Sometime over this past year / century of the pandemic, I spit into a little tube and sent my saliva to Ancestry’s DNA lab to have it analyzed.
The results were as expected: 100% European Jewish.
It’s not like that came as a complete shock. It may have been cool to have some weird result so that I could speculate about infidelity in my family tree. But I knew where my grandparents came from: on my mother’s side, Russia and Poland; on my father’s side, Austria and British Palestine. All of those Jewish communities have roots in medieval Ashkenaz, so of course that’s where our origins are.
But I get a little obsessed with family history every now and then. And at the time, I was looking for things to do so I could justify not working on my dissertation, which seemed huge and undoable.
So I bought a subscription to Ancestry’s records and started building a family tree, using all the documents I could find to flesh out the details. Although the records didn’t give me much new information, it was still exciting to see ship manifests and naturalization documents showing my ancestors’ passage and acclimation to America.
Family history has always been important in my extended family. More than one wall of our dining room was devoted to portraits of ancestors, and we often talked about our family tree. One of my uncles allegedly built a family tree that traces back to Rashi on my mother’s side, but I’ve never seen the document nor heard of its existence since about fifteen years ago. On my father’s side, our claim to fame is being descendants of Reb Shmiel Chait, or Shmuel Schneider, who was (so I was told) an esteemed rabbi and tailor in Jerusalem. Yichus, after all, is gold in the frum world.
My maternal grandmother was notorious for telling stories about her childhood in Tomaszow and her Holocaust years spent in a Siberian labor camp after she was caught smuggling sugar across the Polish-Russian border – often the same stories, told with the same phrases and knaitches each time.
In the slideshow above:
Bobby with her Bernstein grandchildren over the years, and serving ice cream at the annual Chanukah party hosted in her Boro Park apartment, ca. 1992.
My maternal grandfather died before I was born, and we somehow never heard stories about him – I’m not even sure he grew up in Russia. I know he spent some time in Chernobyl, but that might have been for yeshiva. I don’t know where he was during the war years, but I know he had a brother whom he lost contact with during the war and was never able to track down. I sometimes get a little excited when I hear about someone else named “Hardt,” thinking it may be Zaidy’s long-lost brother’s family.
Bobby and Zaidy met and married in the DP camps after the war, where they had their first child, my Tante Sara, and then immigrated to America.
The documents below record the overseas journeys taken by Fiszel and Feiga Hardt, my grandparents (1951); Sara Hardt, my aunt (1951); Boruch Goldstein, my great-grandfather (1957); and Nachum Goldstein, my great-uncle (1957). They are all listed as of Polish nationality as well as Jewish. My grandfather’s occupation is listed as “none,” my grandmother’s as “saleslady in foodmarket,” which she definitely wasn’t, and my aunt’s as “child.” My grandparents and aunt are all sponsored by the HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).
In the second document in this slideshow, the manifest of a ship leaving Munich, Germany, on March 24, 1957, the person listed above my great-grandfather Boruch Goldstein (occupation “rabbi”) is sponsored by a Joseph Bernstein. No relation to my father’s family, as far as I could tell… But I did find some interesting connections between my maternal and paternal families from before they’d ever met, which I explain at the end of this post.
From family lore, I know that the reason my great-grandfather Zaide Boruch came over six years after my grandparents was because he had tuberculosis. Oral history says that Uncle Nachum actually sailed to America in 1951 with my grandparents (though I couldn’t find his name on the same ship manifest), and went back to Germany to fetch his father when Zeide Boruch was finally cleared for a visa. None of that is supported in the documents I could find, but of course Ancestry’s records can’t be the final say in the non-existence of those records.
The naturalization cards for my grandparents list two different addresses. I assume that the “1913 Bergen Street” on my grandfather’s card is an error, since all other documentation lists “1915 Bergen Street.” There’s a possibility that they moved two houses down, but certainly not between the morning of August 28, 1958, and the evening…
The coolest thing about my grandmother’s naturalization card, to me, is her signature. It’s exactly the same handwriting as all those little notes she would leave near the telephone, the pad with all her children’s and grandchildren’s phone numbers… A real blast from the past, coming from even farther back in the past.
My paternal grandparents rarely talked about themselves or their family histories. They lived in Israel, and we saw them only on rare occasions. My childhood memories of them are mostly being coaxed to talk to them – complete strangers to me – on the phone every Erev Rosh Hashanah, answering their questions about school and saying “amen” to their brachos, and then passing the phone to the next sibling in line. They had visited for a few months when I was a baby, but I had no memory of that. I got to know them a bit better when my family took a month-long visit in October of 1994, and when plane travel became more common and less expensive, they visited America more often, usually for Pesach.
They still didn’t talk much about themselves. Saba was harsh and abrasive, demanding perfection and rewarding it with a pinch on the cheek that stung for hours afterwards. Savta was quiet and soft-mannered, plying us with her apple strudel and watching us play with a quiet smile.
What I knew about their pasts came entirely through my parents. My own father wasn’t very talkative either, but my mother told us all about her in-laws. Saba had grown up in Yerushalayim, and wasn’t affected by the Holocaust. Savta had grown up in Vienna, Austria, and she and her brother – my Great-Uncle Moishe – had been evacuated via the Kindertransport and spent the war years in the countryside of Scotland. Their mother had joined them somehow, and they all took a ship to America after the war. On that ship, Moishe had met a nice young man named Yaakov Shimon who was on his way to America for a visit from his home in Israel. Moishe liked Yaakov Shimon, introduced him to his sister Batsheva, and the rest is history – or in any case, one of the branches on my family tree.
In the slideshow above:
Saba and Savta visiting from Israel in 1988, with a bonus appearance from Savta Chaya, my great-grandmother.
When I was around fifteen years old, Saba and Savta visited for Pesach. My older sister and I moved into our younger sisters’ bedroom so that my grandparents could sleep in ours for the first days. They would go to our cousins for chol hamoed and the second days, because there was an actual guest bedroom in their Midwood house. Our temporary bedroom change wasn’t for very long, and I left the book I had just finished reading on my nightstand.
The book was Far From the Place We Called Home by Sarah Schleimer, a book of historical fiction following a group of boys who flee Germany via the Kindertransport on the eve of war and spend the years of the Holocaust in the Scottish countryside.
My grandmother read the book during the first day of Pesach, when she was supposed to be having her afternoon nap. That night, when the men were in shul and it was too early for the women to start washing up from the first Seder and the first day’s seudah, Savta sat down next to me on the couch and took my hand in hers.
She told me how the book got everything right, from the emotions surrounding leaving her home for the strange unknown to the hostility the children faced from their Scottish hosts when they insisted on eating kosher and keeping Shabbos. She told me then how her host family sponsored her mother’s visa, claiming that they were hiring her as a cleaning woman.
I asked her where in Scotland she’d stayed. She refused to tell me.
“Do you still have contact with your host family?” I asked. “Maybe I’ll get to visit there one day.”
My soft-spoken Savta suddenly became animated and spoke with uncharacteristic vehemence. “Never go back there!” she said. “They saved us from the Nazis, but they’re hardly any better.” She wouldn’t tell me why she said that, wouldn’t give me any more details on her experience there, and my questions seemed to have dried up the well of memories she was willing to share with me.
I’ve always regretted that. I wish she had given me more details, more stories. I do wish I knew where she had spent her war years, because – despite her command never to go back there – I love Scotland and would like to visit the place she spent those crucial years of her life.
I hoped to find that information in Ancestry’s records, but unfortunately, they tend to have access to few records from outside America, even when I did splurge and buy a temporary subscription to global records.
The records I did find confirmed the family lore of Moishe Billet, my grandmother’s brother, meeting Yaakov Shimon Bernstein on the ship to America. I was not able to find my grandmother’s or her mother’s name on any ship manifests, but Moishe (listed as Joseph – his full name was Moshe Yosef) and Yaakov Shimon (listed as Jacob Simon) were certainly on the same boat in 1949 – although their destination was Israel, not America. They sailed on the Neptunia in August 1949, departing New York and bound for Haifa.
The documents below record ship passages of Brenda Bernstein (my grandfather’s mother), Rachel Bernstein (his sister), and Jacob Bernstein (my grandfather), in 1941 from Port Said to New York; my grandfather’s registration card from 1941; the page from the Neptunia‘s 1949 manifest showing both Joseph Billet and Jacob S. Bernstein; and a page from the Laguardia‘s 1951 manifest showing Jacob Simon sailing from Haifa back to New York.
When I first found the registration card with the name Jacob Simon Bernstein, I wasn’t sure it was my grandfather’s. As far as I had known, he didn’t come to America until after the war. When I found the ship manifest for him, his mother, and his sister – with the same address listed on both documents – I knew it was his.
But noticing the address led me to something else. I began to map the addresses of my grandparents and their sponsors in America – all in Brooklyn. (I omitted the HIAS address.) And I discovered that, long before my mother and father met, their two families lived within mere blocks of each other.
- 354 Saratoga Ave
- Listed on:
- Registration card of Jacob Simon Bernstein, 1923; other person living there: Hyman Bernstein.
- Ship manifest of “Neptunia,” traveling from New York (August 10, 1949); US Citizens and Nationals, Jacob S. Bernstein, returning permanently to Israel.
- Ship manifest of “LaGuardia,” from Haifa, Israel (June 14, 1951) to New York (June 29, 1951); Jacob Simon Bernstein, age 27.
- 331 Thomas S Boyland St
- Listed as 331 Hopkinson Ave on ship manifest of “El Nil,” traveling from Port Said (Sept 5, 1941) to New York (Nov 28, 1941). Passengers listed as US Citizens: Brenda, Rachel, and Jacob Bernstein.
- 415 Lefferts Ave
- Listed on manifest of ship “Neptunia,” sailing from New York (Aug 10 1949) bound for Haifa, Israel. US Citizens and Nationals, Joseph Billet.
- 1915 Bergen St
- Listed on ship manifest MIFLY(?) from Munich/Reim, Germany (March 24, 1957); carrying Nachum and Boruch Goldstein; address is of sponsor Mrs. Feiga Hardt.
- 1913 Bergen St
- Listed on Naturalization papers for Fiszel Hardt, Aug 28, 1956 (likely a mistake and should be 1915 Bergen Street as the others?)
So what does all that mean? What did I learn about my family from doing all this? Not much that I didn’t already know or that will affect my life in any meaningful way. But it’s still cool.
Maybe someday I’ll devote more time to this, maybe someday I’ll enlist a genealogist to help me find out more information. Maybe, even, someday I’ll find out where my grandmother stayed in Scotland. Maybe someday I’ll move there and use that location to live out my dream of living in the Scottish countryside and becoming the village witch.
I stopped this research and cancelled my Ancestry subscriptions when this brief dive into my past helped me get over the writer’s block I had been experiencing, when I was able to finish and defend my dissertation, edit a collection of essays on artifacts of frum childhood, and begin preparing a book proposal about frum children’s literature.
It’s all part of exploring my past, really, all part of making sense of who I am and where I come from – and where I plan to go from there.
One thing I did discover – one of my cousins is clearly also building a family tree on Ancestry. The website keeps giving me “hints” about people I put into my tree, which is how I found the birth and death dates for some of my third-greats on my mother’s side. Their tree includes names I recognize as belonging to the family of my Tante Sara’s husband, Moshe Leib Laufer, a Bobover chossid. I’ve resisted reaching out or requesting to connect via Ancestry, because of the shaky ground my relationship with family is on at the moment. So whichever Laufer cousin is illicitly using the internet to build your family tree and inadvertently giving me information about my own family tree – thank you.