Embracing A Village That's No Longer There

Baltimoreans Elated That Ancestral Home Is In Film

October 12, 2005|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN REPORTER

Morris Sokoloff always made sure to carry small pieces of paper in his pocket. Part of his role, in this new country of America, was to help maintain the links with the old.

And in the 1930s, there were still many other Jews in his East Baltimore neighborhood who had also come from Trochenbrod, a shtetl, or village, with dirt roads and deep traditions located in a countryside in what was sometimes Russia and sometimes Poland.

Sokoloff would often take his youngest child Rae when he visited fellow Trochenbroders, catching up and taking notes on what they wanted him to tell their relatives back home. Later he would sit at his white enamel-topped kitchen table, still dressed in his starched white shirt, writing letters and postcards and smoking Bull Durham hand-rolled cigarettes.

He would address the letters in Yiddish or Polish or both. Then he would hand the envelopes to Rae so that she could add the English addresses the U.S. postmen would understand.

She learned that Trochenbrod was also Trachimbrad and Sofiovka and Zofjowka.

The name was part of the mystery surrounding her handsome red-haired father, who never spoke English without an accent, recalls Rae Sokolow Rossen.

Only later did she learn that Morris had come to Locust Point in 1909 as 25-year-old Moishe Sokolowski. He arrived with $5, the skills of a tailor and the address of a brother: 102 Albemarle St.

He married Sarah Stutz, a woman who had left a village in Romania. They raised five children in a series of houses in East Baltimore. It was enough of a struggle to get by on his "smattering" of jobs as a solderer, garment worker and leather worker without dwelling on the village he had left behind.

"I accepted that my father didn't talk about his life," Rossen says. "In those days, you didn't ask questions, you learned to speak when spoken to. You just accepted things."

But she was always curious about her ancestral heritage, especially after the village was obliterated by the Nazis in 1942.

Several years ago, she stumbled upon a reference to Trochenbrod. Rossen was reading a review of Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. The book tells of an American Jew's search for his ancestral village of Trochenbrod and for the woman who helped his grandfather escape the Nazis.

"I called anyone I knew whom Trochenbrod meant something to," Rossen says. "I was just so excited. Just seeing the name alone: Trochenbrod! It just sprung out at me. It came alive. Even though I knew the village was dead, dead, dead. Even though I knew the village was gone.

"I kept reading the review over and over again. Even though the name of the village was spelled differently, I knew it was our Trochenbrod. You know the story of the phoenix rising from the ashes? That was the way I felt. And when I read in Parade magazine that there was a film being done, I remember telling Sol Ackman, `I'll let you know when the film comes out.'"

Community ties

Last week, Rae and Harry Rossen went to the movies with three other Baltimore couples who share invisible ties to Trochenbrod: Sol and Frances Ackman, Esther and Bernie Cohen and Esther's brother, Teddy Setren, and his wife, Sonya.

The couples sat together at the Charles Theatre, wincing through flashback scenes of Nazis murdering the Jews of Trochenbrod; all four couples lost relatives in the Yom Kippur killings of 1942.

Later, they sat in the lobby and talked and talked and talked.

They talked about why their relatives had left Trochenbrod: Like millions of other East European Jews during the early days of the 20th century, they were fleeing hard economic times, pogroms and anti-Semitism, and religion-shattering servitude in the Tsar's Army.

Sol Ackman, 78, took time to contemplate his copy of a formal Trochenbroder Society photograph from 1936, taken at a meeting in East Baltimore.

"I hadn't seen these people since I was a youngster," he says. "It's probably 65 years since I had seen any of them. All of the people are deceased. I was figuring the other night that my father, were he alive, would be 130."

Looking at the faces, he remembered plasterers and store owners, many of them active in the synagogue on the corner of East Fairmount Avenue and North Chester Street. He thought of the determination of the Jews who helped each other navigate American society, maintain cultural ties and assist relatives and friends back home.

They were part of the East European wave of immigrants who created what Baltimore historian Gilbert Sandler calls "a version of the East Side of New York on East Lombard Street."

"Everyone from Trochenbrod knew of everyone else from there here in America," Rossen says. "As soon as you knew someone was from Trochenbrod, there was a very strong link.

"So it's as if Sol's always been there with me even though I didn't know him in my childhood. I would hear his family name and also hear Trochenbrod. Those names were strong and vital in our lives."

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