Friday, August 3, 2012

Monday, March 16, 2009

Esther, A forgotten daughter of Reb I...

                                                                Esther, A forgotten daughter of Reb Itzele

    

      An acrostic on the headstone of my great-grandfather Abraham Berger ( 1845-1916) reads Alef Bet Yud Tsadi Het Quf Lamed Ayin.

It was called to my attention by my friend Shifra Epstein in around 1980 when I showed her a photograph of the stone. At first I thought I knew what the acrostic meant. Abraham's father was named Isaac Levi and I assumed that the acrostic referred to this man. Alef Bet would be the Hebrew word, 'av', meaning father Yud Tsadi Het Quf spells Isaac (Yitskhak) in Hebrew. The acrostic was, I thought, a reference to Abraham's father.

    But Shifra disagreed. She pointed out that it was unlikely that the person who composed the inscription would go to all that trouble to provide some redundant information. Also, my theory did not explain the lamed ayin in the acrostic. It took me a long time but I finally came up with another, more satisfactory solution. She thought that 'av' referred to a more remote ancestor.

    One of Abraham's sons was my great-uncle Izzy. Izzy's Hebrew name was Yitskhak but the family called him by his Yiddish name Itze. So the yud tsadi het quf could be read 'Itze'. If lamed ayin were added, with ayin given its Yiddish pronunciation as 'e', then yud tsadi quf lamed ayin would be read 'Itzele' and the whole inscription would be 'Av Itzele.'

    The suffix 'ele' eliminates the possibility that the acrostic could refer to Abraham' father. This suffix is normally used in Yiddish with the names of small children. Its only used with the name of an adult if that person is a notorious bandit or, lehavdl, a famous rabbi. Abraham's father was not a bandit. He was a rabbi but he wasn't a particularly famous one. So 'Itzele' must have referred to a more remote ancestor.    

    Itzele had a specific meaning in the Lithuanian and Belarusian Yeshiva world in which Abraham and his son got their education. It referred to Rabbi Isaac ben Chaim Volozhiner who lived from 1780 to 1849. 'Av Itzele' could be interpreted to mean that Abraham was a descendant of Rabbi Isaac or 'Reb Itzele'.   
    A comparison of Reb Itzele's dates, 1780-1849, with Abraham's, 1845-1916, allows us to be more specific about the relationship. Reb Itzele would have been 65 when Abraham was born making him, in all likelihood, a grandfather. So one of Abraham's parents would have been a child of Itzele. It could not have been his father, Isaac, because Ashkenazim do not give a son the name of his living father. So it had to have been Abraham's mother. 
    On Abraham's death certificate, obtained for me by Greg Rothstein a descendent of Abraham's brother Israel Rothstein, the name of Abraham's mother is given as 'Esther'. So I am left with the conclusion that Reb Itzele had a daughter named Esther. So far though, I have not been able to find any references to Reb Itzele having a daughter named Esther. In Neil Rosenstein's book The Unbroken Chain only three daughters of Reb Itzele are mentioned, Rebecca, Rechel and Reina Batya, each of whom was married to a famous rabbi. Evidently, though, knowledge of Reb Itzele's family is not very complete. For example, the same book does not give the name of Reb Itzele's wife. This is surprising in the case of a man whom historian Michael Stanislawski described as probably the best known Russian Jew of his generation! I am hoping that future research will fill in the gaps in our knowledge.
 

Monday, November 17, 2008

Abraham Berger (~1845-1916) of Harodok, Freehold and New York


                                     Abraham Berger (~1845-1916) of Harodok, Freehold and New York

 

    "He was a great man." So began my great-aunt Ida when the subject turned to her father, Rabbi Abraham Berger of Harodok.

     In 1979, I asked by aunt Riva Berger about her grandfather, Abraham, who died when she was quite young. She gave me some information and then I went with my mother to visit my great-aunt Ida Gruber, one of Abraham's daughters who had a lot to say. Additional information was supplied by a grandson of Abraham, Eli Cohen, who came to my parents for a dinner party that year. Eli an engineer and the son of a great Jewish scholar had some insight into Abraham's intellectual life.

      Abraham's parents were Esther and Rabbi Isaac Levi Soloveichik. Aunt Ida said they lived in Lite, the Yiddish term for a large area encompassing Belarus, Lithuania and parts of adjoining countries. It is possible to say something about Esther's and Isaacs's ancestors. Anthropologist, Shifra Epstein pointed out that there is an acrostic on Abraham's grave stone that reads "Av Yitskhakle". The reference is to Rabbi Isaac ben Rabbi Khaim Volozhiner usually called Reb Itsele (1780-1849) who ran the Volozhin Yeshiva which is father had founded.

       Based on dates and naming traditions we can be a little bit more specific about the relationship between Abraham and Reb Itsele. The dates require Reb Itsele to have been either a parent or young grandparent of one of Abraham's parents. Ashkenazic naming traditions, which do not permit a child to have the personal name of a living parent or grandparent mean that Isaac could not be the son or grandson of Reb Itsele. Thus it was Abraham's mother Esther who was a daughter or granddaughter of Reb Itsele.

       Abraham's father belonged to the famous rabbinical Soloveichik family descended from two brothers Abraham and Isaac ben Joseph Soloveichik who were active in the mid-18th century. Here again, traditions allow us to be more specific about the relationship. The famous brothers were Leviim by tribe but Abraham's father was a Yisroel. Therefore his descent from the Soloveichik family was through the maternal line. He took his last name from his mother's side which was not unusual.

        The Tsarist Empire which ruled Lite was far from democratic and many special restrictions applied to Jews. Although Isaac was a rabbi, he and his wife lived by farming despite a restriction  that Jews could not own land.they could not own land. People fortunate enough to have some capital could get around this by leasing farms owned by non-Jews. This is what Abraham and Esther did.

         An even more onerous set of Tsarist laws governed conscription: In 1827, Tsar Nicholis I decreed that the Jewish community must supply 10 military recruits per 1000 people. The recruits were to serve 25 years. They could be drafted at any age between 12 and 25 but in practice boys as young as 9 were commonly taken. Once again fortunate families could exempt themselves from this and Abraham was lucky. His parents, however, had to change his surname to create the legal fiction that he was the only son of another family. He became Abraham Berger. Another brother, Israel had his name changed to Rothstein. Aunt Ida thought that two other brothers Zavel and Fulya (Rafoel) kept the name Soloveichik. There was a fifth brother as well as at least one sister but my aunt was not sure of their names. Israel became a ritual slaughterer in Talotshin and has many descendants in the US. Fulya owned a dish store in Minsk and also has descendents in the US. Zavel worked as a private tutor for a wealthy family and became wealthy himself.

        As was the custom for males in his family, Abraham had extensive Yeshiva training. His accomplishments in the field of Jewish learning were so impressive that, on his grave stone, he received the rare accolade of 'ish gadol ha-toyre' (Great Man of Learning).

        Abraham married Sore Rudnitsky in the late 1860's. Although, he was trained as a rabbi, Abraham did not want to make his living from it. He felt it did not pay enough (an oremer breyt) and he did not like living in towns.Insteads got a job managing  large forests (the Yiddish term for a forest manager is 'shafer') around Harodok, a town between Vilnius and Minsk. The owner of a forest would provide him with a house, a horse and a cow. Abraham and Sore raised their family there. According to Eli, Abraham constructed a complex involving a mill and bridge along the local river which attracted visitors because of its impressive engineering and architectural imagination.

         By the 1890's, however, Abraham and his family were living in a one or two family house in Minsk. It is possible that he was driven out of  the countryside by repressive legislation. One of Abraham's sons, Max (Meyshe) Berger had already moved to America in 1888 and he was gradually joined by other siblings. In 1903 Abraham caught the SS Finland at Antwerp arriving in New York on July 13. Initially, he stayed with Max but he had more ambitious plans. Abraham and Sore were very serious Sabbath observers and realized that employers in American cities made it difficult for Jewish workers to take Saturday off. Abraham dreamed of founding a rural Jewish community that would be economically self-sufficient enough to allow Jews to observe Sabbath. His model was the European shtetl. 

          The first step in the plan was to run a mill somewhere in Pennsylvania to serve as the economic nucleus of the new community. Abraham enlisted a real estate agent named Gross to take him around looking at old mills that were in disrepair and which he could put back into operation. He finally located one on the upper Mannesquan River in Monmouth County, New Jersey. The site, on the red clay banks of the river, was idyllic but the mill, a grist mill, was in ruins. Abraham got it up and running and established a profitable business selling flour to kosher bakers such as Pechter's. By 1910, though, Abraham was back in New York where he became a popular Talmud teacher giving a lesson (shir) to classes of 25 to 50 people while his son's Max and Sam (my grandfather) ran the mill. He also did odd jobs to contribute some extra money to his grown children and their families. 

           Abraham died on May 16, 1916 of a stroke associated with atherosclerosis. He is buried in Highland View Cemetary in Queens.

           His mind was always on higher things. One day he was telling a younger relative about how much better things are in heaven than they are on earth. "Why then", the youngster asked "are we put on earth?" "To perform mitsves (do good deeds)" was Abraham's answer.   

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

                                                              Israel Isaacs (~1802-1875) of Lomza-Suwalki and New York and his family

              Back in the early 1960's, I started asking my paternal grandfather, Joseph Nydorf ('Pop' to me) about the history of his family. He knew little about his father's side but a good deal about his mother's relatives. One branch was called the Isaacs and they had this name, unusual for Polish Jews, even in Europe. The first of the Isaacs to come to America. a long time before the Civil War, was Pop's great-great uncle who went to the far north to trade with the natives for furs. During the Gold Rush of 1848 other members of the family came to the US so that Pop's maternal grandmother, Sore (Sarah) was the only one of the Isaacs family left in Europe. In the late 1970's I got in touch with Pop's maternal first cousin Ida Reimer who told pretty much the same story.

            One question that I had was what the exact form of the name in Europe. Back then good references on Jewish surnames did not exist but this has changed in the last few years with the publications of Alexander Beider. When his "Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Kingdom of Poland" came out, I looked to see if any names like Isaacs were used by Polish Jews. The closest matches were Izaak, used in Lomza, Kolno and Konstantynow, Izaakowski, used in Suwalki, and Izakowski used in Lomza. Pop's famly lived in Radzilow as well as Lomza, Kolno and Suwalki. The first mention of my great-great uncle is in 1827 and there the name is spelled Isaac, without an 's', so the European form of the name was probably Izaak.

           It should be noted that the communities of Lomza, Kolno and Suwalki were geographically close and frequently intermarried. The three names Izaak, Izaakowski and Izakowski are virtually variants of each other and may go back to a single name. So it is possible that all the bearers of these names were related.   

          Also in 2003, I found that it was easy to look up things in the US censuses on the internet. I tried looking for people with the last name Isaacs and the first names of my grandfather's great-grandfather and great-uncles. To my surprise the US census for 1850 showed that Jno. Isaacs aged 48, Moses Isaacs, 32, and Harris Isaacs, 27 were living in Sacramento California, Gold Rush country. They were merchants and had come from Poland. I was astonished: My grandfather's grandfather was named Jonas (Yeyne) Isaacs and he had brothers named Moses and Harris.

             This inspired me to look for an Isaacs who had come from Poland, years earlier and was a furrier. I soon found one, Israel Isaacs, who is mentioned in the US censuses for New York City from 1830 through 1870. The same Israel Isaacs is mentioned in other sources. In looking for records for anyone, you have to make sure that you are not confusing different people with same name. This is not a problem in the earliest sources because there is only one Israel Isaacs in New York in 1830 and he is one of only two Polish Jewish householders. Later it gets harder because more Isreal Isaacses appear in New York; there is already a second Israel Isaacs by 1857. Also, names are not always spelled the same. This is true even in the censuses but there you can confirm that you are dealing with the same person by checking that the names of his wife and children are the same from one census to the next and that his age is conistent.

               The earliest mention of Israel Isaacs, is in the  register of the ship Elizabeth which sailed from Liverpool and arrrived in New York on June 8, 1827. Here his name is given as Israel Isaac with no 's'. He is decribed as 21 years old, and a tailor from Russia (Radzilow was in the part of Poland then under Russian rule). Right after him at the end of the register is Aaron Levy, 36, a furrier also from Russia and Isabella Levy, 24 a tailor from England. Although, at the time Israel is listed as a tailor, he is travelling with an older countryman who is a furrier and who could have introduced him to the business.

                    The next mention is in the records of Congregation Bnai Jeshurun of New York. On September 2, 1829, Israel Isaacs the son of Isaac married Sarah Cohen or Kahn. Sarah's parents were Jacob and Ester from England. Israel is said to be 27 years old and his wife's age is given as 22.

          The first mention of Sarah I found was from February 11, 1829 when she arrived in New York aboard the Cambria from London with her mother Ester described as a matron, 58 years old.

              Sarah and Israel would have six children: Ester born in 1832, Catherine in 1835, Hannah in 1837, Isaac in 1838, Abraham in 1840, and Rebecca in 1845. These names also give some more information about the parents of Sarah and Israel. Sarah's mother Ester who was born in about 1777 would have died by the time her granddaughter Ester was born in 1832. Her father Jacob seems to have lived past 1840 since no grandson got his name. Israel's mother may have been named Kreyndl (which often becomes Catherine in English) or Hannah.

       Israel evidently did well in business because by 1870 his house was valued at about $2,000. In 1857 his home address was 160 Varick St. Later it was 548 Greenwich St.

           It is possible to follow the lives of some of Israel's children in the censuses. Rebecca and Hannah (Anna or Annie) stayed in New York living with their parents. Rebecca married Benjamin B. Jacobson who was born in Holland in about 1842 and immigrated to the US in 1872. He is described in the census as a travelling salesman. From IRS records it appears that Israel may have had a business partnership with him going back to the 1860's. Rebecca and Benjamin had a son, Nehamia Benjamin Jacobson on November 27, 1882. At least from 1888, the Jacobsons lived together with their widowed mother Sarah and unmarried sister Hannah at 340 W. 45th st., a building that is still standing.

            Benjamin who went into the antiques business died on October 2, 1915 at the age of 73. His son Nehamia married Lena Schwartz, a long time family servant from Germany who was 10 years older than him. Nehamia worked as an insurance agent and he and Lena were still living in the same place during W W II    

              I may have found two of the other children in the 1870 US census for Louisville, Kentucky. This lists an Adams Isaacs, 28, a cigarmaker born in New York. Adams who had a wife, Fanny, 25  born in Prussia, and two children Jake, 3, and Katie, 9 months, may have been Abraham. He is living with a brother Isaac, 32, who is unmarried. His profession is hard to decipher but I think he was a druggist. This Isaac Isaacs is the same age that Israel's son, who was born in 1838, would have been. His brother Adams could be Abraham who was born in 1840. The ages don't agree but the discrepancy is only one or two years and may represent an error.  
              I am currently looking for records of Israel's brothers who were in Sacramento in 1850 including my great-great-great-grandfather Jonas Isaacs. I believe that by 1860 all were living in New York.            

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

                                                     Rosa Reich (1866-1957) and the Reich and Laufer families of Kolesovice and Potvorov

                                               
         My great-grandmother, Rosa Reich was born in 1866 Kolesovice (German Kolleschewitz) in what is now the Czech Republic. She emigrated to the US in 1884. In New York she worked as a cook for Minnie Minzenheimer, a famous caterer. She married Max Klein in 1889 and they had a daughter my grandmother Estelle the next year.

          Rosa was a very hardworking person who, at times, ran a boarding house, operated a summer hotel in Far Rockaway and worked as cook in Camp Everett, an adult camp in Connecticut. She also made quilts that show a wonderful sense of color and design. An avid reader she kept up  with developments like the theory of relativity. She was devoted to German language culture and never gave up her Austrian passport but she also mastered English. She was in a way, a Holocaust victim, suffering a nearly fatal stroke when she learned that an uncle she had tried to help escape had died in Dachau. She recovered enough to bake special small pies for me  and I used to visit her in an old age home around her birthday. She expected that the family would bring her lilacs and crystallized ginger.

               Rosa died July 30, 1957.

               Most of my information about Rosa's family history came through Estelle who had an album of family photographs. The included some pictures of an old family house in Potvorov in southwestern Bohemia as well as pictures of some headstones from the cemetaries of Rabstejn (Rabenstein) near Potvorov and Zderaz (Dereisen) near Kolesovice. These were sent by cousin in 1937. I eked this out with some information from the Yad Vashem website and the website of another family, that of Nathan Kussy.
                At the age of five, Estelle was sent to live with Rosa's parents, Wilhelm and Johanna Reich in Kolesovice. She was escorted there by Rosa's younger sister Emma Baumgarten and remained there for ten years. The Reichs were part of the provincial Jewish elite of the region. Wilhelm, a butcher, was also a rabbi. They rented living quarters and a store in the local castle. In addition to Rosa, Wilhelm had a son Heinrich (1851-1903) and another Emil who lived with his wife Helena in Budyne. "Die Budyne Helena" was Estelle's favorite aunt.

          Wilhelm's Hebrew name was Benyamin Zev. Zev is Volf in Yiddish and that is why he used the German name Wilhelm. According to his headstone in Zderaz he died at the age of 80 in July, 1903 which would make his birth year 1823. Wilhelm's father's name, from the headstone, was Henokh Arye. From the birthdate of Heinrich Reich, who was named for him, we know that Henokh Arye had died by sometime in 1851.

          Henokh Arye also had a daughter, Susanna (Ester in Hebrew). Susanna Reich married Jakob Laufer who was a furrier. He was also the rabbi of the Potvorov area. According to the website of the family of Nathan Kussy, he conducted services on the second floor of his house which was surrounded by fields. Jakob died in 1887 and he and Susanna are buried in Rabstejn.

        Here's where the story gets strange but I have it confirmed from two sources, my grandmother and a note on one of the 1937 photographs.

Jakob Laufer and Susanna had a daughter, Johanna, the same Johanna who married Wilhelm Reich. So Rosa's parents Wilhelm and Johanna were uncle and neice!

          From the Yad Vashem website, you can learn what happened to the descendants of another child of Jakob and Susanna Laufer, Leopold. Leopold Laufer settled in Usti nad Labem (Aussig an der Elbe). He and his wife Anna Stein had three daughters, Kamilla Ortner, Laura Press and Greta Mayer who were killed in the Holocaust. A son Rudolf was also killed as was Rudolf's daughter Elli Frank. Two of Elli's sons survived and lived in Tel Aviv after the war. Another son of Leopold, Joseph, apparently died before WW II but his daughter Helena Klement was also killed.

Monday, September 22, 2008

                                                                Max Klein of Michalovce (formerly Nagymihaly)

    My great-grandfather Max Klein was born in 1860 in the town of Nagymihaly, Hungary (now Michalovce, Slovakia). His parents were Simon Klein and Fany Grunval. They owned a store that sold agricultural supplies. Max's Hebrew name was Meyer (Yivo transcription) and his father's Hebrew name was Shimen. Max was a Levite. My uncle Bill (Shimen Velvl) who was named for Shimen Klein was born January 2, 1911 implying that Shimen had died by that time.

   Max came to the New York in 1879.  He married Rosa Reich in 1889 and they had a daughter Estelle (Stella), my grandmother in 1890.

Max worked as a cigar-maker until he was disabled by a stroke. He died on October 26, 1916.
   The Jewish scholar, Jakob Klein was born in 1883 in Nagymihaly and may have been a relative. According to the Michalovce Yizkor book the Kleins were an old established family in the town. Estelle was taken there twice by her aunt Emma once in 1895 and once in 1905. Her Klein relatives were economically well off. Estelle found, though, that she could not communicate with her first cousin who only spoke Hungarian.

      The year that Max was born, 1860, was an epochal one in the history of Michalovce and in Jewish history in general. That year the leaders of provincial Hungarian Jewry convened a conference in that town and resolved to keep using Yiddish as a language of religious instruction. This decision which was followed by the Satmar and other Hasidic groups is responsible for the fact that Yiddish is still spoken in the twenty-first century.

                                                                                                                                                 Charles Nydorf

                                                                                                                                                  New York

                                                                                                                                                  September 24, 2008