Areas of Unrest
18 March 2001 - Descended From Pirates
QOTD: "It takes a lot of time being a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing." - Gertrude Stein
Reading: Georges Duby (editor), A History of Private Life, Volume II: Revelations of the Medieval World
Listening to: Paris Combo, Living Room
One consequence of my father having been a survivor of the Shoah, is that I've always been aware of how few relatives I have on his side of the family. That's in sharp contrast to my mother's family. She has just one brother and we didn't see my first cousins, Ellen and Larry, much after their parents divorced. And her mother was the only one of five siblings who had any children. One other sister married in her 40's. But my great-aunts Bernice and Frieda and great-uncle Phil were around at family events. More to the point, we were vaguely aware of my grandfather's brothers (and, to a lesser extent, his sisters) and they had enough children to fill out that side of the family pretty well.
My father, by contrast, had just his father, two half-sisters, and various vaguely identified cousins in Israel. Varda and Ada are actually my father's first cousins, but they're closer to my age. We also had some contact with a more distant relative, who we eventually figured out was the son of one of my great-grandfather's brothers. We called him Uncle Shlomo, because it was too hard to figure out exactly what the right title was and his age seemed to call for the Uncle honorific. But there were also some vaguer hints that there were more relatives out there. Supposedly there was a family named Bloom who were some sorts of cousins and whose daughter was believed to have survived and returned to Lithuania. Uncle Shlomo's father had emigrated from Lithuania to South Africa in 1931 and there was apparently a son who had preceded him there. And, most mysterious of all, Dad had an uncle in Atlanta. They'd apparently had some contact when Dad first came to America (in 1948) and there was a very vague story that this uncle had something to do with Dad going to Detroit.
About ten or so years ago, Varda came to the U.S. for a while, largely because of a boyfriend who had come to Los Angeles. So we got to spend a little more time together. She intended to do some traveling, visiting my brother in the Bay Area and my mother in New York. And she wondered if it might be possible to find our Atlanta relatives. The catch was that our information was very nebulous. Her mother had destroyed her father's documents after he died, so we didn't have an address. In fact, all we had were first names, gleaned from the backs of a handful of photographs. Still, a couple of the first names were unusual and the Atlanta Jewish community couldn't have been all that large in the 1940's, so it didn't seem impossible. Not that I did anything at the time to pursue the matter.
In 1996, I decided to see if it was possible to find out anything. I don't even remember what triggered the decision, but I had remarkable luck. I wrote a post to soc.genealogy.jewish asking if it was possible to find synagogue records from Atlanta in the 1940's, thinking I might be able to find a family with the names mentioned. I included the first names I knew. Two days later I got email from a woman who worked at a Jewish Community Center in Atlanta and knew "a lot of old-timers who might recognize the names." Another day passed and, sure enough, somebody did know them! I wrote a couple of letters, gave what info I had to Varda, and waited. There was no reply.
But that quick success infected me with the genealogy bug and I did a little more looking around. My brother had gone through his "roots" phase and done a lot of the work for me. The main thing I succeeded in learning was exactly where my mother's father was from - namely, Tykocin, Poland. I didn't have any other great breakthroughs, so I didn't do a lot of research, beyond email exchanges with other people researching some of the same names I was looking for.
This week I got email from one of the Atlanta relatives. She had learned the names of her father's siblings and that had led her to be more convinced that we really were related. This was incredibly exciting after all those years. I still need to write to Varda (who doesn't have email so far as I know) and see if she can copy any of the photos. And, of course, pass along the additional information I have now. (The other, even more distant relative whose research is behind this, had now sent me email, too, with a lot of stuff.)
I'm already a hero to my family for having gotten this far, but there's an even weirder twist. My mother has never been entirely sure where her mother's family was from. Grandpa belonged to a landsmannshaft (a society of people from a particular town) so she remembered he was from Tykocin. All that Grandma had ever said was "near Warsaw." (Bear in mind that my grandparents met and married in Havana, Cuba, so they were not necessarily from nearby towns.) The email prompted me to do another go-round with some of the on-line databases.
I need to give a little background first. I'd always heard of my grandparents referred to as Henry and Molly Schwartz. When my great-aunt Frieda went into a nursing home several years ago, her possessions included her father's bankbook - with his name as Enoch Schwartzbaum. Now, Schwartzbaum to Schwartz is obvious enough. And the first name changing makes perfect sense once you realize that they lived on Henry Street. (I am quite thankful that they didn't live on Delancey!) I also knew that Molly was short for Malka and that her maiden name was Mackover.
So I looked at the Jewish records from Poland index that is slowly being put on line and did a search for Mackover. I turned up a record of the marriage, in 1896, of Malka Rivka Makower to Enoch Ber Szwarcbort, in the town of Brok, Lomza Guberniya (sort of like a district). Szwarcbort to Schwartzbaum makes perfect sense if you know that the Cyrillic letter for a "t" sound looks like an "m" in English. (The search engines use a system that accounts for varying spellings. You should see what matches they turn up for names like Chlijebotski and Chvoles.) More digging also turned up birth records for my great-grandfather and one of his brothers, all in Brok. Brok turns out to be about 50 miles from Warsaw, so it all looks consistent. I'm sending the forms off to the Polish State Archives to get the actual records. And I'm now even more of a hero to my mother.
The other exciting part of this is that I now know the origin of the Schwartz name in our family. See, Schwartz just means "black" so could derive from any number of things. When I thought it was "Schwartzbaum," meaning "black tree," I assumed it was a house sign. (It was not uncommon to have pictorial signs to identify houses in areas where literacy was far from universal. For example, the name "Rothschild" means "red shield" and derives from a house sign.) But "Schwartzbort" means "black beard." I told this to Mom and her first reaction was, "oh, no, we're descended from pirates."
Copyright 2001 Miriam H. Nadel
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