None of the 45 people in the kosher Chinese restaurant on Flatbush Avenue had ever been to Zembrov, a town in northeast Poland, and some even had trouble spelling it. But all had relatives who came from there, and they gathered two weeks ago to keep their memories alive.
The United Zembrover Society is believed to be one of only about 20 surviving New York-area landsmanschaften, fraternal organizations founded in the late 1800s here by immigrants who shared East European hometowns, according to Isaac Pulvermacher, chairman of UJA-Federation’s Council of Jewish Organizations.
But unlike the other societies, sustained by the aging immigrants from Eastern Europe, the United Zembrover Society is the only one being kept alive by the second and third generation, he said.
In an indication of how difficult it might be to sustain the society and attract third-generation members, Amy Rublin, 22, of Wynnewood, Pa., who attended the meeting with her grandmother and other family members, said the gathering’s emphasis on cemeteries was a turnoff.
But she seemed to offer a blueprint for how to keep young people’s attention. “Discussions of people’s stories,” is what Rublin wants to hear.
“I am passionate about history, and I really value my family,” she explained. “What keeps me and my family connected to the society is the memory of my grandfather. What I’d love is to sit through a meeting and learn about the people from whom we descend. Each meeting could talk about a handful of people — where they’re from, memories of the place, whether or not they were impacted by the Holocaust and how, what the reputation of the town was in Poland [and] how Zembrove is emblematic of the Jewish experience in Poland/ Europe.”
This new group, should it take hold, would be a far cry from the landsmanschaften of old.
“Twenty years ago we had 3,000 societies,” Pulvermacher, 88, pointed out.
Steven Lasky, founder of the Museum of Family History, a Web site that preserves the memories of Jewish ancestors, noted that about 70 percent of immigrants who entered the United States through Ellis Island stayed in New York. And he said the “majority of society burial plots were owned by landsmanschaften.”
Pulvermacher said that of those landsmanschaften remaining, all but three or four “are very weak.”
Among those still meeting, Pulvermacher said, are the Krakover Benevolent Society and the Lodzer Young Men’s Benevolent Society. “The council stays in touch with the societies that still have money and want to help UJA-Federation,” he said. “And if any of their members need medical or monetary help, they call me. In the past, these people have given millions to UJA-Federation, and now some of them are looking for help from us.”
The Zembrover Society, founded more than 100 years ago, has struggled in recent years to stay alive. In 2005, only 13 people showed up for a meeting. When it met again in 2007 after The Jewish Week publicized its meeting, 32 people came. After a more extensive outreach using Internet searches, 20 new members joined in the last year.
The group voted two weeks ago not only to remain in existence but also to expand its activities beyond simply maintaining its burial grounds at two local cemeteries. And members agreed to meet at the same kosher Chinese restaurant next May — if not before. “We should meet again in December just to get to know each other,” one woman suggested.
“How about going to a play as a group?” another said. What gives the group promise is that it attracted people from Boston to Philadelphia whose ages ranged from 5 to 83.
But Pulvermacher said he is not optimistic the group will survive. “It cannot succeed,” he said. “You need a lot of effort. The only things holding them together are the cemeteries. … People have to take care of the cemeteries and funerals. It’s not a pleasant thing. Workman’s Circle and Labor Zionist groups are also going.”
“Little by little, all will disappear,” he said.
But Rublin said she believes that if they pursued issues of relevance to a younger generation, the society could survive.
“I’d love to know the answers to questions about food, marriage, children, education, interactions with non-Jewish citizens, occupations, etc.,” she said. “I feel strongly about continuing to attend the society for the connection to my roots. I fear that talk of divisive issues, such as the cemetery, although important, are overshadowing some of the discussions that would be truly valuable to younger members such as myself and my brothers.”
“With members getting older and passing away,” Rublin continued, “it is of the utmost importance that we learn their stories and hear their memories before the society is strictly descendants very far removed.”
Rublin added that a portion of the society’s money should be used for a research project about Zembrove that would supplement oral histories of members or their immediate descendants, or even to supplement the cost of a trip to Zembrove and its environs.
But as a rule, “the next generation is less interested in links to a place they have not visited,” according to Jonathan Sarna, the Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.
“The landsmanschaften had their heyday during the immigrant period and they were immensely important after World War I because those here with parents and other relatives in communities that had been destroyed raised money for them,” he said. “They sent tens of millions of dollars and some actually went back to visit.”
After World War II, landsmanschaften “produced memorial volumes about the communities that had disappeared [in the Holocaust] from all the people they could find who had come from the community,” Sarna said. “They wrote as many articles as they could about them. These were the tombstones to the destroyed Jewish communities [of Europe]. Long before Holocaust Memorial Day — in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s — you had memorial volumes that took an immense amount of labor.”
At the Zembrove Society meeting, Ronald Miller of Dix Hills, L.I., brought along that community’s yizkor book and passed it around to others.
“I’m surprised this group still survives and is still trying to survive,” he said, noting that he had a grandfather from Zembrove. “I joined after learning about it from a fellow genealogist,” Miller, 63, said.
“It’s nice that the young people are trying to memorialize the town at a time when it is believed that there are no Jews left there. At one time — in 1868 — 60 percent of the town was Jewish.”
Miller said he and his wife, Carole, joined because he wanted to “talk to people who had been to Zembrove so I could find out what life was like for my grandfather.”
He said he was pleased that the group restored what was left of the Jewish cemetery in the town and that it has begun having the town’s 650-page yizkor book, “The Book of Zembrov: Memories of Our Town Which Had Been Annihilated by the Nazis and Does Not Exist Anymore,” translated from Yiddish and Hebrew into English.
Linda Levitt, 44, of Brooklyn, came to the meeting with her husband, Howard Dankowitz, their two children, Michelle, 5, and Jessica, 7, and her father, Ed Levitt, 78, also of Brooklyn. She said her mother had relatives from Zembrove.
“It’s an interesting connection to my past,” Levitt said. “It’s nice that [the meeting is held] over a meal. I hope my kids will have this connection. It’s good once a year to come and show pride in one’s hometown and meet relatives.”
She said that at the meeting she met a relative she never knew existed. Ed Levitt recalled that his parents had belonged to a different landsmanschaft that disbanded about a dozen years ago and “distributed what was left in the treasury to the members. … It’s good that this group is staying alive. You have to have some connection.”
Gershon Tabak, 87, who joined the group in 1947 and now lives in Florida, was credited with keeping the group alive during the 1980s and ‘90s at a time when other landsmanschaften were disappearing. Although he was not at Sunday’s meeting, he was re-elected second vice president.
Marsha Kay, 83, of Brooklyn, Amy Rublin’s grandmother, said she had joined the society with her husband, Morris, when they married in 1951. “He was from Zembrove,” she said. “I joined the ladies’ auxiliary, and we played cards. The meetings were held on Saturday nights in a rented social hall. At least 100 people came.”
Her daughter, Harriet Rublin, 51, said she brought two of her three children because it is “an important link to their background. It’s important for them to have that continuity.”
She credited Aaron Maslow, the group’s corresponding secretary, with being the “driving force” behind the effort to keep the society functioning with the younger generation.
“He has an interest and desire to have continuity, which is infectious, and that is what is guiding us,” she said.
In introducing himself to the group, Maslow recounted the history of the societies and said they had conducted meetings in Yiddish. These societies, he said, “were a way for them to feel comfortable in America.”
“If they needed a job, they would come to a meeting and see what was available,” Maslow said.
“They had a synagogue on the Lower East Side … They had holiday parties and their social life revolved around membership in their hometown landsmanschaft.”
Burt Rublin, Harriet’s husband, said he appreciated the group because of the “kinship and because it keeps Jewish identity at a time when people are assimilating.”
“This is not a Jewish organization, but it is a landsmanschaft that gives one a sense of belonging,” he added. “I think it has as much relevance now as it did 100 years ago, but for different reasons.”