On March 19, 1906, my maternal grandparents, Archic and Elkie Blistein, arrived at Ellis Island on the RMS Umbria. The Umbria’s voyage began nine days earlier in Liverpool but my grandparents’ journey began in a village in the Russian Empire, possibly the shtetl Bazaliya in what is now Ukraine. With them came two infant sons and my great-grandmother, Fagel. My cousins and I had planned a reunion in March of 2006 to celebrate our grandparents’ arrival.
My Uncle Ed, one of those two infants who arrived on the Umbria, died in September of 1985. Several years later an envelope arrived in the mail. My aunt had sent me a treasure trove of documents relating to my grandparents’ immigration and their quest for United States Citizenship. Why did she send these documents to me? It would have seemed more likely that they should have gone to one of her daughters or to my cousin Patty, all of whom were older than me. I speculate that Aunt Belle sent these family documents to me because I was the only male. No matter my aunt’s reason for sending me that envelope, receiving those documents motivated me to renew the exploration of my heritage.
Elkie’s oldest brother had come to America earlier and made his home in Providence, RI. It is in Providence that Elkie and Archic first put down roots in America. Sometime after 1913 the family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Archic began his life in Pittsburgh as a huckster, peddling produce from a horse drawn cart. Later he owned a potato business in the Strip District, Pittsburgh’s marketplace for wholesale foods.
Archic and Elkie had three children who grew to adulthood, my mother Lil, my Uncle Ed, and my Uncle Mitch. Mitch studied drama at Carnegie Tech, worked in the theatre, and eventually became a professional photographer. For professional reasons he changed his name to Mitchell Bliss.
On their face, these details are not important, but knowledge of them plays a key role in this JewishGen success story.
Armed with documents my aunt provided, and with the tidbits of knowledge that I had gathered in a variety of other ways, I began to record what I knew in Family Tree Maker software. I used Ancestry.com as a resource for new or supporting data and was able to document the immigrant generation and a significant amount of information about successive generations. There was nothing to be found on prior generations.
Then, somehow, I stumbled upon JewishGen. It was the resource that would lead me to those generations past—or so I thought!
In 1999, to facilitate my research, I posted our family information on JewishGen’s Family Tree of the Jewish People. Over a period of years I also posted inquiries on the Family Finder.
Mitchell Bliss, early 1930s.
Click here for photo of son Richard at a similar age.
Now, turn the clock back to 1930. Uncle Mitch, the drama student, whose surname was now Bliss, traveled to Los Angeles seeking work. There was none to be found. A close friend had been more successful finding work in Seattle. Uncle Mitch made the journey north and found work. He found romance, too.
Her name was Evelyn. Their relationship was not just a fling but was ongoing and serious; it was a relationship about which our family had no knowledge for another 70 years. Later in 1930 Uncle Mitch moved back to Pittsburgh, leaving Evelyn behind. What he may not have known was that Evelyn was pregnant, and that he was also leaving behind an unborn son. Richard Bliss was born in January 1931.
Now, fast forward to just before Thanksgiving, 2005. Busy at work on some household project or another, I decided to take a time out to check my email. Little did I know what would come next!
My inbox contained a message from Michele Bliss Buell. She was not someone I knew but the name struck a cord; it was remarkably similar to my uncle’s name—Mitchell Bliss. Then, I read her email. In short, it said, “I think we’re related.” “NO WAY!” was my immediate reaction. It simply was not possible that there were unknown relatives lurking out there somewhere. Somewhat annoyed and anxious to get back to my project, I wrote a curt reply. Being related was not a reasonable possibility, I was too busy to reply at length, but would later share some family history that would conclusively show that we were not related! I was extremely skeptical, but still there was her name—Michele Bliss Buell.
Later in the day, I sat down at the computer to draft a more detailed response; it was a fairly lengthy history of the Blistein family: immigrants from Russia, Jewish, lived in Providence then Pittsburgh, Grandpa worked in the produce yards, and on and on… Clearly we were not related!
Her reply? She was even more convinced than before and explained why. Hmm. My skepticism began to wane.
Michele Bliss Buell, Richard Bliss’s daughter, was a woman with a mission. She had a fairly complete genealogy of Evelyn’s family but there was nothing to document about her paternal grandfather. Evelyn had related that Dick’s father, Mitchell Bliss, was the child of Russian immigrants, that the family was Jewish, and had lived in Providence and in Pittsburgh.
Michele used every conceivable resource. The Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) had a family history center near her home. Even with the help of a very motivated volunteer she found nothing. A trip to the LDS library in Salt Lake City was equally fruitless. On-line tools, including JewishGen, were of no help, either. The problem was that she was looking for Mitchell Bliss, not Mitchell Blistein.
Then the LDS volunteer had the idea to search on known factors excluding the name Mitchell Bliss. That search yielded multiple possibilities, one of which fit perfectly—the Blistein family in Pittsburgh. Michele was confident that she had found her Mitchell Bliss and, using all of the data she found, constructed a hypothetical family tree. But this was just a theory with no documentation to prove it.
Newly United Half-Siblings Richard and Patty, 2006.
Click here for photo of Richard’s father Mitchell in later years.
Michele went back to JewishGen and other sites to see if she could find a connection. Repeatedly, her searches failed. But one day in November of 2005 a JewishGen search yielded success—a family tree that matched; the one that I had posted. Her next step was the email to me; the email to which I had given such a curt response.
There were subsequent emails back and forth, and with each volley my waning skepticism dissolved even further. Like Michele’s Mitchell Bliss, my Uncle Mitch was raised in Pittsburgh in a Russian Jewish family, had studied drama, and worked on the West Coast in 1930. I was all but convinced, but when we exchanged pictures any doubt that I had totally evaporated. The physical resemblance between my uncle Mitch and Dick Bliss was amazing. I had no doubt that they were father and son, and that I had a new cousin.
Sometime after returning to Pittsburgh from the West Coast, Uncle Mitch was married. He and my Aunt Bea had a daughter, Patty, my oldest cousin and an only child.
Of course, it was my job to share all of this newfound information with Patty and tell her that she had a half-brother. My expectation was denial; I was wrong. Just as it had been for me, the evidence was convincing to Patty. She was more than willing to welcome Dick and his family into our own.
First Cousins United at the Blistein Family Reunion, New York City, 2006. Click here for photo of entire Family Reunion.
The Blistein Family Reunion at Ellis Island was just a few months away. We invited Dick, his wife Janet, and of course, Michele. Dick was hesitant, but Michele was insistent. All three decided to attend.
It must have been incredibly hard for them to walk into the room where much of the family had already gathered for the first night of our reunion. In seconds, however, we knew that we were a family.
JewishGen did not lead me to information about generations past, but its role in this story is essential. Without my posting and Michele’s repeated searches, without JewishGen, our family would not be reunited and our lives would not be as rich.
Carlisle, Pennsylvania, USA
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