Tuesday, December 9, 2014

WORLD WAR 1 CENTENNIAL...some thoughts

I started researching my family genealogy when I retired.  Happily, it coincided with a phenomenal growth of genealogy websites that gave easier access to lots of information, much easier than visiting archives and graveyards,  digging through musty city records or going crosseyed viewing old microfiche.  When I had most of what I thought I could find, I started writing a family memoir.  Some mysteries remained.  The direct line of research petered out and I found myself relying on instinct...gut guide me.

One of the mysteries that kept taunting me was the story of a great uncle, name unkown.  When my mother was working out her will, she told me, by way of explaining a bequest she planned, that she had inherited a part of an uncle’s U.S. Military Insurance benefit in 1918, when she was 14 years old.  She understood he had been a pilot.

I was shocked that I had a relative in the U.S. in 1918.  I always thought we were the first to emigrate to America and that was in 1952!

I looked at the names of my mother’s known uncles and found several for whom I had no death information and took a leap of faith that it might be one of them.  The last name was BENTKOWSKI which I found spelled lots of ways, Bendkowsky, Bendekowski, Bentkowaki, Piontkofsky..and more. 

There was a Lejb and a Szlama Dawid but the record provided little beyond name.  My best source had been JRI-POLAND.  Until recently, they had nothing on these two brothers.  Their father, my great grandfather was Israel Bentkowski. 

2014 is the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War 1 and it got me thinking about these great uncles and what happened to them.  I went back to the tried and true and now found Lejb Bentkowski listed as killed in 1914.  That meant he wasn’t the U.S. pilot.

Given Name
Rank (Russian)
Rank (English)
Marital Status
lance corporal

 Then I tried FINDAGRAVE.COM where I found a David S. Bentkowski who had died in France in 1918.  David S. could certainly have once been Szlama Dawid if he came to America.  It had two “facts” on the gravestone that mitigated against it.  First, he was listed as a private.  Pilots are not likely to be privates.  Second, it listed Illinois, presumably the place he came from.  He was born in Poland.

Findagrave had only the information on the marker.  I tried ANCESTRY.COM.  It listed the name under US JEWISH WELFARE BOARD WAR CORRESPONDENCE 1917-1954 but in his case, it only had the name, not the correspondence.

Next I tried NARA.GOV  The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration  and it took four e-mails for me to get to the crux of the matter.  David was a private in Company D of the 129th Infantry Regiment.  The vital information I needed was his place of birth.  If he was born in Illinois, he wasn’t my Dawid.  A patient archivist looked up his burial record and it said he was born in Lodz, Russia.  Okay, I know it’s Poland and he was actually born in Sulejow about 40 miles away, but it’s the closest big city.

The final proof was the listing of his father’s name, Israel great grandfather!

I then looked up the 129th U.S. Regiment and found a first person narrative of the battle he was part of on the day he died, October 7, 1918 from gunshot wounds and being gassed.  It described the horrific trench warfare in which he was engaged near the city of Verdun.

Soldier’s Mail- Letters home from a yankee doughboy 1916-1919- during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive: October, 1918; November, 1918.

“...heavily bombarbed by gas at Saulx before being relieved on October 6-7 when it moved north of Verdun, marching by night. The movement was difficult due to bad conditions of the roads and the sheer number of troops being concentrated in the area for the upcoming offensive. By October 9, the entire Regiment had arrived in the vicinity of Fromereville with HQ established at Moulin Brule. On October 10, the 26th Division’s HQ was opened in the battered citadel at Verdun with the troops located in camps and billets to the southwest.”
“The weather was dismal with a continual rain and cold river mists saturating everything including clothing and blankets. Dugouts and trenches were flooded and knee-deep in mud, hillsides were mud piles torn by constant artillery and sniper fire, the roads were impassable, and toxic gas permeated everything. Exhausted and clad in worn, filthy clothing, the men also had insufficient hot food and were forced by necessity to use untreated water from any source including puddles and shell holes which caused many cases of diarrhea. What further added to the misery was an outbreak of dreaded influenza that took its own share of casualties across all ranks.”

David died a month before Armistice Day.  Since neither of my great uncles had children, it feels particularly right to remember them at this time.

What remains of the trenches - Verdun 2014

It took zigs and it took zags but I followed my gut instinct and kept trying to crawl over those stone walls... and I found him.  Good luck surmounting your own brick walls.


Publishing rights to this article are reserved to the author except by specific written permission from Sara Borczuk Applebaum

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