Finding truth from Minsk to Baltimore

City Diary

April 25, 2001|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ

IT'S FUNNY how the truth appears -- the real and righteous ring of truth that arrives with clarity and confusion and a sense that nothing will ever be the same.

For lifelong Baltimorean Richard Ellsberry, truth made a cameo during a family vacation in Ocean City in the summer of 1970, when he was 16.

Mr. Ellsberrry remembers standing near some trash cans outside of a rented cottage when his father made an astounding announcement as casually as if asking whether the Orioles were playing that night.

"Did you know that your mother's father was kicked out of the United States when she was a little girl and sent back to Russia?"

Now 47, Mr. Ellsberry recalls: "All of a sudden, I had an interest in my family."

Along with his brother, John, 45, Mr. Ellsberry has been a yeoman in Baltimore's out-of-the-mainstream art scene since the days of disco and Jimmy Carter.

John Ellsberry lives near Hollins Street Market and is known for stained-glass mosaics of celebrities and the alligator mural on the 28th Street bridge. Richard created and is the curator of ArtMobile.net, an online artists colony. He lives in the Ellsberry family home in Anneslie, near Towson.

Today, the brothers' biggest project is piecing together family history from threads and lies. They'd always believed their mother's parents died before they were born.

"We don't have much more information than orphans because someone didn't think we should know," said Richard.

John believes it would have taken extraordinary courage for a 1950s Baltimore housewife raising two kids during the Cold War to be sending letters to her long-lost father in the Soviet Union.

"If our grandfather has a child alive in Russia, that would be our closest living relative," says Richard. "And there's a good chance that we're Jewish."

The truth lies in the name Tryzno -- a tailor named Vincent Tryzno, the Ellsberry's maternal grandfather -- and it spins from Russia to Patterson Park and back.

"Seven years ago, I started using the name Tryzno, hoping that someone would see it and get in touch with me," said Richard.

Nothing came of their father's stunning statement in Ocean City; no rattling of skeletons beyond an occasional disparaging remark from the elder Ellsberry about his wife's "lower-class" East Baltimore heritage.

This from a dirt-poor Methodist from Texas. Richard and John never asked their mother about it because they were not allowed to do anything that would upset her.

And so Mildred Dorothy Tryzno Ellsberry succumbed to stomach cancer in 1984 without sharing the great secret of her life with her sons.

The death of her husband, Benjamin, seven years later led to a cleaning of the boys' childhood home and John's discovery of a box of letters hidden beneath the basement steps.

One -- dated June 17, 1920 -- was from the government in Washington and addressed to Mrs. Vincent Tryzno at 125 S. Streeper St. It says that Mr. Tryzno would soon be deported, but doesn't say why.

When the United States sent him packing that same year, Vincent Tryzno left behind 5-year-old Mildred and his wife, the former Mary Strimatis.

"Almost immediately, Mary runs off with the man who sold tomatoes on the corner and moved to the Eastern Shore," said John, wondering if his grandmother was an accomplice in the deportation.

From the letters, Internet searches, phone calls and trips to various archives, the Ellsberrys have learned that Vincent Tryzno headed a writer's club in Minsk in the early 1930s and and did time in Siberia.

They discovered that Vincent had a sister named Lavinia who married one man named Saliker and another named Bissell and raised nine children in East Baltimore. None of her heirs have been found.

Also, their grandmother's sister and her husband -- a doctor named Alexander Sienkiewicz, who had a practice at 1731 Gough St. -- lived with the Tryzno family in the tiny Streeper Street house that is now forlorn and vacant. Sienkiewicz returned to Russia about 1917, but it is not clear why.

Was it health or politics that got Vincent Tryzno deported? Was he a cuckold set up by his wife and the neighborhood produce dealer? Does someone in Russia know more of the story?

The Ellsberrys visited Moscow last year without covering much ground and intend to go again.

"I'd be happy," said John, "just to find a tombstone with the name Tryzno on it."

Today's writer

Rafael Alvarez is a Baltimore author. His new book, "Storyteller," will be published next month by The Baltimore Sun.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues of concern to Baltimore's neighborhoods.

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