“Here comes that little European lady, I wonder if she’s going to buy yet another Koala today?”
Toy/souvenir shop keeper, Sydney, early 1960s
I grew up with a toy Koala, a little stiff to cuddle but still special, treasured and kept. It never occurred to me to question where it came from, it was just always there! I also had a special doll, named by my mum ‘Charlolette’, as it was a present from her Uncle Charlie Kelner, my grandmother’s brother in New York.
Mum was born in Lublin but grew up in Sydney, having arrived with her family in 1930. Both her parents had siblings who had also emigrated from Poland and close contacts were maintained with those in New York, Miami and Israel. The extended family was very real to me due to mum’s stories, correspondence and my parents’ overseas travels which included visiting family. I also had opportunity to meet some on my own travels.
In 2003 my son’s roots project inspired me to sit down and start mapping out the family tree. Then when mum passed away in 2004, I took up her address book and made my own contacts. A few years later I joined Facebook linking initially with Mum’s youngest cousin. Zvi and his wife Pola had stayed with me on their Melbourne visit in the late 1980s. My enthusiasm grew as I became ‘friends’ with others in the extended family, mostly members of my own generation and some of their children.
I had always been vaguely aware of a family dispute that led one of mum’s NY cousins, to choose to gradually cut all contact with his family. This was part of the family I knew nothing about and I was keen to find out more for the family tree.
It took some research but I eventually I discovered a ‘missing’ second cousin, cautiously and tactfully I private messaged her on Facebook. Thankfully BINGO!! I received an excited reply within a few hours.
“I’d always known that my dad had family in Australia, even though he never talked about them!”
I replied, “Then how did you know about Australian family?”
She said, “Well, I grew up with a Koala that was sent as a present after I was born.”
The penny dropped at my end. I then described the Koala to her!
“Wow, How did you know what my Koala looked like?”
I replied, “Because I have one too!”
I also told her about my doll and that it was named after her grandfather. Yes she also had the same doll. We then worked out we were born five months apart. Our grandparents had shared the joys of grandchildren and swapped baby presents!!!
Initially there was lot of restraint in our relationship. I was already in touch with some of her 1st cousins (also my second cousins) but due to the family split she was cautious in connecting with them. It took a while, but eventually I was able to re-introduce the first cousins who’d not been in contact since their teens.
Meanwhile I mentioned my Koala to one of these other cousins and discovered she also had one. Now I was on a ‘koala’ hunt (a bit like the bear hunt children’s story) and have discovered two more. It seems that my grandmother sent a Koala to each part of the family who next had a baby.
Whilst my Bubba obviously enjoyed sending Koala’s as presents she could not have envisaged their impact these kicked off almost 60 years later in reconnecting family, creating warmth between us and pleasure in connection.
Over the past few years many emails have been shared. Along the way I discovered that my mother had sent at least one Koala as a present when one of her own first cousins became a grandparent. I’m now also guilty having found vintage Koala’s and having sent these as presents to my Koala cousins who no longer had their originals. In 2017, in Israel I met one of my Koala cousins for the first time.
In 2020 with the COVID zoom boom, we decided to have a cousin’s get together. Since September we have met every month including during Chanukah lighting candles jointly around the world. Our January meet up covered five time zones with Purim and Pesach themes in the following months. It is wonderful seeing each other face to face, getting to know a little of more of everyone’s lives.
Not everyone chooses to connect but we now have at least one cousin from each family branch active together in USA, Israel and Australia. I’m not sure how long we will sustain the regular world-wide zooms with the realities of the different time zones.
However I am totally sure that our core group of ‘Kelner Koala Kousins’ will continue to be part of each other’s lives, when needed be reliable family support and of course share simchas and good times.
As I write I’m thinking of our shared great grandparents Yoseph & Marmu Kelner. I want to honour our great Aunt Zlata and Uncle Yankiel who each with their families died in the Holocaust. I recall with fondness my grandmother Perl Redelman, her sister Sura Milka Trachtenberg and their brother Charles Kelner. We will eventually trace the descendants also of their sister Zysla/Cecila Blatman who went to Buenos Aires and hopefully discover more Koalas.