I began researching and writing this blog about a decade ago. I grew up with very little family – as far as I knew, my dad was a survivor of the holocaust, and I had seen an article in a 1961 issue of Coronet Magazine in which he told a reporter his survivor story. He was born Carl Schmatnik, in the city of Czernowitz, in 1924. His parents were Samuel Schmatnik, a son of a well-off merchant family, and Ettel Blei, from another large family with humbler origins. Both families could trace their history back several generations in Sadagora, a group of several towns located just north of Czernowitz.
Samuel’s father Ioil ben Schmuel Schmatnik had a shop selling tailor’s supplies in Sadagora and later Czernowitz. The family lived in a grand home in Czernowitz. Samuel was one of six children. Ettel’s parents Salomon and Gusta Blei also had six children.
Ettel and Samuel worked as hairdressers in Czernowitz, and were comfortable there. Czernowitz was a very liberated city, where Jews could find success and acceptance. It was a city with theater and art, poetry, symphonies, private libraries and cultural activities. The online archives of the newspaper “Der Tag” details prewar life in this very unique city. Ettel would summer at the Black Sea with son Carl while her husband remained in town, a “grass widow” working while his family vacationed. Carl grew up spoiled and well educated. My grandmother Ettel, who lived with us when I was a child, told me she had a maid who followed him around cramming extra bites of food into his mouth. Carl spoke and read in several languages when he was just a child – as an adult he was fluent in nine languages. I remember him telling me as a child that he warned his parents of the danger looming for Jews in Eastern Europe, but life was so pleasant that it was hard to take the warnings seriously.
During the war, he had pulled off some incredible escapes from labor and death camps in the area of Ukraine known then as Transnistria. I knew that he had made his way alone to Haifa, Mandatory Palestine, and had been reunited with his parents there in the mid-1940s. In Israel, the family changed their name to AlRoy, as it was common to change names – partly to integrate better, and partly to separate from the past.
Now going by the name Gil Carl AlRoy, my dad worked odd jobs, and eventually fell into working for the American CIA in Israel. He came to the US on vacation and was introduced to my mother by a friend he met on the ship. My mother was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to immigrants from Russia.
Before they married he stayed with a distant relative in the Bronx – I do not know their identity. She urged my father to finish his education, and he was able to enroll in City College of New York.
My parents married in NYC in 1955 and had a reception, at my Pennsylvania grandparents home.
It was his perfect college record which drew media attention, and his survivor story came to light. There was a media frenzy and he appeared on the television show “To Tell the Truth” in 1959, revealing his story publicly on national tv. The Coronet Magazine article came out in 1961, when my parents were married already for several years. He later told me he regretted not cashing in on the media blitz. There were offers to make a film of his life, but at the time he wanted to live quietly. Later on, he achieved some fame as an international expert in Arab-Jew relations, and wrote a number of books on the topic.
His mother Ettel, now Esther AlRoy, came to join her son. My grandfather Samuel died in Italy right before sailing, so Ettel arrived alone. She set up a hairdresser shop in NYC for some years and later came to live with us.
Some of my earliest memories are of the sounds and smells of Eastern Europe. Czernowitz was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and German was the first language of its inhabitants until it became part of the Romanian Empire in 1920. My father and grandmother would argue in German and sometimes Yiddish, and my grandmother would make exotic foods in the kitchen — some European, some Israeli, most of which I refused to taste: Schtav, a cold sorrel soup, Ikra, a fish roe salad, Babaganoush, much stew, and mushroom barley casserole. Food gathering was a fun weekend activity. There was a German butcher a half hour’s drive away and we would be there for what seemed like hours as exotic languages were spoken and meat was purchased.
It was hard on my mother having her mother-in-law in residence, especially as Ettel was a forceful presence.
I grew up literally at my grandmother’s knee. I would sneak out of bed at night and go to her room, where she held court in her colorfully patterned housecoat and blue hairnet. She would take a bottle of vodka out of a cabinet and pour herself a small drink, then sneak me hard candies. I’d get under the covers in her daybed and she would tell me stories of her childhood—rambling and disjointed stories I’ll never forget, in her heavy Eastern European accent. She’d tell me of growing up with sisters she loved and a strict father she despised, of poverty, of picking up coal on train tracks to bring home and burn. When pograms happened (well documented in Sadagora around 1919) her older sisters hid in the kitchen oven so the soldiers would not rape them. She also told pieces of stories from her adult life – of working in the movie studios when times were good, and from walking the streets looking for work when they were not. She would cry as she told me of her lost brothers and sisters.
My father was deeply wounded from what he had undergone in his life. He would go from being charming and sweet to violently angry.
Carl/Gil died of cancer aged 60, when I was a teenager. I became Ettel’s legal guardian and her memories became more muddled still. All this time, I did not know that we were not alone. There was family. When I was pregnant with my daughter in 2008, I received an email from a cousin in Venezuela. I started researching with his help, then piecing together the story. I found others with the help of many wonderful online researchers and groups.
These blog entries are my family research, supplemented by history. I am attempting to place the slim facts I have within a historical framework. Learning about the Romanian Holocaust and life in Eastern Europe before 1940 has been fascinating.
I’d like to recommend a wonderful film “Czernowitz of my Heart“, a 1999 documentary created by IETV.
I have been lucky enough to connect with many fascinating elders and have integrated their stories where I have had their permission to do so.
Please enjoy this blog! It is a labor of love.
— Iris AlRoy