Blue Heron in flight

Monday, December 30, 2019

Silver vein

I have spent over thirty years buying and selling antiques. I have never been able to walk by the Polish silver candlesticks with the name Szkarlat or S. Szkarlat emblazoned on the cartouche without being sorely tempted.

The maker was one of the most prolific of all Polish silversmiths. I buy them whenever I can. You see, it was my father's mother's maiden name. It means sapphire in Polish.

The family name has almost disappeared from our world at this point. I buy them reflexively. I have owned three or four different pairs over the years.

My grandmother's father Menachem Szkarlat owned a sawmill in Wyszkow, a small "shtetl" or jewish community northeast of Warsaw. He was actually pretty well to do compared to his peers.

He and his wife, Sura Gold Fridman had eleven children, Malka, Brana, Rafael, Itzhak, Ruchel, Pola, Rivka, Hana, Mendel, Israel, Bluma as well as my grandmother Pesia. I believe that Pola died at a very young age.

My grandmother Pesia is in the second seated row, second from the right.
The occasion was a visit from the poet/philosopher Hillel Zeitlin to Wyszkow, sometime before 1920, I think.
Pesia emigrated to Palestine in the early 1920's with my grandfather Israel Sommer (Kaitz).
They were very lucky to escape the coming storm. Three of her sisters appear in this photograph.

The rest, with the exception of my grandmother, our Aunt Malka and Ruchel, died in the Holocaust, in Auschwitz. Ruchel was bombed in the Vistula forest in the early days of the war in 1939 and suffered a serious head injury. Much of the town's history and tribulations can be found in the Yizkor, or memorial book.

Szmul Szkarlat - 1889, assayed by Joseph Sosnowski 
I am under no pretensions that these are the most beautiful or best crafted of shabbos, or Friday night prayer candlesticks ever constructed.

But they are lovely in their own honest way, with their foliate and fruit design and simple chasing. Serviceable.

Most of the shabbos sticks I have seen of any maker were made in Warsaw, as were these.

All the sticks that I have seen from this particular silversmith look very similar, although the early ones tended to come with a heavy rectangular base and seemed more substantial. I am sorry that I sold my better, heavier pair with the square base.

They are usually a touch over thirteen inches tall, made out of Russian silver 84. Russian silver standards are based on the zolotnick and work out to about 87.5% purity. My late friend Garry Cohen had a magnificent pair of Szkarlat candlesticks, twice as large at least, the most beautiful pair I have ever seen. I want to track down his brother Larry and get a picture.

Szmul Szkarlat Hanukkah Lamp -
courtesy of Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Anyway as I was saying, I always imagined or figured that the maker, Szmul Szkarlat, was a distant uncle. The name is fairly uncommon and my hope and sincere belief was that we were somehow related. I guess I bought them to honor the family that neither I nor the world ever got to know.

One must understand the significance of these candlesticks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This was after all, Poland and not Germany. The Jews of Poland and the Ukraine lived under pogrom and persecution and were typically very poor. Yet every family had their tribe and faith to cling to and every family had a set of shabbos candlesticks, the less well to do families' sticks made out of brass or silverplate over copper. It was tough for these people to afford sterling or continental grade silver. But they would scrimp and save and manage to get something. It was a requisite. And every family had a set in one fashion or another. They were treasured keepsakes and eventually passed down.

The lighting of the candles נרות שבת at about twenty minutes before sundown on Friday was a rabbinically required law. The first record of the talmudic requirement is found in the ninth century Siddur of Rav Amram. The lighting had a dual purpose, to honor the sabbath and to foster shalom bayit, or domestic tranquility.

My friend Tracy was kind enough to recently buy me a dna kit from Ancestry.com. She said that it might fill out some gaps in the information I have previously received from Family Tree DNA. They certainly have a large database and they have a neat feature called Thrulines™. Thrulines™ gives you information from other family trees on the Ancestry website that might pertain to your research. Very invaluable.

It took a few days to get the information to migrate to my site.

And I discovered something startling, that Szmul Shmelko Szkarlat was not a distant uncle after all, he was my grandmother's great grandfather.

And I learned his father's name, Avigdor, who was born in 1773.

I made contact with a Montreal relative who translates Russian and Polish and has done a lot of research on the family.

She confirmed that my third great grandfather was the famous silver maker and told me that the Grosbard relatives also were noted goldsmiths.

People don't get this when I tell them but I want to repeat. We had no silver in my family, we ate off melmac and stainless. I knew no family lore, my mother preferring to shade and obfuscate her family history and my father never divulging much at all.

And yet for some weird reason, I developed a keen interest in fine silver and even wrote for the wonderful publication Silver Magazine for a period of years. Isn't that strange? Where did that come from? All I can think of is that I must have a genetic disposition for argentum, perhaps a touch of silver in my veins.

I am going to do more research on my forefather and hopefully write a comprehensive article for publication. Here is a Chanukkah light from the year he died, 1878.

Szmul Szkarlat Hanukkah light, 1878

I have seen hallmarked pieces dated to the late 1890's. It is obvious that the workshop kept using the mark after Szmul's passing, a practice common even today.

Later pieces marked B. Szkarlat have also appeared, unmistakably another relative. It is interesting to me that the set I own has no first initial in the hallmark cartouche, perhaps in deference to the patriarch after his death?

One of his totemic signatures was the ewer, which is shown on top left. Is that a raptor in the cornucopia? Looks like two falcons on the bottom. Hmmm...

It is a thrill and honor for me to be Szmul's distant grandchild.

כבד את־אביך ואת־אמך למען יארכון ימיך על האדמה אשר־יהוה אלהיך נתן לך

I am not a religious person but I bear a fierce loyalty to my tribe. I can't imagine what the people in New York, Jersey City, Berlin or London are going through today, where to be jewish is to risk verbal and physical abuse and even death in the case of Pittsburgh and Poway. I am seriously thinking of wearing a kippah for a while, for solidarity if nothing else.

Wishing everybody the best,



Isak said...

Robert, This is another of your intensely touching posts. The connectedness you feel through silver and in your blood is a confident one. How magical that you should come to silver on your own only to find out this illustrious family history! I read names like Rifka, Shmuel, and Itzhak and vibrate with their resonance in my own family tree. Tantas Ida, and Bella, and Dora, grandfather Jacob, grandmother, Hannah Ruchel. We are from Russia and Poland too. That your family lost so many in the Holocaust is a bitter truth of time. The light and love you shed on them is admirable. The proof of how precious the Sabbath was felt then, the power of the ritual of lighting candles, the striving to have implements worthy of that belief and at what cost to have them in silver.....all very moving to me. I celebrate them, your family here as well as those lost in the conflagration the seeds of which we see being planted again all around us. The horror raising its ugly head of hatred all over again. I sing a song of praise to their eternal spirit and to you who cherishes their memories and memorializes them in silver of your great great, great grandfather's artisanship and teaches us what family can mean. Thank you for this meaningful post.

Wilbur said...

A beautiful and touching read, Robert. I am frequently amazed when I talk with friends who know nothing about their family - and have no interest in their antecedents. Perhaps an intense interest is left to those of us whose families have either suffered great adversity or whose forebears were the 'great & famous'. Once a year I pull our family Hanukkah light down off the shelf and see the holiday thru. It is a small and simple light, but it is silver, unlike our main candle sticks which are masterful 18th century (or earlier) wood carved as intertwined spirals. I have often used the line, "I was born with a wooden spoon in my mouth". But such an interesting and wonderful spoon it was! I think of myself as scientific and secular but, yes!... strong, indeed, is the pull of genetics.

Jill said...

This is a fascinating piece.
I, too, would love to know about my family’s history. So much was lost during the war. You are fortunate to have something tangible as well as so much information at hand.

Blue Heron said...

I am indeed fortunate Jill, even if the purchase was somewhat speculative. Thanks and all the best.

Liz said...

Lovely article. Just in case you don't have this info - 23 and me days that I am 98% Ashkenazi. Really surprised me because grandpa told me that pesa was partly Sephardic. It also means that mom lied easily.

I am very nervous about the anti semitism.not sure what to do

Blue Heron said...

23 and me is crap but no big. We have touches of sephardic, mizrachi, galician but it is mostly ahskenazi, I learned that long ago. They told me the same. But our Y bloodline comes from Somalia, 22,400 years ago. I will clue you in sometime. Trust but verify.