious possessions, heirlooms tend to symbolize family sagas, enabling us to learn more about our forebears and their stories.
Over the centuries, as Jewish families migrated by choice, flight or were expelled forcibly, many tried to salvage their valuable religious artifacts and mementos. Sometimes, valuable items a Jewish migrant or refugee took along with him were confiscated at border crossings by unscrupulous guards or by customs officials and lost forever if they couldn't pay a hefty fine, bribe or ransom price. Such heirlooms were rarely retrieved. In a few dramatic cases, they were returned decades later to their former owners' descendants.
Among our other family heirlooms we have an old Siddur [Hebrew daily prayer book] printed in Vienna in 1859, once belonging to my paternal great-grandfather, Shmuel Levitas and later to my grandfather, Yisrael Levitas from the Lithuanian township of Zagare. Holding it evokes memories of its former owners including my father Dov and a vibrant Jewish community that had once thrived in Eastern Europe.
Handed down from mother to daughter for three generations, there will eventually (we hope) be a future guardian for our silver candlesticks. Our venerable Siddur will someday be given as an heirloom to one of our sons as a symbol of continuity and of the family's narrative and heritage.
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