JWR Tales of the World Wild Web

Jewish World Review / July 15, 1998 / 21 Tamuz, 5758
The postcard that started it all

What Hitler tried to
destroy, the 'Net helped
put back together

By Richard Z. Chesnoff

Uzes, France --- I closed a precious, century old family circle recently, finally meeting European and Australian cousins whose existence I only dimly knew of.

It all began decades ago when I was given a postcard my grandfather sent my grandmother from Europe some 96 years ago. Grandpa Louis Zeltner had been born on the Lower East Side in 1875. The son of an Austrian-born notary public who arrived in America "in time to vote for Abraham Lincoln," Louis became a politician-cum-newsman whose speedy reporting earned him the sobriquet: "Wireless Louis." Sent on an official mission to Europe in 1902, Louis journeyed to the family town of Krakow -- then Austria, now Poland -- to visit old country relatives.

That's where the postcard comes in.

It bears a photo of Louis standing beside a very pretty woman in a huge feathered hat, and a handsome mustachioed man in the uniform of the Imperial Austrian Army.

"Father with cousins in Krakow," someone noted on the card years later.

I always wondered who these cousins were --- what had happened to them, their families and any other relatives we once had in Krakow. Had they escaped or had they all fallen victim to Hitler's Holocaust? No one in my family knew.

But this is the Cyberspace Age. And recently I came across an Internet site called "JewishGen Family Finder." Tap in a family name, a town, and the site tells you if anyone else is searching for that same family. That's how I found Enid Elton, a delightful Australian lady who said she was a distant relative of the Zeltners. A cousin named Myer Zeltner had come from Krakow to Australia in 1870, she told me, then made a fortune producing oil cloth for slickers. Other Zeltners had moved to Vienna from Krakow. And when Hitler grabbed Austria in 1938, Myer managed to bring most to safety in Australia. Among them: the children of Myer's sister, Fanny Zeltner.

"Fanny died ages ago, but her grandchildren, Frank and Bob Klepner are still here," Enid said. So I phoned these third cousins of mine. Frank, the elder, a warm-hearted man whose accent still carries a Viennese lilt, had served in the Australian army, married a local girl, and spent 20 years in the antique jewelry business.

Then he told me about other, older members of the family: his late father, Ignace Klepner, Fanny's son, whose life's work had been plundered by the Nazis just before he and his family fled Vienna in 1938. Then there was Cousin Fred Zeltner, a world traveler who lived everywhere from Hawaii to South Africa and once even visited my grandparents in Brooklyn. Finally, he mentioned his father's Aunt "Pepys" --- Josephine Zeltner, my grandfather's other first cousin, who'd eloped at a young age with a handsome young officer in the Imperial Austrian army named Major Scheiner.

The Major had died very early on and in 1938, Pepys had also been saved from the Holocaust by Myer Zeltner, dying peacefully in Melbourne in 1941, still referring to herself as "Frau Major Scheiner."

The story clicked. I sent Frank a copy of Grandpa Louis's postcard photo -- and he confirmed what I suspected: the unknown cousins from 1902 were Josephine and Major Scheiner. To my great delight, Frank then sent me a copy of another, formal tintype photo of the handsome couple.

In the weeks that followed, we exchanged family tree data and thanks to tips in "Jewish Roots in Poland" a marvelous new book by ace genealogist Miriam Weiner that's available at Tel 1-800-742-5403, I was able to do some mail order research at the Polish National Archives. I obtained a document dated 1831 that bears the signature of Efrayim Zeltner, Frank and my mutual great great grandfather.

Best yet, Frank and his wife Mary announced plans to be in Europe at fhe same time that my wife Susan and I were going to be there. And so the other night, here in the wa'mth of Provence, we finally met, traded more stories and photos of ancestors and of children and grandchildren (Frank and Mary have 6, we have one). Then we raised our glasses and toasted them all: Louis, Fanny, Myer and all the Zeltners -- especially Josephine and her beloved Major Scheiner.

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News.


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