The Borkensztajn (Stein) Family
As told to Karen Lefkowitz by her father Charles Stein
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 leave his wife and children and emigrate to New York City. Their plan was for Max to go to New York and earn enough money as a tailor to bring over Bella and the children. In 1914, WWI broke out and there was no hope of bringing over the family during wartime.
Bella was determined to support her children and make sure no one would go hungry. Bella was born in a tiny town (a dorf) near Stopnica called Piastrow (possibly Piestrzec), which I believe no longer exists. Her father was a feldshuh (barber-surgeon). His favorite remedy was bancus (hot cups). He earned the respect of the local farmers and townspeople and Bella maintained a good relationship with them. In order to earn money, she would travel to the farms, by foot, and buy produce and chickens to sell at the Stopnica Marketplace. In the summers, the family would live and work at one of the orchards in Piastrow. They lived 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 enough produce to last the winter. It was stored in the attic under layers of hay.
Their home in Stopnica was on a side street off the main street which was cobblestone. The house was in a courtyard. The courtyard was marked off by a wooden fence. It surrounded four one room wooden homes. At the rear of the courtyard were fruit trees. The house was divided into three sections by curtains – the eating and cooking area, the children’s bedroom, and the parent’s bedroom. The “bathroom” was a hole in the ground in the rear of the courtyard. There was no running water and water was carried in buckets from the river. Laundry was done in the river.
My father attended cheder and remembers the Rabbi coming to the house and asking if the kinderlach were home for lessons. He remembers being chased by the Rabbi with a broom for doing something naughty!
Stopnica was on the front during the war. It seemed like every week another army would pass through the town. When the soldiers were in town, most of the townspeople would hide 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. One day a photo of Max arrived. Hidden between the photo and 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 stayed in Poland and made their way by foot through war-torn Poland to Gdansk where they boarded the ship bound for 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. The family was soon able to leave the Lower East side and move to Brownsville in Brooklyn. At first they rented an apartment, but by 1930 the family owned a two family house in Brownsville. All of the children lived with the family and combined their salaries to be able 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. Sadly, tragedy struck the family when the oldest sister, Sarah, died of tuberculosis in 1931. She was married for one year and was pregnant.
The years spent living in an orchard left the family members with a great love of nature and living in the “country.” The family purchased an old farmhouse in Accord, NY in the Catskill Mountains and later built bungalows which they rented 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 a large family.
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. They would have been so proud to see their wonderful descendants of generous, loving, smart, and successful people.