By Karen Lefkowitz, JRI-Poland Stopnica Town Leader
In 1902, Eli Meilach Borkensztajn (Max Stein) married Blima (Bella) Rivka Zyser in Stopnica, Poland. They had five children, Chaya Sura (Sarah), Israel Icek (Irving), Kiva (Charles), Pinchas (Phillip), and Chana (Anne). In 1913, Max made the difficult decision to temporarily leave his wife and children and emigrate. Their plan was for Max to go to New York City and save enough money as a tailor to bring over Bella and the children. In 1914, WWI broke out and there was no hope of their traveling to America during wartime.
Bella was born in Piastrow, a tiny town (a dorf) near Stopnica. Her father was a feldshuh (barber-surgeon). He was respected by local farmers and townspeople and Bella also maintained a good relationship with them. Bella was determined to support her children and ensure no one would go hungry. To earn money, she traveled to the farms, by foot, and bought produce and chickens to sell at the Stopnica Marketplace. In the summers, the family worked at one of the orchards in Piastrow, living in a hut called a "butke." It was similar to an igloo but made of straw and wood. After the summer, they returned to Stopnica with sufficient produce to last the winter. It was stored in the attic under layers of hay.
Stopnica was on the front during the First World War. It seemed like every week another army would pass through the town. When the soldiers were in town, most of the townspeople hid in their homes. Bella was fearless when it came to protecting her children. She cooked chickens and geese and sold them to the soldiers to earn money to feed her children.
Max tried to send money but it was usually stolen by the postal workers who had come adept at spotting money sent from America. One day a photo of Max arrived. Hidden between the photo and the cardboard backing was a twenty dollar bill! This was a joyous occasion!
Finally, the war ended and it was time for the family to join Max in New York City. In the fall of 1920, Bella and the children said their goodbyes to the relatives who remained in Poland and made their way by foot through war-devastated Poland to Gdansk from where they sailed to New York. The trip in steerage was difficult but they never forgot that wondrous first sight of the Statue of Liberty and being reunited with Max!
A year after being reunited, their beloved youngest son, Sidney, was born. Sadly, tragedy struck the family when the oldest sister, Sarah, died of tuberculosis in 1931. She has been married for one year and was expecting her first child. The family soon left the Lower East side and moved to Brownsville in Brooklyn. At first they rented an apartment, but by 1930 the family owned a two family house in Brownsville. All the children lived at home and their combined salaries enabled them to afford this home during the Depression. Sidney, the youngest, was the only sibling able to attend college because his older brothers worked to help support the family. He went on to earn a PhD in Chemistry and during graduate school worked for the Manhattan Project which built the first atomic bomb.
As new immigrants, the family joined the Stopnitzer's Young Men's Benevolent Association SYMBA), a landmanshaftn. SYMBA was formed in 1905 to help the new immigrants from Stopnica and their families. Amazingly, SYMBA is still going strong as a philanthropic organization in both Toronto and New York. The generosity of SYMBA has helped fund and has been instrumental in the development of the Stopnica vital records database on Jewish Records Indexing – Poland.
The years spent living in an orchard in Poland left the family members with a great love of nature and a desire to live in the "country." In 1944, the family purchased an old farmhouse in Accord, NY in the Catskill Mountains. They later built bungalows to rent to families from New York City so they too could enjoy summers in the country. The extended family joyfully spent their summers together in Accord.
Sadly, after WWII, the family learned that most of Bella's family who remained in Poland had perished in the Holocaust. There were only two survivors from the large family. Max's sister and brother-in-law had remained in Poland and their exact fate has never been determined.
Max passed away in 1949 and Bella in 1971. They lived long enough to see their clan take root in America. They are survived by numerous grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren who became accomplished professionals. They would have been very proud to see their wonderful descendants of generous, loving, smart, and successful people.