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My Lida Story

by Irene Newhouse nee Pupko

     My father was named Moses Pupko and he was born in Vilna in 1898, because his mother, Rachele nee Margolis was from Vilna. My father always said his father, Gerson ben Aron Pupko married her because he had been eating at Restaurant Margolis, the family restaurant on Ul. Niemitskaya in Vilna when there on business, and having learned the cook was an eligible young woman, decided to marry her & eat well at home forever, and therefore it was so arranged.

     My father had an older sister named Sofia, called Sonja, and an older brother Elias who was called Luta. My father himself was called Misha. Luta was working for his father in Warsaw when the Holocaust began. My father’s cousin Wiera Pupko [married Turnheim] said he was beaten to death by Poles while looking for bread to buy; he lived near her parents, Isaak and Miriam Pupko.

     My grandfather was a timber broker from Lida. That is, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the value & condition of forests in the Kovno region [don’t ask why Kovno, which was rather far from Lida, because I have NO clue]. He brought together the owners of the land on which the trees stood & businesses needing to buy timber, negotiated the price & often also supervised the logging of the forests. He charged a small percentage fee for his services, but my father said the sums involved were so large that these fees were often very substantial. Wiera Pupko said that one aspect of these operations was the laying of a narrow-gauge railway to haul out the logs, and that many times this would be the first such marvel of modern technology in the area, and these trains were often called “Pupkovka”.

     My grandfather Gerson was one of nine children and had 4 brothers and 4 sisters. The brothers were Salomon, who was not in timber and moved away from Lida, Avigdor called Victor, Mordukh, called Motte, and Isaak. The last 3 brothers were also in timber, generally with their brother Gerson. The sisters were Rachel, Hanne Malke, Bluma called Bertha and Rivka. My greatgrandfather apparently decided that if you had to have sons-in-law, the only way to make sure they were proper sons-in-law was to raise them yourself, as he adopted 4 boys on the understanding that once grown, they would marry one of the sisters, and so it came to be.

     Rachel married Beinus Migdal. Their children ended up moving to Moscow in the Communist era, where one of them became a famous professor of mathematical physics, Dr. Arkady Migdal. His son is also an outstanding mathematician, now lives in the US, and was professor at Princeton for a time.

     Hanne Malke married a man whose given name my family no longer remembers, but whose surname was Kivilyevich. My father recalls that he was prominent in the Lida Jewish Community, and was parnas for a time. There is a Hanne Malke Kivilevich in the list of Martyrs in Sepher Lida, and that’s probably her. My father visited Lida when her was in his early 20s. His father had moved his wife & children to Tilsit, East Prussia, where he also had an office. Tilsit was at the mouth of the Memel River, and thus important in Gerson’s business: logs could be floated down the Memel for shipment by sea to other places. My father said that sometimes the overwhelming majority of the logs on the Memel in spring were logs in whose passage my grandfather had been involved. In Tilsit, as a Jew, he could own land, a dream of his. He bought “Villa Carlsberg” for his family to live in, when my father was about 2, and that had been the last time he saw his Aunt Hanne Malke. My father said, when he arrived at her house on his visit, she said, “You’re Misha? I’d NEVER have recognized you!” Since he didn’t think it any wonder at all she didn’t recognize him across the gap between 2 and 20, he always remembered that reaction. Her descendants live in England and have changed their name to Kason. One of them, the late John Kason was an electrical engineer and computer engineer. Wiera spoke glowingly of his ability.

     Bertha initially married the man her father had picked out for her, but divorced him & later married Mr. Wiener, a man who’d been in America, come back well-off & wanting to settle down. They had a daughter named Kissinka who died aged 8 of scarlet fever. After her death, they had another daughter whose name my father didn’t know. Bertha settled in Vilna. She and Isaak were very close and for a long time they lived in the same building, near each other. Eventually Isaak’s family moved to Warsaw, though, while the Wieners stayed behind. My father told me that to his dying day, my grandfather could not imagine what on earth had possessed his sister to become dissatisfied with the man her father had picked out for her. I think the chances are very good that the Wieners perished. I inherited from Wiera a handful of postcards from her parents in 1941, in one of them they say they haven’t heard from Bertha & Ida in a long time; probably her aunt & cousin.

     Rivka married Yosef Lipuner. She managed to get to Israel, where she died. They had two sons, Sima and Mita, but no grandchildren.

     Victor and Motte stayed in Lida, and, according to my father, had large families, but family recollection is limited to a few children & their descendants. My father thought the timber business had been founded by his grandfather Aron, if it wasn’t even older than that, but that in the generation of his uncles and father, it had expanded greatly. My father attributed this to his father’s activity. His father was a fast thinker, must have had a fair stock of charm, and always, always, dressed extremely well, according to Wiera. But the fact that Aron was an only son while there were 4 men who took over the business after him, and they cooperated, must have helped immensely as well.

     My father told of his father that he rode with Cossacks & learned riding tricks from them. One of his very vivid early childhood memories, as well as of his sister, is their watching their father gallop around the yard by their house, drop his handkerchief to the ground, and lean over and pick it up in his teeth without slowing down & without falling off. He could also climb up from the saddle to stand on the back of the galloping horse.

Once, my grandfather ran into trouble. So he converted all his assets into a lump of gold that he had in his suitcase & kept away from the notice of the customs officer by “helping” him inspect his suitcase, always moving the sock containing the gold lump into the area the man had just checked out.

     When the Russian Revolution broke out, a group of men came to capture my grandfather & execute him as a capitalist enemy of the people. He told them, “Such important work cannot be done with a dry throat & empty stomach”. He took them to a restaurant, bought them some food, and proceeded to get them so drunk they forgot their purpose and he parted from them late that night on the best of terms.

     When JFK had been newly elected and the newspapers contained reports on Jackie’s sister Lee & reported she was married to a Polish Prince Radziwill, my mother asked what sort of Polish name THAT could be, since it didn’t sound Polish to her. To which my father replied, “It’s an excellent old Polish name. My father drank one of them under the table every day for a week at least”. So of course we had to hear the story. Apparently, there was a stand of marvelous forest, not logged in ages because connected to it was a right that no written document regarding this piece of land could be upheld legally. The Radziwills owned it and there was a history of agreements being signed and then revoked before being fully executed, often to great economic loss on the part of the hapless person trying to buy the logs. My grandfather, sensing the time was near for his getting a similar treatment, commenced drinking with the Radziwill who owned the tract & kept him drunk until the trees he intended to cut were down & the logs shipped out.

     Another time my grandfather lost a great deal because, to get to a tract, he had to get a right-of-way for the narrow-gauge railway from someone else. This person kept deferring signing the negotiated agreement until the railway was almost done & then held my grandfather up for an enormous sum. But even that, my father said, didn’t keep my grandfather down for long. He was burdened with what appeared to be a ruinous debt, then WWI ended, the hyperinflation began, and he paid off the enormous debt with money that was almost worthless.

     When my greatgrandfather Aron Pupko was on his deathbed, my grandfather went to Vilna to fetch a doctor for him. He saddled a horse, but he did not ride it, the horse was for the doctor to return on. He held one of the stirrups & jogged along side the horse to Vilna. Having seen the doctor off toward Lida on this horse, he checked into a hotel, took a bath & went to sleep. The next morning, he returned to Lida on the train.

     He promised his father on his deathbed always to take care of Isaak, who was the youngest. This promise he kept faithfully, and when times were hard, Isaak and his family got their money before my grandmother and his own children did. Fortunately, he had paid cash for Villa Carlsberg during a good time, and it had an orchard and barn. So my grandmother had a garden, preserved fruit & vegetables for the winter, had bees for honey, a goat for milk, poulty for eggs & meat, and made some cash of her own for the hard times by fattening geese. During the fall & early winter, herds of geese for the Christmas feasts in what’s now Germany began their long march on foot from Russia. They were driven through a pan of tar, and from that right into a sand pit. This coated their feet with a sort of walking shoe. They would be made to walk for a period of time, and then people at the way stations would contract to feed them for a time, so that they wouldn’t arrive all worn out and thin from the journey. My grandmother was one of those who contracted to keep the geese & fatten them up again. She kept a gander who was a great pet of my father to keep the visiting geese in line. The gander stayed from year to year. He was an excellent watchman & the only living thing that would tackle their extremely grumpy goat. The goat was my father’s charge, because if she attacked him when she got mad, the gander would run up & bite her stomach before she could do any damage. The gander met my father at the gate every afternoon when he returned from school, too.

On my father’s first trip back to Lida, he was used to Pupko being a rare name, so he asked someone standing around the train depot where Pupkos lived. The man replied, “Which ones? We have lots”. “Motte Pupko”. “Which one? We have lots”. “Motte Pupko the timber broker”. “There’s more than one of those, too”. My father forgot what detail of his uncle’s life he had to use to identify him. There were 3 Motte Pupkos on one of the Lida voter lists of the early 20th century, just like my father said. And there might have been more, because only the most affluent were allowed to vote. We were the only Pupkos in the county in the US, so we, too,were used to Pupko being a rare name. So one day, we asked our father if we should some day be so fortunate as to encounter another Pupko, could we assume a relationship? He said definitely not, and told us this story to show just how common Pupko was in Lida. In the course of my connection to the internet, I have corresponded with many Pupkos, and almost all of them do not seem to have a family connection, just as my father said. In the meantime, my knowledge of the family tree has grown considerably, thanks to Reuven Poupko and his father Gabriel [Gary] who collected Pupkos even more extensively than Wiera.

     Wiera Pupko kept track of the living family members, but was very uninterested in the past. If we asked for details on how someone was a cousin, she generally said, “It should be enough I tell you so”. The last time I saw her, she told me if I had to write down what she said to remember it, I must not be very interested & unless I put my notebook away, she wasn’t going to talk to me. Sigh... Somehow, my mother got her to tell her the family tree in a logical way. She must have blackmailed her with her cornmeal muffins, which Wiera really, really liked. Wiera said we are related to Emil Gil-els, the famous pianist. I’ve tried to study this, and haven’t found anything concrete. But it’s not as crazy as it seems at first. Yes, his background is in Odessa, a long way from Lida. But a distant brach of the Pupko family did end up in Odessa, so it’s not impossible.

     I am distantly related to Sioma Pupko, who told his story in Sepher Lida. My grandfather’s grandfather’s father was also Sioma’s ancestor, according to information from Rueven Poupko.

Wiera always told us, when we asked, that she escaped the Holocaust with nothing; all her family pictures were gone. Since this is indeed what happened to my father, we believed her. Imagine our surprise when after her death, we inherited hundreds of snapshots! My grandfather is probably in at least one of them, but almost none of them are labeled. I hope someday to meet someone who might know, but the time is passing, so most of those pictures will probably remain mysterious. I have some group photos on my web site, but no one has recognized any of them yet.

     Wiera’s family managed to be able to send her Belgium, and from there, she went to Havana, where she learned to cut diamonds. Eventually she was able to come to the US, where she settled in New York City.

     My father was living in Berlin and decided to leave in 1935 or1936, when he was working for a supplier of lumber to the Olympic Stadium & had to enter under a sign that said “Entritt fuer Juden verboten” to re-measure something because of a problem with the lumber. He went to Prague. The Germans took Prague in 1938, so he crossed Germany illegally & was arrested on the border with Holland and sent to Dachau. His sister had come down with TB shortly after WWI, and, in those pre-antibiotic days, had had to live in Switzerland to keep it under control. She got him a visa for Chile, so my father was released from Dachau provided he leave Germany forever as soon as possible. He went to his sister, who told him she was sorry she couldn’t give him any more money, because she was trying to get their brother & father out. Their mother was living with her. So my father didn’t tell her all he had in the world was about $20, so as not to worry her. He stowed away on a train to Genoa, hung around the docks until he learned how to stow away on a boat, and stowed away on a Norwegian freighter, the Belray, bound for Chile. On arriving in Chile, he discovered that the Chilean government had revoked his visa. He ran into his father’s former Berlin attorney, who was working on a committee to help Jewish refugees in Chile & learned of his father’s death the previous March from a heart attack. Mr. Riess told him, “Given the situation, your father had his famous good luck right to the end. Dying of a heart attack was the best thing that could have happened to him”. Chilean authorities shipped him out on the Belray to NY. In NY, he was imprisoned on Ellis Island, acquitted of illegal entry on grounds of deportation by Chile, his request for political asylum was rejected & he was due to be shipped back to Germany and certain death when HIAS intervened & sent him to the Dominican Republic in fall 1940. I got his file from INS under a Freedom of Information Act request, but they wouldn’t send me any information on his trial, or have destroyed or lost it. The file picks up with the involvement of HIAS.

     In the Dominican Republic, he met my mother.

     Lida is a long way back for us, but we remember Lida as the earliest known residence of our Pupko ancestors. Once Ellen Sadove Renck started sending by email incredible material she was finding around 1998, I offered to help by putting it on the web. I am amazed at how much material on Lida and the surrounding communities, we, with the help of other Landsleit, have been able to collect and post. Even my sending this short family story to the annual meeting would not have been possible without the internet, because the only reason I learned of the Lieder Society’s continued existence was from an e-mail correspondent who ran into a member at the bar mitzvah of a distant relative of her husband. She hadn’t, she said, been all that keen on going, since it was a long drive & the connection so distant, but learning that had made it worthwhile.

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