Century-old candlesticks rekindle Bay Area cousins connection

Two women — artists, mothers and descendants of the Kleinhandlers of Chmielnik, Poland — sat side by side on a couch in San Francisco last week, sharing family photos and telling stories. A pair of century-old brass Shabbat candleholders rested on the table in front of them, a tangible symbol of their connection.   

Aimee Golant, 37, and Rene Bien, 54, have known each other only a month, but the future of their friendship is as assured. Bien’s grandmother was Golant’s grandfather’s aunt (genealogically, that makes them second cousins once-removed). How the women discovered that reveals the pull of the past, aided by the power of the Internet.

Aimee Golant (left) and Rene Bien share photos of their relatives as they compare family histories. photo/patricia corrigan

“When my grandmother passed away on April 16, I lost the last Kleinhandler in the family,” Golant said. “To have Rene, this new Kleinhandler, come to me at this time, makes me feel connected again.”

Bien added: “I’ve lived my whole life with no relatives on this side of the family, and I’m still getting used to it. When I set out to find Kleinhandlers, I never imagined I would meet anyone. I thought they were all gone, gone in the Holocaust.”

Golant laughed and said, “We are so not gone.”

Born in Los Angeles and a graduate of San Francisco State University, Golant is a sixth-generation metalsmith who uses her grandfather’s tools “to create works that illuminate the universal teachings of Judaism.” Her work is on display at the Jewish Museum of New York and the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. (See www.aimeegolant.com) Recently, she was honored by j. with a Readers’ Choice Award for her art. Golant is married to David Casella, who is also a metal artist and teacher. They live in San Francisco with their son, Kaleb, 2.

Bien, a native of New York, is a fine artist, printmaker and photographer. Combining her master’s degree from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and a stint at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Bien now uses food as the unifying theme for her art (see www.renebienfineart.com). Bien moved to the Bay Area in 1989. For a time, she owned a restaurant in Berkeley and has worked as a personal chef. She lives in Emeryville with her daughter, Lucie, 10.

How did these women find one another?

In 1905, Bien’s grandmother, Rose Kleinhandler, left six siblings and her parents in Poland and traveled to New York to join her husband, Max Lieberman. She brought along a few family photos and some handmade candlesticks. “She never spoke of her family,” Bien said. “Early in July, I told my mother I was determined to find out what happened to the other Kleinhandlers.” A cousin of Bien’s joined her in the search.

Late in July, the cousin found a blog post about Golant’s 2000 trip to Chmielnik, Poland (about 30 miles northeast of Krakow), compiled by Malkie Scarf, Golant’s summer intern (see http://blog.aimeegolant.com). The post included a photo of brass candlesticks that had been buried in the front yard of the Kleinhandler family home in Chmielnik before Golant’s ancestors were sent to the work camps. A neighbor had dug them up, in the hope of someday returning them to a family member. Golant donated the candlesticks to Yad Vashem.

Bien’s cousin emailed Golant, suggesting that their families may be related, and she forwarded the blog to Bien. “I called my mother and read it to her,” Bien said. “When I realized the candlesticks in the photo on Aimee’s blog are identical to candlesticks that are on my dining table — well, my 86-year-old mother started screaming. I am so glad she is alive to be part of this.”

Next, Bien called Golant.

“Rene told me we have the same candlesticks, and we must be cousins,” Golant said. “I cried.” On August 5, the two women met for the first time at Golant’s home. Bien brought the candlesticks. The two sat down to begin to untangle the ancestral threads binding them together.

Their story continues. Last week, Bien smiled and said that as she builds her art business once again, Aimee serves as her inspiration. Golant smiled back and said, “For me, too, the timing of our meeting feels beshert.”

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.