One summer evening, I had brought my 90-year-old mother up to our house for a jacuzzi. It is not easy to get a 90-year-old woman to step down into a hot tub at 104 ̊F. Furthermore, not very wise. She fainted after a few minutes, and I had the daunting task of lifting her out with the help of my wife. Luckily lying down and out of the hot water, she recovered quickly. I expected her to be limp and quiet for a while, but instead, she started talking animatedly about the past, family secrets I had never heard before.
I was unsure if these things were from her imagination due to the brief period of unconsciousness or if these were true, until now, long after she died at age 99. What finally convinced me that her stories were likely true?
I recently decided to have my DNA checked to research my ancestry. I spat into the glass test tube, labeled it, and sent it off. Two months later, the results came back, confirming a 24% European Jewish ancestry. That would fit with my mother’s story that night.
The story starts in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Europe was in turmoil, and the Habsburg Crown was anticipating war. My father was not yet born. Stephan Iwasiuk was a railroad official who would be needed to supervise troop movement in the central part of the empire. He had to leave his home in Bucharest and move to Graz for several months. He left his wife, Katerina, and his first child Josephine, still an infant. His wife decided to rent out a spare bedroom for much-needed financial help. A Jewish portrait painter and musician who was en route to Jerusalem from the north of Bucharest, rented the room. When Stephan returned from Graz, Katerina was with child, a rather inconvenient situation! Naturally, the artist had to move out of his rented room and moved on, reportedly to Jerusalem.
My father was born on December 31, 1905. Stephan accepted him as his son. They named him Vladimir, which means “Peace in the Land,” very much like the German name “Friedrich.” “Friede means peace, and Reich means “Land.” Vladimir had two half-sisters who held his birth status against him. “You are not the same as us,” they said! They made sure that later my mother knew the shame that Vladimir brought on them. Nevertheless, Vladimir was a smart and talented child. His adoptive father, Stephan, took him to Graz, and for a while, Vladimir was educated in German-speaking schools. As a student, he excelled in everything especially artistic talents. He got himself into some trouble copying an Austro-Hungarian paper monetary note so precisely that he was accused of attempting forgery, but exonerated because it was only the front of the banknote.
Vladimir was an independent student. He knew the lessons taught in school before the teacher presented them. He went to class only to see if the teacher taught them correctly, eventually going to medical school and getting his M.D. degree.
Photo of my father’s family ca. 1916 in Graz, taken in the middle of World War I
From left to right: Vladimir, Katerina, sisters Josephine and Helen, Stephan, unknown woman possibly Stephan’s sister.
So who was my grandfather? I know he was an artist. I know he was Jewish. I know he came from north of Bucharest, either what is now Moldavia or the Czech Republic. I am less sure of his name but as a child, I overheard the name “Korngold” on several occasions from my parents, but I am not certain of that. I know that the Korngold family also had their roots in Austro-Hungary, somewhere north of Bucharest. My biological grandfather reportedly left for Jerusalem and presumably died there. There are several cemeteries there, one of which is devoted to only Jews. It is directly behind the “Temple Mount” and the “Wailing Wall.” I spent a day combing through the graves there looking for the name “Korngold” but alas did not find it.
Now for the mystery. All my research lacks clarity, and I could not produce the smoking gun. BUT what piqued my interest was the resemblance of the most famous of the Korngold family to people in my family and me. Coincidence? You be the judge. If there is any relation, it would be Eric’s father, brother, cousin, or another close relative who traveled to Bucharest and rented a room.
I have a strong interest in classical music. In my research of various composers, I came upon a photo of Eric Wolfgang Korngold as an adolescent. He was born in Austro-Hungary in 1897. His father and his uncle were musicians. If there were any Korngold’s that were also painters is not known to me. Eric Wolfgang, being Jewish, left Vienna in 1935 with the evolving power of the Nazis. He came to the U.S. and composed for the movie industry. Before coming to the U.S., his most famous work is an opera, Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City), premiering in Cologne in 1920 with Otto Klemperer conducting. His most well-known movie scores are The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938 Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland) and The Sea Wolf (1941 Edward G. Robinson).
In the photos below, I want you to focus on the prominent eyebrows, the protruding ears, the noticeable philtrum ( the vertical groove between the nose and upper lip), the oval face, the shape of the nose and its junction with the forehead, the rounded chin, and the hairline. I added Vladimir, even though he does not support resemblance, at age 38 for reference and the stereotypical Jewish appearance. Keep in mind that phenotype (the outward appearance) serves as a surrogate for genotype, meaning DNA, and DNA does not lie! (see my essay by that name on my website gusiwasiuk.com).
Vladimir Iwasiuk above age 38 below age 11