More Manna from Heaven: Of Bessie, Joseph, Max and the Brotmanville Brotmans

As I wrote yesterday, the notes of the conversation with my Aunt Elaine about the family history are remarkably accurate.  Although much of what was in there I had learned either from my mother or brother or cousins or from my own research, there were a few stories in the notes, a few comments, that revealed something I had not known for sure before.  Keeping in mind the overall accuracy of the information that my aunt gave to Joel, it is very interesting to think about this additional information.

For example, there are some details about Bessie and Joseph that were revealing.  According to the notes, Bessie and Joseph were first cousins.first cousins  Although family lore did say that Joseph and Bessie were cousins, I did not realize that they were first cousins. Since both Joseph and Bessie had the surname Brotman or Brot, it seems that their fathers must have been brothers. What’s odd about this is that it means that Joseph’s father Abraham had a brother who was also apparently named Joseph, if the records are accurate.  It seems unlikely, given Jewish naming patterns, that Abraham would have named his son the same name as his brother, unless the brother had died.  Since Bessie was younger than Joseph (her husband), that is not possible.  The other possibility is that Bessie’s father and Joseph were both named for the same ancestor.  And, of course, the final possibility is that the records that indicated that Bessie’s father’s name was Joseph were incorrect.

Joel’s notes also indicate that after Joseph’s first wife died, leaving him with four children, “they decided” that Bessie should marry Joseph to help with the children.they decided  The notes don’t indicate who made the decision, but it probably was not Bessie. It’s sad to think of my great-grandmother being put in that situation, and it certainly takes the idea of any romance out of the equation.  But Joseph and Bessie went on to have five children of their own, so I’d like to assume that although it may have started as an arranged marriage for the convenience of Joseph, that love grew with time and the shared experiences and children that Joseph and Bessie had.  Call me a romantic.  I know that I am.

After Joseph himself died in 1901, the notes report that Bessie did laundry work to make money to support herself and her children, including Sam, who was just an infant, Frieda, Gussie, Tillie, and Hyman.  Tillie and Hyman were working in sweatshops, so Gussie, my not-yet-seven year old grandmother, stayed home to take care of Frieda and Sam.  Not long after, out of desperation, Bessie married “the shoemaker Moskowitz,” who my aunt reported to be very stingy.  He had five children of his own. moskowitz

I assume that my aunt’s source for these stories was my grandmother, who obviously resented Philip Moskowitz and chose to live with her sister Tillie in Brooklyn instead of staying with her mother and Sam and Frieda when Bessie remarried, so I know I have to consider the source.  My great-grandmother Bessie lived with Philip for many years, more years than she lived with Joseph, and she was buried near him, not Joseph, when she died. Bessie and Philip Moskowitz headstones As with her marriage to Joseph, her relationship with Philip may have started out of need and convenience, but it also must have developed into something more.  Or at least I hope it did.

Bessie Brotman

Bessie Brotman

Of course, it is also possible that the source of this information was Bessie herself.  Bessie did not die until 1934, when my aunt was seventeen years old.  Knowing my aunt’s interest in the family history, I assume that she must have talked to her grandmother Bessie herself as she grew up, so perhaps the stories are not just my grandmother’s version of the facts, but Bessie’s version as well.

One other comment from these notes is a rather sweet one that I hope Max Brotman‘s grandchildren and great-grandchildren will appreciate:

max mason


Obviously, Max, who was probably the most successful businessman of the Brotman children, was also a very generous man.  He provided food to my mother’s family during the Depression.  Here is a great-uncle I’d never even heard of, someone my mother was too young then to remember, who helped out my grandmother and her family in a time of need.  Thank you, Max.

Max Brotman

Max Brotman


The final tidbit from the notes from Joel’s conversation with my aunt is this one:brotmanville


In case you cannot read that, it says, “Brother came to America landed in NJ started a chicken farm. So successful that they named the town after him.”  The quote points back to Joseph.  This is obviously a reference to Brotmanville.  Although it is not entirely accurate—Brotmanville was named for Abraham Brotman, who started a manufacturing business to employ the residents whose farms were failing, not for Abraham’s father Moses, who had the chicken farm—the note nevertheless provides support for the claim that we are in fact related to the Brotmanville Brotmans.  As you may recall, Moses Brotman also had a father named Abraham, as revealed by his headstone and death certificate.Moses Brotman headstone Moses Brotman death certificate_0001_NEW


He was born in 1847 in Galicia, making him a contemporary of Joseph, my great-grandfather.  I cannot rely on these notes alone to assert with any certainty that Moses and Joseph were brothers, but given the overall accuracy of what my aunt told Joel, it is enough evidence for me to start once again to try and find a connection.  If we can find that connection and also learn where Moses Brotman lived in Galicia, it will help to answer a number of lingering questions.

Moses BrotmanHe certainly has the Brotman cheekbones.  Could this be what Joseph looked like also?



Enhanced by Zemanta

Questions raised by Headstones

I was reminded of the power of headstones when I received a set of photos from Tillie Strolowitz/Adler’s great-granddaughter Jean.  Jean has been doing genealogy research for many, many years, and it has been wonderful to have a family member who shares this passion.  Jean started in the pre-internet era, and she has been helpful in reminding me to be patient as I wait for documents.  I want immediate gratification, typical of those of us working with modern technology; Jean reminds me that back in the pre-internet era there were no documents that you could view from the comfort of your home just by clicking on a computer.  You had to travel to libraries, government offices, cemeteries, synagogues, and other record-holding institutions—or at best mail away (snail mail) and wait for documents to be returned by snail mail.

Anyway, Jean wrote to me about her visit to Mt Zion Cemetery back in 1999 to search for her great-grandmother’s headstone.  Her experience was very much like mine when I searched for my great-grandfather Joseph Brotman’s headstone last fall.  The stones are so overcrowded in the old cemetery that it is impossible to walk around without stepping on the gravesites of other people.  It is also very difficult to find a particular headstone.  There are no straight lines, no easy paths, as in other cemeteries.  Here are some photos Jean took back then to capture the feeling.

Mt Sinai cemetery

Mt Zion cemetery

But when you do find the headstone, it is a powerful experience.  You suddenly understand that your long-lost relative is in fact buried there and that someone stood there in mourning to bury them many years ago.  Jean pointed out that Tillie’s headstone only refers to her as a loving mother, not a wife, and that the Strolowitz name is nowhere included on the stone, just the name the family adopted in America, Adler, despite the fact that Tillie’s death certificate is under the Strolowitz name.

Tillie Strolowitz Adler headstone Mt Sinai

Tillie Strolowitz Adler headstone Mt Zion

When Tillie died, two of her sons had already passed away, Isidor and Pincus, and were also buried at Mt Zion under the Adler name.  Had the family erased Jankel from their memory by dropping his name and not including any reference to Tillie as a wife on her headstone?  Does that provide any clues as to what happened to him? One would assume that he, too, was buried at Mt Zion, if he had died shortly after arriving in NYC, but I cannot find anyone with a name similar to his buried there.

I am still waiting for some records that may relate to Jankel and his fate.  I am not optimistic that these will in fact relate to Jankel, but I will be patient, count the days, and hope that these records will help to answer the mystery of Jankel Srulovici.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Mt Zion and Mt Hebron

[This is the second part of my post about the weekend in New York. If you haven’t read the post about the Lower East Side, that is Part One. This is Part Two.]

Before I write about my trip to Mt Zion and Mt Hebron cemeteries, let me tell you that I have never been someone who understood why people go to cemeteries, and it always seemed a little creepy to me. I don’t believe in an afterlife, and it seemed to me that you could remember those who had died without standing over the place where their bodies were buried.

I initially saw a cemetery trip this time as a way of doing more research. Then when I realized that Joseph was not buried near any of his children or his wife, I felt badly. It was likely no one had been there for a hundred years. Did that matter? Joseph didn’t know, so why did I care? I am not sure, but somehow I felt compelled to pay him honor. In fact, once I received the photos of the headstone and footstone from Charlie Katz, I no longer needed to go for research. I was going for some emotional reason that was mysterious even to me. The trip to Mt Hebron, which is only ten minutes away from Mt Zion, then seemed like an obvious addition to the trip to Mt Zion.

So off we went on Sunday morning, first to Mt Zion. It is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in New York City, and the graves are very close together with almost no open land left. I knew from Charlie Katz that it would be hard to find Joseph’s gravesite. The stones are so close together that it is very difficult to walk between and around them, and without Charlie’s directions, we might never have found it. But then suddenly we spotted it.



I stood there, not really knowing what to do or to think. I thought of his life, thanked him silently for bringing his family here, tried to imagine what he looked like. Did he have red hair? No idea. Then I left on the headstone one of the beach rocks I had collected the prior weekend. I had decided to bring a piece of something I loved to leave at the graves, and the beach is the place that always makes me the happiest. I left feeling that I had at least done something to honor his memory.

Then we went on to Mt Hebron, a much larger and much less crowded cemetery. The section where Bessie is buried is across the road from the section where my grandparents and Sam are buried. [What I didn’t know then is that Frieda is also buried there, but that’s a story for another post.] I saw Philip’s headstone right away, but did not realize that Bessie’s was right behind it, as you can see in the photo below.


It took some counting and looking, but finally Harvey spotted it. I felt the same way standing at Bessie’s grave—grateful and wistful. I found myself drawn to her name—both in Hebrew and in English—and rubbed my hand over the name Bessie, saying, “That’s my name.” I also was very touched to see that the Brotman name was included on her headstone, not just Moskowitz.


I left one of my beach rocks there as well and then walked across the street to the other section.

In that section I first saw Sam Brotman’s headstone. I never met Sam, and I really felt badly about that, given that he lived until I was 22 years old. I left a beach rock on his stone, saying, “I am sorry I never met you.”


In the row behind Sam’s grave I found my grandparents’ grave. The headstone was covered with ivy, which looked pretty but made reading the inscriptions impossible. I gently tore away the ivy so I could see the stones.


My grandfather died when I was almost five, so I have only the vaguest memories of him, but have heard lots of stories about him—how funny he was, how smart he was (he knew several languages), and how opinionated. He walked across Romania to escape oppression and poverty. I wish I had had a chance to know him better. There was a rock left on his headstone when we arrived. Who could have been there? I don’t think it could have been anyone recently, but perhaps it had been there for many years. I placed mine next to it and rubbed his name.


Seeing my grandmother’s headstone was the most difficult for me. She lived until I was 23, and when I was a little girl I loved her very much. She was fun and loving with her grandchildren, despite having had a difficult and often sad life. I have thought of her so many times while doing this research and learning what her life was like, but standing there, thinking of her, I suddenly was overcome with emotion and found myself sobbing, thinking of her and her life and the memories I have of her. As I did with Bessie and Isadore, I found myself rubbing my hand over her name, Gussie, feeling some unexpected emotion in doing so. I left my beach rock, specially selected for her, and wished I had asked her more questions while I could have.

Apparently, I was wrong. Going to the cemetery can bring you closer to those who are gone.

A simple and righteous man: Our great-grandfather


Below are two photos, one of Joseph’s headstone, one of his footstone.  (I did not take these; a very kind stranger volunteered to do so.  I do, however, plan to visit the grave next weekend.)  Although I don’t know much Hebrew, using a translator program I think that the headstone says, “Here lies a Simple and righteous man, Our beloved father Yosef Yaakov ben Avraham, Deceased [Hebrew date].”

The footstone inscription is longer and harder to translate, but I think that it says something like, “Here lies a simple man who woke and toiled doing crushing work in order to support his home, to see and satisfy a dream as a gift to other people,  Yosef Yaakov ben Avraham, Deceased  [Hebrew date].

Like I said, I relied on a translation program, so I am using some poetic license to put this into English.  If there is anyone who has any fluency in Hebrew, please correct me!!

Edited: After consulting with a rabbi and working at this again, I think the footstone says, “Here lies a simple man who toiled doing crushing work to support his home and rejoiced in pleasing others.”

At any rate, I found the inscriptions very touching.  At the very least we know his family saw him as a plain, hardworking man who worked to support his home and provide for their dreams in the new world.