Landsmanshaftn were organizations of immigrants from specific geographical areas who joined together for numerous reasons. These benevolent organizations supported such social, religious and cultural activities as burial plots for members, may have supported synagogues, made loans to members, and generally assisted members in their new lives.
The story mentions online Museum of Family History founder Steve Lasky, who said about 70 percent of immigrants who entered via Ellis Island stayed in New York, and that the majority of society burial plots were owned by the landsmanschaftn.
None of the 45 people in the kosher Chinese restaurant on Flatbush Avenue had ever been to Zembrov, a town in northeast Poland, and some even had trouble spelling it. But all had relatives who came from there, and they gathered two weeks ago to keep their memories alive.
The United Zembrover Society is believed to be one of only about 20 surviving New York-area landsmanschaften, fraternal organizations founded in the late 1800s here by immigrants who shared East European hometowns, according to Isaac Pulvermacher, chairman of UJA-Federation’s Council of Jewish Organizations.
But unlike the other societies, sustained by the aging immigrants from Eastern Europe, the United Zembrover Society is the only one being kept alive by the second and third generation, he said.
In an indication of how difficult it might be to sustain the society and attract third-generation members, Amy Rublin, 22, of Wynnewood, Pa., who attended the meeting with her grandmother and other family members, said the gathering’s emphasis on cemeteries was a turnoff.
But she seemed to offer a blueprint for how to keep young people’s attention. “Discussions of people’s stories,” is what Rublin wants to hear.
“I am passionate about history, and I really value my family,” she explained. “What keeps me and my family connected to the society is the memory of my grandfather. What I’d love is to sit through a meeting and learn about the people from whom we descend. Each meeting could talk about a handful of people — where they’re from, memories of the place, whether or not they were impacted by the Holocaust and how, what the reputation of the town was in Poland [and] how Zembrove is emblematic of the Jewish experience in Poland/ Europe.”
This new group, should it take hold, would be a far cry from the landsmanschaften of old.
Pulvermacher, 88, said that 20 years ago there were some 3,000 societies. Of the remaining groups, nearly all are weak, although the Krakover Benevolent and Lodzer Young Men's Benevolent societies still meet.
The Zembrover Society, founded more than 100 years ago, has struggled in recent years to stay alive. In 2005, only 13 people showed up for a meeting. When it met again in 2007 after The Jewish Week publicized its meeting, 32 people came. After a more extensive outreach using Internet searches, 20 new members joined in the last year.
The group voted two weeks ago not only to remain in existence but also to expand its activities beyond simply maintaining its burial grounds at two local cemeteries. And members agreed to meet at the same kosher Chinese restaurant next May — if not before. “We should meet again in December just to get to know each other,” one woman suggested.
The group attracted people from age 5-83, who lived from Boston to Philadelphia.
Pulvermacher is not optimistic and things it will all disappear, because of the effort involved. Only the cemeteries hold them together. However, younger members felt it could survive if they discussed other relevant issues.
Younger attendees wanted answers to questions about food, marriage, children, education, interactions with non-Jewish citizens, occupations, etc. and were looking for the society to provide a roots connection. They stressed the importance of learning family stories and memories before it is too late, and suggested that some group funds should be earmarked for a town research project to supplement oral histories or perhaps even a roots trip to Zembrove.
According to Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandis University, these societies were strongest during waves of immigration and after World War I when they raised money for those back home. After the Holocaust - in the 1940s-50s-60s - the societies produced yizkor books (memorial books) about the "disappeared" communities in the Holocaust.
A copy of the Zembrover Society yizkor book was brought by Ronald Miller, whose grandfather came from the town: “I’m surprised this group still survives and is still trying to survive,” he said. He joined the society after another genealogist told him about it.
The group has restored the town's Jewish cemetery and is translating the 650-page yizkor book from Yiddish and Hebrew into English.
Read more here.