by Bill Givens
I’ve often thought that one of the oddest things about Southerners is their obsession with genealogy. Get two or three Southern people in a room, and it won’t be long until they’re tracing relatives. My late stepfather, B. Q. Davis, was a master of the art. Being a retired politician, he knew most people in town and a good bit of their business. Get him at a funeral and he could take a family tree back three generations in minutes. In fact, I’ve often said that it would be a great advertising gimmick if the local funeral home would pass out a family tree chart at the wake, which could be filled in as conversation heads into relative-tracking.
Genealogic research has always seemed to me to be a pretty harmless hobby. Of course, if you’re a Mormon it’s an integral part of your religion, given that you’re supposed to go in and get baptized for all of your ancestors who couldn’t or didn’t get around to getting dunked. But if you aren’t, I never quite saw the point of spending all that time in the library or online trying to figure out who came over on the Mayflower and who was rowing along behind.
When my sister Janie started taking family tree tracing pretty seriously, I found her reports mildly interesting. We’re the product of a couple of mixed marriages, the first being when our Jewish grandmother married an Irish store clerk, the second when our mother, raised Jewish, followed suit and married a Scotch/Irish farm boy. Janie wrote letters and asked questions and slowly filled in the blanks. Perhaps the high point of her research into the Givenses is when she made contact with the family of the “lost” uncle in Kansas that our father had often talked about.
Things really got interesting when she started on the Jewish side of the family. Our grandmother was born Rosa Kamien, and we’d heard stories that there were connections to relatives lost in the Holocaust–and even some speculation that the family once owned a castle in Germany.
Once Janie started working on the Kamien side of the family, she found the ship manifest which listed our great-grandmother, Rachel Reichenberg. She tracked down Siegfried Reichenberg and another relative in New York after our cousin, Leon Kamien, told her where some Reichenbergs might be located. Then she wrote a letter that set a fascinating chain of events into motion.
Inga’s sister had died, and she was packing her apartment in New York when she found Janie’s letter in a wastebasket. Inga had her own story and her own mystery. As a Jewish child in Wurzburg, Germany, she and her mother had been saved by the heroic act of a Nazi soldier. They were able to escape to America, helped by an American relative unknown to her. She knew he was a southern merchant, but that was about all.
Finding Janie’s letter was the first piece of the puzzle. A correspondence began, and Inga found that her benefactor was our great-uncle, Isadore (“Uncle Izzy”) Kamien. If there ever was a man who personified the Jewish honorific “mensch,” it was Uncle Izzy. He was a kind and generous man, a civic leader who was the mayor of Cleveland, Mississippi, at one point in his remarkable life. He took his father’s small business and turned it into Kamien’s, the city’s leading department store. “Your Favorite Store Since 1904” is now 100 years old and still in business. He married Chicagoan Rose Michaelson, and raised two sons: I. A., a lawyer who took over management of the store and became an important civic leader himself, and Leon, self-educated, who was one of the city’s most cultured, literate, and well-traveled citizens—a fashion arbiter without whose advice no Cleveland woman would dare buy a new dress, blouse or purse.
Uncle Izzy was, in every way, the head of our mother’s family. Even though our grandmother, his sister Rosa, had married out of the Jewish faith, he nonetheless employed our grandfather, Ealy Reed. He supported another sister who was labeled as “eccentric.” He provided a home for a widowed aunt whose cooking is still talked about and who helped raise I. A. and Leon while Izzy and Aunt Rose ran the store. He built a large home (now demolished, where a wing of First Baptist Church now stands), surrounded by a virtual family compound. His brother and sister lived in houses next door and across the street. (Interestingly, the Kamiens, who were among the founders of Temple Adath Israel, also donated the land where First Baptist and First United Methodist churches now stand.)
Uncle Izzy, being a business owner, could create the so-called “jobs” and support mechanism that the German immigrants had to have before they were allowed to come to America. He could pay the fees to the State Department. And he did, time and again, for relatives who needed to escape the horrors in Eastern Europe.
Inga Mayer was the daughter of a prosperous baker/restaurant owner in Wurzburg. Her father, one of the earliest Jews to speak out against Hitler, was sent to the concentration camps in Dachau and Buchenwald. Her mother Rosa, daughter of our relative Raphael Reichenberg, was a strong woman who sent her older daughter and younger son to New York to escape the Holocaust, her oldest son to Palestine. She kept her youngest, Ingeborg (“Inga”), with her as she stayed in Wurzburg to do whatever she could to free her husband.
She moved several Jewish families into her large home to protect them, and hid jewels in the attic beams of the house to provide for an uncertain future.
Then came “Kristallnacht,” the infamous “Night of the Broken Glass.”
“One night in November of 1938 my mother and I were all alone in the few rooms we were using,” Inga later wrote to our mother, Rosebud. “We heard the sound of the large wooden door being smashed and the sound of boots on the marble stairs. My mother held me close and said, ‘Inga, tonight we are going to die.’” They heard the screams of the other families in their house as they were being stabbed, shot, and thrown down the stairs. They heard the cries as their maids were slain. They huddled in the room, with furniture piled against the door. Then there was a ghostly quiet.
“We heard a knock at the door and man’s voice called ‘Frau Mayer.’ She was afraid to answer, but he identified himself as a neighbor and told her it was safe now.
“We found out months later that the head of the local storm troopers had been a patron of my parents’ café when he was a student at the university. When he had no money, my father didn’t charge him. He stood in front of the door where we were and told the troops under him that there was no one in those rooms. We were the only ones left. A miracle.”
With the help of Uncle Izzy Kamien, Inga and her mother were able to come to America. Inga’s uncle, Ludwig Reichenberg, wrote from New York in February, 1939, “I take this opportunity to let you know that to my greatest relief, my sister Rosa and her youngest child Ingeborg arrived here last Thursday. I know this was only possible through your great help.” In the same letter he reported that Inga’s father Max had miraculously been released from the concentration camp and could only stay free if he left Germany quickly. Uncle Izzy had already provided the papers to get him out should he be released, but the recalcitrant American Consulate in Stuttgart, Germany, said that the year-old papers were “too old,” and must be re-submitted. The Consulate needed “three affidavits of support, a copy of your 1938 Income Tax return and auditor’s report of your business, and bank statement.”
Inga later married Sam Protentis. They now live in Brockton, Massachusetts, near Boston, where they raised three sons and have a gaggle of grandchildren. They have been married more than 50 years.
Through Janie’s genealogy research, our families came together once again. After reconnecting through correspondence and phone calls, mother and B. Q. went to Boston to meet Inga and Sam. I had a great visit with her sons when my church choir from Beverly Hills was singing in Boston. My brother Reed visited with them when in Boston on business. Best of all, last fall, Inga, Sam, and her son Paul were the honored guests when we all gathered for a family reunion at the home of Augusta Kamien Jacobs, Isadore Kamien’s granddaughter, and her husband, Dr. Ben Jacobs in New Orleans. Janie has since spent time with the Protentis family in Brockton.
My view of genealogy research has now changed. I still find making lists of departed relatives only mildly interesting. But in this case, the lives of our extended family and of our Boston relatives have been immeasurably enriched because Janie made this connection.
The caring arms of one family reached out from Cleveland to another in Nazi Germany during one of the most evil times in world history, and made a difference that resonates to this day.
If it's ours, I want it back.
A Hollywood-based entertainment journalist and television writer, Bill is the author of seven books and is a regular contributor to a variety of entertainment publications, including Premiere, Animation, Video Software, Arts & Entertainment, Memphis Magazine, and more. His articles have been syndicated by The New York Times Feature Syndicate and Universal Features.
He is a popular college lecturer and radio talk-show guest, and has appeared regularly on Dateline NBC, along with appearances on The Today Show, Entertainment Tonight, E!, Extra, Inside Edition, CNN Showbiz Today, ABC World News with Peter Jennings, and a number of local television programs.
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Janie Givens Miller - "Conquering Breast Cancer"
Rosebud Givens Davis - "Memoir"
Tom Givens - "The Good Old Days"
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