Jacob Katzenstein: Before, During, and After the Flood

My great-great-uncle Jacob Katzenstein was, like his sister Brendena, a man who faced a great deal of tragedy but managed to survive and, in his case, start all over with a new family.  In 1889, he lost first born child, Milton, at age two and a half, and then both his wife, Ella Bohm, and his other young son Edwin in the devastating Johnstown flood.  I’ve written about Jacob and these events in prior posts.

In one of those posts, I also described my search for more information about Ella Bohm and my hypothesis that she was the daughter of Marcus Bohm and Eva Goldsmith; I assumed Eva was her mother as Ella is listed on the 1880 census as the niece of Jacob Goldsmith, Eva’s brother.  Eva Goldsmith was also my distant cousin—her mother was Fradchen Schoenthal, my great-grandfather Isidore’s sister; her father was Simon Goldschmidt, my great-grandmother Eva Goldschmidt’s uncle.  And if I am right that Ella Bohm was Eva Goldsmith’s daughter, then Ella married her cousin when she married Jacob Katzenstein, as he was Eva Goldschmidt’s son.


But I had no definitive proof that Eva Goldsmith was Ella’s mother.  I also had not been able to find out when Jacob Katzenstein married Ella or why their first-born son Milton died.  On my cousin Roger’s old genealogy website, he had included a quote about Jacob from a book called The Horse Died at Windber: A History of Johnstown’s Jews of Pennsylvania by Leonard Winograd (Wyndham Hall Press, 1988).  I decided to track down this book to see if it revealed any more information about Jacob Katzenstein and Ella Bohm and their lives.

I was able to borrow a copy of the book through the Interlibrary Loan system from my former employer, Western New England University, and have now read the book.  Unfortunately it did not answer my two principal questions.  I still don’t know for sure who was Ella Bohm’s mother, and I still don’t know what caused the death of little Milton. I did, however, learn more about Ella’s father Marcus Bohm, about Jacob Katzenstein and his second wife Bertha and their children, and about the Johnstown Jewish community at that time and its history.

According to Winograd, in the second half of the 19th century when many Jewish immigrants started arriving from Europe, many made a living as peddlers, as I’ve written about previously. Pittsburgh was a popular hub where these peddlers would obtain their wares and then travel by foot or horse and wagon or train to the various small towns in western Pennsylvania. Winograd states that by 1882 there were 250 to 300 peddlers operating this way out of Pittsburgh. (Winograd, p. 12)

Eventually these peddlers would find a particular town to settle in and would set up store as a merchant in the town. But Pittsburgh remained the center for Jewish life.  These merchants and peddlers would attend synagogue there, participate in Jewish communal life there, and be buried there. Often they would move on from one town to another or return to Pittsburgh itself. (Winograd, p. 12-13)

Johnstown was a bit too far to be part of this greater Pittsburgh community (65 miles away), and although peddlers and merchants did come through there and even settle temporarily there, it was a more isolated location than the towns that became satellites of Pittsburgh.  Thus, its social, economic, and religious life was independent of the Pittsburgh influence.


Winograd reported that Johnstown had a population growth spurt between 1850 and 1860, jumping from 1,260 to 4,185.  In 1856, there were nine churches in Johnstown, but no synagogue (although there was apparently an attempt to start one in 1854).  The Jewish families in the town had services in their homes; there was not a large enough population to support the establishment of a synagogue at that time. (Winograd, p. 26) In 1864, the Jewish merchants in town formed a merchants’ association regulating store hours. Most of these merchants came from the Hesse region of Germany, as did Jacob Katzenstein. (Winograd, p. 48)

Two of those early merchants in the 1860s were Sol and Emanuel Leopold. (Winograd, p.56)  It was their sister Minnie Leopold and her husband Solomon Reineman with whom Marcus Bohm was living in 1910; Solomon Reineman came to Johnstown in 1875. (Winograd, pp. 77-78) Sol and Emanuel Leopold’s other sister Eliza Leopold Miller was Bertha Miller’s mother—that is, Jacob Katzenstein’s mother-in-law when he married Bertha Miller. As Winograd points out in Appendix C to his book (pp. 281-283), many of the Jewish merchants in town were related either directly or through marriage.

According to Winograd, both Marcus Bohm and Jacob Katzenstein came to Johnstown in the 1880s. Here’s what he wrote about Marcus Bohm:


(Winograd, p. 78)

Winograd wrote that Jacob Katzenstein first came to Johnstown in 1882 as a clerk for another merchant. He married Ella Bohm on March 26, 1883, (Johnstown Daily Tribune, May 16, 1883, p. 4, col. 7).  Winograd even mentioned their wedding.  In discussing what he described as “the first public Jewish wedding” in Johnstown, which took place in 1886, Winograd says, “There had been an earlier Jewish wedding, that of Jacob Katzenstein to Ella Bohm on March 26, 1883, a private ceremony conducted by J.S. Strayer, Esquire.” (Winograd, pp. 93-94)  The implication appears to be that Jacob and Ella might have been the first Jewish couple married in Johnstown. Based on the date, I was able to locate a marriage notice from the May 16, 1883, edition of the Johnstown Daily Tribune (p. 4, col. 7).

According to Winograd, Jacob and Ella lived in rooms over the store of another Johnstown merchant, Sol Hess. Sol Hess was the brother-in-law of Emanuel Leopold, who had married Sol’s sister Hannah. In March 1884, Marcus Bohm moved in with Jacob and Ella and soon thereafter, Marcus lost his own store when an Eastern dealer executed a judgment of $2,625 dollars against him. (Winograd, pp.78-79)

According to Winograd, Jacob moved back to Philadelphia for a few years.  This must have been when Jacob and Ella’s first son Milton was born in 1886, but by June 1887 when Edwin was born, they must have returned to Johnstown. Here is a photograph of Johnstown in 1880s, showing what it must have looked like when Jacob Katzenstein first settled there:

As noted, 1889 was a tragic year for Jacob.  First, there was the tragedy of Milton’s death on April 18, 1889 (Johnstown Daily Tribune (April 18, 1889, p. 4, col. 2), and then the deaths of Ella and Edwin on May 31, 1889, during the flood.  According to Winograd, Ella and little Edwin were in their house on Clinton Street when the flood waters rushed into the city, causing the house to collapse.  After the flood, Jacob lived in one of the temporary structures erected in Johnstown’s Central Park. (Winograd, p. 79)

In March 1891, almost two years after losing his two sons and his first wife, Jacob married Bertha Miller, the daughter of Eliza Leopold and Samuel Miller of Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Jacob and Bertha had six children: Helen (1892), Gerald (1893, presumably named for Jacob’s father Gerson Katzenstein), Eva (1894, presumably named for Jacob’s mother Eva Goldschmidt), Leopold (1898), Maurice (1900), and Perry (1904)(named for Jacob’s brother Perry). Jacob was still a clothing merchant.

Jacob Katzenstein and family 1900 census Year: 1900; Census Place: Johnstown Ward 1, Cambria, Pennsylvania; Roll: 1388; Page: 12A; Enumeration District: 0124; FHL microfilm: 1241388

Jacob Katzenstein and family 1900 census
Year: 1900; Census Place: Johnstown Ward 1, Cambria, Pennsylvania; Roll: 1388; Page: 12A; Enumeration District: 0124; FHL microfilm: 1241388

It was during the 1880 and 1890s that formal, organized Jewish life really developed in Johnstown. Before that time, the primarily German Jewish residents of the town, who came from a Reform background and, as Winograd observed, identified more as German than Jewish in many ways, had services in their private homes and holiday celebrations with their families, but there were no official synagogues or rabbis in the town. (Winograd, pp. 77, 87-88, 103-107)

Then, with an influx of Russian Jewish immigrants in the 1880s who came from a more traditional, Orthodox background, there was a demand for more of the organized elements of Jewish communal life, including a synagogue, Hebrew school, and kosher butcher.  (Winograd, pp. 76-77) In the 1890s, two synagogues were organized: Rodeph Shalom for the more Orthodox Jews in town and Beth Zion for the Reform Jews.

Beth Zion grew out of a Jewish social club, the Progress Club, of which Jacob Katzenstein was an organizer and founding member in 1885. (Winograd, pp. 80, 148). The group used their building (known as the Cohen building) for services, but it was not until 1894 that they had their first Reform High Holiday Service; there was still no full time rabbi, and lay people often led services. (Winograd, pp. 148-151)

Beth Zion synagogue in Johnstown Courtesy of Julian H. Preisler. The Synagogues of Central and Western Pennsylvania: A Visual Journey (Fonthill Media 2014), p. 74 Courtesy of Beth Shalom Synagogue and the Johnstown Area Heritage Association

Beth Zion synagogue in Johnstown
Courtesy of Julian H. Preisler. The Synagogues of Central and Western Pennsylvania: A Visual Journey (Fonthill Media 2014), p. 74
Courtesy of Beth Shalom Synagogue and the Johnstown Area Heritage Association

Jacob was an officer in Beth Zion Temple. (Winograd, pp. 79-80)  In 1905 he donated five dollars to a fund to provide assistance to Jews in Russia who were being persecuted. (Winograd, pp. 114-116) In 1907, his son Gerald celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah the evening before Rosh Hashana; in 1912 when Gerald’s brother Leo became a bar mitzvah, it also was celebrated during the high holidays. Winograd described the Beth Zion congregation at that time as small, but tightly knit.  (Winograd, pp. 150-151) Obviously, Jacob Katzenstein and his family were active members in this community.

By 1910, Jacob and Bertha’s children ranged in age from five to eighteen and were all still living at home. Jacob listed his occupation as a retail merchant, the owner of a clothing store:

Jacob Katzenstein and family 1910 US census Year: 1910; Census Place: Johnstown Ward 1, Cambria, Pennsylvania; Roll: T624_1323; Page: 11A; Enumeration District: 0118; FHL microfilm: 1375336

Jacob Katzenstein and family 1910 US census
Year: 1910; Census Place: Johnstown Ward 1, Cambria, Pennsylvania; Roll: T624_1323; Page: 11A; Enumeration District: 0118; FHL microfilm: 1375336

Six years later on October 4, 1916, Jacob Schlesinger died at age 65 from chronic myocarditis and acute cholecystitis, an inflammation of the gall bladder. Rabbi Max Moll, a rabbi from Rochester, New York who was in Johnstown for the high holidays, presided at Jacob’s funeral. (Winograd, p. 80) Jacob left behind his wife Bertha and his six children ranging in age from 12 (Perry) up to Helen, who was 24.  In his will, executed on September 6, 1916, a month before he died, he appointed his wife Bertha to be his executrix and left his entire estate to her. Jacob was buried at the Grandview Cemetery in Johnstown.

Jacob Katzenstein death certificate Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission; Pennsylvania, USA; Certificate Number Range: 102541-105790

Jacob Katzenstein death certificate
Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission; Pennsylvania, USA; Certificate Number Range: 102541-105790

My next post will address what happened to his six children.

Jacob Katzenstein headstone courtesy of Find-A-Grave Member Brian J. Ensley (#47190867).

Jacob Katzenstein headstone
courtesy of Find-A-Grave Member Brian J. Ensley (#47190867).

(Does anyone know why that World War I sign would be posted near Jacob’s headstone? He died before the US entered the war so was not a veteran.)







A Review of My Novel, Pacific Street

I am very honored and flattered that Luanne Castle, who writes the wonderful genealogy blog The Family Kalamazoo and is a published poet as well, has chosen to blog about my novel Pacific Street.  I hope you will read her review and consider purchasing a copy of the book.  Thank you, Luanne!



Here is a small excerpt from the review:

The story of Cohen’s grandparents, Isadore and Gussie, is an inspiring coming-to-America tale with all the resonance of actual experience. Cohen has painstakingly documented the early part of her relatives’ lives through historical research using official documents and has incorporated information shared through family stories.

She has researched the settings and cultures described and added her own imagination to infuse the book with appropriate details and descriptions. This is no dry historical telling, but a well-structured adventure full of tragedies and triumphs like a novel, although more accurately, it is creative nonfiction in the historical subgenre. 

As Cohen alternates the narratives of Isadore and Gussie (until their stories merge together near the end), the reader becomes one with the characters. The loneliness of both characters is excruciating, especially since family is so important to both of them.


You can read the rest of Luanne’s review here.  Check out the rest of her blog while you are there; she is a wonderful storyteller and an expert genealogist.

Thank you, Luanne! Your words mean a lot!

Pacific Street: Inspired by Facts and Love

Some of you know that since I retired two and a half years ago, I’ve been working on a novel inspired by my grandparents’ lives and the discoveries I’ve made about them and their extended families through my genealogy research.  Well, I finally put my “pen” down and decided to call it done.

Amy Gussie and Isadore

My grandparents, Gussie Brotman and Isadore Goldschlager, and me

It’s been an exciting process for me because ever since I learned to read, I’ve wanted to write a novel.  All through my career when I was writing long, boring articles for law journals, I wished that instead I was writing a novel. Novels have been my refuge all my life. I love being transported to different times and places and seeing into the hearts and minds of all kinds of characters.  I just wanted a chance to try to create some characters of my own.  When I retired, I promised myself that I would give it a try.

One friend reprimanded me when I said I was trying to write a novel.  She said, “Don’t say that.  Say you are writing a novel.”  I was and am insecure about the whole thing.  I never took a fiction writing course, participated in a writing workshop, or wrote any fiction at all, not since I wrote stories as a young child. What did I know?

My only sources of information about writing a novel were all the novels I’d read starting when I read Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White when I was eight years old.  That book transported me in ways that changed the way I felt about reading.  I cried so hard (spoiler alert) when Charlotte died.  And she was just a spider! A fictional spider! How had the author made her so real and moved me to care so much?

Charlotte's Web

Charlotte’s Web (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now that I’ve written my own novel, I am even more in awe of the many great authors whose books have moved me so deeply. I am humbled by what those authors were able to do with words, and thus I feel presumptuous trying to promote my own book, despite my friend’s reprimand.

But it was a labor of love—love for family and love for the magic of the written word.  I wrote this book for my children and grandchildren so that they would have a taste of what their ancestors’ lives were like. I had lots of help and inspiration from my family and friends, as I acknowledge at the end of the book.  And so despite this aching feeling of insecurity, I do want to share and promote my book so that others will also know the story I’ve created about my grandparents—grounded in fact, but expanded upon by my imagination.

I hope that you will be tempted to read it.  You can find it on Amazon both as a paperback ($6.99) and as a Kindle ebook ($2.99) at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1541170369

If you do read it, I’d love your feedback.  Thank you!

Ernest Lion’s The Fountain at the Crossroad: An Unforgettable Book

I am very excited to announce that Ernest Lion’s memoir, The Fountain at the Crossroad, has now been published and is available on Amazon.com both as a paperback ($10.50) and an ebook ($2.99). [UPDATE: the Kindle version is now available!] It has been my honor and privilege to bring this book to the public with the permission and assistance of Ernest’s son Tom.  I did this because I found the book unforgettable and because I don’t want Ernest or his life to be forgotten.  Tom and I are not deriving any financial gain from sales of the book. All net proceeds received from sales of the book will be donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in memory of Ernest Lion.

I have written about some aspects of Ernest’s life on the blog as he was married to my cousin, Liesel Mosbach, granddaughter of Rosalie Schoenthal, my grandfather’s sister.  Ernest and Liesel were deported from Germany to Auschwitz in early 1943; Liesel was murdered there, but Ernest survived.

The story of what he endured and how he survived is moving and horrifying.  His determination and courage in the face of unimaginable suffering is a story of what it means to be human when you are surrounded by inhumanity. And Ernest’s escape from the Nazis kept me on the edge of my seat even though I knew that he would survive.

But the book is not only about Ernest’s experience during the Holocaust.  It also tells the story of his childhood growing up with his parents in Germany and of his early adulthood when he dreamed of being an actor.  In addition, Ernest wrote about his life after the war—how he rebuilt his life in the US, starting all over, scarred by his experiences, but nevertheless determined to have a full and meaningful life.

Ernest only started talking about his Holocaust experiences late in his life, and then he was persuaded to write his memoirs.  In doing so, he relived much of the pain, but also reached a very poignant conclusion about the value of his own life.

If you have an interest in history, in World War II, in the Holocaust, in fact, if you have an interest in human beings and what they are made of, you should read this book. You can find it here.

More Blessings and More Insight into My Seligmann Ancestors

This morning I woke up to another email that made me smile to start my day. But to understand why, I need to backtrack a bit.

One of the passages that was translated by Ralph Baer from Ludwig Hellriegel’s book on the history of the Jews of Gau-Algesheim indicated that Moritz Seligmann had originally come from Gaulsheim, a town that is only five miles from Gau-Algesheim.  In this passage, Hellriegel described Moritz Seligmann’s attempt to get permission to move to Gau-Algesheim in 1828.  He was denied permission the first time because the mayor concluded that there were already too many Jews in the town.  He then appealed, and although the mayor still wanted to deny him permission, Seligmann prevailed because he was legally entitled to move to the town.

This passage gave me a clue as to where Moritz, my three-times great-grandfather, might have been born, and Ralph suggested I contact the archives in Gaulsheim for more information.  I found an organization called Arbeitskreis Judische Bingen, or a study group of Jews in Bingen. (Bingen now includes the town of Gaulsheim.)  I wrote to the organization, asking for any information that they might have on Moritz Seligmann or his family.

And that brings me to my happy morning email.  A woman from the Arbeitskreis named Beate Goetz sent me a copy of the marriage record for Moritz Seligmann and Eva Schoenfeld.  Not only did this email confirm that Moritz was born in Gaulsheim (on January 10, 1800) and that he married Eva Schoenfeld (on February 27, 1829), it told me the names of my four-times great-grandparents, Jacob Seligmann and Martha nee Jacob/Mayer (my guess is that Mayer was the surname adopted by her father Jacob when surnames were required in the early 19th century).

In addition, I know now when Eva Schoenfeld was born (June 2, 1806) and where she was born (in Erbes-Budenheim), and I know her parents’ names: Bernhard Schoenfeld and Rosina Goldmann.  Assuming that Eva and Babetta, Moritz’s second wife, were sisters, Bernhard and Rosina were also my four-times great-grandparents.  Now I need to see what records I can find in Erbes-Budenheim to determine if in fact Eva and Babetta were sisters.  Beate said that she would also continue to look for a birth record for Moritz (who was born Moises) and any other relevant records.

Marriage record for Moritz Seligmann and Eva Schoenfeld February 27, 1829 Gaulsheim, Germany

Marriage record for Moritz Seligmann and Eva Schoenfeld February 27, 1829 Gaulsheim, Germany

I also know from Ralph’s additional translation of the marriage record that Jacob Seligmann and Bernhard Schoenfeld were both traders as was Moritz.  The record also indicated that the bride’s parents did not attend the wedding; as Ralph explained, this was probably a second ceremony for purposes of civil law and thus not as important as the religious wedding ceremony, which presumably the couple’s parents did attend.

Thus, thanks to Ralph Baer’s translation of a passage in the Hellriegel book, I now have learned the names of four more of my ancestors.

The Hellriegel book just continues to be a treasure chest of information.  Thanks to Matthias Steinke, I also have a translation of another few passages of Ludwig Hellriegel’s book, which shed some additional light on the character of my ancestor Moritz Seligmann.

In one passage, Hellriegel discussed the education of Jewish children in Gau-Algesheim.  He reported that until 1841, Jewish boys were taught Hebrew and other important subjects by their fathers, but in 1841 they were permitted to attend the Christian school in town.  Apparently, this was difficult for the Jewish children, so Moritz Seligmann applied in 1850 to remove his children from the school.  He then hired a private teacher named Benjamin Mayer from Essenheim to come to Gau-Algesheim to teach the children. (Essenheim is about ten miles from Gau-Algesheim.)

Apparently, however, Mayer ran into trouble in Gau-Algesheim for speaking badly about the Catholic Church, saying in front of the children and two other witnesses that those who believe in the Catholic faith are “downright stupid.”  He reportedly left Gau-Algesheim shortly after this incident.

I found this passage interesting in many ways, but mostly for what it told me about my great-great-great-grandfather Moritz.  He was a man who was determined to see that his children received a good education and in a setting where they were comfortable. That is a value that has certainly been passed down the generations in my family.  Moritz also was apparently a man of some means since he had the money to hire a private teacher.

Coat of arms of Gau-Algesheim

Coat of arms of Gau-Algesheim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Matthias also helped me better understand a passage about Moritz and his knowledge of German.  According to Matthias’ reading of this paragraph, Moritz had some role in the synagogue as an educated man.  He was in charge of writing the lists of Hebrew prayers to be assigned to those who made contributions to the synagogue.  (This is somewhat unclear to me.  Perhaps these were prayers for certain members to lead or perhaps these were prayers for the benefit of certain members, or maybe the book is referring to payment in order to receive the honor of reading Torah in synagogue.)

A man from Mainz, Mr. Landauer, commented that Moritz was able to write German very well in compiling these lists, but that he had trouble with “unpunctured” Hebrew.  I asked Ralph Baer what he thought unpunctured would mean in this context, and he explained that the German word could also be translated as undotted and that the reference to undotted Hebrew most likely meant that Moritz had a hard time reading Hebrew without vowel markings.  So Moritz was more fluent in writing and reading in German than he was in Hebrew.


By Assyrio (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The final passage that Matthias helped me understand involved Julius Seligmann, the grandson of Moritz and son of August Seligmann, discussed previously.  He was the Seligmann who converted to Catholicism upon marrying a Catholic woman.  What I had not been able to understand before were references to Julius closing his business in 1935 in Gau-Algesheim and being the last Jew in Gau-Algesheim when he and his family left in 1939.  He and his family moved to Bingen, and the book states that there the police chief did nothing against him and that his two sons Herbert and Walter were even allowed to enlist in the army, although dismissed shortly afterwards.

With a better idea of what the words say, I now think that I understand the significance of this passage.  It seems that Julius, despite converting, was still seen as a Jew when the Nazis came to power and thus was forced to close his business.  However, once he relocated to Bingen, he was not harassed by the police, perhaps because they did not know he was Jewish.  And perhaps the significance of the sons being able to enlist also relates to this ability to deny their Jewish roots, at least for a short time.

I am obviously still reading between the lines, and without being able to read the entire book and read everything in context, I fear that I may be misreading some of these isolated passages.  It’s a long term project to be able to understand the whole book and the whole story of the Jews of Gau-Algesheim.  But already this little book has enabled me to learn so much more about my Seligmann ancestors.

By the way, Seligmann means “blessed man” in German.  The more I learn about the Seligman(n)s, both German and American, the more it seems to be an appropriate surname for the family to have adopted, especially for those Seligmans who were fortunate enough to have left Germany before the Holocaust.





The Pawnbrokers: Not Reality TV, but Realities

Tradition symbol of pawnbrokers--three connect...

Tradition symbol of pawnbrokers–three connected balls (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Growing up, I always heard my father’s family’s business referred to as jewelry and/or china dealers; I don’t recall them being described as pawnbrokers.  Maybe I just wasn’t listening (quite likely), or maybe that’s how my father explained it when I was too young to understand what “pawnshop” meant.

Anyway, I never thought of them as pawnbrokers.  My image of a pawnbroker was based on what I saw on crime shows on television, in movies like The Pawnbroker, and through windows as we drove through poor neighborhoods in New York.  The pawnshop was a place for either desperate people in need of money or criminals fencing stolen goods.  The pawnbroker was someone who was thus taking advantage of someone’s misfortune or the willing or unwitting participant in a crime.  I know of two incidents where my ancestors aided the police in solving crimes, so I am hoping that they were not complicit in receiving stolen goods, but were they taking advantage of the misfortunes of others?  Was this just a stereotype promoted in popular culture? Were pawnbrokers actually parasites, usurers, or were they providing a much needed service?

The Pawnbroker (film)

The Pawnbroker (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Interestingly, I had not really focused on this as I was researching until I could not decipher a word on the 1910 census for Joseph Cohen’s occupation, as I posted earlier this week.  I had asked for help here and elsewhere to decipher the word.  Several people expressed the same opinion—that the word is “loan office.”  As one person commented, it was just a nicer term for a pawnbroker.  Joseph may have been attempting to convey a less controversial image of his occupation.

I decided to do some reading to see what I could learn about pawnbrokers.  First, I wanted to better understand how the pawn business works.  I know that there are now a few reality television shows based on pawnshops, most notably Pawn Stars.  (One of my students brought this up in class this year during a discussion of bailment contracts, and I was sure he had said PORN Stars.  Just shows how uncool I can be….)  I read a few definitions and websites online about how pawning works, and this one seemed to be fairly accurate and concise, from Dictionary.com: “a dealer licensed to lend money at a specified rate of interest on the security of movable personal property, which can be sold if the loan is not repaid within a specified period.”

Wikipedia has a more expanded definition:  “If an item is pawned for a loan, within a certain contractual period of time the pawner may redeem it for the amount of the loan plus some agreed-upon amount for interest. The amount of time, and rate of interest, is governed by law or by the pawnbroker’s policies. If the loan is not paid (or extended, if applicable) within the time period, the pawned item will be offered for sale by the pawnbroker. Unlike other lenders, the pawnbroker does not report the defaulted loan on the customer’s credit report, since the pawnbroker has physical possession of the item and may recoup the loan value through outright sale of the item. The pawnbroker also sells items that have been sold outright to them by customers.”

So a person who needs money but for some reason cannot obtain a bank loan—insufficient credit, time pressure, some other reason that makes a bank an impractical choice—can take their property—jewelry, household items, clothing, whatever—to the pawnshop; the pawnbroker assesses the value of the items and provides a loan of cash to the person who agrees to pay with interest within a set period of time or to forfeit the personal property.

Since the pawnbroker must be licensed and since there are numerous state and federal regulations that apply to the business, there is nothing inherently shady about this business. It is a legal method of loaning money to those who choose not to go to a traditional bank.  So why is there an aura of shadiness often associated with the business?

Wendy A. Woloson wrote a book entitled In Hock, Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression (2006) that addressed just this question.  She wrote:

Pawnbrokers were at once essential to the continued well-being of this economic system and important scapegoats for the various social ills that the financial difficulties it brought.  Loans from pawnshops supplemented substandard wages, enabling workers to continue to feed their families and producers to continue to exploit their workers.  Although industrialists indirectly benefited from the services pawnbrokers provided, it was also in their interest to encourage the idea that pawnbrokers were fringe operators whose business had no place in the “mainstream” economic system. (p. 21)

Woloson contended that these capitalists promoted an image of pawnbrokers as hard-hearted, greedy and criminally inclined foreigners who used shady practices to exploit their customers. She also asserted that there was a fair degree of anti-Semitism behind these stereotypes.   Although not all pawnbrokers were Jewish, many were.  As Woloson explains, “Jews’ involvement with pawnbroking resulted not from any inherent character flaws or moral failings, as the popular press often posited. Rather, they took up pawnbroking and like occupations largely because they were barred from other trades, especially the mechanical and artisanal, and so necessarily developed an acumen dealing in consumer goods as peddlers, used clothing dealers, and auctioneers.”  (p. 71)

Of course, the negative stereotype of the Jewish moneylender is far more ancient than 19th century America; Shakespeare’s character Shylock from Elizabethan times is evidence of the way society and popular culture have long depicted Jews who were involved in the lending business.  Woloson elaborated on the role this stereotype and the anti-Semitism in society in general had on the popular assumptions about pawnbrokers—that they were Jewish opportunists taking money from hard working Americans.  (pp. 21-24)

Pawnbrokers were aliens in a commercial world populated by supposedly moral and upright Christian entrepreneurs, and the very nature of the business set it apart from ‘normal’ economic dealings.  The antithesis of merchants, pawnbrokers doled out money instead of taking it in, profiting from customers who lacked capital rather than possessed it. (p. 29)

As Woloson wrote, “Jews’ affiliation with pawnbroking and affiliated trades, such as dealing in used clothing and auctioneering, created among them a cohesive, commercially defined group; yet it also reinscribed outsiders’ perception that they operated beyond the currents of mainstream trade.” (p. 25-26)  Woloson explained that since most Americans in the early 19th century did not know many Jews, their preconceived image of the Jew as a greedy moneylender was reinforced by the fact that many pawnbrokers were Jewish. “It mattered little whether or not individual pawnbrokers were Jewish. Because they were all assumed to be, people scrutinized their business practices and questioned their ethics.” (p. 26)

Even as many Jews achieved substantial economic success through other businesses and finance in the 19th century, there was a common assumption that they had done so illegally, and the stereotype of the greedy, heartless moneylender persisted as part of popular culture. (p.28)  Pawnbrokers became common stock characters in works of popular culture, further promoting the negative and anti-Semitic stereotypes; Woloson catalogs a number of examples of novels and plays using such characters based on this stereotypes (pp. 28-53).

Woloson then provides evidence that in fact pawnshops served important public functions and were set up in ways to prevent exploitation of those who used their services. She describes how as cities grew and people outside the wealthy classes needed access to cash on short notice—to pay taxes or acquire assets they need to live or to work, there was a need for the services of pawnbrokers.  In the early 19th century, cities began to adopt regulations for pawnbroking.  I saw many legal notices in the Philadelphia Inquirer announcing the issuance of pawnbroking licenses to my ancestors and others. These required the posting of an expensive bond and thus ensured a commitment by the pawnbrokers to run their businesses in compliance with the regulations.  (pp.  54-57)

These local regulations controlled both the interest rate a pawnbroker could charge and the period a pawnbroker had to wait before the customer’s goods would be forfeited to the shop and available for sale.  For example, in Philadelphia in the 1860s, the interest rate could not exceed 6% and the pawnshop had to hold collateral for a year before reselling it. (p. 58)

Pawnbrokers hoped that this would add some legitimacy to their business and to their image, but apparently that did not occur.  As Woloson wrote:

Pawnbrokers were hardworking people who offered what was fast becoming a necessary service in maturing American cities, providing short-term loans on modest forms of collateral. Yet their profession, like dogcatching, was not one that people aspired to. Unlike clerks and mechanics, who received education through apprenticelike training and shared social activities, pawnbrokers enjoyed neither professional prestige, identity, specialized education, nor occupational camaraderie.  (p. 58)

According to Woloson, most pawnbrokers learned the trade by starting out as general dealers in goods, learning how to assess the value of those goods.  This is consistent with the experience of my ancestors.  First, they sold used goods and then perhaps newer goods, including china and clothing primarily.  Then they became pawnbrokers.  “A lasting and successful career in pawnbroking rested on one’s ability to identify local market niches and to accurately appraise a miscellany of goods.” (p. 60)

In Woloson’s opinion, these pawnbrokers provided substantial benefits to the people and the cities they lived in.  The money borrowed from the brokers helped not only their customers, but the economy of the city by enabling those people to buy goods and services and thus support local businesses.

She also discusses the typical patterns of the pawnbroking business in various cities, including Philadelphia.  Woloson noted that pawnshops tended to locate in areas that sold used clothing and furniture and other second hand goods rather than in the commercial heart of the cities where more elite retail centers would be located.  In Philadelphia, that meant that most pawnshops were located either north or south of the center of the city in areas, for example, like South Street where my great-grandfather’s pawnshop and home were located for many years.  Woloson provides this insightful description of that neighborhood in the mid-19th century:

Unburdened by any systematic police control, the diverse population and its many activities brought a liveliness to these areas. The very rich and the very poor mingled freely, as did members of various ethnicities and races. While this social mixing may have been scandalous to outside observers, residents themselves shared the collective ambition of getting ahead. The neighborhood’s mixed population at midcentury engaged in many enterprises. They drank, whored, pilfered, and occasionally rioted their way down South Street. By 1839 there were at least sixty-two taverns in the ten-block area.39 Men had their pick of brothels. ….  Some back alleys harbored “houses of prostitution of the lowest grade, the resort of pickpockets and thieves of every description.” Strangers were “earnestly admonished to not go there.” In contrast, another brothel only a few blocks away was home to a respectable “swarm of yellow [mulatto] girls, who promenade up and down Chestnut Street every evening, with their faces well powdered.” The lower sorts needed pawnbrokers to get them through the exigencies of the day and to fund their debauchery at night. Ten of the city’s thirteen pawnbrokers in 1850 were on South Street or within one block of the corridor. Rooted, the shops continued to hem the southern and northern fringes of the city until the end of the century.  (pp. 64-65; footnotes omitted)

H. Williams & Co. Ltd. Pawnbrokers

H. Williams & Co. Ltd. Pawnbrokers (Photo credit: christopher.woo)

This description gave me a far different impression than I previously had about how and where my great-grandfather Emanuel and his many siblings grew up; whereas I had never assumed that this was a wealthy neighborhood, I had assumed it was fairly safe and middle-class since Jacob had servants and a business that supported so many people.  Did my great-grandfather grow up hungry?  Probably not, but neither did he grow up in some swanky suburb or upscale city neighborhood.  He grew up surrounded by thieves, pickpockets, brothels, and bars.

These locations were, in Woloson’s view, business necessities.  The people who needed the services of the pawnbrokers were not the wealthy who shopped at fancy stores, but the working class and poor residents who could not get by without a quick and fairly easy loan.  Woloson opines that in some ways pawnbrokers were more straightforward businesspeople than those who used sales techniques to manipulate customers into buying goods.  In Woloson’s view, “Pawnbrokers made no pretense that they did anything other than loan money, and in this way many may have been more honest professionals than the retailers pushing goods on the other side of the city.” (p. 67-68)

Another pattern observed by Woloson was the tendency of pawnbrokers to expand and pass down their businesses within their families.  “Established, successful pawnshops were often passed down through single families rather than being taken over by outside partners; younger generations grew up in the trade and learned from fathers, uncles, and brothers, thus providing steady income to families over generations and contributing to social and economic stability where pawnbrokers resided.”  (p. 74)

Finally, Woloson also discusses the relative economic success of pawnbrokers, debunking the myth that many were wealthy as a result of the exploitation of those of lesser means.  She wrote:

Like many other businessmen operating in interstitial markets, most pawnbrokers worked the margins. Once they reached their professional apex, they typically did not advance much beyond the class of their customers and failed to accumulate enough capital to invest in larger financial endeavors that would have elevated them socially and economically. A pawnbroker’s profits were tied to the economic fortunes of his customers, and he often suffered losses at auctions of unredeemed collateral, especially during economic crunches. Pawnbrokers running shops in smaller cities necessarily supplemented the lending business with other petty entrepreneurial activities. Average pawnbrokers made enough money to support their families and to keep the business going, but probably not much more.  (p. 75)

I am really glad that I found this book because it has really given me a new perspective on my Cohen ancestors.  Compared to my Brotman and Goldschlager relatives, I’d always imagined that my Cohen relatives were wealthy and established.  Of course, by the late 19th century, early 20th century when my mother’s family started to arrive from Galicia and Romania, the Cohens had already been here for about 50 years and were well-settled, owning their own businesses, speaking English, and American-born.  They had the advantages of being here much earlier and so were far ahead economically when my mother’s family arrived.  But they were not the wealthy elite; they were probably at most middle class business people who were working in unpleasant neighborhoods, subjected to negative stereotypes based on their trade as well as their religion, and engaged in a business that required some risk-taking and business acumen but was not well-regarded.  That must have been very painful and frustrating.

Having this new perspective will help me better understand their lives as I continue to move forward in telling their story.





Enhanced by Zemanta

All Things Considered, I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia

W.C. Fields, who was born in Philadelphia, used to make fun of his birthplace as a staid and boring place by threatening to have the line, “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” as the epitaph on his gravestone.  (Apparently, that threat was never carried out.)  Philadelphia has often been overshadowed by New York to its north and by Washington to its south.  I remember traveling to Philadelphia to visit my relatives when I was a child, my siblings and I fidgeting in the back seat of the car as my father fought through the traffic on the ugly New Jersey Turnpike.

English: W.C. Fields

English: W.C. Fields (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My grandmother Eva Cohen and her second husband Frank Crocker lived in what I remember as a small apartment in Philadelphia, and somehow it was always hot and humid whenever we visited.  I was only nine when my grandmother died, so my memories are somewhat vague, but I do remember watching a baseball game with Poppy Frank, as we called him, discussing the merits of Sandy Koufax versus Don Drysdale (the Phillies were obviously playing the Dodgers that particular visit).  We would sit and visit for a while, have lunch or dinner, and then pile back in the car, suffer through the Jersey Turnpike again, fidgeting and bickering in the backseat.  So I guess I could relate to W.C. Fields’ sentiments about his hometown.  Somehow I associated Philadelphia with long car rides, being tortured by my siblings, and hot, humid weather.  I wish I could remember more about my grandmother, but as a child, I was focused on childish things. Well, and baseball.  As I wrote before, I remember her as beautiful, reserved, and very dignified, a true gentle-woman in both senses of the word.

So given my somewhat skewed views of the City of Brotherly Love, I did wonder why my Cohen relatives (and in fact all of my father’s lines) ended up in Philadelphia.  They sailed into New York City—why did they leave the Greatest City in the World to go to its poor stepsibling to the south? I asked my father, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, this question the other day, and he said something about William Penn and how Philadelphia was a Quaker city and probably more tolerant of Jews.

I decided to do some research to answer a couple of questions: What was Philadelphia like for Jews in the 1840s and 1850s when the Cohens arrived? Where did they live in the city, and what were the socioeconomic conditions like in those areas? What drew them there instead of New York or some other American city?

I found a wonderful resource, a book by Robert P. Swierenga, a historian who has published several books about the Dutch in the United States.  The book I relied on is titled The Forerunners: Dutch Jewry in the North American Diaspora (Wayne State University Press 1994), and in it Swierenga traced the immigration of Dutch Jews to America and their settlements in several US cities, including Philadelphia.  I read the chapter on Philadelphia and learned not only about the Dutch Jews who settled there, but more generally about the history of Jews in Philadelphia.  After reading this chapter, I better understand why the Cohen family decided to settle there.

Philadelphia had one of the earliest Jewish communities in the United States.  In 1776 it had the third largest Jewish population of American cities, after New York and Charleston; there were 300 Jews living in Philadelphia at that time.  That number grew to 200 families by 1778 as Jews sought refuge there during the Revolutionary War.  The population was largely Sephardic, and the first synagogue was formed in 1782, Congregation Mikveh Israel, an Orthodox Sephardic synagogue.  Once the war ended, however, many of the Jews returned to their prior homes, and by 1790 there were only 25 Jewish families or about 150 people.  (Swierenga, pp. 118-119)

English: Former home of Mikveh Israel Synagogu...

Former home of Mikveh Israel Synagogue

There was a growing number of non-Sephardic Jews settling in Philadelphia after the Revolution, however, as immigrants from Germany, Poland and the Netherlands began to arrive, and in 1790 these people formed a new synagogue, Rodeph Shalom, which would adhere to Ashkenazi practices.  Rodeph Shalom was the first Ashkenazi synagogue in North America, and most of its first congregants were Dutch.  (Swierenga, pp. 119-120)

Rodeph Shalom Synagogue on the NRHP since Augu...

Rodeph Shalom Synagogue on the NRHP since August 7, 2007. At 607–615 North Broad St., in the Poplar neighborhood of Philadelphia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Jewish population really started to grow in the early 19th century.  In 1820, there were 450 Jews in Philadelphia; in 1830 there were 730.  By 1840, there were 1500, and then there was a huge surge to 6000 by 1850 and to 10,000 by 1860.  This, of course, was the period my Cohen relatives began to arrive in Philadelphia—between about 1848 and 1851.  In fact, according to Swierenga, a substantial number of these Jewish immigrants were Dutch Jews.  (p. 120)

In his discussion of Dutch Jews, Swierenga included not only those who came directly from the Netherlands (meaning primarily Amsterdam), but also those, like my ancestors, who had emigrated from Amsterdam to England before coming to America.  Based on his research, he concluded that for the most part the Dutch Jews who came to Philadelphia tended to come directly from Amsterdam whereas those who had first stopped in London tended to end up in New York.  Swierenga found that in 1850 and 1860 there were only two Dutch Jewish families in Philadelphia who had had children born in England. (Swierenga, p. 125)  Was he counting my relatives? Hart Levy Cohen’s children were born in England, but did they count as “children?” On the other hand, Jacob’s daughter Fannie was born in England, and although his later children were born in the US, his family must have been one of those two families.

In fact, this screenshot from Appendix III in Swierenga’s book, captioned “Dutch Jewish Household Heads and Working Adults in Philadelphia 1850, 1860 and 1870,” shows that Swierenga did count Hart Cohen as one of those Dutch Jews.

Appendix III from Swierenga. The Forerunners

Appendix III from Swierenga. The Forerunners

Based on this data as compared to his findings that there was a greater number of Dutch Jewish families in New York with children born in England, Swierenga reached the following conclusion: “Clearly, the Dutch Jews in Philadelphia had been better off economically in the Netherlands, and they immigrated earlier than those settling in New York, who out of economic necessity spent a longer sojourn in London.  For the Philadelphia Dutch Jews, a London stopover or two-stage migration was not as necessary or desirable.” (p. 126)

I found this observation very interesting. Obviously, my ancestors did make that two-stage migration.  Did they do that because they could not afford to get directly to the US, or did they originally plan to stay in London?  Does this mean that Hart and Rachel were not as well-off as many of the other young couples who left Amsterdam at the end of the 18th century?

The Dutch Jewish community was located in the south side of Philadelphia. With the large wave of German immigrants in the 1840s, the Dutch Jews had moved south to Wards 1 through 5, and primarily Wards 4 and 5, located between what is now Broad Street and the Delaware River and South Street to the south and 2d Street to the north.  Swierenga described these two wards as slums.  Ward 4 is where Jacob and his family lived for many years at 136 South Street.   Was he living in a slum with his large family and three servants? It seems unlikely.  The neighborhood must have been somewhat economically diverse to attract what Swierenga himself had described as a fairly comfortable Dutch Jewish population.  (pp. 139-146)

This growing community of Dutch Jews eventually decided to form their own synagogue and leave Rodeph Shalom, which had become increasingly made up of congregants who had emigrated from Germany.  Also, Rodeph Shalom and Mikveh Israel as well as a third synagogue, Beth Israel, were all located in the north side of Philadelphia.  (Swierenga, pp. 127-129) Thus, in 1852 the Dutch Jewish families formed their own synagogue, B’nai Israel, on the south side where Jacob and Rachel were living in 1850. (pp. 130-145)

Between the 1850s and 1880, however, the Dutch Jews increasingly left the south side of Philadelphia and moved to neighborhoods further north.  Those who remained could not support their own synagogue, and B’nai Israel was closed in 1879.  By the end of the 19th century, the Dutch Jewish community had integrated into the larger Jewish community and had disappeared as a separate cultural subgroup.  (pp. 135, 320)  As I move forward from 1860 in tracing my Cohen relatives, I will keep in mind this shift to see whether or not they were a part of that trend.

After reading this material and understanding more about the history of the Jewish community in Philadelphia in the first half of the 19th century, I better understand why my ancestors chose Philadelphia.  It had a distinct Dutch Jewish community, which might have been very attractive to them after the Chut experience as outsiders in London.  It had a long history of a diverse but cooperative overall Jewish population.  And perhaps, like today, it seemed less overwhelming and more affordable than New York City.

I now read, “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia” in a whole new light.

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Fusgeyers, Part IV: Romania Today


Where my grandfather was born in 1888 in Iasi, Romania

As noted in my last post, the population of Jews in Romania has declined precipitously over the last one hundred years as a result of emigration before World War I and thereafter and also as a result of the murder of about 300,000 of them during the Holocaust.  From a peak of 800,000 after World I, there are now just a few thousand Jews living in Romania today. What is it like in Romania today, and, more specifically, what is it like to be a Jew living in Romania today? What  legacy is there in Romania from the once substantial Jewish community, and what do current residents know or remember of the Jewish communities and of the Fusgeyer movement that led many of those Jewish residents out of Romania?  Beyond the cold, hard statistical facts, what is left of Jewish Romania?

I have consulted only two sources of information to answer these questions, so my views are based on limited information and possibly inaccurate.  But those two sources left somewhat different impressions, so perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.  Jill Culiner’s book, Finding Home, paints a rather gray and dismal picture of life in Romania in general and specifically of the Jewish legacy there.  Stuart Tower, author of The Wayfarers, has a more positive impression of Romania today and of its people as seen in the photographs he took first in the 1980s and then in 2005 and also from what he shared with me by email.  Culiner and Tower visited different cities and towns for the most part, but there was some overlap; both visited Barlad and Sinaia within a few years of each other.  Both ultimately paint a picture of a country that once had many thriving Jewish communities but that now has virtually no Jewish communities and few residents who remember the communities that once were there.

Tower based his book around the town of Barlad; it is where the three Americans, grandfather, father and son, go to learn about their ancestral roots and meet the rabbi there who tells them the story of the Barlad Fusgeyers.  Tower’s story is fictional, and he told me that he’d never actually met a rabbi in Barlad, but both Culiner’s book and Tower’s book talk about a very small Jewish community continuing to exist in that city and the beautiful synagogue that still stands there.  In Tower’s novel, the rabbi describes a community of thirty people who still keep kosher and observe shabbat, but who have trouble forming a regular minyan.  The elderly rabbi’s children have all moved away, and he knows that he will be the last rabbi in Barlad (spelled Birlad in the novel).

Culiner started her Romanian travels in Adjud, where she got off the train and began her Fusgeyer-inspired walk.  Her description of Adjud is disheartening:

Here, fields lie flat under a grueling sun, and cars, trucks and buses roar with giddy impunity over pot-holed, uneven main roads.  Under thirsty-looking trees outside the station, lining the street are unlovely lean-tos, modern bars and patios. All claim to be discos, all pump loud American music into the hot air.

Culiner, p, 35.

Culiner also said that “there were no buildings left from the pre-Communist era and certainly nothing of beauty.” (Culiner, p. 35)  Her encounters with the local people are no more heart-warming.  No one could tell her where there was a hotel or room to stay in, and she described the people she saw as “exhausted..expressionless, resigned.”  Culiner, p.36.  No one in town remembered  that there ever was a Jewish community there or a synagogue, although there had been a community of about a thousand Jews there in 1900.  The man who showed her where the non-Jewish cemetery was located demanded an exorbitant fee for his troubles.  By the end of this first chapter, I was already feeling rather depressed about her experience and about  life in Romania.

In contrast, here are some of Tower’s photos of the Romanian countryside that left me with a different impression.  Thank you to Stuart Tower for giving me permission to post these:

Recently%2520Updated%25201112 Recently%2520Updated%25201113 Casa Elena in Voronets Fall foliage in the Bicaz Gorge Romania%25202005%2520262 Romania%25202005%2520263 Romania%25202005%2520264

Culiner’s experience at her second stop, Podu Turcului, was not any better.  The townspeople warned her that her plans to walk through Romania were dangerous and that she would be better off visiting more modern cities elsewhere.  There were no Jews left in this town, and no one there remembered there ever being a synagogue, although there was a Jewish cemetery.  Only one man acknowledged that there once was a Jewish community there, a workman who had been curious about the Jews while in school and had learned where the Jewish residents had once lived in town, now just a neighborhood of faceless housing from the Communist era.  This man told Culiner that he had been unable to learn more about the Jewish community in his town because discussing such matters was prohibited during the Communist era.

Culiner and her companion next arrived in Barlad, a city of 79,000 people, the city where Tower’s characters stayed and learned about the Fusgeyers and were in awe of the beautiful synagogue.  Culiner is less enthusiastic.  Her first impression of the city is its “potholed, deteriorated sidewalks” and the “[r]are trees [that] gasp out their life in the dense cloud of exhaust fumes, providing little shelter from the pitiless sun.” (Culiner, p. 55) Culiner once again encountered skepticism about her plans and ignorance about the Jewish history of the city.  She was particularly disappointed that in this city where the Fusgeyer movement began, no one seemed to remember anything about them.  Even she, however, was impressed with the synagogue, to an extent:

Despite its rather austere, unassuming exterior, the synagogue is magnificent.  Dating from 1788, the walls and ceilings are decorated with paintings of birds, flowers, leaves and imagined scenes of Jerusalem.  Yet, despite its beauty, there is a strange feeling of loss, the aura of a building struggling to exist in a world that has little place for it.  It has become a relic.

Culiner, p. 58.

Although Tower also described a dying Jewish community in his novel, there was still some life, some people who cared in Barlad.  Culiner saw the glass as half-empty whereas Tower saw it as half-full.  Here are some pictures of the Barlad synagogue and some other towns visited by Tower that show a far less dismal impression of  in Romania.  All photos courtesy of Stuart Tower.

Synagogue in Barlad courtesy of Stuart Tower

Synagogue in Barlad  Photos courtesy of Stuart Tower

President Alexander Coitru

Stuart Tower reading from The Wayfarers at the Barlad Synagogue

Stuart Tower reading from The Wayfarers at the Barlad Synagogue

birlad shul interior

Romanian countryside

Romanian countryside

Romanian woman

Romanian woman

Romania%25202005%2520090 Romania%25202005%2520175

17th Century wooden synagogue in Piatra Neamts

17th Century wooden synagogue in Piatra Neamts

Piatra Neamts Sinagogaodd haystack, neighboring farm Troop Popa Tarpesht villagers and their War Lord

Culiner’s experiences in the towns and cities she visited after Barlad were not much different from her first three stops: ignorance and indifference to the history of the Jewish communities in those towns, ugly scenery, and disappointment.  She did meet some friendly and helpful people along the way, including some who were Jewish or were descended from Jews, but for the most part she found most Romanians at best ignorant and at worst rude and even hostile.

In Focsani, no one seemed to be able to help her find the synagogue, sending her on a wild goose chase only to find it right near her hotel.   On the other hand, Focsani had a fairly active Jewish community (relatively speaking), as the synagogue regularly drew about twenty people for shabbat services and more on major holidays.  Culiner was bewildered by the fact that the non-Jewish residents did not even know where the synagogue was located despite its central location.

In Kuku, Culiner met a friendly, helpful woman who likely lived in a building that was once the hostel where the Fusgeyers stayed while traveling through that town, but that woman also knew nothing about where the Jewish community had gone or about the Fusgeyers.   In Ramnicu Sarat, Culiner spent time with a woman whose mother was Jewish and who remembered the days of an active and close Jewish community.  The woman told Culiner that the Communists had demolished the synagogue that had once stood in the town.  She also talked about being unable to be openly Jewish during the Communist era.

Similarly, in Buzau she talked to a Jewish man who refused to take her inside the synagogue because he was ashamed of its condition; there were not enough Jews left in the town to make a minyan and not enough money to maintain the building.  This man told her that “the greatest threat is that all will be forgotten.” Culiner, p.122.   In Campina, another Jewish man told her, “The Jews will die out.  We will go to the cemetery.  And no one will replace us.” Culiner, p. 144.

Only in Sinaia did Culiner find anything of beauty in the countryside, but again not without some negative observations. She wrote: “The scenery is a slice out of a romantic painting and Watteau would have delighted in the mossy banks, the majestic spread of trees, although he might have taken artistic liberty, ignored the discarded shoes and packaging stuffed into vegetation, the tattered plastic and ripped shreds of fabric caught on branches in the river.”  Culiner, p. 146.  Tower’s photographs of Sinaia reveal all the beauty without the observations of garbage mentioned by Culiner.

Peles Castle, Sinaia and surrounding countryside

Peles Castle, Sinaia and surrounding countryside

cottage on the grounds Romania%25202005%2520042 Romania%25202005%2520044 October snowfall, near Peles

Before I read Culiner’s book, I had been giving serious thought to an eventual trip to Romania, in particular to Iasi.  After reading her book, I put that thought on the far back burner.  Her book left me with a vision of an ugly country filled with ugly people who hated Jews.  After looking at Tower’s photos and corresponding with him about his travels in Romania, I am reconsidering my decision to put a visit there on the back burner.  Just as I would like to visit Galicia to honor my Brotman family’s past, I would like to visit Iasi—to see where my grandfather was born and spent his first sixteen years, to honor his past and the lives of his family—-the Rosenzweigs and the Goldschlagers.  I have no illusions about what I will find there.  I know not to expect a lively Jewish community or even any Jewish community.  It’s all about walking where they walked and remembering their travails and their courage.  Maybe the scenery is not as idyllic as in some of Tower’s photos.  Maybe the people are not as colorful and friendly as they seem in his photos.  But that, after all, is not the point, is it?

Culiner did not visit Iasi, our ancestral town in Romania, on her trip, but Tower did, and I thought I would end this post by posting his pictures of Iasi and some of its people as well as those taken by my Romanian researcher Marius Chelcu.  Maybe someday I will get to be there in person and walk down St Andrew’s Street where my grandfather was born and pay tribute.

If we don’t, who will? Will we allow the story of the Fusgeyers and of the Jews of Romania to be forgotten for all time? That, in some ways, is the message of both Tower’s book and Culiner’s book: we need to learn and retell the story of our ancestors so that those stories and those people will not be forgotten.


Stuart Tower’s photos of Iasi

1670 Synagogue in Iasi

1670 Synagogue in Iasi

Traian Hotel, Iasi


Father of Yiddish Theater

Father of Yiddish Theater, plaque in Iasi

National Theater, Iasi

National Theater, Iasi

Gypsy wagon, near Iasi (Yash) Astoria Hotel, Iasi Yash) Iasi street Recently%2520Updated%25201108 Lady/Man (?) walking toward Yash (Iasi) Gypsy family (Iasi), wanted food and money Iasi (yash) Ladies of Iasi (Yash)


Marius Chelcu’s photos of Iasi:

St_Andrew_Str_no_26_0003 St_Andrew_Str_no_26_0001 Near St Andrew Str_11 Near St Andrew Str_10 Near St Andrew Str_4 Near St Andrew Str_5 Near St Andrew Str_6 Near St Andrew Str_7 Near St Andrew Str_8 Near St Andrew Str_2

Photos taken near St Andrew Street where the Goldschlagers lived

Photos taken near St Andrew Street where the Goldschlagers lived





Enhanced by Zemanta

The Fusgeyers, Part II: How They Did It

A Group of Fusgeyers from Iasi, c. 1900 http://epyc.yivo.org/content/photos/14_q_RM-RUMANI-4_lg.jpg

Yesterday’s post described some of the reasons that Jews like my grandfather and his relatives decided to leave Romania in the early years of the 20th century: rampant anti-Semitism, poverty, violence, false accusations, and laws depriving Jews of access to education and to most means of earning a living as well as denying them the legal rights of citizens.  Thousands of Jews left Romania between 1900 and 1910, many of them on foot, including my grandfather.  In both The Wayfarers by Stuart Tower and Finding Home by Jill Culiner, there are vivid descriptions of how these people managed to accomplish the task of walking about 1500 miles to cross the border from their homes in eastern Romania to Hungary or Galicia, where many then caught trains that would eventually bring them to the ports where they could sail to the United States.

Both Tower and Culiner relied heavily on the unpublished manuscript written by Jacob Finkelstein around 1942, describing his personal experience as a member of the first group of Fusgeyers.  Finkelstein’s memoir appears to be the most important primary source regarding the Fusgeyers, and Culiner begins most of her chapters with an excerpt from that manuscript.  The first group of Fusgeyers walked out of Romania in 1900, traveling by foot from Barlad to Predeal and crossing into Hungary.  As detailed in both Tower’s and Culiner’s books and as described by Finkelstein, that first group was an outgrowth of a club of young people in Barlad who put on theatrical works to raise money for charitable causes.  Members of the group decided that they could use their talents to raise money to pay for their travels out of Romania.  They raised some initial money through donations and from fees collected from those who wished to join them, and eventually there were seventy-five men and three women who joined the group and left Barlad in April, 1900.

The Gheorghe Rosca Codreanu Lyceum in Barlad (...

Barlad, Romania

Română: Timisul de Jos,Predeal,Brasov,Romania.

Română: Timisul de Jos,Predeal,Brasov,Romania. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One person was selected to be the leader of the group, and others were appointed to various roles: treasurer, medical care, scouts, and security.  They had flyers printed to distribute in the towns they planned to visit, and the people of Barlad provided not only financial support, but food and supplies to the group.  The group then walked from town to town across Romania, often being treated very well; in some places people provided them with food, shelter, and generous donations.  The group would stage musical performances to raise money.  Many newspapers publicized the movement, bringing even more donations and larger audiences to greet and support the Fusgeyers.  Moreover, this first group inspired new groups to form and to leave their homes as well.  My grandfather, who loved music and was smart and funny, might very well have been one of the Fusgeyers who left Iasi in 1904.

Sometimes, however, the group met up with hostility.  In Ramnicu Sarat, the police confiscated the passports of that first Barlad group, telling them to keep themselves from being noticed.  The passports were, however, returned once they left the town.  The group was threatened with arrest if they entered the town of Mizil, so they stayed out, sleeping in tents in the rain instead, and they were told to avoid the next town as well, resulting in another night of sleeping in the rain.  There was even trouble within the group; money was wrongfully taken by one of the group representatives.  Overall, however, at least according to Finkelstein, his group’s experience was a huge success—enabling not only that group to escape, but also inspiring thousands of other Romanians to do the same.

I cannot capture or describe all the details of the experiences of the Fusgeyers.  All I have as primary material in Finkelstein’s memoir, but Stuart Tower’s book takes the skeleton of facts provided by Finkelstein and builds from those facts a novelized version of that experience that helps to bring to life the Fusgeyers’ trek through Romania.  He developed characters and storylines that add an extra layer of humanity to this basic story.

The Wayfarers (Paperback) ~ Stuart Tower (Author) Cover Art


When I was doing some additional research about the Fusgeyers yesterday, I happened upon a website that described plans to turn Tower’s novel into a documentary about the Fusgeyers.  I did not realize it at first, but the website was a page on Kickstarter, a crowd-sourced fundraising site that helps people raise funds for private projects—in the arts and otherwise.  The Kickstarter page for The Wayfarers movie had not yet attracted any donors.  I made a small donation and also left a comment for the contact person of the page, Ron Richard, explaining my interest and expressing my concern that there had not yet been any other donations for the project.

I have heard back now both from Ron Richard and from Stuart Tower, the author of The Wayfarers.  Tower sent me some wonderful photographs of Romania from a Fusgeyer tour he ran in 2005, and I am hoping to get permission to post some of those photos here.  If any of you would also like to help Ron Richard and Stuart Tower make this film about the Romanian Fusgeyers, please check out their Kickstarter site at  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1552736981/the-wayfarers-the-story-of-the-fusgeyers?ref=live  It may be the best opportunity many of us have to see Romania and to understand better the experiences of our ancestors.

Jill Culiner’s book takes a different approach to exploring the Fusgeyer experience.  After reading Finkelstein’s memoir, she decided to re-enact the walk of the Fusgeyers, also walking from Berlad to Predeal, but not with a large group, just with one companion.   Her experiences doing this provide a chilling post-script to the story of the Jews in Romania, one that I found moving and haunting even re-reading it.  I will post more about her book and her experiences tomorrow.


Enhanced by Zemanta

Galicia Mon Amour: A Conversation

I just finished watching a video called “Galicia Mon Amour.”  It is a recording of a conversation between Daniel Mendelsohn and Leon Wieseltier.  Mendelsohn’s book, The Lost, which I read a number of years ago, is one of the most moving books I’ve read; in it he recounts his journey to find out what happened to members of his family who had not left Galicia before the Holocaust.  It is beautifully written, well-researched, and deeply tragic.  I read it long before I started doing my own genealogical research, but it likely was one of the sources of inspiration for my journey.[1]

Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish is also excellent, but I have to admit much of it was a bit too scholarly and dry for my taste, except for the parts where he reflects on his own family and experiences.  I admit to skimming a lot of the more academic parts of the book.

At any rate, when I saw a recommendation for the video on the digest I receive daily from Gesher Galicia, I decided to try and make the time to watch the video.  (It’s about two hours long.)  You can find a link to the video here.

In the video Mendelsohn interviews Wieseltier about his recent trip to Galicia.  (The interview takes place in January, 2007; Wieseltier’s trip was in 2006.)  Both Mendelsohn and Wieseltier had family that came from eastern Galicia in what is now Ukraine from towns near the city of Lviv, known by the Jews as Lemberg.  Both had taken trips back to the region to research and visit the places where their relatives had lived.  Although Mendelsohn’s direct ancestors had immigrated to the United States before the Holocaust like ours did, he had many relatives who remained behind about whom he had known very little.[2]  Wieseltier’s parents, on the other hand, were Holocaust survivors and came to the United States after World War II.  All the rest of his family was killed in the Holocaust.

One audience member asked at the end of the interview whether there were differences between those who were grandchildren of immigrants and those who were children of Holocaust survivors.  Were the survivors from the wealthier families who saw no reason to leave in the 19th century and the earlier immigrants from the poorer families who had no reason to stay?  Although Wieseltier dismissed this as an overgeneralization, which I am sure it is, it nevertheless is an interesting sociological question.  Remembering Margoshes’ memoirs and the fact that there were so many wealthy Jews, I thought that it made some sense that only those who had nothing to lose would have taken the risk of leaving the world they knew.  This may suggest that Joseph and Bessie were not among the wealthier segments of the Galician Jewish community.

Wieseltier described his own family as being among the more prosperous, educated and aristocratic clans in their area and confirmed the impression left by Margoshes that the Jewish world in Galicia was very diverse and that there were many who were wealthy, well-educated, and sophisticated.  He described Cracow as the “Jerusalem of the North” and the Galitzianers as the princes of the Jewish world.  Mendelsohn concurred, saying that although there was also a lot of poverty, there was a large bourgeoisie and a large wealthy class.  He said that Emperor Franz Joseph, who was the head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1848 until 1916, was admired and even loved by the Jews for his enlightened leadership and treatment of the Jewish citizens, also described in Margoshes’ memoirs.

One observation that I found particularly interesting was Mendelsohn’s comment that he always thought of Jews as living in tenements until he went to Galicia.   He believed that Jews, wherever they lived, lived urban lives, and he was surprised by how wrong he was when he saw the rural areas where they had lived in Galicia.  He described the countryside as beautiful—with mountain, streams, rivers.  Wieseltier used the word “paradise” to describe it.

A lot of their conversation focused on the reasons to make a trip to Galicia.  Both said quite emphatically that this is not a place to go for typical tourist reasons; for Mendelsohn it was partly to find out what happened there and to visit the places where his family had lived. Wieseltier said he went not only out of grief, but also out of pride. He talked movingly of standing where his mother had once stood and leaving a copy of his book in the empty field as a symbol of Jewish survival.  Both talked about the absence of Jewish life there now and how the Polish people themselves realize how much has been lost by the destruction of the Jews and their culture.  Wieseltier said that you won’t find Jewish life there so you must bring your Judaism with you if you go.

There is also discussion of the Holocaust, of the camps, of anti-Semitism, but overall the theme was more about remembering the world that was there in a realistic and accurate way and cherishing that culture and the people.  Wieseltier himself is quite skeptical of genealogy (“It’s amazing how much you can’t learn from genealogy.”).  Although Mendelsohn obviously values genealogical research highly, he did not really push Wieseltier to elaborate on this point.  I think, however, that Wieseltier was expressing some doubts about all those who, like me, are trying to trace some names and dates to make a connection, perhaps without any purpose or perspective.  He said that our parents and grandparents were ours “by luck,” just as the fact that we have two legs or brown eyes, and that what is more important is who we are ourselves and what we do with our lives.  I think that that is an important perspective for me to remember as I continue to look for our family in Galicia.

[1] We were fortunate enough to hear Mendelsohn read from and talk about the book many years back when it was first published.  That made his story even that much more personal.

[2][2][2] I am sure that that is true for the Brotman family as well, although I do not know specifically of any family members who died in the Holocaust.