(No. 9/2003 - December 2003)
Editor: Fran Bock

Editor's note: Recently, several members of the Belarus SIG e-mail group posted messages about the value of combining social history with the more traditional genealogical information we all seek, in an effort to expand our understanding of the lives of our ancestors. Bill Schechter's original query sparked a series of replies, some of which were too long to fit within the size limits of the e-mail list. We thought this theme, and the contributions of Michelle Frager, Susan Rosenthall, and especially Naomi Fatouros, merited fuller consideration. We are pleased to present them here.


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Social History and Genealogy

Bill Schechter:

I notice so many people searching so energetically for names and trying to construct family trees--trying to find "lost" family members. It is so amazing to finally find a name and push back, if only a little, the curtains of the past. But I am also wondering how folks intertwine and balance, in their family histories, the straight genealogical information they are seeking with the social history that surrounded these individuals and which gave meaning to their lives. Is this an important part of your work? Do you feel you have adequate sources? Have you found some really good sources that might help the rest of us--sources that have helped you to recreate the world in which your loved ones lived?

Susan Rosenthall:

Another related area of interest to me, as a clinical social worker, is what the cultural and familial legacies are that have come down through the generations. Two books I have found especially enlightening in this regard are "Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Family Stories Shape Us" by Elizabeth Stone and "Photoanalysis" by Robert Akeret. The first is about how the nuances of family stories give us messages about our family's expectations of how we are to be in the world. The second is about interpreting psychological meanings from peoples' expressions and body language in photographs. Both may well be out of print but certainly can be found on a site like or

Michelle Frager:

Good question and I think from the posts over the years that many of us do look into the history of our ancestors' home regions. For me it 's nothing brilliant - the Web, the library and the bookstore - plus the occasional gift from a family member. Sometimes I look for a particular fact or situation, other times just a general search, especially for images, which often give a clearer impression than paragraphs of description. You asked what we think of as good sources. These are a few off the top of my head and it wouldn't surprise me to learn I'm not the only one using them:

Books ----Sir Martin Gilbert's "Atlas of Jewish History" is a constant reference. A small but invaluable and inexpensive book. Bella Spewack's "Streets", her short but vivid early memoir of life on the Lower East Side during the tide of immigration is indelible. Books galore exist which catch my eye in stores and at the library, and can be browsed for what's of special interest without spending fortunes. (No flaming, please, for browsing in bookstores - why do they have all those sofas?)

Online ----JewishGen: Infofiles, Yizkor Books project, Search, Shtetl pages, tons of pics and data about work, financial, and other areas. Google, and Google Images . Center for Jewish History, including YIVO and YIVO's online photo collection, titled something like 1000 Towns. Miriam Weiner's RTRFoundation, where there are historical descriptions and archival info. NY Public Library, online catalog and main research building. The Levanda Index of Russian Empire laws applying only to Jews.

And curiously enough, big and small museum websites where odd bits and pieces of visual history relating to the Jews pop up, like a drawing of sleeping on the hearth as my father had described it to us at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Random searches turn up pearls, like a memoir of life at the turn of the 20th century wherein a man, recalling his boyhood, wrote: "... my father managed to starve very nicely on 10 rubles a month." Then you see that a chicken around that time cost more than half a ruble [Mark Grekin, ] and the picture starts to focus more sharply than before.

Naomi Fatouros:

Author's note: The writing of the following essay grew out of an unpublished response I had sent to the Belarus Mail Group. That response was prompted by two messages which were sent to the Group on Sept.25, 2003. In one message Bill Schecter wondered how people intertwined "straight" genealogical information with the social history that surrounds ancestral data and gives meaning to their lives. The other message, sent by Susan Rosenthall, expressed interest in the "cultural and familial legacies that have come down through the generations." Because of its length my original response was not acceptable, but I was subsequently asked permission for its publication in the Belarus Newsletter. I have since rewritten and added still more to my original response, as follows.

Unlike many genealogists, I have far less interest in compiling a huge tree full of the names and dates of people who are only very remotely related to my immediate family and who may have been people whom I might not have wished to know, than I have about learning about the people I did know, or whom I've discovered during my research. Although I know that some genealogists take great pride in their "yichus." I don't believe that the greatness of one's ancestors is necessarily reflected by their descendents. Even if I were more caught up in the sort of "paper chase" most genealogists are bent on, I am unable to pay for a professsional researcher abroad who could find family records, so some of my documentation is necessarily based on photographs and letters in a cache of family memorabilia I discovered after my mother's death, on a few documents I found at the National Archives in New York, and on often fortuitous findings.

What I care about more than increasing the size of my "tree" is the social and psychological history of the people who were closely or fairly closely related to me, including those I had never heard of before I started my research. To satisfy my curiosity, I have read many scholarly history books, memoirs, and a few novels, whose titles are too numerous to mention, and I often pore over entries on various subjects in several encyclopedias. (I usually cite the authors and titles of books I've read in my responses to other people's questions and do not think I need provide here a bibliography of the books I have read.) Because I think it is important to place Jews in the context of the countries and times in which they had lived, not everything I read is related to Jews and their particularized history. I do not  wish to confine my research to the often narrow and myopic accounts by Jewish historians.

Occasionally, I do find things directly related to the lives of my family members. For example, I learned of a first cousin to my great-great grandmother, Esther JAVAL, by following through on a footnote in a history of the Jews of Alsace. The JAVAL (or SCHAVAL, once known as JACOB) name had not been mentioned in the text of the book, so, had I not been urged as a young girl by my older sister to pay attention always to footnotes, I might not have found this tidbit or subsequently been able to discover the first cousin connection between Leopold JAVAL, who was a deputy of Yonne, and Esther Javal.

In my immediate family not many legends or Jewish traditions were handed down to me and my late brother and late sister. When, seven years ago, I started my family history research at the prompting of my adult son, I could only remember one thing that could be called a "family legend." I recalled only suddenly, while starting to read John Garrard's biography of writer Vasily Grossman. (I had chosen this book to read because Grossman was born in Berdichev, the same town where my maternal grandfather, Israel [Isador] BELKOWSKY was born.) I remembered that this "legend" was retold more than once by my mother and grandmother who said that the "Grandmother of the Revolution" and Maxim Gorky, in his Russian shirt and boots, had visited the Belkowsky household in Cleveland.

At no time while my mother and grandmother were still alive did this story interest me enough to ask why these illustrious revolutionaries had stopped in Cleveland to visit them. I didn't even know who the Grandmother of the Revolution was, (it was Ekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya as I later learned after this memory's recovery) although when I was a teenager I did learn of the writer Maxim Gorky. But as soon as I recalled this story, I began an intensive study of Russian history, concentrating particularly on the 19th and early 20th century.

Although eventually I did find verification of Breshkovskaya's and Gorky's respective visits to Cleveland, and discovered that the only book saved from my grandfather's personal library was a disintegrating paperback edition of the revolutionary Vera Figner's memoirs, I still don't know and shall probably never know whether my maternal grandfather was an active revolutionary or was merely an "armchair" revolutionary or "parlour Red." I tend to think he was the latter sort, not having more evidence, such as letters or possible monetary contributions to the revolutionary cause, other than his hospitality he extended toward Breshkovakaya and Gorky.

   I believe that if Isidor had not become aware of the revolutionary stirrings while he was still living in Berdichev, he almost certainly became involved with Russian revolutionaries during his medical studies in Bern and Lausanne, at a time when the socialist revolutionary Chaim Zhitlovsky was active in revolutionary circles, in particular with a Russian-Jewish revolutionary group in Switzerland. It may have been Zhitlovsky who suggested to both Breshkovskaya and Gorky that they contact my grandfather during their fundraising tours. Zhitlovsky had arrived in New York about the same time as Breshkovskaya  and had introduced her when she was to speak at Boston's Faneuil Hall. And when Gorky was in New York the following year, Zhitlovsky met with him. But then it is possible that the anarchist Emma Goldman had a hand in arranging for at least Breshkovskaya's Cleveland visit as she had planned her fundraising tour. In her autobiography, Goldman speaks of a pair of Socialist Revolutionaries who gave talks and billed themselves as "Nikolaev and Rosenbaum." The two had  visited Goldman in her apartment about arranging for Breshkovskaya's tours. I have yet to find out anything more about this pair. At the beginning of a note Breshkovskaya wrote in Chicago to my grandfather in Cleveland announcing her imminent arrival in Cleveland, she said "From the letters of comrade Nikolaev I am acquainted with you..." (The surname Nikolaev or Nikolayev is a fairly common one.) It would be much more thrilling to me to learn who this Nikolaev was than it would be to discover any of my twice and more “removed” aunts and uncles and their spouses and children.

   After my mother’s death, I found a cache of family memorabilia among which were two letters from a Chaim Rappaport in Palestine, but was formerly of Podwolochisk, as he wrote.  He said that he was a grandson  of  Jacob Israel Rappaport, a brother of my maternal grandfather’s mother. These letters ultimately resulted in my finding a copy of the Podwolohisk Yizkor book, with the chapter on the Rappaports that had been written by Chaim’s brother Ariey,  and the book’s subsequent online translation. Also  following up on those two letters, I  eventually struck up a correspondence with Chaim’s sister-in-law who lives in Herzliya.  

I have learned more about my mother's side of my family than I have or will be able to learn about the history of my father's FELDMANs, because, unlike my mother's family, my father's side left no letters or documents and only a few photographs. Moreover, my father, Hyman Isaac FELDMAN, never talked much about his family or told us much about his childhood memories.

What remained a mystery to me for several years was the real name of my father's birthplace, which he always had called "Chelsetz." I even joined the GenPol mail group, and posted an inquiry about this mystery town, but although I received some suggestions, none seemed to be the right place. One day, while looking at the miscellany of donated books in my local Hillel's library, I chanced upon a copy of the 1939 edition of "Who's Who In American Jewry", and idly leafed through it. It contained a photograph of my father, and a longish paragraph about him which started out by saying that he was born near Lemberg. That finding gave me a clue as to where "Chelsetz" was located, but it wasn't until months later, while trying to find someone else's mystery shtetl in Chester G. Cohen's Shtetl Finder Gazetteer, an entry on the page opposite from where I'd been looking an entry for a place spelled as "Shtcherzetz" or "Szczerzec," near Lviv.

During a visit to the National Archives in New York, I learned from my paternal grandfather's ship manifest that he had left Eastern Europe not from his birthplace, but from the town of "Szczerzec (now called "Shcherets), near Lvov. On his 1898 manifest it was spelled as "Seserec." This is where he married my grandmother, Esther Schutz. (Why he left Pinsk to go to Szczerzec will probably remain a mystery.) Finding Nathan FELDMAN's manifest was easier than finding grandmother Esther's. It took many repeated scrollings down what was supposed to be the right microfilm through dozens of FELDMANs and FELDMANNs, to realize that her surname and that of her four children had been mysteriously misspelled as "FELDMAIM", just after the last FELDMAN on the list. When I finally found the microfilm containing images of Esther's 1900 manifest, I saw that the lower left part o f the page, with her name and those of her children, had been torn away. But the rest of the page showed that five people had arrived who were from "Szczerzec" and after going through the entire manifest I knew that they were the only ones on that ship who came from Szczerzec that particular day.

I was able to learn that his father, Nahum (Nathan) FELDMAN, was born in Pinsk (or perhaps in some nearby shtetl) only because the National Archives was able to find his naturalization papers. (Why he left Pinsk to go to Szczerzec will probably remain a mystery.)  

I knew that my father's eldest brother, Max had lived in Perth Amboy, and managed to find at a commercial genealogy website a Social Security entry for his daughter who was born a little before I was. Of course I sent away for her Social Security application, luckily just before the price for copies of Social Security application was greatly raised.

Doing an online search for Jews of Perth Amboy turned up the name of a lady who is writing a book about them. When I wrote to her she suggested that I write to Eugene Galen, a physician in California, whose mother was a sister to the Max's wife, Fanny FELDMAN. Fanny's maiden name as I later learned was WOLPIANSKY. So when I wrote to him, he told me about two of Max's three children, now deceased, and their spouses had also moved from New Jersey and settled in Los Angeles where their grandchildren survive

After much searching I located the whereabouts and married name of the daughter of Max's eldest son, Horace, and she and I have since exchanged letters

My readings about Jews, their history, beliefs and traditions have not so much aroused my interest in the Jewish religion and practices as they have helped me to understand or at least guess why my parents were not compatible and so often quarrelsome. My father was born into a poor Yiddish-speaking family which had settled on the Lower East Side. He was the only one of his family to go to college. My mother Renee, (nee BELKOWSKY) born in Cleveland, came from a "bourgeois" background. Her parents did not speak Yiddish although in writing they addressed her fondly as Reisele. She thought that Yiddish was an ugly jargon, but I noticed that as she aged, she would sometimes use Yiddish words which I think she learned from her Hadassah colleagues.

My maternal grandmother was a member of a moderately well-to-do family in Alsace, and I have surmised from what I knew about her and what she told me, that she had been "spoiled" in her youth. I have been unable to find out much about my maternal grandfather's family who lived in Berdichev, but I guess that they were enough educated and monied to be able to send their son to Switzerland for his high school and university education as a physican. (How he met my grandmother while she lived in Mulhouse will remain still another mystery.)

Like her own mother, my mother Renee always loved to shop and buy fine clothes, perfumes, jewelry, and art objects for me and my sister, whereas my father had to be persuaded to shop for a new pair of pants or suit because the ones he kept wearing, even after he'd become a very successful architect and belonged to an expensive golf club, had gotten so shiny with age. (I think he must have used the same shaving soap brush all his adult life, because after he died, I found one nearly hairless with wear in his medicine cabinet.)   

Early in her marriage, Renee had not only refused to go to a mikveh- merely to speak of it made her shudder with revulsion- but, as time passed after her orthodox in-laws died, she also grew more and more lax about keeping a kosher kitchen and serving only prescribed foods. Although my father objected to the serving of non-kosher food at our dining table, he eventually stopped frowning at such items as crab and lobster meat, and clams and oysters. I don't recall whether he partook of the crustaean delicacies and I do not think that my mother ever served pork. but  at least once, I saw my father eat a ham sandwich in a restaurant.

My mother also disliked going to my father's Temple Ansche Chesed, and associating with his cronies and their wives there. She preferred to go across town to the more "Episcopalian-style" Temple Emanuel. She told me that when she met my father at a tea dance at the Plaza, she had fall en in love first with his hands, with their long, tapered fingers. She thought he must be artistic, because he had graduated from Yale's School of Fine Arts, specializing in architecture. However, he himself disclaimed being an artist and instead based his ability as an architect on his cleverness in the layout of apartment rooms, and on his ability to conceive of his buildings' most advantageous placing on the lots his clients had purchased.

When my parents became engaged Renee imagined herself as a lady presiding over a salon full of artists, musicians, and intellectuals. Alas, that was only her dream! After their marriage, she soon realized he preferred to fraternize with the chums he'd grown up with on the Lower East Side and with his golf club friends, most of whom had started their eventually profitable businesses in the hat and garment trades. I think that one reason he liked and kept his old friends and those at Temple Ansche Chesed and his Scarsdale golf club is that he was the only one among them who had gone to college and he enjoyed "lording" that accomplishment over their own successes in the clothing or
real estate businesses.

My parents held Seders every year, and celebrated Hannukah (at least when I was young). My mother lit Sabbath and yartzeit candles, and served fish on Fridays, and my father contributed to the Sabbath by stopping on his way home to buy a Friday night challah. Neither of my parents often attended religious services. Also, during WWII my mother insisted on getting a job to help America win the war. My father thought it improper for her to work outside the home and was afraid that her working would wrongly suggest that he was unable to support her. It was only after I, the youngest, grew up that my mother become intensively involved with Jewish charity work and raising money for Israel, Yeshiva University, Boys’ Town, and the international synagogue at Idlewild (now the JFK) airport.

As for family traditions or behaviors I do make unexpected connections from time to time. For example, a message posted to the Eastern European History Group (EEJH) about a Torah scribe cutting his quill very carefully, reminded me of my father, who, when he used his little drafting table in the evening to sketch out a building plan to bring to his office, would use an old penknife to sharpen his pencil. He never used a pencil sharpener of any kind. And after my mother died and I was the one to clear out the apartment so that we three children could sell it, I kept as mementos his penknife and some pencil stubs with their rough-cut points. I wonder whether he learned to sharpen his pencils with a penknife from some Lower East Side cheder teacher or at Manhattan’s Public School 64.

From the photographs I have in my family memorabilia, only a few have given me insight into the character of their subjects. One series has to do with my mother's older sister, a spinster, who became a French scholar and teacher. I knew her to be a shy and unhappy person. All the photographs of this aunt show her from infancy through her adulthood to be unsmiling - sad, solemn, timid, and even rather fearful as I knew her to be.

I feel I have reasonably adequate sources of information through books and messages posted to JewishGen and elsewhere on the Internet, and through correspondence with many other genealogists and also, from time to time, with helpful professors. What frustrates me greatly is my inability to read Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew. (I can read French fairly easily, struggle my way through German, and grasp at least the sense of most Spanish and Italian texts. Once in a while, because my Russian vocabulary is slowly increasing, I can usually understand what a book or article printed in Russian concerns. There are a number of non-English websites, books and articles I wish I could read, but at present I can pick out and understand only a few words here and there in the languages of the texts I think would inform me.

I am fortunate in possessing several letters from Mulhouse written to my maternal grandmother, as well as several letters from Kiev and Moscow which were written by relatives of Renee's father. Those of them I am able to read myself concern their gratitude towards my mother for the food, clothing and fabrics she sent them. I remember my mother sending packages to relatives in the USSR when I was such a small girl I could not look over the counter at a store on Broadway (Manhattan) the name of which, when I learned to read, was the "Council for American-Soviet Friendship." (My mother may have sent packages also through the Joint Distribution Committee or some other organization.) One day she told me that she had stopped sending the packages and had also decided to cut off all communication with those relatives because she was afraid that Soviet authorities would arrest the recipients for having contacts with the outside world, for receiving packages from abroad lest they be suspected of trafficking in selling the packages' contents for profit. But since I began poring over those old letters, many of which were handwritten in Russian or German, it crossed my mind that my mother may have also been worried that she herself could get into trouble. This notion was confirmed recently when I read in a book about American aid to the USSR that the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had put the "Council for American-Soviet Friendship" on its list of "disloyal" organizations.

Repeated searches of the ever-growing Internet for names and subject matter which I've made previously, often turn up bits of information of particular interest to me, even if they are sometimes only trivial. For instance, recently I happened to discover on the Internet that the Arieh BEHAM, the physician husband of the daughter of my grandfather's first cousin, who I knew had founded the Pasteur Institute in Jerusalem in 1913, had also coined the word "kalavet" which means "rabies" in Hebrew.

I am fortunate in being able to do the sort of research I enjoy not only on the ever-expanding Internet, but also in a great University library - that is, when I can find free parking space nearby it-and, despite my very poor financial situation, I spend too much money on books I want to own so that I can refer to them easily and often. I also know how to find books and articles on the subjects I want to learn about or about which other "genners" inquire.

Finally, my having entered the surnames in which I am personally interested in Jewishgen's Family Finder, joined several of Jewishgen's Special Interest Groups, and several other mail groups, and listed my family surnames after my signature to every e-mail I have sent, has resulted in making some distant familial connections with several of the strangers who have written to me. And it has been largely because of some of those who are interested in the architecture of New York City, who have written to me or to whom I have written about my father, that I have been able to compile a fairly large but still only partial list of the many buildings he designed, some of which can be seen on the Internet.

Copyright 2003 Belarus SIG and Naomi Fatouros

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