An Amazing Treasure

I hope everyone who celebrates had a wonderful Thanksgiving filled with gratitude.  This post is about a family heirloom.  It doesn’t belong to me, but it is nevertheless something for which I am grateful because it is part of the legacy of my Katzenstein ancestors. I am just about done writing about the Katzenstein line, but before I move on, I want to share this treasure.

I have referred often on the blog to the work of David Baron, who has done an incredible job of researching the Katzenstein family. David is the husband of Roger Cibella, who is the three-times great-grandson of Gerson Katzenstein, my great-great-grandfather. Roger’s great-great-grandfather was Scholem Joseph Katzenstein, who settled in western Pennsylvania and probably was the one who introduced his little sister Hilda, my great-grandmother, to my great-grandfather Isidore Schoenthal. And Roger is my third cousin, once removed.

Roger owns a siddur (a Jewish prayer book) that belonged to our mutual ancestor, Gerson Katzenstein. The inner pages of the front and back cover of the siddur contain inscriptions by Gerson marking the births of each of his six children beginning with the birth of Roger’s great-great-grandfather Scholem (with the middle name Abraham here, not Joseph, which I found interesting) in 1848 through the birth of my great-grandmother Hilda in 1863.

Roger and David kindly shared with me images of the inscriptions as well as an image of some of the text of the siddur.  They also sent me a translation of the inscriptions and information about the siddur provided by the scholar, Arthur Lagawier.[1] The information below came from Lagawier’s report to Roger and David:

The book is entitled Beit Rachel v’ Sha’ar Hallel-Ya [House of Rachel and Gate of Praise], and it was edited by Rabbi Naftali ben Isaac Ha Cohen. Rabbi Naftali was born in Ostroh, Ukraine, in 1649 and died in 1719. He married Esther Sheindl, the daughter of Rabbi Shmuel Shmelke Zak of Ostroh, and he headed the yeshiva that his father-in-law built for him in that town. After Rabbi Shmuel died, Rabbi Naftali succeeded him as rabbi. Rabbi Naftali and his wife had fourteen children, seven sons and seven daughters.

In 1704 he became the rabbi of Frankfurt, but in 1711, a fire broke out in his home and spread, burning down several hundred homes. Four people died in the fire, and Rabbi Naftali was accused of setting the fire and was put in jail. After he was released, he went to Prague and then Breslau. Rabbi Naftali wrote several books, prayers, and hymns as well as the siddur once owned by Gerson Katzenstein. The prayer book was first published in Amsterdam in 1741, but the one Roger owns is probably a later reprint.

The book includes the daily prayers and those for Shabbat and holidays as well as other holiday readings and commentary on the prayers and other readings.  It also contains the entire book of psalms.

I asked for help on the Tracing the Tribe site in translating the handwritten inscriptions because the translations by Arthur Lagawier did not always read clearly. Thank you so much to Baruch Miller for his work in translating them. I have also included some of the content of Lagawier’s translations.  The inscriptions in the inside of the front cover translate as follows:

For the son later known as S.J. Katzenstein:

My son Shalom Avraham, born on Tuesday night (third day of the week), the 24th of the month of Av, the week of the Torah portion Re’eh, in the year 5608, corresponding to the 23rd of August, 1848. May the Eternal grant my son to learn the Torah, to be married, and to do good deeds throughout his life, amen.  Signed: Gershon Ben Abraham Shalom Ha Cohen, Morah [teacher].

For the second son, known as Jacob:

My son Yakov Solomon, also called Yerkev, on the fifth night of the week, the 2(?) of the first month of Adar, the week of the Torah portion Ki Sisa, in the year 5611, or 1851. He should grow to Torah, the chuppah, and good deeds. Gershon  

For Brendina, the third child:

My daughter Branche, Briencha (Bertha), Born in the month of Kislev in [5]612, according to the non-jewish calendar the year 1853.  May the Eternal grant to her to grow up….Signed: Gershon

(Some parts of these inscriptions were not legible, but one can assume they all followed the formula asking that the children grow up to Torah, chuppah (marriage), and good deeds.)

On the inside of the back cover of the book are the inscriptions for the last three children born to Gerson Katzenstein and Eva Goldschmidt:

For the third son and fourth child, Perry:

My son Pesachya, born Tuesday, the 25th of Av, 5616. He should grow to Torah, the chuppah, and good deeds. August 1856 in Philadelphia. Gershon, son of Avraham Shalom, the righteous kohen.

This is the inscription for their fifth child, Hannah.  Reading this inscription is very sad because Hannah died a week before her seventh birthday in December 1866:

My daughter Henit/Hencha, born on Friday, 17 days in the month of Tevet in [5]619.  May God she grow up strong and do good deeds, get married, amen. Born on December 24th, 1859 in Philadelphia, Signed by  Gershon, son of Avraham Shalom the kohen.

And finally, my great-grandmother Hilda, named for her maternal grandmother Hincka Alexander, wife of Seligmann Goldschmidt:

My daughter Chinke.  Born Monday, three days in Elul, the 17 of September [August] 1863.  May God grant that she will grow up… Signed Gershon, son of Avraham Shalom, the righteous kohen, in Philadelphia.


Leah Cohen of the TTT group pointed out that Gerson described himself as “the small”  or ha-Koten in several inscriptions. Leah, Baruch and I could not understand why he referred to himself this way, unless it was a form of modesty.

Someday perhaps I will get to meet Roger and David and hold this treasure in my hands, but for now I am delighted to have the photographs and the knowledge that this siddur is in good hands with Roger and David.



[1] According to this website, “[Arthur] Lagawier was a frequent lecturer in Judaism at the University of Washington. He taught religious school at Herzl congregation, served as Director of Jewish Education at the Jewish Community Center, and independently founded the Institute of Jewish Studies, where he taught non-profit classes from 1965 to 1969.”

Our Last Two Days in Germany—Worms and Heidelberg—and Some Final Thoughts on the Trip

Why did we go to Worms? Not for any genealogy reason, but for its significance to Jewish history generally and to German Jewish history more particularly. It is one of the so-called ShUM cities, the three cities (Speyer (Sh), Worms (U), and Mainz (M) where Jewish scholars and rabbis in the Middle Ages had a widespread impact on Jewish religious and cultural practices.  Some of the greatest medieval Jewish scholars studied and taught in the ShUM cities, including Rashi, who is considered one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of all time. Many of the melodies used even today in Jewish religious services were developed in the ShUM cities. It seemed that it would be wrong to go all the way to Germany and not see Worms.  (Speyer, unfortunately, we could not fit into our itinerary, and we had seen Mainz.)

Worms is a short train ride from Heidelberg, so it made sense to go there during one of our three days in Heidelberg.  On May 13, we took a morning train to Worms to meet our tour guide. [For various reasons we were not very pleased with this guide, so I’ve decided not to use her name in this post. If anyone wants to know why, I will be glad to share privately but not on the blog.]

The guide met us at the train station and showed us the reliefs sculpted over the doorways to the train station, one showing different modes of transportation and the other, the doorway used by the wealthy, showing kings and nobles.  The station was built in the early 1900s and, as the guide said, was considered a sign of modernity and of the status of Worms as an important city.

From the station we walked a few blocks to the Jewish cemetery, which has existed since the eleventh century and is considered the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe.  We could not enter as it was Shabbat (Saturday), and the cemetery was closed.  But we could see the old stones and the very well-maintained grounds. The guide told us about some of the important scholars buried at the cemetery and how the cemetery is a pilgrimage site for Jews from all over the world.

From the cemetery we walked through a park where there was a statue of Martin Luther, for whom Worms was also an important city because, according to the guide, it was in Worms that his movement for Reformation became a movement adopted by the people, not just a theoretical idea. The guide also pointed out to us that the park we were walking through was where the moat had been located when Worms was a walled city in medieval times.  Once the wall was taken down and the moat filled, it became a ring of green space surrounding the city.

Martin Luther statute

We continued to follow the former moat towards the old Jewish quarter in Worms. Along the way we passed several stolpersteine, including one for Herta Mansbacher, who is considered an important heroine in the story of the Jews of Worms.  She was a teacher in a non-Jewish school until 1933 when she lost her job and took a teaching job in a Jewish school.  She then stayed in Worms to help the children and to encourage families to emigrate from Germany.  After the Worms synagogue was burned during Kristallnacht, Herta Mansbacher ran to rescue what she could and to try and put out the fire.  In 1942, she was deported and murdered by the Nazis.

Stolpersteine for Herta Mansbacher and others

Former home of Herta Mansbacher

A short distance past the home of Herta Mansbacher we reached the former Jewish quarter of Worms. Turning left on Judengasse it felt like we had entered not only a difference place but a different time. You could visualize what the quarter was like a hundred years earlier.

Judengasse in Worms

The Jewish quarter in Worms

There are two synagogue buildings in the Jewish quarter.  They are located at opposite ends of a small plaza in the center of the quarter. The Levy’sche synagogue is now a residential building.


Across from it was the other synagogue, the Old Synagogue—where there is a sculpture commemorating Rashi; Rashi studied at the yeshiva attached to this synagogue.  The building dates from the 12th century and is claimed to be the oldest synagogue in existence north of the Alps.   The building is today used for religious purposes and also for cultural events. There is a separate building where the yeshiva was located and also a mikveh on the grounds.   Behind the synagogue is a Jewish museum displaying Judaica and historical documents from the region; the most moving display was of the Torah scrolls and wimpels that were burned during Kristallnacht.  Perhaps these were the ones rescued by Herta Mansbacher, for whom there is a memorial plaque in the synagogue.

Old synagogue in Worms

Statue honoring Rashi

Interior of Old Synagogue

The synagogue was rebuilt after the war, but some of the original structure still was standing and is part of the building today.  Seeing the Jewish quarter allowed me to imagine in a concrete way how the Jews once lived in this section of the city.

After leaving the Jewish quarter, we stopped for lunch, and then the guide showed us Trinity Church, a very large Lutheran church built in the 18th century.  It was destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II and rebuilt in the 1950s.

Trinity Church

Interior of Trinity Church

Our last stop in Worms was at St. Peter’s Cathedral, which was built in the 12th century.  It is an impressive structure, and the altar is quite elaborate and beautiful.

St Peter’s Cathedral, Worms

Altar in St Peter’s Cathedral

We then walked back to the train station and returned to Heidelberg.

The next day, our last day in Germany, we were back on our own.  We took the funicular up to the castle that hovers over the city and can be seen quite dramatically from across the river.

We strolled around the grounds where the views of the river and the city of Heidelberg are stunning. Because you cannot get into the castle without a guided tour, we waited for the guided tour at 10 am.  Fortunately there were only three of us on the tour, plus the guide.  (There were hundreds of people wandering around the grounds being led by Viking Cruise guides, all with earplugs in their ears to listen to their guides, but they did not enter the buildings.)

The guide was delightful with a very dry and sarcastic sense of humor, and we all got a big kick out of him.  He entertained us with stories of political intrigue, romance, and wars to give us the colorful history of the complex of buildings that make up the castle.  The castle predated the city; it was originally built for strategic purposes with its towers and walls overlooking the valley below. Then, as medieval times moved into the Renaissance era, it became more a home for the local noble to impress his wife and entertain their guests.  Even Hitler used the castle at some point as a place to house soldiers.  I wish I could remember all the details of the guide’s stories, but suffice it to say he kept us interested, and he not only was amusing but very well-informed about the history of the region.

After returning to the city below, we spent our last afternoon in Germany wandering through the beautiful city of Heidelberg.  Unlike every other city we’d visited—Mainz, Bingen, Cologne, Wurzburg, and Worms—Heidelberg did not sustain any significant damage from Allied bombing during World War II, so it retains its architectural heritage as originally built.

The city has so much to offer—a world-renowned university, a scenic location on the Neckar River, a fascinating castle with gorgeous views, and churches and buildings that are rich in architectural detail.  The winding narrow streets and wide plazas, the youthful population, and the multitude of restaurants, bars, and stores make it an interesting and exciting place to visit. It made it all that much harder to pack our bags and head to the airport where we would stay our last night in order to catch our flight the following morning.

And so we said Auf Wiedersehen to Germany, land of my paternal ancestors, a country I had truly learned to appreciate during our stay, a place where the beer, the bread, the cities, the villages, the landscapes, and especially the people are just wonderful.  I was sad to leave, but ready to come home and have a chance to digest and remember it all.

Looking back on the trip now that we have been home for well over a month, it almost seems like a dream.  Was I really there? Did I really walk in the footsteps of my ancestors, see their gravestones, and meet my cousins, their descendants? Writing these blog posts has helped me remember and process everything we saw and experienced.  Looking at the photographs reminds me of all the people we met and all the beauty we saw as well as all the reminders of what happened during Hitler’s reign.

Much of what we experienced was bittersweet—bitter because of all the awful killings and destruction, sweet because of the kindness of the people we met and the hope they gave us for a future where people are tolerant and understanding and loving of each other despite their differences.  As I now return to the task of learning about and writing about my family’s history, I can better visualize where they lived and what their lives were like.  It will make what has already been a fascinating and rewarding journey that much more meaningful and satisfying.

Thank you for following me on this journey.







My Grandmother’s Family in Denver, and A New Year’s Wish

When I last wrote about my great-grandfather Isidore Schoenthal, he and my great-grandmother Hilda (Katzenstein) and their four children, Lester, Gerson, Harold, and my grandmother Eva had moved from Washington, Pennsylvania, to Denver, Colorado, around 1907, when my grandmother was just three, and her brothers were nineteen (Lester), fifteen (Gerson), and six (Harold).  They moved out west because Gerson had severe allergies and asthma and the doctors had recommended a drier climate than western Pennsylvania. My great-grandfather, who had been a glass and china merchant in Pennsylvania, became a salesman and then a store manager for the Carson Crockery Company out in Denver.

I wasn’t sure what kind of Jewish community existed in Denver in the early 20th century, but I learned from a newspaper search that my great-grandparents had joined a synagogue, Temple Emanuel, when they relocated, as evidenced first by this article listing my great-uncle Gerson as a member of the 1908 confirmation class:


Gerson Schoenthal confirmation 1908 Denver Post


Temple Emanuel in Denver has in fact a long and distinguished history, as described in their website:

Temple Emanuel is the oldest Jewish congregation in the state of Colorado, founded in 1874. It is the largest Jewish congregation between Kansas City and the West Coast. It had its early beginnings in a burial and prayer society that was organized in 1866. By 1874, two years before Colorado became a state, the congregation was officially incorporated by 22 members. Within the first year membership was almost doubled and on September 28, 1875, its first synagogue was dedicated. This was located at what is now the corner of 19th and Curtis streets. Early in 1876, the congregation engaged its first full-time rabbi.

The congregation grew and prospered with the community. It soon outgrew its original home. By 1882 a new synagogue was erected at 24th and Curtis Streets. Even though this structure was gutted by fire in 1897, the building still stands today. After the fire, the congregation decided to build at another location because many of its members no longer lived near Temple. The location at 16th Avenue and Pearl streets was chosen. In January of 1899, our third home was dedicated. In 1924 this building was doubled in size.

By Jeffrey Beall (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Temple Emanuel on Pearl Street, Denver.  By Jeffrey Beall (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Denver thus had a thriving Jewish community by the time my great-grandparents arrived in the early 20th century.  According to several sources, one reason for the surge in the Jewish population of Denver was that it had become a popular location for tuberculosis treatment.  Just as my family moved there because of Gerson’s asthma, many others were attracted to the dry climate as a possible cure for tuberculosis.  (Some may recall the story of my cousin Ben Brotman who went to Denver for treatment and ultimately died there.)

Many Orthodox Jews settled in Denver seeking a cure for tuberculosis, the “white plague.” Two Jewish institutions were founded to respond to their needs and other sufferers of consumption from around the country. The National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives was opened in 1899. Its name was changed in 1985 to the National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine. It is now the National Jewish Medical and Research Center, with a worldwide reputation in the research and treatment of allergy and pulmonary diseases. The Jewish Consumptives Relief Society was established just outside of Denver in 1904 to serve the religious needs of suffering Orthodox Jews.

The B'nai B'rith Building at National Jewish H...

The B’nai B’rith Building at National Jewish Hospital in Denver, Colorado. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


One of the most well-known Jewish residents of Denver was Golda Meir:

The Golda Meir House Museum is where the future Israeli Prime Minister (1898-1978) lived with her sister and brother-in-law Shayna and Sam Korngold and niece Judith during 1913 and 1914, after she ran away from parents’ home in Milwaukee—she learned that they had a husband picked out for her…and that married women were not allowed to teach there. In her 1975 autobiography, My Life, she states, “It was in Denver that my real education began…” The Korngold house was considered a social and intellectual haven by numerous Jewish immigrants from Russia (Golda’s family had left Kiev in 1906), most of whom had traveled out west for medical treatment. In this environment, Goldie discussed politics, met her future husband Morris Meyerson and developed her future political philosophy. She became deeply involved with Zionism and made the decision to emigrate to what was then Palestine.

English: , Israeli PM. עברית: ראש הממשלה הרביע...

English: , Israeli PM. עברית: ראש הממשלה הרביעית של ישראל. Português: , Primeira Ministra Israelense Türkçe: İsrail’in dördüncü başbakanı Golda Meir. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Golda was only a teenager when she moved to Denver, not much younger than my great-uncle Gerson and only three years older than my great-uncle Harold.  I wonder if she or the Korngolds ever crossed paths with my relatives.

In 1910, my great-grandfather continued to work as the manager of the crockery store. Lester, now 22, was in the US Navy, working at a hospital, and Gerson, 18, was working as a clerk in an office, according to the census record. Both were still living at home with their parents.

My grandmother and her brother Harold made the local newspaper in 1910; they are the adorable little girl and boy in Picture #3 below:

Denver Post,

Denver Post, July 27, 1910, p. 9


In 1915, when he was fourteen, my great-uncle Harold was busy with the Boy Scouts:

JPG Denver Rocky Mountain News article - Harold Schoenthal with pic BSA 1915-page-002

Denver Rocky Mountain News, November 20, 1915, p. 12

Boy Scouts continued to be a big part of his life, as I found several news articles listing him as a member of the Scouts.

Meanwhile, in December 1915, his sister, my grandmother Eva, then eleven years old, played the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe in the Temple Emanuel Hanukkah play.  She is the girl in the bonnet on the far left, top row:

Grandma Eva 1915 Denver Post photo

Grandma Eva 1915 Denver Post cast listing

Denver Post, December 5, 1915, p. 34


While Harold and Eva were still growing up, the other family members were busy working.  My great-grandfather Isidore and his middle son Gerson were employed in various ways during the 1910s, while Lester spent much of those years in the Navy.  In 1913 Gerson was a clerk for the Sam Lang Importing Company, and my great-grandfather Isidore now seemed to be in the insurance business.  (Interestingly, his brother Henry, who had also been a merchant for many years, had also turned to the insurance business after 1910.) The following year, 1914, Isidore was a bookkeeper for Court Place Liquor Company.  But in 1915, Isidore is listed once again working for the Carson Crockery Company as a foreman, and Gerson was a salesman for the Sam Lang Importing Company.  Even Harold, now fifteen, had a separate listing in the 1916 Denver directory, but without an occupation listed  as he was still in school.

Schoenthals 1916 directory p 1

1916 Denver directory U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.

1916 Denver directory

Harold was confirmed at Temple Emanuel in the spring of 1916; he was fifteen.

JPG Denver Post article - Harold Schoenthal confirmation 1916-page-002

Denver Post, June 9, 1916, p. 8


On June 30, 1917,  Lester Schoenthal married Juliet Grace Beck, sometimes referred to in later documents as Grace and sometimes as Julia.  Although Juliet was from Richmond, Indiana, and Lester from Denver, they were married in Deadwood, South Dakota, by an Episcopal rector.  Lester, no longer in the Navy, had been living at home and working as a traveling salesman for the Carson Crockery Company, according to the 1917 Denver city directory.  Perhaps he had met Juliet while traveling for work.

Lester Schoenthal and Juliet Beck marriage record South Dakota, Marriages, 1905-2013 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2005. Original data: South Dakota Department of Health. South Dakota Marriage Index, 1905-1914, 1950-2013 and South Dakota Marriage Certificates, 1905-1949. Pierre, SD, USA: South Dakota Department of Health.

Lester Schoenthal and Juliet Beck marriage record South Dakota, Marriages, 1905-2013 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2005.
Original data: South Dakota Department of Health. South Dakota Marriage Index, 1905-1914, 1950-2013 and South Dakota Marriage Certificates, 1905-1949. Pierre, SD, USA: South Dakota Department of Health.

She was the daughter of Charles Benton Beck and Inez Cockayne, both of whom were born and raised in Indiana.  Her father was a salesman in a retail store in Richmond, Indiana, in 1910, and perhaps Lester had worked with him as the representative of Carson Crockery. Juliet was only 18 and had already been married briefly when she married Lester in 1917.

But why were they married in Deadwood, South Dakota? It’s true that Deadwood was a thriving town back then.  It had grown from a frontier town with a lot of gambling and prostitution at the time of the Black Hills gold rush in the 1870s to a well-settled town of over 3,000 by the time Lester and Juliet were married there.  The railroad by then connected Deadwood to the east and west, but that still doesn’t explain why they would have gotten married there. Deadwood is almost 400 miles from Denver and almost 1200 miles from Richmond, Indiana.  Did Lester and Juliet elope? Perhaps my great-grandparents didn’t approve of Lester marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish and/or Juliet’s parents didn’t approve of her marrying someone who was?  It sure seemed a long distance to go to get married in a place where neither family lived, especially in the era before planes and destination weddings.

Bella Union Saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota

Bella Union Saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Lester and Juliet settled in Colorado Springs after the wedding where, according to the 1918 directory for that city, Lester was working as a manager for the Boss Rubber Company.

My grandmother continued to participate in dramatic performances for the synagogue, taking part in the Hanukkah production again in December, 1917.  She is depicted here on the far right of the top row. She was then thirteen.

JPG Denver Post article -Eva SChoenthal 1917 in Hanukah play-page-001

In June, 1919, she followed in the footsteps of Gerson and Harold and was confirmed at Temple Emanuel:

JPG Denver Rocky Mountain News article - Eva Schoenthal confirmation-page-001

In 1919,  Lester and his wife had moved from Colorado Springs to Denver, where he was now working as a salesman for the Frankel Carbon & Ribbon Manufacturing.  His brother Gerson was a buyer for the Golden Eagle, and his father Isidore is listed as a clerk for the Carson Crockery Company. Lester was living with his parents at 1029 13th Avenue in Denver where they had been living for several years, but Gerson had moved out and was living at 530 St. Paul Street.


Schoenthals in the 1919 Denver directory U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.

Schoenthals in the 1919 Denver directory U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.

In 1920, my great-grandparents had only their two youngest children living at home: my great-uncle Harold, who was now eighteen, and my grandmother Eva, who was fifteen, as of the date of the census. According to the census, Isidore was a manager for the crockery company (I assume the 1919 directory was mistaken in listing him as a clerk).

Isidore, Hilda, and Eva Schoenthal (woman in back unknown) about 1920

Isidore, Hilda, and Eva Schoenthal (woman in back unknown) about 1920

As for their oldest son, Lester, as of the 1920 census, he and Juliet had moved to Richmond, Indiana, where they were living with Juliet’s parents and siblings.  Lester was working as a representative for a rubber company. His father-in-law, Charles Beck, was now the postmaster in Richmond.

I have two listings for Gerson on the 1920 census.  On one, which is dated January 10, 1920, Gerson was listed at 530 St. Paul Street as he was in the 1919 Denver directory, and he was married to a woman named Gratice.  Gratice was born in Iowa, and her parents, Frank and Maude Johnson, were born in Missouri.  They had moved to Colorado by 1900 when Gratice was three.


Gerson Schoenthal 1920 census with Gratice

Gerson Schoenthal 1920 census with Gratice ear: 1920; Census Place: Denver, Denver, Colorado; Roll: T625_162; Page: 10B; Enumeration District: 288; Image: 947


But there is a second listing for Gerson on the 1920 census that is not dated.  On that record Gerson was living on 19th Street in Denver in a large lodging house, was working as a commercial salesman, and was listed as single.  I would have assumed that this was an earlier record since he was not yet married, but since the census record listing him with Gratice at that address is dated January 10, 1920, it would seem unlikely that the undated census was taken before January 10.  Plus since he was living at 530 St. Paul Street in the 1919 directory and as of January 10, 1920, it seems unlikely that Gerson had moved from 530 St. Paul Street to 19th Street and then back to St. Paul Street by January 10.   At any rate, Gerson was married to Gratice in subsequent years, so the January 10, 1920 record appears to be accurate. I’ve no idea what to make of the other census record.

Gerson Schoenthal in 1920 census, single Year: 1920; Census Place: Denver, Denver, Colorado; Roll: T625_160; Page: 12B; Enumeration District: 165; Image: .

Gerson Schoenthal in 1920 census, single
Year: 1920; Census Place: Denver, Denver, Colorado; Roll: T625_160; Page: 12B; Enumeration District: 165; Image: .


The family continued to have a role at Temple Emanuel even after all of the children had been confirmed, as indicated by this brief article that mentions that my great-uncle Harold led junior congregation services there in April, 1921:

Harold Schoenthal leading services 1921 Denver


In 1922, my great-grandfather continued to work for the Carson Crockery Company as a department manager, and Gerson was working as a commercial traveler for the Sun-Maid Raisin Growers (a product I add to my cereal every morning).  Lester and Juliet had returned from Indiana to Denver, and he was working as a manufacturer’s agent; his wife Juliet (Julia G here) was working as stenographer.  Even my grandmother was included in the listing.  Only Harold was missing; he must have left for college at that point.  Harold started his college studies at the University of Colorado and finished at Columbia University, where he studied architecture.


1922 Denver directory

1922 Denver directory U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.

1922 was an important year for my grandmother.  She graduated from East Denver High School that year where she had been part of the Progressive Club (a music group, not a political group, as I had initially thought), a Big Sister, and a member of the Drama Club.  I guess her roles in the Hanukkah plays were just a small part of her teenage acting career.

Eva Schoenthal high school yearbook picture

Eva Schoenthal high school yearbook picture U.S., School Yearbooks, 1880-2012 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010. Original data: Various school yearbooks from across the United States.

It was after graduating from high school in 1922 that my grandmother went on a trip to Philadelphia to visit her relatives there and met my grandfather, John Nusbaum Cohen, who followed her back to Colorado to court her.  They were married in Denver on January 7, 1923.  Eva was only 18 years old, and my grandfather was 27. She moved back east with him to Philadelphia where their first child, my aunt Eva Hilda (for her two grandmothers, not really as a “junior”), was born on January 13, 1924.  My father was born almost three years later.   My grandmother, although the youngest, was the first of her siblings to have children, and her children were the only grandchildren her parents ever knew.  (Harold would eventually have a child, but she was not born until long after both of my great-grandparents had died.)


John and Eva Cohen c. 1930

John and Eva Cohen
c. 1930

As the 1920s moved on to the 1930s, much was going to change for my grandmother and her family.  I will pick up with that part of the story after I return from a short break away from blogging.

In the meantime, happy New Year to you all.  May 2016 bring everyone peace and good health and happiness.  And may the world find some way to preserve our planet, to create a world where our children and grandchildren can be safe at home and at school and elsewhere, and to protect all its people from terrorism and despots and demagogues and from prejudice and hatred and fear.   We all wish for that, don’t we? There must be a way we can get there without all the rancor and stupidity and fear-mongering that seems to dominate our air waves and our political process.  At least I hope we can.









My Great-great-uncle Henry: The Real Man Revealed

This was a major find, a discovery that has greatly inspired me and uplifted me.

I’ve been researching the Schoenthals in depth for quite a while now, and I’ve been so fortunate to find as much as I have about the family both in German and American records.    As I was preparing a post about Henry and Isidore, my great-grandfather, I decided to see if I could find a picture of Henry.  After all, he was a prominent man in Washington, Pennsylvania for many years.  There had to be a picture of him in a newspaper or archive somewhere.  So I tried Google.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find a photograph of Henry.  But what I found was amazing and did in fact give me a better picture of Henry.  The Jacob Radosh Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, had four entries for Schoenthal in its collection: three labeled Henry Schoenthal, one Hilda Schoenthal.   They were titled as papers, a biography, a diary, and a sermon.  I saw this the other evening and was excited, but had no idea how I could see these papers without going to Cincinnati.   So the next morning I called the Marcus Center and spoke to an extremely helpful man there named Joe.  Joe explained that they would scan all the pages of the documents for me for 25 cents a page and email them to me.  There were forty pages in total, and so in less than hour and for only ten dollars, I had the four files in my email.

The folder of Henry’s papers, which date from 1863 to 1866, are in German.  I am going to have to find someone to help me translate them.  But here’s one that confirms Henry’s  (then Heinemann) birth date and place and his father’s name; I think it is a certificate of his training to be a Jewish teacher at the seminary in Cassel, Germany:

Israelitische Lehrerbildungs for Henry Schoenthal Available at the Marcus Center, Cincinnati, Ohio

Israelitische Lehrerbildungs for Henry Schoenthal
Available at the Marcus Center, Cincinnati, Ohio


The biography is a one page biography of Henry Schoenthal written by his daughter Hilda in 1952.  Although much of it was information I already knew, it adds another dimension to this man, making him come to life for me.  I want to look first at the first section of that biography because it will provide greater background to the diary and to the sermon, the remaining two files I received.

Hilda Schoenthal, Biography of Henry Schoenthal dated January 16, 1952. Available at the Marcus Center, Cincinnati, Ohio

Hilda Schoenthal, Biography of Henry Schoenthal dated January 16, 1952. Available at the Marcus Center, Cincinnati, Ohio


Again, although I knew most of the facts reported here, it was wonderful to read it in words written by Henry’s own daughter. I didn’t know how he met his wife or that her father, Meyer Lilienfeld, was a cantor.  And I did not know that Henry was a shochet (kosher butcher) and a chazzan (cantor) as well as a teacher back in Germany.  I wish Hilda had expanded on the political and economic conditions that drove her father to emigrate.  And I found it interesting that Washington was considered somewhat of a center of culture and intellectual activity because of the presence of Washington and Jefferson College in the town. It also gave me a sense of Henry as someone interested in the life of the mind—someone who preferred selling books to students than selling clothing.


English: Western side of on the campus of in W...

Western side of McMillan Hall on the campus of Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. .. Built in 1793, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (Wikipedia)

The diary, which starts in 1866 when Henry arrived in America, starts out in German, but after the first several pages, Henry began to write in English and to use script which I can read.  Reading those pages was very moving, and I will share some of them below.  Thanks to my friend Matthias Steinke, I was able to get the initial pages translated into English.

The diary begins on July 10, 1866, just a few weeks after Henry had arrived in New York, and says that he had just arrived in Washington, PA, and was working for his cousin Jacob Goldsmith in his clothing store (for some reason “clothing store” is written in English).

Diary of Henry Schoenthal 1866-1868 Available at the Marcus Center, Cincinnati, Ohio

Diary of Henry Schoenthal 1866-1868
Available at the Marcus Center, Cincinnati, Ohio

By the next day he had written to his parents and sent them three gold dollars.  He did not receive his first letter from his parents until August 9th and immediately responded, sending them ten dollars in “greenbacks.”   On August 16th, he described a visit from the Democratic candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, Hiester Clymer, and the fanfare surrounding that.  Then there is a long entry about the some criminal activities going on in the town.  Most of the pages in German report on his correspondence with various people back home.

By January 1867, Henry was writing in fluent English.  Just six months in the US, and he was already comfortable with and even preferring to write in English.  I was impressed.  Much of what he continued to write about was his correspondence— naming those to whom he had written and those who had written to him.   This page, with several entries dated in April, 1867, I found particularly interesting.

Henry Schoenthal diary p 9


On Tuesday, April 12,  1867, Henry mentioned that he was beginning to give German lessons to some residents of the town.   On these pages, he also mentioned writing letters not only to his “dear parents” and sending them money, but also writing to his uncle Juda Hamberg from Breuna, who was his mother’s older brother, and to Helene and Recha Lilienfeld.  Helene would later become his wife, and there are numerous mentions of correspondence between Henry and the two Lilienfeld sisters.  On this page he also mentioned that he sent the Lilienfeld sisters his pictures.  I sure wish I could see a copy of those pictures.

Of greatest interest to me on this page, however, is Henry’s comment on Monday, April 22, that he went to Pittsburgh “last Friday and stayed there for the first two days of Passover.”  I was touched that Henry was making an effort to hold on to his traditions and heritage while alone without his parents and siblings nearby.  Of his family members already in the US in 1867, the only one likely to have been in Pittsburgh was Simon Goldsmith, widower of Fanny Schoenthal and thus Henry’s uncle by marriage.

Although Henry may have had his heart set on Helene (also called Helen) Lilienfeld, he was not sitting home.  He mentioned at the bottom of this page that in May 1867 he went to a show with a Miss Emma ? and a Mrs. Flora Conner (?) and did not get home until half past eleven.

One of my favorite diary entries also is dated in May 1867:

Henry SChoenthal diary p 10 A


Why do I like this entry?  Because it mentions my great-grandfather and by his original name, Isaac.  Henry referred to all his siblings by their original names.  Malchen was Amalie, Hannchen was Hannah.  Selig became Felix.  I also liked that Julius was listed, confirming once again that Julius Schoenthal was a sibling.  I imagine Henry writing all those names and looking at the pictures his “dear parents” had sent to him and being somewhat homesick.

But there was some news to alleviate that homesickness.  He mentioned on the next page that Malchen wanted to come to the United States.  He said that she was “anxious to come to this country and I expect to let her come by next fall.”  This seems to suggest that the decision was up to Henry, not his parents or his sister Malchen.  Was this about money?  Henry often mentioned sending money home to his family.

Henry Schoenthal diary p 10 B

But on June 18, Henry wrote that his sister Malchen and brother Simon “intend to come over here next fall,” so perhaps he really did not have control over their decisions to emigrate.

Henry Schoenthal diary p 11


Although Henry was continuing to correspond with “dear Helene” and her sister, he was also exchanging pictures with a Miss Therese Libenfeld in Frankfort and teaching German to several young women in Washington.

On September 9, 1867, Henry reported that he had received a letter from his parents informing him that his brother and sister, Simon and Malchen, had left Bremen on August 17 to sail on the ship SS Watchen.  This is consistent with the ship manifest I found for Simon and Amalie, which has them arriving in New York on September 23, 1867.  The only inconsistency is that the ship manifest record states that the ship was named Wagen, not Watchen.  Close enough.

Henry Schoenthal diary p 13

After that the diary peters out with very few entries between September 1867 and February 1868, the date of the last entry.  My guess is that Henry was busy with his siblings, helping them to adjust to the new country, and perhaps less in need of keeping track of his correspondence.

The very last entry, dated February 24, 1868, records a piece of US history.  Henry wrote: “The House of Representatives just resolved to impeach President Andrew Johnson.”  Unfortunately Henry expressed no opinion or reaction to this occurrence.  Was it upsetting to him? How did he feel about American democracy?  I wish I knew.

Henry Schoenthal diary p 14


I loved reading the diary.  Although it is not terribly intimate or revealing in its content, I can imagine this young man in his early 20s sitting down to keep track of everyone from back home with whom he corresponded.  The fact that the diary ends shortly after the arrival of his sister and brother make me think that the diary’s purpose had at that point been served.  Henry now had some of his family with him and no longer needed the ritual of the diary to help him feel connected.

Returning to Hilda’s biography of her father and her description of his life after 1868:

Hilda bio of Henry Schoenthal p 2

I found Hilda’s final paragraph particularly interesting:

HIlda bio of Henry Schoenthal p 3

This was not the image I had of Henry from the documents I’d found or even the newspaper articles.  Henry wasn’t just a successful businessperson.  He was a committed Jew working hard to create and maintain a Jewish community in this small town in western Pennsylvania.  He was still a teacher many years after leaving Trendelburg, Germany, a man interested in books and students and Jewish traditions.  Now I see a whole new dimension to this man who was my great-great-uncle.

The remaining file that I obtained from the Marcus Center was the so-called sermon. For me, this was the most exciting document of all.  The sermon was written by Henry in 1912, three years after he had moved away from Washington to live near his son Lionel in New York City, as mentioned by Hilda.  Henry was by this time almost 70 years old.  From what I can infer, the sermon or speech was to a fraternal organization in Washington given on the occasion of Henry’s return to Washington for a visit.  I will quote the portions I found most touching and most revealing:

Henry Schoenthal 1912 Sermon p 1

He wrote:

I love to come back to Washington to revisit the scenes of my early manhood. For to this place I had come a stranger and you had taken me in.  Here I have spent the greater portion of my years and Washington has been my real home.  To this place I had brought my bride and here my children were born and educated.  Here I made many, many friends and possibly a few enemies.  Here I have lived many happy days and my full share of the other kind.  The latter I have forgotten long ago, the former are ever present in my memory and help to brighten and to make happy the declining days of my years.

Henry Schoenthal 1912 sermon p 2

I do not know whether I shall pass this way again, for the shades of evening are lengthening and the goal may not be very far off.  I gratefully acknowledge that God has been very gracious unto me and that he has blessed me beyond my merits.  He has guided me with a father’s hand to reach and to pass safely the 3 score and ten of which the Psalmist has spoken, and if it should be his holy will to grant me another short space of years, I may even reach the limit of four scores.

Henry Schoenthal Sermon 1912 p 3

Henry Schoenthal 1912 sermon p 4

But whether this should be the last time it is destined for me to have the happiness to meet with you, you may rest assured that I shall always remember this evening, that I shall never forget the courtesy you have shown, the friendship and the fraternal feelings you have extended to me.  And I shall always pray for your happiness and in parting I shall bless you, bless you not in my own words, but the in the words of the High Priest of old when he stood before the assembled multitudes stretching forth his hand and pronouncing the words:

May the Lord bless you and keep you!

May the Lord cause his light to shine upon you and be gracious unto you!

May the Lord turn his face unto you and grant you peace, now and forever more.  Amen!

I admit that my eyes well up with tears every time I read and re-read these words. I am moved by so much of what he said here: his attachment to Washington, PA, as his home, a place that had welcomed a very young man in 1866 and given him a safe place to settle and work.  He mentioned good times and bad, but overall his memories of this place are filled with love for the people he knew there.  I feel his love for this place and for the people and his joy in being there and the sadness he feels in leaving it and perhaps not being able to return another time.  We all have those feelings about places we have lived–whether it is a childhood home, a college campus, a first apartment.  We move on, but a piece of our heart remains behind.

I am also moved by the beauty of his writing.  It’s hard to believe that English was not his first language, as with my cousin Lotte.  Henry’s writing is so poetic, so evocative.  I read it with wonder.

And then Henry closed with the traditional priestly blessing read even today in Jewish prayer services and used as a blessing on many occasions in Jewish life. A blessing we said to our own daughters on Friday nights when they were children.  A blessing that Jews have said and shared for centuries.  I am moved knowing that my ancestor shared in this tradition as well.

Henry had left the seminary, but that experience had never left him.  He remained, as his daughter said, committed to his heritage and proud of it.  He remained a religious man.

Finding these papers was another one of many highlights in my continuing search for the story of my ancestors.  They inspire me to keep looking for more and to keep telling the stories.  Henry Schoenthal wanted history and traditions to continue, and I want his story to live on as well.




Number Thirteen, the Caboose: Abraham Cohen 1866-1944

Caboose 995 at the Transportation Museum.

Caboose 995 at the Transportation Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of the thirteen children born to my great-great-grandparents Jacob and Sarah Cohen, only one was still alive in 1928.  He was also the only one to live through not only the 1930s, but into the 1940s as well.  He was one of only three to live into his seventies and the only one to live past 75 years old.  He was also the last born, the baby of the family, Abraham.  Like all his siblings, he had a life that had plenty of heartbreak.

Abraham was born on March 29, 1866.  His oldest sibling, Fanny, was twenty years old when he was born and was married that same year.  Joseph, his oldest brother, was married two years later.  But in 1870 Abraham had ten older siblings still living in his household at 136 South Street.  His first real heartbreak occurred when he was thirteen and his mother Sarah died in 1879.  Fortunately he still had six siblings living at home as well as his father. By the time he was fourteen in 1880, he was already working in his father Jacob’s store.

On February 9, 1886, Abraham married Sallie McGonigal, daughter of James and Sarah McGonigal, in Camden, New Jersey.  Their first child, Sallie, was born in 1886.  I do not have a birth record for her, but sadly, I do have her death certificate.  Sallie died on November 1, 1892, when she was six and a half years old from scarlet fever. She was buried in at Old Cathedral Catholic Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Sallie Cohen death certificate

Sallie Cohen death certificate

Assuming that the child Sallie was born then in April or May, 1886, either she was born very premature or Sallie was already pregnant when they married. Abraham and Sallie would both have been only twenty when they married, although their marriage record listed their birth years as 1864, not 1866.  I am speculating here, but since they were married out of state and under age and since it seems likely that Sallie was pregnant and since Sallie was apparently Catholic and Abraham was Jewish, I am going to venture a guess that their parents did not approve of the relationship.

But Abraham and Sallie’s marriage survived.  They had a second child, Leslie Joseph Cohen, who was born on May 20, 1889.[1] In December, 1891, they had a third child, Ethel, who only lived four weeks.  She died from convulsions on January 27, 1892.

Ethel Cohen death certificate

Ethel Cohen death certificate

Then ten months later, they lost Sallie to scarlet fever. Sometime after those deaths, the family moved from where they had been living at 622 Annapolis Street to 707 Wharton Street, where they remained for many years.

The young couple weathered those terrible tragedies and had a fourth child, Raymond, on February 15, 1894.  He died eight months later from gastroenteritis and was also buried in Old Cathedral Catholic Cemetery with his sisters Sallie and Ethel.

Raymond Cohen death certificate

Raymond Cohen death certificate

In the space of just over two years Abraham and Sallie had lost three young children.  Three years later, Abraham and Sallie lost another male baby to premature birth on October 11, 1897; he was stillborn.  Interestingly, that baby was buried at Mt Zion cemetery.  Would a Catholic cemetery not accept a stillborn baby?

Stillborn baby Cohen death certificate

Stillborn baby Cohen death certificate

In 1900, Abraham, Sallie and their one surviving child, Leslie, were still living at 707 Wharton Street, and Abraham was working as …. a pawnbroker, of course.

Abraham Cohen and family 1900 census

Abraham Cohen and family 1900 census

Unless I missed the birth and death of other children, it seems that after not having any children for over ten years, Abraham and Sallie had one more baby.  Arthur was born on December 9, 1907, according to the Pennsylvania birth index. Assuming that Sallie was born in 1866, she was over 40 years old when he was born.  In the 1910 census, Abraham, Sallie, Leslie, and Arthur were all living at 2433 North 17th Street; in addition, Sallie’s sister, Mary McGonigal, was living with them as well as a servant whose duties were described as “nurse girl.”  I assume she was taking care of Arthur.  Abraham was still working as a pawnbroker.  Leslie was nineteen and an apprentice machinist.  Arthur was two years old.

Abraham Cohen 1910 census

Abraham Cohen 1910 census

In 1917 Leslie registered for the draft.  He was working as a machinist at Remington Arms in Eddystone, Pennsylvania, where his Aunt Hannah’s husband, Martin Wolf, was also employed during that period.

Leslie Cohen World War I draft registration

Leslie Cohen World War I draft registration


Leslie served in the military from 1917 to 1919, according to one record.[2]  He served in Aero Squadron 490, as seen on his headstone below.  I was able to track down a detailed five page document from Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-1919,  describing the service of  Leslie’s squadron during World War I by using the website.

490 Squadron report, p. 1

490 Squadron report, p. 1

I cannot capture all the details of his squadron’s service, but in brief, the squadron trained in San Antonio, Texas; they then traveled by train and boat from there to Long Island City in New York to await their orders to ship overseas.   They received those orders and shipped out of New York to England on November 22, 1917.

leslie service partial quote

The report details the rather uncomfortable conditions the men encountered while traveling from New York to Halifax to Liverpool, England over a sixteen day period, although they did not face any danger from enemy forces while traveling.  They arrived in Liverpool on December 8, 1917, and then left for France on December 13, 1917, where they were first stationed at Saint Maixent and then at Romorantin.  In both locations, the squadron was engaged in building barracks and other buildings for the soldiers.  They also built over sixteen miles of railroad.  The report described in detail the facilities at their second location and the work that was done.  It ends after the Armistice was signed, saying that the squadron was awaiting their orders to return to the United States.  Leslie J. Cohen is listed three times in the course of the report on the roster of men who served with the 490 Squadron, including on the final page shown below.

Leslie J. Cohen on roster

Leslie J. Cohen on roster

(M990;Publication Title: Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-1919
Publisher: NARA
National Archives Catalog ID: 631392
National Archives Catalog Title: Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, compiled 07/05/1917 – 08/31/1919, documenting the period 05/26/1917 – 03/31/1919
Record Group: 120
Short Description: NARA M990. Historical narratives, reports, photographs, and other records that document administrative, technical, and tactical activities of the Air Service in the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I.
Roll: 0021
Series: E
Series Description: Squadron Histories)

Back home in Philadelphia, Abraham’s wife  Sallie died on March 14, 1919, and surprisingly was buried not with her children at Old Cathedral Catholic Cemetery, but at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania. The family was residing at 5926 Cobbs Creek Parkway when she died, which was only a mile from Holy Cross Cemetery; nevertheless, Cathedral Cemetery, where so many of her children were buried, was only three miles away.  I wonder why she was not buried with her children.  Sallie died from influenza, pneumonia and bronchitis.  This was the time of the deady Spanish flu epidemic that killed millions of people worldwide.  Sally was about  fifty years old when she died, and her son Arthur was only eleven years old.

Sallie McGonigal Cohen death certificate 1919

Sallie McGonigal Cohen death certificate 1919

As of January 10, 1920, when the next census was taken, Abraham, now a widower, was still living at 5926 Cobbs Creek Parkway with his sons Leslie and Arthur, his sister-in-law Mary McGonigal, and a servant.  Abraham was still a pawnbroker; Leslie was a machinist in the shipyard, having returned from military service.  Arthur was in school.

Sometime later in 1920, Abraham married Elizabeth Beisswagner Grady, whose husband Robert Grady had died in 1918 and, interestingly, is also buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania.  Had Abraham met her at the cemetery? At the church? Elizabeth had several children from her first marriage, though all would have been adults by 1920.  Abraham was 54 when they married, Elizabeth was 46.

In 1927, Leslie reenlisted in the army, and on the 1930 census he is listed as a soldier in the US Army, stationed at Fort Hancock in Middletown Township, New Jersey.  He served from August 23, 1927 until August 22, 1930, when he was honorably discharged.

Leslie Cohen 1930 census

Leslie Cohen 1930 census

In the 1931 directory for the city of Richmond, Virginia, Leslie is listed with his wife Emma L. and was employed as a machinist.  Thus, sometime between the date of the 1930 census and the date of the Richmond directory, he had gotten married and moved to Richmond. He was later admitted to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Virginia on October 24, 1932, and released on February 3, 1933.  I cannot tell from the record why he was admitted or why he stayed for over three months in the hospital.  The hospital record also indicated that he was married to an Elizabeth L. Cohen (presumably a mistake; other records corroborate that her name was Emma), living in Washington, DC.

Leslie Cohen VA Hospital record

Leslie Cohen VA Hospital record

Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, Abraham, Elizabeth, and Arthur were living at 5530 Walnut Street according to the 1930 census.  Abraham was still working as a pawnbroker, and Arthur was working as a porter at a gas station.  Abraham, who was now 64 years old, had outlived all his siblings at this point as well as his first wife and several of his children.  I find it interesting that neither of his two sons became pawnbrokers, given the Cohen family’s overall involvement in that industry.

Abraham’s second wife Elizabeth died on August 4, 1939, from heart disease.  They had been living on Spruce Street, where Abraham is listed as living alone on the 1940 census.  He was still working as a pawnbroker at age 74.  Elizabeth was buried with her first husband Robert Grady at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon.

Abraham died on April 29, 1944, when he was 78 years old.  He also was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon with his first wife Sallie.  His death certificate was subject to a coroner’s inquest for some reason, but the inquest found that he died from arteriosclerosis.

Abraham death certificate 1944

Abraham death certificate 1944

abraham cohen amended death cert


The only strange thing about his death certificate is the description of his occupation: elevator operator.  After a lifelong career as a pawnbroker, why would Abraham have become an elevator operator?  The informant on his death certificate was Bernard Sluizer, Abraham’s brother-in-law, the widower of Abraham’s sister Elizabeth. Bernard would die just four months later.  Why would Bernard have been the informant? Well, all of Abraham’s siblings had died many years earlier, as had all their spouses except for Bernard and Jonas’ wife Sarah. Leslie was living in Richmond, Virginia.  I don’t know where Arthur was at that time.

Leslie and his wife Emma continued to live in Richmond, Virginia during the 1930s and 1940s.  According to the 1940 census, Emma was almost twenty years older than Leslie.  She is reported to have been 67 in 1940 while he was 48.  Leslie also appears never to have returned to his skilled position as a machinist.  On various Richmond directories throughout this period, his occupation is described as a helper, one time specifying at a Blue Plate Foods.  It is obviously hard to make too many inferences, but given his hospitalization and his low skilled employment afterward, it would seem that Leslie might have been disabled in some way after his second service in the army.   Leslie died on May 13, 1966, and is buried at Fort Harrison National Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

Leslie Joseph Cohen headstone

As for Arthur, I just am not sure.  There were two Arthur Cohens living in the Philadelphia area who were born in Pennsylvania in or about 1907, according to the 1940 census.  Both were married. One was working as a manager in a bottling company, the other as a mechanic in a garage.  Since Arthur was working in a gas station in 1930, I am inclined to think that it is more likely that he was the second Arthur, who was married to a woman named Claire.  They were living in Upper Darby, a Philadelphia suburb in 1940, but had been living in Philadelphia in 1935, according to the 1940 census.  If this is the right Arthur Cohen, it seems that he and Claire moved out to California at some point, living in Burbank in the 1970s and 1980s, and then to Las Vegas thereafter where Claire died on June 11, 1998.  I am still not positive I have the correct Arthur, so will continue to look for more records or documents to corroborate my hunch.

Thus, there are some loose ends here.  I don’t know the full story of Leslie and his wife Emma, but if the ages on the 1940 census are correct, it seems very unlikely that there were any children.  Arthur’s story is even more unfinished.  Without a marriage record or a death certificate, it’s impossible to be sure that I have found the right person.  I also do not have any idea whether Arthur had children.

Looking back over Abraham’s life is painful.  He lost so much—his mother when he was just 13, his father nine years later, and all his siblings between 1911 and 1927.    Three of his children died when they were very young, and he outlived two wives.  One son had moved away to Richmond, Virginia, possibly disabled in some way.  The other one seems to have disappeared or moved out west at some point.  I have this sad image of Abraham as a man in his seventies, living alone, working as an elevator operator, and having only his brother-in-law Bernard Sluizer around as his family (and perhaps many nieces and nephews as well).

I hope I am wrong.


That brings to an end, for now, the long story of the thirteen children of Jacob and Sarah Cohen, my great-great-grandparents.  I will reflect on what I’ve learned about them and try and synthesize it all in my next post.






[1]   Leslie’s birth year changed from record to record.  Sometimes it was 1891, sometimes 1892, sometimes 1893.  The record closest to his birth year was the 1900 census, which indicated that he was then 11 years old, giving him a birth year of 1889.  However, on the 1910 census, his age was 19, meaning he was born in 1891.  His two draft registrations also vary.  His headstone says 1892.  They all say his birthday was May 20, regardless of the year.

[2] U.S. National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2007.

Original data: Historical Register of National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1749, 282 rolls); Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

My Ancestor was a Chut: More on Dutch and English Jews

The Chuts” Synagogue Sandy’s Row London

After I wrote my last post saying I was going to put aside for now any attempt to find my four times great-grandfather’s family in Holland, I decided to look more generally into the question of why a Dutch Jew would have emigrated from Holland to England in the late 18th century.  After all, life seemed to be pretty good for the Jews in Amsterdam at that point.  They had acquired full legal rights as citizens, many were comfortable both socially and economically, and England was in fact still forty years away from giving Jews the same legal rights as Christian residents.  Why would someone have left Amsterdam to move to London?

Su Leslie of Shaking the Tree mentioned in a comment that she had seen some episodes of the British version of Who Do You Think You Are involving famous British Jews and recalled that there had been discussion of an immigration of Jews from Holland to England in the late 18th century.  I decided to search on line for more information and learned that there was in fact a whole community of Dutch Jews who settled in London during that time.  My research led me to several websites discussing this community, including the Bishopsgate Institute website describing a recent oral history project about this community being sponsored by the Institute and created under the direction of Rachel Lichtenstein, a well-known writer and artist.  According to this site:

The oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in London, Sandys Row in Spitalfields, was established by Dutch Jewish immigrants in 1854, who began arriving in the city from the 1840s onwards. They came in search of a better life, rather than fleeing persecution like the thousands of Ashkenazi Jews who came after them in the 1880s from the Pale of Settlements.  Mostly from Amsterdam, many settled in a small quarter of narrow streets in Spitalfields known as the Tenterground. Here they continued to practise the trades they had bought with them from Holland, which were predominately cigar making, diamond cutting and polishing, and slipper and cap making. Many small workshops were established in the area and businesses were passed on within generations of families.

With their own practises and customs, many of which were different from other Ashkenazi Jewish groups, they became a distinctive, tight knit community of about a thousand people. To the frustration of the more established Anglo-Jewish population living in the area at the time, ‘the Chuts’ (as they were known locally) refused to join any of the existing synagogues…

Sandys Row Synagogue

Sandys Row Synagogue (Photo credit: FarzanaL)

So my four times great grandfather Hart Levy Cohen was a Chut—a term I’d never heard before and a community I’d never known about before.  Other sites confirmed this information and also provided some other details.  Wikipedia provided this explanation for the name “Chuts.”

The origin of the name Chuts is uncertain. A popular assumption is that it derives from the Dutch word goed (meaning “good”) and is imitative of the foreign-language chatter that others heard. It is also Hebrew חוץ for “outside” or “in the street” and may have been applied to the Dutch Jews of London either because they were socially isolated or because many were street vendors. Another possibility is that the Hebrew word would have appeared increasingly in Amsterdam synagogue records as more and more emigrated to London, and others who followed would have “gone chuts” (i.e., emigrated).

Sandys Row Synagogue, London

Sandys Row Synagogue, London (Photo credit: nicksarebi)

The About Jewishness website revealed where in London the Chuts lived:

They settled mostly in a small system of streets in Spitalfields known as the Tenterground, formerly an enclosed area where Flemish weavers stretched and dried cloth on machines called tenters (hence the expression “on tenterhooks”). By the 19th century, the site had been built upon with housing, but remained an enclave where the Dutch immigrants lived as a close-knit and generally separate community. Demolished and rebuilt during the twentieth century, the area is now bounded by White’s Row, Wentworth Street, Bell Lane and Toynbee Street (formerly Shepherd Street).

I looked up these streets on the map of London and was not surprised that this area is very close to New Goulston Street where my ancestors were living in 1841.

The About Jewishness site also provided some insight into what happened to this community and perhaps why my ancestors left London and moved to the US.  According to this site, “the successful introduction of machinery for the mass-production of cigarettes ultimately led to the collapse of the cigar-making economy on which the Chuts community depended. Many Chuts returned to improved conditions in Amsterdam, some emigrated further afield to places such as Australia and the USA, some assimilated into other Jewish families, and some eventually lost their Jewish identity altogether.”

In addition, the huge influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century caused tensions between the older established Chuts community and the newer immigrants, most of whom were poor, not as well skilled, and not used to living in a big city.  Interestingly, the Chuts community had traditions and practices that made them different both from the older Sephardic community and from the newer Eastern European Ashkenazi community.  Again, from the About Jewishness site:

[T]he Chuts were treated with suspicion by other Jews because the former had developed specific customs and practices, many of their families having lived in Amsterdam since the first synagogues were established there in the early years of the 17th century. Uniquely in Amsterdam, Ashkenazim (so-called “German Jews”) and Sephardim (so-called “Spanish Jews”) lived in close proximity for centuries, resulting in a cultural blend not found elsewhere. Most remarkably, the Dutch Jews were well accustomed to the sea, and ate seafoods considered not kosher by other Jewish communities.

From this information, it seems reasonable to infer a couple of things.  First, it seems that despite the fact that the Amsterdam Jewish community was fairly well-established, there must have been those, my ancestor Hart among them, who believed that there was greater opportunity for financial success in London.  These Dutch Jews decided to emigrate in order to achieve greater economic security.  Secondly, it seems that at some point many of those Dutch Jews either left or assimilated into the greater Jewish or non-Jewish society.  Some may have left because economic conditions were not as good as they had hoped; others may have left because as a “Chut,” they were not well integrated into the world of London’s Jews.  With different traditions, different practices, different synagogues, they may have felt isolated and disrespected.  I don’t know specifically what motivated my ancestors first to leave Amsterdam and then to leave London, but I’d imagine it was a combination of these factors.

Once again I am finding out new things about my own history and about Jewish history by doing genealogy.  I never knew about the Chuts, and I certainly never knew I was descended from one.  I have written to Rachel Lichtenstein to learn more about her project and will report back with whatever else I learn.

Also, in researching more about the Dutch Jews in general, I came across a genealogy blog I’d not seen before written by Kerry Farmer called Family History Research.  Kerry had a post from two years ago about searching for a Dutch Jewish ancestor using information she was able to obtain from a book compiling information about marriages performed at the Great Synagogue in London, Harold and Miriam Lewin’s Marriage Records of the Great Synagogue- London 1791-1885.  I was very excited when I read this post and contacted Kerry, who generously looked up Hart Levy Cohen and Rachel Jacobs’ wedding for me in the Lewin book.  She was able to provide me with the information she found there:

(Groom) Cohen Hart Levy

(Groom’s father) Leib Katz

(Groom’s patronymic) Hertz b. Leib Katz

(Groom’s address) Not listed

(Bride) Jacobs Rachel

(Bride’s father) Yaakov

(Bride’s patronymic) Rechel b. Yaakov

She also suggested that I contact the owners of the Akevoth site to see if this additional information would help in locating the records of my ancestors, and I have done that.  Now I will wait to see if they can provide any further assistance.

So yesterday I was ready to put aside the search for my Dutch ancestors, and then, with the help of Su Leslie and Kerry Farmer, I was able to make some progress in understanding who they were and why they left Amsterdam and why they left London.  Once again I am humbled by and grateful for the generosity of the genealogy community.  Su and Kerry are from New Zealand and Australia, respectively, and they have helped me in my search to find a Dutch Jew who lived in England and moved to America.  What a small world it is when you find such wonderful, helpful and knowledgeable people.



Enhanced by Zemanta

Hart Levy Cohen and A Very Brief History of Jews in London

In my research so far, Hart Levy Cohen is the earliest verified ancestor I have found.  There are some others on other lines on my father’s side that are earlier, but not yet verified.  But I am quite certain that Hart was my three-times great grandfather based on the census reports I have been able to locate in both English and American records.

The earliest reference I have to Hart is a transcription of his wedding record from the Great Synagogue of London. I found this on a website called Synagogue Scribes, which provides a free, searchable database of transcriptions of the information from marriage and other records from the Ashkenazi synagogues in London.  According to this site, Hart Levy Cohen, whose Hebrew name was Hirts and whose father’s Hebrew name was Leib, married Rachel Jacobs on January 29, 1812.  I was thrilled when I first found this record because it provided me with not only my three-times great grandmother’s name, but also because it revealed my four-times great-grandfather’s first name.  It also revealed that by 1812 Hart was living in England.[1]

The Great Synagogue of London: This engraving ...

The Great Synagogue of London

The earliest actual record I have for Hart is the 1841 English census, which lists Hart, his wife Rachael (sp?), and four of his children, Elizabeth, Moses, John and Jacob.[2]  Jacob was my great-great grandfather. According to the census, Hart was then 65 years old, giving him a birth year of 1776.  Rachel was 55, giving her a birth year of 1786.  Elizabeth and Moses were both listed as twenty years old, Jacob was 15, and John was 14.  All of the children were listed as born in England, but Rachel and Hart were listed as foreign born.  Hart’s occupation was described as “Ind’t,” meaning he was of independent means, and Moses and Jacob were both described as china dealers.

Hart Cohen and family 1841 English census

Hart Cohen and family 1841 English census

The family was residing on New Goulston Street in the St. Mary Whitechapel parish of Middlesex County in East London.  Scanning through the names and occupations of other residents of that street and nearby streets, I noticed that many of the names were Jewish and that many of the residents were merchants of some sort or tradespeople.  I knew nothing about the history of Jews in London, and thus studying this census led me to research that history in order to learn more about the neighborhood where my ancestors lived in the early 19th century.  That, in turn, led me to read more about the history of Jews in England overall and specifically in London.

Although I cannot do justice to the long and complicated history of the Jews in England here, a very brief overview may suffice.  According to a number of sources, Jews had first settled in England during the reign of William I in the 11th century, but were expelled from England in 1290 by an edict of King Edward I, and there was no Jewish community thereafter until the 17th century when a community of Sephardic Jews from Spain arrived, although many of these Jews hid their religious identities.  Eventually for political and economic reasons, the English acquiesced in the growth of the Jewish community, although there was still a great deal of anti-Semitism.  Jews were not allowed to be citizens and were denied many of the legal rights of non-Jewish English citizens.

In the 18th century, the Sephardic community grew both in size and in wealth and became quite successful, but Jews were still denied full legal rights.  There was a short lived naturalization law passed in 1754 to enable Jewish men to become citizens, but it was repealed one year later due to widespread popular opposition.  It was not until 1833 that Jewish men were emancipated and given full legal rights as English citizens.

Meanwhile, there was also a growing Ashkenazi community during the 18th and 19th centuries, referred to as “Dutch Jews.”  My three-times great grandfather Hart Levy Cohen would have been one of those Dutch Jews, probably arriving at the end of the 18th century.   According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “the bulk of the Ashkenazic community consisted of petty traders and hawkers, not to speak of the followers of more disreputable occupations.”  They settled in East London in the parish of Whitechapel, as did my ancestor Hart.  Whitechapel in the 1840s was described in Wikipedia as “classic “Dickensian” London, with problems of poverty and overcrowding.”

It would appear from the 1841 census listing, however, that Hart and his family were not among those poor.  Hart appears to have been retired, and his two sons were china dealers.  Perhaps their particular section of Whitechapel was not as poor as other sections.  For example, their street was very close to the Petticoat Market, a clothing manufacturing center that catered to the well-to-do of London.

File:Thomas Rowlandson - Rag Fair or Rosemary Lane - Google Art Project.jpg

Petticoat Market in the early 19th century

UPDATE:  Thanks to the help of my fellow blogger Su Leslie from Shaking the Tree, another of my very favorite genealogy blogs, I was able to find a map prepared by Charles Booth in the late 19th century that shows street by street the economic standing of the residents.  He rated each street on a seven level scale from poorest to upper class.  New Goulston Street appears to be purple on his map, meaning it was a mixed neighborhood with some poor residents and some comfortable residents.  That also seems consistent with my scan of the census of their street.

Charles Booth poverty map of London, New Goulston Street marked in center,181427.0

In the later part of the 19th century, there was a tremendous influx of poor European Jewish immigrants to London, just as there was in New York and other American cities, coming to escape the oppression, violence and poverty in East Europe. There was also a large immigration of poor people from Ireland during this same period. The Whitechapel neighborhood became even more poverty-stricken, and crime became rampant, including widespread prostitution.  It was also during this period that Jack the Ripper, the serial killer, committed a string of murders and caused widespread terror.

By this time, however, most of my Cohen relatives had left England and come to the United States.  Only two of Hart’s six children remained in England by 1860.  Why did they leave? And why did Hart come to England from Holland in the first place? Those are questions that I want to answer if I can as I dig more deeply into my Cohen ancestors.




[1] I also thought I had found earlier records for Hart in tax records from 1798, but I now think that those records were for a different person because I found a record dated 1768 at the same address, also for a man named Hart Cohen.  These records require deeper investigation.


[2] There were six children altogether.  Lewis and Jonah are not accounted for on this census.  Lewis would have been 21, so perhaps was not living at home, but I have not yet found him elsewhere.  Jonah would have been 12, so I cannot account for the fact that he is not listed, except to note that this was the first English attempt for a comprehensive census and undoubtedly mistakes were made.


Enhanced by Zemanta

My Father’s Family, Part I: The Cohens

My surname is Cohen, and it always has been.  I have always been proud to be a Cohen.  It is a clear marker to the outside world that I am Jewish.  Because I grew up in a secular home and did not go to Hebrew School like almost all my Jewish classmates, some of them expressed skepticism about whether I was “really” Jewish, but my name always gave me some authenticity.

The Cohens (Cohanim) are the high priests, a line that is supposed to descend from Aaron, Moses’ older brother.  Observant Orthodox Jews who are Cohanim do not go into cemeteries or attend a funeral or touch a dead body in order to maintain their priestly purity.  In a traditional service, there is a special ritual where the Cohanim bless the congregation.  Cohanim get the first aliyah for the reading of the Torah.

Birkhat cohanim 4

Birkhat cohanim 4 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although I do not believe in any of the “special holiness” of the Cohen tribe and in fact am not even sure my family are true Cohanim, I do feel proud to have the name and some of the tradition and history that goes along with it.  It was one reason that I did not change my name when I got married.  I wanted to remain a Cohen—it was my name, it was my family’s name, and it was my ancestors’ name.

So perhaps it is not surprising that one of my first genealogical tasks was to trace the Cohen line.  It was fairly easy to get as far back as my great-great-great-grandfather Hart Levy Cohen, who was born around 1772 in Amsterdam and emigrated to England as a young man.  The English records and then the American records on my Cohen line were clear and easy to find through, and thus within a short period of time I was able to create a tree that went from Hart Levy Cohen to Jacob Cohen, my great-great-grandfather, to Emanuel Cohen, my great-grandfather, to John Nusbaum Cohen, my grandfather, to John Nusbaum Cohen, Jr., my father, to me.  I have census reports going back as early as 1841 in England and 1850 in the United States as well as tax records and a marriage record from England.  I have the names of Hart’s children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren and so on.  I compiled a lot of information very quickly, but now I need to go back and learn from all those documents and see what I can find out about Hart Levy Cohen and all his descendants and also to see if I can find his ancestors from Amsterdam and before.

This research will require learning about English records and census reports and also about Pennsylvania records.  From the little bit of initial work I’ve done this week, I already know that it will be more difficult to obtain Pennsylvania records than New York City records.  There is not much online and not much available through the Family History Library.  Most of it will require snail mail requests or traveling to places that are not as accessible to me as New York City.  I do not foresee traveling to Harrisburg in the near future, so it may require hiring someone there to retrieve documents for me.  And as for the English records, well, a trip to London sounds a lot more fun than a trip to Harrisburg, but I don’t think it’s too likely either.

So I have a big learning curve ahead.  I am up for the challenge and ready to learn more about my Cohen relatives and about genealogical research.  I will start by posting what I already know, and then I will fill in the details as I learn more.

Meanwhile, I will also continue to look for more information about the Brotmans, the Goldschlagers, and the Rosenzweigs.  Tomorrow I hope to talk to David Goldschlager’s son and grandson and maybe learn more about the Goldschlagers. I am still hoping to work with Larry Brotman about a Brotmanville connection.  I am still hoping to hear from my cousin Lois about her family and Lizzie and Ray Rosenzweig.  I have written to descendants of Ray Strolowitz Adler and Zusi Rosenzweig Mintz, and I hope to hear back from them.  So at the moment I am depending on these others to help me break down the brick walls that remain on my mother’s side.  Without their help, I am at an impasse for now, but will keep on looking for any and all clues.


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

Passover wishes and thoughts


Passover Seder Plate

Passover Seder Plate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


As we approach the first night of Passover on Monday evening, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed, as I usually am this time of year.  There is the cleaning, shopping, cooking, and all the other details that go into preparing the house for Passover and for the seder.  I am also feeling torn because there are so many things I want to do in connection with my research and the blog.  I have lots of photos to scan and post, both from my Brotman relatives and my Rosenzweig relatives, stories that need to be written, documents to request, people to contact.  But I do not have time.  So while the kugel is baking and before I start turning over the dishes and pots and pans for the holiday, I thought I’d take a few minutes to ponder what Passover means to me this year.


Passover was once my favorite holiday of the year.  I loved the seder because as a child, it was my only formal exposure to Jewish history and Jewish rituals.  I grew up in a secular home.  We did not belong to a synagogue, I did not go to Hebrew school, and there were no bar or bat mitzvahs celebrated in our family when we were children.  It was just fine with me, but I was also very curious about what it meant to be Jewish.  Passover gave me a taste of what being Jewish meant and could mean.  My Uncle Phil, my Aunt Elaine’s husband, had grown up in a traditional Jewish home, and although he was not terribly religious either, he wanted to have a seder.


So every year we had a seder, first only at my aunt’s house, and then my mother started doing a second seder at our house.  My uncle, the only one who knew Hebrew, would chant all the blessings and sing all the songs, and the rest we would read in English from the Haggadah for the American Family (not Maxwell House).  I was enchanted—I loved the music, the stories and all the rituals. I looked forward to it every year.



As an adult, I began my own exploration of what it means to be Jewish.  I married a man from a traditional family, and he wanted to keep the traditions and rituals that were part of his childhood.  I also wanted to learn more and do more.  I took classes, I read, I got involved with the synagogue, and over time the Jewish holidays and rituals and prayers and services became second nature to me and provided me with meaning and comfort and joy.

Passover has become just one small part of my Jewish life and identity now, and over time, it has lost its magic.  It no longer is my favorite holiday of the year.  The matzoh gives me indigestion, the chore of changing the dishes and pots and pans has become tiresome, and the seder is so familiar that it no longer feels fresh and new and exciting.


If I look at it through my grandson’s eyes, I can feel some of that old excitement, but he is still too young to ask questions or to understand the stories.  He just likes the songs and looking for the afikomen and being with his family, which is more than enough for now.  This picture, one of my favorite pictures ever, captures some of that feeling.  From generation to generation, traditions are being preserved.

L'dor v'dor  Harvey and Nate

L’dor v’dor Harvey and Nate


But this Passover I will try to take the time to think about things a little differently.  I will think not just about Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and going from slavery to freedom.  I will think about all my maternal ancestors who made their own Exodus by leaving poverty and oppression and prejudice and war in Romania and Galicia to come to the place where they hoped to find streets lined with gold.


I will think of my grandfather Isadore, the first Goldschlager to come, leading the way for his father, his mother, his sister and his brother.  I will think of how he traveled under his brother David’s name to escape from the army and come to America.


I will think of his aunt, Zusi Rosenzweig, who met him at the boat at Ellis Island.  I will think of his uncle Gustave Rosenzweig, who was the first Rosenzweig to come to the United States back in about 1888, with his wife Gussie and infant daughter Lillie, a man who stood up for his extended family on several occasions. And I will think of his aunt Tillie Rosenzweig Strolowitz, who came to the US with her husband and her children, who lost her husband shortly after they arrived in the US.  I will remember how she took in my grandfather and his sister Betty when their father, Moritz, died, and their own mother and brother David had not yet arrived.


And I will think about my great-grandfather Joseph Brotman, who came here alone in about 1888 from Galicia, whose sons Abraham and David from his first marriage came next, and whose son Max as just a ten year old boy may have traveled to America all alone.  I will think of Bessie, my great-grandmother for whom I am named, who brought two small children, Hyman and Tillie, on that same trip a few years later, and who had three more children with Joseph between 1891 when she arrived and 1901, when Joseph died.  The first of those three children was my grandmother Gussie Brotman, who married my grandfather Isadore Goldschlager after he spotted her on Pacific Street while visiting his Rosenzweig cousins who lived there as well.


All of these brave people, like the Israelites in Egypt before them, pulled up their stakes, left their homes behind, carrying only what they could carry, to seek a better life.  I don’t know how religious any of them were or whether they saw themselves as brave, as crossing a Red Sea of their own.  But when I sit and listen to the blessings and the traditional Passover songs this year, I will focus on my grandson and see in him all the courage and determination his ancestors had to have so that he could be here, free to live as he wants to live and able to ask us, “Ma Nish Ta Na Ha Leila Ha Zeh?” Why is this night different?


Why is this night different from all other nights? It isn’t because we are free; it’s because on Passover we remember what it was like not to be free and to be grateful for the gifts of those who enabled us to be free.

Happy Passover to all, and thank you to all my  Brotman, Goldschlager and Rosenzweig relatives for making this such an exciting journey for me.






Enhanced by Zemanta