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My Grandfather's Grave

A painting of Margo Donovan’s grandfather, Joseph David Amsterdam
The ‘Red House’ detention center in Bari, Italy
Serving dishes of the Hutschenreuther china, now used at the Friday table

It is said that inanimate objects can contain holiness. The serving dishes that are on our Shabbos table tell a story of more than a century of travelling. The Hutschenreuther china, probably purchased in Poland, accompanied my newly-wed maternal grandparents. They travelled from Warsaw to Frankfurt, Germany to a small apartment, and later to a large house. How these dishes were taken out of Germany and arrived in New York remains a mystery.

My mother, with a certain faraway sound in her voice, told me that the dishes had come from her home in Germany. No longer did my mother keep a kosher home and, after years of use, the dishes had decreased in number. My mother passed away and G-d took some of the sadness from us by blessing us with a child after 14 years of marriage. We took our son to Israel for his barmitzvah in 1996. When we returned, we became observant. A well-respected rabbi helped us to kasher the dishes and they now sit on our Shabbos table as we tell their story.

In 2008, we made aliyah and brought the things that had special meaning for us - pictures, books and, of course, the dishes. I took my grandfather's prayer book, dated 1843, along with hand-painted post cards that he had sent from Bari, Italy. In the prayer book was a photograph of the headstone on my grandfather's grave. I often wondered about him. My mother had arrived in New York in 1940, met my father and gave birth to my brother and me. I was born in 1944. We never got to know my mother's family. 

After Kristallnacht they had used their visas to go to Italy to escape from the Nazis. My mother found it too difficult to speak about her family but, from her tears and the little that she said, we understood how quickly her life must have changed. She told me that her mother, sister and younger brother were murdered in Italy by the Nazis. At that time, my grandfather was in a hospital and had planned to come to America after the war. However, when my grandfather found out what had happened to his wife and children, he suffered a heart attack and died. 

In Central Park ... Margo Donovan with her parents and brother Carey

In 2011, our daughter-in-law was expecting a boy and my son wanted to name him after my grandfather, Joseph. Our son went online and located researchers in Italy: Anna and Lydia. They were writing about the Jews in Italy during World War II. Lydia graciously sent us copies of the visas that had been issued to the family and told us their story. They had arrived in Milan and set up home. They probably knew people in the leather business because my grandfather had a leather goods factory in Germany. My mother was immediately sent by her father to England and then on to America. Within the year, the rest of the family were transported by the authorities to Southern Italy. The men and women were separated. The men were put into a detention center in Bari, Italy 

Friday night ... one of the postcards featuring Margo’s grandfather

I sent Lydia copies of the hand-painted post cards that had been painted while the men were detained in what was called "The Red House". Lydia wrote that my grandfather was in hospital when his family was sent north. The Nazis shot my grandmother, aunt and uncle and put them in mass graves in Forli, Italy. I now understand more clearly why my mother had difficulty talking about her family. The question remained as to what had happened to my grandfather and where he was buried.

The dates on the stone were clear: Joseph Dawid Amsterdam, died 29th March 1947, but there was no place of burial mentioned. Many people tried to help us and by 2014, we decided that maybe he had come to Palestine to wait until he could travel to America. We tried the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. There was no entry in the computer and the volunteer at the museum said that if the grave could not be located in Italy, it was probably not there, as Italy kept excellent records. We went to the Chevra Kadisha Burial Society in Tel Aviv and they had no record of Joseph David Amsterdam. We were given a list of over 100 branches of the Chevra Kadisha in Israel to contact.

Again I wrote to my friends in Italy - Lydia and Anna. We were able to communicate through Google translate and I asked if there were any ship's records of Jews trying to get to Palestine. Once again, Lydia put the information online and contacted the Jewish Italian Federation in New York. They sent it out to their mailing list and a David Pacifici received the picture of my grandfather's stone. That very same day, David was going to a funeral in Rome. He thought from the trees in the photograph that it might have been taken at the Verano Cemetery. David did indeed locate the grave, and took a picture of the now 67 year old stone which he emailed to me. He had the stone cleaned and the engravings refreshed.

Two months later we met David in Jerusalem, and shortly afterwards in Rome. In March, we visited my grandfather's grave at the Verano Cemetery, and the Memorials in Forli for my grandmother, uncle and aunt. We went to the airport in Forli where they had been shot and put in mass graves. We met the researchers - Anna, Lydia and her husband, Antonio. I am writing this in grateful thanks to all the wonderful people who encouraged me and cared enough to make this happen.

The following is what I said at my grandfather's grave:

"I never met you, my grandfather, Joseph David Amsterdam, but you have been on my mind for a long time. The hand-painted post cards that were somehow sent to my mother expressed a longing to be together. You wanted to live as you had before, as a Jewish family. In the pictures and in your words there was no bitterness or lack of hope. There was a sadness and always the hope that you would get to know us.

You had to choose one child to be saved. It was your daughter, my mother, who went to America. I never met you but I feel I know you, a humble and kind man that only wanted to help people. I want you to know that you are not forgotten. You have grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren. The memory of you and our family is in our spirits and in our homes." 



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Saturday, 24 February 2024

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