JTA’s Archive Blog will be hosting the new “Seeking Kin” column that aims to help reunite readers with long-lost friends and relatives.
Even at age 10, Tchiya Rosenthal sensed a secret. The woman she knew as Aunt Lily frequently visited the family’s Tel Aviv apartment to chat, often in a whisper, with Tchiya’s mother, Tova Ostrinsky. The two adults seemed very close.
Not until Tova’s death in 1992 did the meaning behind those hushed, early-1950s conversations emerge: Tova once was engaged to Lily’s brother, Yosef Fulman.
Now a grandmother in northern Jerusalem, Tchiya wishes she could ask her mother the questions that first stirred when she discovered a pocketbook packed with love letters under her mother’s pillow: What was Tova’s relationship with Yosef like? Why did Yosef, after returning to his native Warsaw in July 1938 to care for his father, who’d suffered a heart attack, not sail right back to Israel to marry Tova as they’d planned? Did Tova feel guilty over funding Yosef’s trip, only to learn from Lily years later that he’d been killed in the Shoah? When, how and where did he die?
With all the principals, including Tova’s siblings, long dead, Tchiya is casting her net wider. She is searching for Lily “Lola” Perlov’s daughter-in-law, Jane, and grandchildren, Joshua and Sarah. She thinks that they live in New York.
From them, Rosenthal desires to learn much more about Yosef and about her own mother. She also wishes to give Lily’s descendants a small photograph of Yosef that apparently was taken in Warsaw during his fateful visit. The portrait depicts Fulman in suit and tie, with dark eyes and hair. It could be the last picture taken of him. Tchiya wants Yosef’s relatives to have it.
The letters Yosef and Tova exchanged expressed their mutual affection sensitively and understatedly, Tchiya said — “not like today, [when people] write, ‘I love you, and I can’t live without you.'”
While tragedy kept the couple from marrying, it also prompted Tova’s marriage to Menachem Mendel Ostrinsky, Tchiya’s father. A librarian in Kovno, Menachem and his girlfriend, Raya, settled in 1933 in Israel, where they married. In 1935, Raya died during an operation for kidney stones.
Unemployed and with a five-month-old daughter, Masada, to care for, Menachem sought assistance from Tova, a social worker with Tel Aviv’s municipality. The couple married in 1941.
Tova appeared to carry a burden that made her “a very closed person,” Tchiya recalled. “All my life, I felt that my mother was not relaxed. I’m sure that my father loved his first wife very much, and my mother, too. Despite that, I always felt such tension.”
Perhaps, she surmised, Tova was tortured by the doomed relationship with Yosef and by a sense of responsibility for his demise. “If she continued holding onto the letters, she must have still loved him,” Tchiya said. “It was an unrequited love, and the fact she gave him the money must have eaten at her. How much could he have [earned] as a violinist?”
Neither Tchiya’s half-sister nor son, Noam, displays much interest in the Tova-Yosef relationship. But listeners to Hamador L’chipus Krovim, an Israeli radio program on which Tchiya’s search was broadcast in July, are helping fill in some blanks. They informed her that Lily’s husband, Yitzhak Perlov, was a well-known Yiddish writer-editor; that Lily was a folk singer who published a songbook in Warsaw and whose recordings rest in the Hebrew University archives, and that the couple moved to New York with their son, Ben-Ami, in 1961.
As a graphic designer for book publishers, Tchiya feels a kinship with the artistic, creative Perlovs. The pity of it all, Tchiya explained, is that she lived in Manhattan for 14 years in the 1970s and 1980s, unaware of their existence. Lily and Yitzhak died in 1979 and 1980, respectively, and are buried in Queens. Ben-Ami died at 60 in 2006.
“If I would have known that Lily was [living in New York], I would have sought her out. But what could I do? It was fate,” she said.
“I’m interested in finding out more information. At a certain age, you start to look back. It bothers me that I have this picture. I would like to give it to [Yosef’s] family.”
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