Pieces of My Balowitz Family History
By Skip (Seymour) Kriegel, 12 May 2014
My grandfather and grandmother, Jack and Rose Balowitz, were called Poppy and Nanny by my parents, my brothers and me. I suspect Jack was born “Ya’akov” in Russia/Poland, which probably evolved to “Jacob”, at least briefly, before it became “Jack.” His immigration record in 1913 lists his name as “Jankel.” My mother’s birth certificate has his name as “Jacob,” but every other reference I can find uses “Jack.” This included his application for Social Security and Petition for Naturalized Citizenship. Poppy was a highly observant Jew. Smoking is prohibited during Shabbos because you have to light the cigarette, which is prohibited because it is “work.” He smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day (and died of lung cancer) but before he left for shul Friday afternoon, he put his Luckys on the faux mantel and didn’t pick them up again until he came back from shul Saturday evening. He wore no casual clothes; in the apartment he took off his jacket and tie, hung them on a wooden valet (which I inherited, and now is kept by my daughter) and wore his suit pants with his shirt or sleeveless undershirt. Poppy was reserved; he didn’t laugh, at least that I saw, but he smiled frequently and genuinely.
Nanny’s maiden name as shown on my mother’s birth certificate is “Rose Levofsky,” not as her family spells it: Levovsky. Nanny’s age is listed as “17” on this document. Yet her date of birth on her death certificate –she died April 14th, 1964– lists her date of birth as April 7, 1902. This seems more accurate, which suggested that she was actually 16 at my mother’s birth. Also on her death certificate, her mother’s maiden name is listed as Gilet, but is actually Dechtor (or Dechtar); her first name is Gitel – a traditional Yiddish girl’s name.
I often spent weekends and holidays with Nanny and Poppy. I remember their interaction being very brief, and what I would now call flat. Poppy did all of the shopping and much of the cooking, yet Nanny seemed to be the decision maker. Even at an early age I realized that Nanny was a recluse, and later that she was neurotic. I only recall one time when Nanny went out of the apartment; ironically, she took me to see the movie Freud. She sent me on frequent excursions, typically to the local candy store to buy Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda; if they didn’t have Cel-Ray, I got black cherry, but I didn’t come back without Dr. Brown’s. At some point Nanny sent her and Poppy’s urine samples to be tested for sugar. She told Poppy that his results were normal, but not what her results were. Nanny died in a diabetic coma (ketoacidosis) on April 14, 1964.
Poppy died not long after Nanny, in May 1965. After he passed, the family and I became close with his brother Herman and wife May. Although Uncle Herman looked like a virtual twin to Jack, they were far apart in personality. Aunt May and Uncle Herman were very positive. I doubt that their lives were smooth and worry free, but when things were humorous they laughed. As I remember those times now, I believe they were “glass half full” people.
Uncle Herman once told me a humorous story. Jack Paar, a night time talk-show host, had as his guest Zero Mostel. Mostel was the star of a Broadway hit: Fiddler on the Roof. (The musical was set in a shtetl, a small village, in Russia at the time of pogroms. The story ended with Mostel’s character and family leaving the shtetl to migrate to this country.) Paar asked Mostel where he was from; Mostel said China. Paar said no, no - where are your people actually from? China. They bantered back and forth until Mostel explained he was from a small shtetl in Russia, or sometimes Poland, and that the name sounded like China. Uncle Herman told me that was the village the Balowitz family came from. (The name of the village was spelled in a variety of ways throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; its standardized spelling is “Czarny” and it is located near Lomza, Poland.)
Nanny and Poppy had two children, my mother, Grace, born Oct. 24, 1918 and a son Seymour, born circa 1921. I know a great deal about my mother’s life, but relatively little about my uncle’s.
My mother’s given name on her birth certificate is Gertrude, a name I had never heard, nor seen until she told me about it when I was a teenager. I didn’t believe her then. She told me that she changed it when she went from one school to another. Her graduation from Prospect Junior High School used Grace; her Monroe High School yearbook has Grace M. Balowitz. She graduated in June, 1937. My mother was very close to her paternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Midlarsky. I suspect that the “M” as an initial for a nonexistent middle name was a link to her grandmother. It is also consistent with the affected nature that my Mom was known for. My mother told me that her parents separated often and that she and her mother used the name Barry during those times. On her Social Security card her name is Grace M. Barrie – not only is this total fiction, it has the theatrical twist of changing the “y” in Barry to “ie.”
My mother was very talented in language and theater. In 1935 she won a fourth place award in the Prize Essay Competition for kids her age for the entire City of New York. In 1936 Monroe H.S. published a pamphlet with poems and brief stories; Grace M. had one of each. Monroe’s 1937 yearbook, The Monrovian, has my mother listed as a “celebrity”, and names her the “Class Literary Light.” With her regular class picture is “Ed.-in-Chief Monroe Doctrine”, and “Ed.-in-Chief Dramatic Club Mag.” She wrote a 2 page story for the last pages of the yearbook. The pamphlet for commencement exercises from Monroe has a handwritten note from the chairman of the Department of English citing a “Prize for Distinction in English” for Grace Balowitz. The leather-like cover for the commencement ceremonies program has a small New York School Gardening Association pin attached - a sign of things to come.
My mother married my father, Manny (Manuel Kriegel), on January 29th 1947. She saved a printed wedding announcement from their parents and congratulatory telegraphs from my father’s friends. We have a wonderful professionally done photograph, presumed by my brother David and me to be their wedding portrait, sans white dress. The photography studio was in the Bronx, as were both their apartments. My fantasy is that they were two older unmarried adults (33 and 28) that “eloped” a few subway stops from where they lived. I suspect they had at least three things in common: love of theater, love of books, and wanting to not be alone.
My father was in some ways an unlikely catch. He was partially paralyzed, and had many physical limitations, including somewhat impaired speech. He had a stroke at age 19 – not polio as suggested elsewhere. He told me he was “making out” with a girl on a bed when he fell off and couldn’t get up. He wasn’t able to complete college and go on to become a dentist as he had planned. He was fortunate enough to work at his father’s fur manufacturing factory doing paperwork, albeit with his non-dominant hand. Perhaps surprisingly, he was very gregarious and had a substantial cadre of longtime friends.
Despite comments made on Connected Bloodlines that my grandpa Jack was concerned that Manny would beat his children with a cane, I don’t believe anyone named Balowitz – including my mother – ever saw him with a cane. After his stroke he had a long hospitalization and extensive rehabilitation. At one point he was using a cane when he went to see his neurologist. The doctor was very surprised and gave him some advice: throw away the cane. He told me that he was able to walk without it and he did throw the cane away. However, there was coolness between my father and Poppy, which I believe was largely socio-economic. Poppy was an east European Jew (an Ashkenazi); he believed in and practiced the somewhat rigid requirements of Orthodox Judaism. He worked in a factory, perhaps as a manager. I suspect he saw my father as if he were my paternal grandfather, Julius Kriegel. Grandpa Julius was an outgoing, relatively wealthy factory owner from Austria, from a group of Jews that immigrated here for better opportunities, not to escape pogroms. His Judaism was an “Americanized” version, as was my father’s. He ate no pork, but had a liberal kosher-style diet outside the home. His wife, my grandma Rose, “kept kosher” in the apartment. He went to shul on high holidays, not every week for Shabbos. My grandpa Julius smoked cigars every day. He became diabetic, developed pancreatic cancer and died from it on June 2, 1957.
One of my mother’s tales was how she “found” Teaneck, a medium size, middle class suburb, approximately 5 miles from the George Washington Bridge. It went like this: not long after the bridge was finished, she walked across it and continued walking until she came to a wide road on the crest of a hill that was the highest point in view. She walked on this road and came to a big house on the corner of a nice street, and sat down on the curb to eat her brown bag lunch. A woman in the house came out and gave her a glass of water. The woman was president of the Garden Club of Teaneck.
I grew up in an area of New York City called Washington Heights – from our apartment building at 250 Cabrini Blvd. you could see New Jersey. I went to school down the street at PS 187. When I was in 6th grade and having problems getting along with other kids – and doing things like buying and selling firecrackers, Mom and Dad believed that getting me out of the city and into a new school would help me change. We moved to Teaneck and eventually my mother became president of the Garden Club. One of the good things that I did get from PS 187 was a Certificate of Merit in Gardening, which was a sign of things to come in my life.
Grace and Manny grew up and, until December 31, 1959 when we moved to Teaneck, lived in apartments in the city. They didn’t own any tools, not even a hammer or a screwdriver. If you wanted to hang a picture you asked the “super” (the apartment superintendent) to do it. If the TV antenna wire came loose you called the TV repairman. Moving to Teaneck was a new world that my parents weren’t quite ready for. A butter knife was now the screw driver they needed; I still have one that they used, with the damaged tip. I don’t remember what they used for a hammer. My father was unable to drive and my mother had never learned – there was no need to; there were cabs, buses, and the subway to take you places. The suburbs were different. They bought a car and my mother learned to drive. We had a garage and it was de rigueur to keep your car in the garage. The car they bought was an enormous, bulbous shaped sedan. It barely fit in the garage, but my mother managed it. Backing out was different. She was very anxious, so she had me stand a few yards behind the car and direct her as she backed out. Unfortunately, I was as limited as she was. She moved gradually but if she was turned some minimal amount off center, I waved violently to her to move to the other side. This went on until we finally pried the car out. On one occasion we started this process, but the car was not put in reverse. I started waving hysterically, but mom kept driving forward while she was looking backward. Ever so slowly, she pushed out the back wall of the garage.
The large gap in my family history concerns my Uncle Seymour. I know that he was an athlete, a swimmer, and an academic, and the first of the family to go to college. As a child I was told that Seymour died while swimming with his girlfriend, and that “she came out and he didn’t.” My mother also told me that his body was never recovered. As strange as all that sounds, I accepted it and never asked for any additional information – about the death or other matters. In recent times, through Connected Bloodlines, I “connected” with its developer, Gerald Lowell, and began a search for more information about Seymour Balowitz. As of this time, despite several attempts to obtain his birth certificate or death certificate from the New York City Department of Vital Statistics, using different dates and different places – and ultimately a different name, I do not have either. I have his high school yearbook, the Clintonian. He graduated DeWitt Clinton High School in 1938. The school was still an all-boys school at that time. His yearbook has “C. C. N. Y., Student Adv. Comm.; Concert-Goers Club; Nature Study Club; Clinton News; Sec’y Public Speaking Club.” His quote is “To be a commentator that’s different.” It has a humorous note: “Georgie Porgie made them cry; He’s the guy that made ‘em sigh.” Few graduates had such an extensive list of activities.
My mother’s old metal cookie container is full of family pictures. There are several pictures of Seymour - one is noted as Central Park ’41, and one looks like a yearbook portrait, but not his high school one. There are several pictures of Seymour with a woman named Helen Price, seemingly his girlfriend – possibly his fiancée. One of these pictures shows Seymour and Helen in bathing suits. It had never occurred to me that Seymour would have ventured beyond the New York City area, yet the note on the back of the picture reads “Helen Price, SB; Upper Montclair, N.J.; Summer 1941.”
Since Seymour was a Jewish kid from the city, my brother and I assumed that Seymour drowned at Jones Beach. As my brother David put it, where else would he have drowned? The picture of Seymour and Helen Price in Upper Montclair, NJ suggested the possibility that Seymour died somewhere other than New York. Could he have died in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New Jersey? This eureka was short lived. If Seymour died in New Jersey, the effort and cost of finding information about his death increased exponentially.
My mother’s other treasure chest, an old, crumpled, Stern’s department store gift box, also had something unusual. I had seen it before but not given it much thought. It was a Certificate of Ownership of a niche at Ferncliff Mausoleum, purchased by Rose Barry on March 30th 1943. I knew where Nanny was buried and Poppy as well, so I decided to try to sell the niche back to the Ferncliff Mausoleum. I wrote them a letter with the Ownership Certificate and documents to show my relationship to Rose Barry (Balowitz), as the certificate states it is owned by Nanny or her heirs. Ferncliff answered my letter saying that NY State law does not permit selling a niche after an interment has taken place, and “Seymour B. Barry is interred in the niche” so it can’t be sold. That was a rather astonishing piece of information. It meant that Seymour’s body was recovered, or possibly had never been missing. For the first time I considered that he may have died from a cause other than drowning and that he may have used “Barry” as a name, although Nanny may have superimposed that on him at the time of his death or interment. It also heightens the polar differences between Nanny and Poppy, as Orthodox Judaism would not condone cremation. A phone call with Ferncliff indicated the date of death was July 1st 1942, but they did not have a death certificate and other records had been lost. They suggested contacting Schwartz Brother’s Funeral services, as they handled his arrangements, and they might have more information. Schwartz Brothers did not have additional information; their records were destroyed by flood.
As part of my earlier search for Seymour‘s history I looked at the 1920 and 1930 US census information; there was no record for Jack Balowitz in the 1940 census, which seemed rather strange. These census reports revealed no new or unexpected information. Seymour was listed as Seymore once (an annoying spelling error that I also deal with); Nanny’s age at marriage was given as 15, confirming her age 16 at my mother’s birth. But once I knew that Seymour may have used the name Barry, I searched for “Seymour Barry” in the 1940 census. What I got was unexpected: the four Balowitzes came up – except they were now all Barrys. Poppy used the name Balowitz on his Application for Social Security in 1936, and for his Petition for Naturalization in 1946; why Barry in 1940? Perhaps even more startling: his spouse is listed as Edith. What happened to Rose? Seymour is shown as giving the information, so we can assume that Edith was given intentionally. Was Edith Poppy’s mistress? But then he got together with Rose when I knew them as my grandparents? Possibly, but I believe unlikely. At least Balowitz and Barry both start with a “B.” Was Nanny’s real name Edith? The explanation for the use of Barry that my mother had given me was not consistent with the whole family using it. At this point the number of questions I need to find answers to has grown, and become more circuitous. It also makes me question my mother’s information even more, as well as my own memory of what was said. Yet I don’t think I could have forgotten the “Rose to Edith” scenario.
One last piece of Balowitz history: In the early 1970’s my mother proposed to the Garden Club the idea of creating a “colonial knot and herb garden” to celebrate the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. The Garden Club agreed, as did the town, to create the garden on the grounds of the Teaneck library. There, in addition to being a place for everyone to visit and enjoy, it would be an educational setting. Kids could be exposed to the multi-faceted story of herbs: the history of herbs (which she pronounced like the name Herb) woven into man’s earliest history, religion, medicine, culture and food. My mother had another cardboard box; this one has a Pendleton Woolen Mills label on it. It’s three inches thick, and stuffed with notes, letters, drawings and newspaper clippings, shuffled incongruently, cataloguing the extensive work that was done to create the herb garden. It appears that the initial task was to design and duplicate the early American herb garden – which was our adaptation of the English version. There were a multitude of other issues: what could be grown, what would have value aesthetically, what plants have characteristics such as appearance, odor, taste or touch that would enhance the educational value of the garden? Financial issues were also a major factor. Grace wrote to, met with and made presentations to local groups and clubs, churches, synagogues, county and state organizations and prominent individuals – and was able to come up with the financial means to establish the garden. The town provided the site and the much needed sand, old bricks were donated, a club member donated a prominent rosemary plant and a landscape company provided some shrubs. The Garden Club members propagated and grew the herbs, and constructed the actual garden. It was an arduous undertaking for my mother and a multitude of other townspeople. I wasn’t able to attend the garden's official opening, but I've been told that the garden was well received. After mom died in 1995 the family received a formal Certificate of Appreciation from the Township Council “in recognition of faithful and unselfish service to the community by the late Grace Kriegel for her contributions in the Township.” There is a wooden plaque with the inscription “Grace B. Kriegel Memorial Herb Garden” at the back of the site. The garden is maintained by the Garden Club. In one corner there is a pink colored granite bench donated by the Garden Club of Teaneck in her memory. If you are ever in Teaneck, come see the herb garden.