Adventures with a family name
My blog and I were featured in an article about elderly bloggers in the New York Times on April 11 (www.nytimes.com/retirement). The article "unmasked" me, for I have not directly revealed my name, Mort Reichek, on these pages until now.
My surname is an unusual one, and it has produced some interesting experiences. A few years ago, for example, I received a letter from a lady college professor in Chicago whose maiden name was Richek. She had seen a letter to the editor I had written to the New York Times and wanted to know whether we might be related.
I responded that the key to any relationship was whether her Jewish immigrant forebears came from Ostrow, my father's home town, or from other villages in Lomza "gubernya" (province), a region in Poland once under Czarist Russian rule. The slight difference in the spelling of our names was unimportant because the U.S. immigration officials decided how to spell my family name: Reichek. My paternal grandfather did not know the Latin alphabet when he came to the U.S. more than a century ago; he knew only the Hebrew and Cyrillic scripts.
The lady professor replied that her paternal grandparents were also natives of the Lomza region. We subsequently engaged in a long phone conversation comparing family notes and concluded that we were probably related, albeit distantly. To my knowledge, my paternal grandfather had only one brother. He remained in Poland after my grandfather's departure for the U.S. Several of the brother's offspring perished during the Holocaust. My grandfather also had legions of cousins, some of whom followed him to this country. I theorized that the professor's grandfather or great-grandfather was one of the cousins.
I have always been curious about my unusual surname. And like my newly discovered kinswoman in Chicago, I have been intrigued by the handful of strangers I have encountered who bear the same name. Although my immediate family is quite small, the Reicheks were apparently a large clan concentrated in the Lomza area. People who bear that name and are descended from natives of that area are usually related.
That assumes, however, that they are Jews. During World War II, I was briefly stationed at an Army base in Missouri where the Catholic chaplain was named Ryczyk. I was told that he pronounced the name as I did (RYE-check). Unfortunately, I was shipped overseas before I had a chance to meet him. But I was fascinated by the idea of linking a Catholic priest to my grandfather, a Hasidic rabbi. If there was indeed a genetic connection between the two men, it would have made an incredible story.
Several years ago, my daughter spent a year in Israel. On a visit to Nahariya, a town near the Lebanese border, she saw a street sign that read "Reichek Street" in Hebrew. In the Latin alphabet it was spelled "Rajczyk." An Israeli friend explained that it was the Polish spelling of our name. (The priest's family had evidently Anglicized the prefix.)
In researching the street name's origin, I learned that it was named after a deceased Holocaust survivor who had built the Carleton Hotel there. His daughter, who was born in Antwerp, Belgium after World War II, was now managing the hotel. Curiously, she had a brother still living in Antwerp named Martin Rajczyk, virtually the same name as my own. She referred me to her late father's sister Golda, who lived in Rochester, N.Y., for information about the family.
Golda was excited to hear from me when I phoned her. She had been in the U.S. since 1954. She had known that her paternal grandfather, Mayer Rajczyk, had a brother who had migrated to the U.S. around the turn of the last century. In her travels around the country, she had constantly checked phone books for people bearing the name Rajczyk, the spelling adopted by Polish Jews after the end of Russian rule, hoping to find an American relative. She never found any.
We were easily able to establish our relationship as second cousins. I knew that my grandfather's brother was named Mayer. My father, who was still alive when I called Golda, remembered that his Uncle Mayer's son Itzl had lived briefly with the family in New York before returning to Poland shortly before World War I. Itzl, who perished during the Holocaust, was Golda's father.
I have a habit myself of checking local phone books whenever I am in a city for the first time, seeking people bearing my uncommon family name. I have rarely succeeded. But I once encountered a lawyer named Reichek in Cleveland. His father had been an immigrant from Bessarabia, now part of the former Soviet republic of Moldava. That's a long way from Lomza. Neither the Cleveland lawyer nor I could imagine that branches of European Jewish families a century ago would be so geographically separated. The Rothschild bankers were clearly an exception. But since we were not Rothschilds, we concluded that we were probably unrelated.
In my search for Reicheks, I hit the jackpot about 30 years ago in Houston, Texas, a city where I had no known relatives. There were at least a dozen Reicheks listed in he phone book. I learned that they were the children and grandchildren of Hyman Reichek, who had left Poland many decades before and had settled in Texas, where he raised a family of five daughters and four sons.
I spoke to Hyman's wife who revealed that she and her husband came from Ostrow, my father's home town in Lomza province. Their family had been adherents of the same Gerer Hasidic sect to which my grandparents belonged. She was unable, however, to remember my grandfather. When I returned home, I described my encounter with the Reicheks of Houston to an elderly great-aunt, my grandfather's surviving sister. She immediately identified Houston's Hyman Reichek as a first cousin with whom she had lost contact.
Years later, I received a phone call from a woman in California whose maiden name was Reichek. She had met my daughter, who lives in that state. When she heard my daughter's last name, she was curious to know whether they were related. My daughter referred her to me in New Jersey. The woman had a pronounced Texas accent. She was astonished when I quickly asked her whether she was the daughter of Hyman Reichek in Houston. Indeed she was. Since her father and my grandfather were first cousins, I figured out that we were second cousins once removed.
I have occasionally been asked by people learning my name whether I am related to other Reicheks they have known. Usually the other Reichek turned out to be one of my uncles or first cousins. But the other Reicheks have included people I never heard of--a dancing teacher on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a kosher butcher in Brooklyn, and a Lubavitcher Hasidic rabbi in Los Angeles.
East European Jews were required to adopt surnames only in recent centuries. In most cases, they selected or were endowed with names based on their occupations, places of origin, parents' given names, and even their physical descriptions. The name Reichek doesn't fit any of these categories. I have been unable to determine its origins. But I have had a hint--not necessarily credible, however.
I was once invited to a reception at the Polish embassy in Washington. In conversation with a young diplomat, I told him that my father was born in Poland. When I mentioned my father's home town of Ostrow, near Lomza, he grinned mischievously. He explained that when he attended college in Warsaw, Ostrow was a favorite site for male students to "shack up" with their girl friends during weekends away from school. He obviously had very fond memories of Ostrow.
I saw a potential connection between the Polish diplomat's disclosure and my family name years later when I met a Czech writer at a literary cocktail party in New York. The writer was interested in hearing my last name and asked whether my family was of Czech origin. When I told him my father was born in Poland, he said the languages of the two countries were similar and volunteered that my name Reichek meant "little paradise" in his native tongue. His definition took on a special meaning when I recalled the young Polish diplomat's tender recollection of sexual liaisons in my father's home town.
I was able to get a confirmation of my family name's meaning from a neighbor who was born and raised in Poland. I asked him how to say "little paradise" in Polish. He paused for a moment, declaring that it was not a phrase that came up often in conversation. Then, thinking aloud, he stammered: "Rye, rye...check." Seeking additional confirmation, I found another Polish-speaking man who affirmed that Reichek did indeed mean "little paradise" in his native language.
Unfortunately, however, history shows that Poland was never exactly a paradise for the Jewish people living there. How my family was saddled with its name I will never know.