RADAUTI, Romania (JTA) — It’s the custom in Judaism to visit the graves of family members around the High Holidays.
This year I went a step further and walked in the footsteps of my ancestors.
My father’s parents, who immigrated to the United States before World War I, were born near the market town of Radauti in the Bucovina region of northern Romania.
This is where I went a couple of weeks before Rosh Hashanah. It was my fourth trip to Radauti, which when my grandparents lived there was one of the easternmost towns in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
My first visit there was more than 30 years ago, in the freezing December of 1978. I was a correspondent for United Press International and was accompanying Romania’s then-chief rabbi, Moses Rosen, on his annual Chanukah tour to far-flung remnant communities throughout the country.
I recall visiting 19 Jewish communities in six days. Elderly people in winter coats and astrakhan hats huddled together in unheated synagogues, and puffs of steam came from the mouths of the Jewish choir from Bucharest that came along with us to perform.
My brother Sam also was on that trip, and he and I took time in Radauti to visit the Jewish cemetery and pick our way through the stones to find the grave of our great-grandmother, Ettel Gruber, who died in 1946 and in whose honor I was given my middle name.
Discovering her grave did not trigger in me any further genealogical impulse, though what we experienced on our trip around Romania that week sowed the seeds of my interest in Jewish heritage.
As far as I knew, Ettel’s was the only tomb of my ancestors in that cemetery, and in subsequent visits to Radauti in 1991 and 2006 for other research projects I never thought to seek any other family traces.
My trip to Radauti last month was not supposed to be a roots trip, either. I went there to work on an online photographic project called (Candle)sticks on Stone, about how women are represented on Jewish tombstones through the depiction of Shabbat candles. (See the Web site http://candlesticksonstone.wordpress.com.)
But it was inevitable, I guess, that the ghosts of my long-dead ancestors hovered about, and even somehow intervened, as I carried out my business. After all, though candlesticks are common symbols marking the gravestones of Jewish women, the stone marking my great-grandmother Ettel’s tomb in the Radauti cemetery was the first I had seen bearing that image.
This ancestral intervention was particularly evident thanks to the fact that three of my cousins — Arthur, Hugh and Hugh’s son Asher — had come along with me for part of the journey. The four of us made a pilgrimage to Ettel’s grave and took a ritual picture, but otherwise my cousins were not very interested in the other tombstones I was documenting.
Rather, they wanted to find out about our family history and, as the expression goes, to walk where our ancestors had walked.
A friend of a friend in town took us to the city’s registry office and helped us examine yellowing tomes that yielded handwritten dates, names and even street addresses of our forbears.
With the information that turned up and the aid of a couple of friendly policemen, we actually found the house in the nearby village of Vicovu de Sus where Ettel and her husband, our great-grandfather Anschel, had lived when they married in 1880.
Vicovu de Sus, like much of rural northern Romania, is a place where horses and carts are still common forms of transportation. The house we found was an isolated old wooden farmstead with a steep wood-shingled roof at the end of a grassy track at the edge of corn fields. Its only outward concession to modernity seemed to be electric power lines and a satellite dish.
My cousins left Romania after a few days, but I stayed on for a bit to continue work on my project, documenting the Jewish cemeteries in Radauti and several other towns.
But that’s not all that I ended up doing.
I can’t say that I had been bitten by the genealogy bug, but our session at the town hall, the faded names and dates and notations, and our subsequent discovery of our great-grandparents’ house kept me thinking.
Our discoveries about our ancestors’ lives had left some some questions that I wanted to try to answer, and I couldn’t leave town without at least attempting to resolve them.
One of these loose ends was my discovery that another of my female ancestors — my grandmother’s grandmother, who died in 1904 — was, like Ettel, buried in the Radauti Jewish cemetery, and that her Hebrew name, and even the plot number and row of her grave, were known.
Armed with this information, I again entered the cemetery and its tilting forest of stones on my last day in town. The cemetery caretaker pointed out the row and left me to push through the undergrowth and scrutinize the Hebrew epitaphs. It was slow going — my Hebrew is basic at best, the stones were weathered and I had to keep brushing away spiders.
After half an hour or so, there it was: Chaya Dvoira bas Moshe Mordko. She was described in the epitaph as a “modest and honest” woman. Above the words were braided candlesticks on stone, with hands raised in blessing above them and faded traces of the red and green paint that must once have adorned the carving.
In a memoir she wrote by hand when she was well past middle age, my own grandmother recalled how she had lived with her grandparents in Radauti for two years as a young girl, “the happiest two years of my life as a child.”
Chaya Dvoira, she wrote, “saw that my clothes were nice and clean, she had meals on time and my hair was always combed nice and neat.” They had, she wrote, very little money.
I stood there for awhile in front of this memorial to an ancestor whose existence had never really crossed my mind before this trip.
“I pulled away a strand of stray vines: not sure what, if anything, I actually felt,” I wrote that day on my blog. “Glad to be there; cognizant of distance, time, realms; the passing of time and history. Wishing the others could have been there too. Wondering what she looked like!”
(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” “Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere),” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com.)