Circular Genealogy, or Self-Discovery Through Social Media

An amusing anecdote: A number of genealogy groups now have Facebook pages. In some of these groups, people post the surnames they are seeking and the locations where these families lived. My mother’s mother’s family is from Pueblo, Colorado—also my own birthplace—so I joined the Jewish genealogy group in Colorado.

I now live in Massachusetts and can only participate virtually, so a few weeks ago I posted the surnames I was looking for on the groups Facebook page. A kind member of the group, a woman I’ll call G__, offered to put me in contact with a friend of hers in Denver, a man I’ll refer to as L__, who was originally from Pueblo and knew the Jewish community there well.

Yesterday, I received a Facebook message from G__ reporting that L__ did indeed know a family with these surnames, and that he happened to run into a couple from this family at the park. When he told them someone was looking for people with a family name shared by them, they were very excited. G__ mentioned that the wife’s mother was still living, and that I should get in touch with her, as she remembered a great deal about the families

But when I read the couple’s names, I could only laugh… G__ must not have told L__ my name, or he must not have relayed it to the couple, because I’m sure that if he had, they would have told him that they knew me, and that the wife had in fact grown up in the same household as my mother, her first cousin, and that my grandmother and her mother had lived either in the same house or next door to each other until my grandmother’s death in the 1980s. As it turns out, L__ was well acquainted with my grandmother and even knew my mother.

The moral of the story: Even on social media, it’s a small world—at least, if you are talking about a Jewish family from Colorado.

Postscript: I was sorry to disappoint my family, so to soften the blow, I called my great aunt right away to tell her that I was the mystery relative.

Posted in Colorado, family history, family trees, genealogy humor

New Virtual Exhibit of Judaica from Moldova

Exciting news: I received an announcement this morning, on multiple JewishGen SIG lists, that a new virtual museum of Judaica is now available for viewing. The exhibit includes images of many fascinating and beautiful artifacts, as well as photographs of people, documents, newspaper clippings, and burial sites that will be of enormous interest to those research Jewish genealogy from this area. A detailed description of the project is available at the Jewish Heritage Europe site.

Posted in Kishinev, Moldova | Tagged

A Long-Lost Cousin from Kishinev

Samuel Aroni age 2 1/2.

Samuel Aroni age 2 1/2

Text of postcard, Samuel Aroni

Text of postcard, Samuel Aroni

My father’s mother’s parents, David and Esther Aptekar, were both born in Kishinev (Chisinau), Moldova, and both came to the United States, where they met, before World War I broke out. David Aptekar, my great grandfather, came to the United States in 1916, likely to avoid conscription into the Russian Army. He eventually married my great-grandmother Esther (Fera) Citron and had two daughters: Sadie and Rose.

Over the years, David received many postcards, in Russian and Yiddish, bearing photographers’ stamps in Romanian, from the extended family he had left behind. David’s younger daughter, my grandmother Rose, passed these postcards along to my mother in the hopes that some Russian students my mother knew at the University of Kansas might be able to translate them, but the resulting translations were sketchy at best. My mother also made some notes in the margins of copies of these photos with information provided by my grandmother, but the information is incomplete.

Fast-forward twenty years or more. I had created a profile on JewishGen.org, a Jewish genealogy website that provides a “Family Finder” where users can list the family surnames that they are looking for by town so that other users looking for similar surnames from the same area will be able to find and contact them. I had listed all of the surnames I knew when I joined, including the Aptekars from Kishinev.

One day, I was contacted by another JewishGen user, Semion Sucholutsky, born in Eastern Europe but now living in Canada, who was also looking for Aptekars,[1] from Kishinev and the surrounding area of Bessarabia. He had lost family in the Holocaust and was very anxious to track them down, so he was quite interested in finding out whether our families were related. We never did discover any connection, but when I told him that I had these postcards, which featured photographs on one side and addresses and short identifying notes on the other, he offered to translate them for me. As he undertook the translation, we compared the information with the Bessarabian vital records available through JewishGen.

Then one day Semion sent me an email message from him with the subject line: “An Amazing Discovery.” In that message, he explained that the names he found on postcards stirred some memory he had of a testimony about an Aptekar family fleeing the Nazis; he had found this testimony while searching for any information about his own Aptekar relatives. As it turns out, this testimony, part of the Nizkor Project, appears on a webpage titled “Shattered! 50 Years of Silence History and Voices of the Tragedy in Romania and Transnistria Personal Testimony: Samuel Aroni,” which can be found here: http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/c/carmelly-felicia/aroni-samuel.html. The page begins with the following paragraphs:

Samuel Cervinschi was born in 1927, in the city of Kishinev, in the county of Bessarabia, Romania. As a child, Samuel was in the Kishinev Ghetto and, later, he went into hiding with friends and relatives in Romania. His parents, David and Clara Cervinschi, survived the deportations to Transnistria. After the war, Samuel changed his family name to Aroni in memory of his grandfather, who died on the forced march to Transnistria.

 After the war, in Australia, where he studied and graduated with honours from the Faculty of Engineering in Melbourne, Professor Aroni married Malca Kornfeld, and their two daughters were born there. In 1962, the family moved to California, where Professor Aroni took his Ph. D. in Structural Engineering, at the University of California, in Berkeley.

 In 1994, 53 years after having left his native city, Professor Aroni returned to Kishinev, now the capital of the independent Republic of Moldova, where he participated in organizing the first post- war International Symposium on Jewish History, Language and Literature. The symposium was cosponsored by UCLA, The Moldavian Academy of Science, The State University of Moldova, and The American Joint Distribution Committee. It was attended by academics from Tel Aviv, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Zhitomir, Rostov-on-the Don, New York, and Los Angeles.

Deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments.

The Talmud

The names mentioned in this testimony mirror the Bessarabian vital records on JewishGen; moreover, the writer, Samuel Aroni, mentions his grandfather Leib, which we knew to be the name of David’s brother. Samuel Aroni, it turned out, is David Aptekar’s great nephew, the grandson of David’s brother Leib and the son of Leib’s daughter Clara. In other words, he was my grandmother Rose’s second cousin, or my second cousin twice removed. The photographs on the postcards are of Sam and his family. After learning of this connection, I found Samuel’s contact information at UCLA and wrote him an email explaining our relation and how I had discovered it. I later sent copies of the photographs to Sam, who identified himself as well as the other relatives, confirming much of what my translator had told me.

Leib Aptekar

Leib Aptekar, 1929

Text of postcard, Leib Aptekar

Text of postcard, Leib Aptekar, 1929

Samuel told me that in fact he had initially been in contact with David Aptekar when he first came to the United States, but that they had eventually fallen out of touch. (Handwritten notes that my mother made on photocopies of the photos indicate that my grandmother had told her that Leib may have had a son who came to the United States to attend UC Berkeley, so she likely had some memory of her father telling her of a cousin who had come to the United States.) David Aptekar died July 16, 1963, almost seven years before I was born. All four of my grandparents were born in the United States, and so even they had little information about the fate of the families that their parents’ had left behind.

Leib Aptekar and his daughter Catia in Marienbad, 1931

Leib Aptekar and his daughter Catia in Marienbad, 1931

Back of postcard, Leib and Catia Aptekar, 1931

Back of postcard, Leib and Catia Aptekar, 1931

Samuel shared with me a family tree going back two additional generations to the father and grandfather of David and Leib, largely confirming the information in the Bessarabian records, although two mysteries remain, which I will discuss in greater detail in future blog posts:

1) The vital records list a Moshe-Yos as the father of Leib and David and all of their siblings, but according to Sam and to records I’ve found at Yad Vashem, their father’s name was Shmuel, and his father’s name was Moshe-Yos (or Moshe-Yosef). This is quite odd: Why would an entire generation have been elided in the Bessarabian vital records, or why would Shmuel’s name be replaced by his father’s name in the records?

2) According to Samuel, his uncle Monia (his mother’s youngest sibling) had explained to him as late as the 1990s that Aptekar is an artificial name adopted some time during the nineteenth century. The name of the patriarch in Samuel’s tree is Moshe-Iosef Feldsteyn, who had several sons, each of whom took a different last name, including Aptekar. I have read in various sources that this adoption of an artificial name by different sons is not uncommon; in fact, it occurred in at least one other branch of my family tree. Sources provide conflicting explanations for why this was done, but this is a topic for another day.

Recently, Samuel participated in Radio Free Europe’s production of a video about the Kishinev Ghetto, “Remembering the Chisinau Ghetto,” which can be found in English here: http://www.europalibera.org/media/video/26840209.html An accompanying article in Romanian, written by Eugenia Pogor, can be found here: http://www.europalibera.org/content/article/26807604.html

[1] Semion explains that the “Bessarabian spelling is Aptekar or Apteikar, which is transliteration from Russian Аптекарь, Аптейкарь – original spelling in Rabbinat books or official documents. Romanian spelling was Apotecar or Apotecari. That’s why some of the Bessarabian records of 1920-1940s, during Romanian presence there, had Romanian spelling. All other spelling variations other than those, are misspelling or typos of translation mostly. Polish and Galician spelling was Aptekar or Aptekarz (k-c variations).”

Posted in Aptekar, Citron, family history, family trees, genealogy, Moldova

Finding Fera Citron, Part I

Esther (Fera) Citron Aptekar as a young woman.

Esther (Fera) Citron Aptekar as a young woman.

My paternal great grandmother Fera came to the United States under someone else’s name. Family lore has it that a cousin by the name of Ester had arranged passage and broke her leg the day before the trip, so Fera’s family coerced her into taking Ester’s place, telling her that she could return to Kishinev if she didn’t like the United States. Fera had siblings here and lived with them once she arrived. Although she was unhappy here at first, she did stay, and eventually she married my great grandfather David Aptekar, whom she met at the Kishinev Society. Fera took David’s last name (sometimes spelled Optaker or Aptaker), but she always kept the name Esther as her official first name. She never sought naturalization and feared ever leaving the country because she was afraid her borrowed identity would be found out.

Fera’s branch is one that I have had a difficult time tracing back to Europe. I know that she was from Kishinev, but I haven’t been able to locate any records there for her. Her gravestone lists her father’s name as Mordecai, but I had no luck finding Bessarabian records for him either. In order to work my way back, I decided to try to find her passenger record, but this proved quite difficult, because I had no idea what last name she traveled here under. Her real last name was Citron (also spelled Citrin, Tsitrun, etc.), but I wasn’t sure which side of her family her cousin Ester was  on, and searches for Ester Citron and variants turned up nothing.

Esther (Fera) and David Aptekar Gravestone

Esther (Fera) and David Aptekar Gravestone

So my next strategy, after a basic search for variants of “Fera Citron” and “Ester Citron,” was to try to track down her siblings. My aunt remembers that Fera had two siblings in the United States: a brother, possibly named Mischa, with whom she lived when she first arrived; and a sister, Jenny, who married into the Batuchansky family, which later went by the last name Blayne.

I had searched and searched for Fera’s passenger record under the names “Ester Citron” (and variants) and “Fera Citron” but could find matching records with appropriate dates for neither.

I had more success with records from after she was in the United States. Her 1930 and 1940 census records indicate that she arrived in the United States in 1913 or 1914, narrowing down her possible immigration year. But the most helpful item I found was a census record listing Esther Aptekar and her two young daughters, Sadia and Rose (my grandmother), as living with a couple named Morris and Rose Citron and several of their children. Their presence together as one household on the census helped cement my identification of this Morris Citron as Fera’s brother.

1925 New York Census Record for Citrons and Aptekars

1925 New York Census Record for Citrons and Aptekars

I also found a naturalization record for a Morris Citron, born in Kishinev, and his wife Rose, born in Odessa. The names of his children roughly match those on the census, although not exactly.

Morris Citron Declaration of Intention/Petition for Naturalization

Morris Citron Declaration of Intention/Petition for Naturalization

However, I still could not locate passenger lists for any of the siblings. I had looked several times without success. I had run across a listing for a Jente Citron, but the transcribed place of origin was “Risinow,” and I had dismissed this record several times because I didn’t think the place of origin was a match. But this time I decided to take a closer look and realized that in fact, the listed place of origin could be Kishinev. Furthermore, Jente’s father’s name was listed as something like “Mordky” (the first four letters are clearer than the last two), which is close to “Mordko,” a variant of Mordechai—the same name listed on Fera’s gravestone. Interesting, I thought, and went to save the record to my shoebox for further investigation later.

But just as I was about to set it aside, I noticed something: Jente Citron’s name is bracketed, by hand, with the person above hers, an Ester Greis, from Odessa, whose father’s name is listed as Seidel Greis. Both Ester and Jente are listed as being 20 years old. They clearly had been bracketed together because they were traveling together, but one was from Odessa, and the other was from Kishinev.

Passenger List for Ester Greis and Jente Citron, SS Campanello, September 6, 1913

Passenger List for Ester Greis and Jente Citron, SS Campanello, September 6, 1913

I then decided to check the corresponding incoming list of “detained aliens” who had arrived at in New York. On that list, too, Ester and Jente (here “Jette” are listed together; Ester’s name is followed by an ampersand (&), and next to their names is scrawled a bracket linking them followed by the name: “Sis. Rose Citron, 309 Osborne St.”

1913 Record of Detained Aliens/Arrival of Ester Greis and Jette Citron

1913 Record of Detained Aliens/Arrival of Ester Greis and Jette Citron

Suddenly, I realized I might be able to match the address on the passenger list to an address in one of Morris Citron’s records. I also recalled that Morris Citron’s wife was named Rose. I pulled up Morris’s 1925 New York census record again, but the address wasn’t a match. Then I opened up his naturalization papers again, and on his declaration of naturalization, I found a matching address: 309 Osborne St.

Morris Citron Declaration of Intention/Petition for Naturalization

Morris Citron Declaration of Intention/Petition for Naturalization

Given that “Jente Citron” is from Kishinev and lists her father as “Mordky,” it seems likely that this is in fact the passenger record for Jenny, although the 1920 US Census gives her arrival date as 1915 and the 1930 Census says she arrived in 1911. The best guess is that she did arrive sometime within that 4 year range.

But who is Ester Greis, why was she traveling with Jente/Jette Citron from Kishinev, and why is Rose Citron listed as their “sister” on the passenger list? And why isn’t Morris Citron listed as Jente/Jette Citron’s brother?

Searching on Ancestry.com, I found a couple of public family trees that match the information found in Morris and Rose’s census records. Both trees list Rose’s maiden name as “Griess,” but neither tree documents the source of Rose’s maiden name. I contacted the owner of each tree and received a reply from one of the granddaughters of Morris and Rose Citron. Her mother, who is still alive, confirmed that Rose’s last name was in fact Greiss, so it seems likely Ester Greis and Rose Griess were in fact sisters. But was this the real Ester Greis? Or is this perhaps the record of Fera coming over under Ester’s name?

The next step is to see if there are any other records for Ester Greis after her arrival, and to find out whether any other records connect Fera to this name.

To be continued…

Esther (Fera) and David Aptekar at my father's bar mitzvah.

Esther (Fera) and David Aptekar at my father’s bar mitzvah.

Posted in Aptekar, Citron, family history, family trees | Tagged ,

Great video about journey of Sephardic Jews from Spain to the Balkans

I just ran across this excellent video tracing the history of Sephardic Jews from the expulsion to the modern-day Balkans (in Spanish with English subtitles). To me, this is the most fascinating chapters in Jewish history, as I am have always been interested in my own possible Sephardic roots. As I learned at the IAJGS conference last summer here in Boston, many of those of us consider who consider ourselves entirely Ashkenazi may soon find out, through the advent of genetic genealogy, that we have stronger connections to Sephardic Jews than we ever imagined.

The video also speaks to the important concept of convivencia, which departed with the Jews when they left during the Expulsion, but which they continued to carry with them.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrNhMKFDPuk&feature=youtu.be

Posted in family history, genealogy | Tagged , , , , ,

Genealogy: Earliest Encounters

My first encounter with genealogy when I was a child was, of course, likely in elementary school, where I’m sure I was asked at some point to construct a rudimentary family tree—a tree that was likely very simple and extended only as far back as my grandparents and perhaps their siblings.  But my first distinct memory of trying to create a family tree had nothing to do my own family tree.

My mother was at that time a literature professor, so our house was filled with books, which I would regularly poach from the shelves. I remember that around the age of ten or so I started reading Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, which provides a number of trees tracing the descent of Greek gods and heroes. I tried to create my own version combining all of the separate trees into one overall tree, but I never seemed to fit all of the pieces together.

At some point as what we would now call a “tween,” I also became obsessed with name etymology and history. I must have startled my parents when I purchased a baby name book. For some reason, I started constructing and charting imaginary genealogies using the names in the book. I would spend hours and hours doing nothing but listing these fictional lines of descent.

Later, my interest morphed into reading particularly novels that traced family descent, such as Gabriel García Márquez’s warped family tree One Hundred Years of Solitude or Toni Morrison’s magical family history in Song of Solomon (also both found on my parents’ book shelves). For many years to come, my interest in genealogy was subsumed within my interest in literature, which I studied in college and graduate school.

Looking back on it now, I wonder why I found these fictional genealogies so fascinating, and I think it was likely because of the limitations of my family’s own genealogical knowledge. My grandparents were born in this country, but their parents were all born in Eastern Europe. We were fortunate as a family to have come to the United States early, but as a result, a lot of ties were lost, even among extended family members who had all come over and ended up in different places across the United States: New York, of course, but also Colorado—where my grandmother, mother, and I were all born–and Michigan, among others. Many branches ended up in countries across the globe, from Mexico to South Africa to Israel.

My parents told me about all of my grandparents’ siblings and their families, of course, but beyond that their knowledge was sketchy, and among the previous generation I think there was a reluctance to talk much about family history that extended back to Europe before World War II because so many people had been lost. I’m sure my grandparents were aware of the family history, but my parents only vaguely so, and no one really discussed it.

Today, my grandparents are all deceased, and I find that I’ve largely lost a valuable oral tradition that could have filled in many of the gaps I’m now facing. Luckily, some of my older cousins have done much of the work to trace back particular lines—and impressively so, given that they completed the work back in the 1990s, before information was so accessible online. The Katz/Kates line is well fleshed out for several generations thanks to my cousin Barbara, as is the Zagon line, thanks to my cousins Bob and Mindy.

As for the other lines, I’m left to try to piece it together with the help of family members, such as my great-aunt Edy, or through genealogical research and collaboration with total strangers, who may also be distant relatives. I’m even delving into the new frontier in genealogical research, genetic genealogy.

Each step raises at least as many new questions as it answers. In upcoming posts, I’ll talk about some of the methods that I’ve found most helpful.

Posted in family history, genealogy, literature, name etymology, name history, names | Tagged , , ,

Welcome to the Little Oak: Roots and Branches Blog!

Welcome to my family history blog. I have been fascinated with family history and genealogy since I was a little girl, but for a long time the effort to trace family lines uprooted by migration and conflict seemed quixotic. Then, about five years ago, I started researching my family history in earnest by taking advantage of the numerous resources now available online. More recently, I discovered the new possibilities provided by genetic genealogy and social media. I’m excited to share my experience with others and hope that this site will inspire you to explore your own family history.

Posted in family trees | 2 Comments