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Grandfather Boris and Tapestries of Ryazan

Discovering Boris Bobroff in Ryazan and Racine

“I got an email from someone who told me the only thing he knew about the Bobroffs is that they 'were an engineering family’ in Russia. Bingo! This small tip opened up a huge door to a man I had never met.”

By Anne Bobroff-Hajal,
lightly edited by Meredith Hoffman

Boris Bobroff and his voting machine

Bornett Bobroff demonstrates his voting machine to Congress, 1921


This past April, Anne Bobroff-Hajal posted a lengthy and excited "success story” to the JewishGen Discussion List. The editors of Success! Stories contacted Anne—we’re always on the lookout for new and different varieties of successful family searches—and found her treasure trove of a blog, where she weaves fascinating, detailed accounts of the bygone life of the Jewish communities of Ryazan and Belarus. The story that we publish here starts with Anne’s slightly edited April post. —MH

Mysterious Grandfather Boris

Date: 2010April29 12:52:21 PM EDT
To: “JewishGen Discussion Group” <>
Subject: Boris Bobroff success story, & seeking further info

I’ve found some amazing information about my Russian Jewish grandfather, Boris L. Bobroff (in the US, Bornett L. Bobroff).

The two keys to this success were a seemingly small tip from a JewishGen responder and the fact that Google Books has scanned a lot of out-of-print books and made them available online.

To go back to the beginning.... My grandfather died before I was born, and I knew almost nothing about him except that he was an inventor with a small factory, Teleoptic, in Racine, Wisconsin.  He had invented automobile turn signals and other electrical signaling devices and lived in Wisconsin from his early twenties until his death. I had endlessly googled everything I could think of relating to him, with little luck.

Bornett Bobroff and some of the turn signals he invented

Then, several years ago, I put up a query on the JewishGen Family Finder about Boris (or Bornett) Bobroff. A while later, I got an email from some one who told me the only thing he knew about the Bobroffs is that they “were an engineering family” in Russia. Bingo! This small tip opened up a huge door to a man I had never met.

When I googled “Bobroff” together with “engineering,” I found the most extraordinary documents. It turned out that my grandfather was deeply involved with the (illegal in the US) effort to try to establish trade between the US and the Bolshevik government around 1920. He did this via another company I'd never heard of, his Bobroff Foreign Trading and Engineering Company in Milwaukee. I discovered that my grandfather was picked up by the US Bureau of Investigation (the predecessor of the FBI) on his return from Russia in 1920, along with various items on his person:

“machinery catalogues, specifications, correspondence regarding the shipment of various equipment, etc., to Russian ports. Mr. Bobroff was closely questioned by Agent Davis and the customs authorities, and a detailed report of same will be sent to Washington.”

The Bureau of Investigation assumed that my grandfather wrote the letter they confiscated from him, though after further research, I think it’s possible he was delivering it from some one else. I found the full letter online. It was addressed to Kenneth Durant at the Soviet Bureau in Philadelphia. It’s very long and difficult to read, but it’s a fascinating look into the efforts to achieve trade between the US and Russia following the revolution. (I have since found some further information about this in scholarly books and articles, including my grandfather's involvement).

When I find a valuable web site for a given locality, I’ve learned I need to spend a lot of time becoming familiar with the site and hunting around on it. Many of these web sites are massive. A number of times I’ve thought I’d exhausted a site’s resources, only to find startling treasures on another day of searching. —AB-H

More recently, following this same line of googling, to my utter amazement, I found that Google Books had scanned the record of the 1921 US House Committee on Foreign Affairs investigation of “Conditions in Russia” following the Russian Revolution [Conditions in Russia: Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, 66th Congress, Jan. 31, 1921, pp. 33-57]. Included in the book were many pages of testimony by my grandfather! I was able to download the entire record, including the twenty-five pages of my grandfather’s “voice.”

During the Congressional hearings, my grandfather was questioned in detail about his trip to Russia and his intentions in making the then-illegal trip. My grandfather had secured $6,000,000 in contracts to supply the Russians with boots and machinery. For his part, he was appealing to the US government to end their freeze on allowing the Bolsheviks to pay for such trade goods using “tsarist” gold.

It’s hard to figure out, based on the testimony alone, whether my grandfather was motivated solely as a businessman trying to make money, or whether he was also dedicated to helping the Bolsheviks achieve diplomatic recognition by the US government.

There were one or two very wispy stories in my family about my grandfather’s involvement in trade with Russia after the Revolution. But what I found thanks to that little tip from a JewishGenner gave me far, far more than any of my living family members had known. To me, this is a huge success story.

I’m continuing to look for more information about this episode in my grandfather’s life, about his life in Minsk and Ryazan before he emigrated in 1905 to avoid the draft at the age of 22, and about Jews in Ryazan or Jewish engineers in Minsk. Thank you,
Anne Bobroff-Hajal

We were so intrigued by what Anne has put together on her blog about Ryazan, that we asked her to share with us some of her genealogical and literary adventures since she made her initial successful connection. There follow some excerpts from what she wrote. —MH

Tapestries of Ryazan and Barysaw

I’ve always wanted to be able to imagine the world of my grandfather in Russia and in the US after he came here in 1905. I wish to be able to envision the people my 22-year-old grandfather saw everyday, his conversations and pursuits, the passions he shared with others he knew. Who did he pass in the street each day on his way to work? Who did he say good morning to? Who did he eat and relax with at night?

In addition to Google Books, I also use Google to search for photos of locations where our ancestors may have walked or lived or worked, to help create a feeling for the world in which they lived. —AB-H

I’ve pursued my desire by writing a continuing series of online stories—what I call my “tapestries”—about people who lived in the same towns in the Russian Empire that my grandfather did. The people in my articles are the ancestors of JewishGenners that I've connected with using the JewishGen Communities Database—my most important tool. Using the “Contact this member” form in the Family Finder, I’ve written tens of emails to members of the towns I’m researching. Each person who has corresponded with me has helped me find more colorful threads to twine and knot into my tapestry.

My articles are detailed and elaborate. For each tale of these ancestors of my JewishGen colleagues, I do extensive research around their lives in the 19th and early 20th century. I interlace the many tiny threads of information I find about people, their work, and the places they lived, until a tapestry gradually emerges illustrating their daily lives. I don’t know that my grandfather knew the specific people I’m writing about, but these are the kinds of people who made up his universe, the sorts of people who shaped my grandfather’s world.

The factory in Ryazan where Boris Bobroff worked
"in the capacity of an engineer"
When information about specific people seems impossible to find, I research the work they did. For example, my correspondent Leon Kull discovered that two of our ancestors both worked for Singer Sewing Machine in Ryazan, Russia (and lived in the same Ryazan building). I was able to figure out what daily tasks they each probably did on the job at Singer, and how Singer’s operation in Russia—of which they were part—created the second largest market for sewing machines in the world after the United States. Jewish employees were sought after by the Russian Singer Company because they had skills that many Russian nationals didn’t have.

Annes Strategies Could Help You, Too

I use translation sites like Nice Translator and Google Translate. Nice Translator translates multiple languages of your choice simultaneously. So if you need to transliterate the name of a town or your ancestor into, say, Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian for an exhaustive websearch, you can do it all at one go on Nice Translator. —AB-H

I recheck names and search terms on Google regularly because items come and go. I found a wonderful old photo of my grandfather for sale on eBay! I also found for sale the elegant automobile turn signals he manufactured sometime in the 1920s-30s. I corresponded with the seller, an antique-light collector who sent me additional photos. If I hadn’t been constantly checking, I would have missed these connections. I’ve also found a couple of small articles about my grandfather’s inventions in old magazines that are now online.

My grade-school Russian grammar is still solid enough that I’m able to decipher my way through Russian web sites using my Russian-English dictionary along with online translation tools. Doing this, I’ve discovered that Russian-language web sites are so rich with an extraordinary range of Russian Empire material that I suspect it would be worthwhile for non-Russian-readers to hire a good Russian speaker for a bit of internet research. For example, I found an old photograph of the Ryazan, Russia, factory where my grandfather worked “in the capacity of an engineer.”

January 2011
White Plains, New York, USA

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Research Notes and Hints

You can read Anne's «tapestries» here: “Mysteries of My Grandfather”, especially “The World of Jews in Ryazan” and “The World of Jews in Borisov/Barysaw.”

Anne says: “So far, I’ve written twelve articles about JewishGenners' forebears who lived in Ryazan, Russia, and Barysaw, now in Belarus. And I have more ancestors in the wings preparing to step out on stage.
“If you would like your Borisov/Barysaw or Ryazan family included in future posts and have pre-1917 information to share about them, please email me. I will respond to all contacts, and write about your family as time and material permit."

Anne makes extensive use of the JewishGen Community Database and the JewishGen Family Finder, which she calls her “most important tools" for connecting with other JewishGenners from the towns she's researching.

You can search the Community Database for the name of the town that you're researching, using a variety of search strategies and using any of the many alternate names that the place has been known by, including its Yiddish name and any historical names. Once you've found the page for your town, you'll find extensive historical and geographical information about the community; links to nearby Jewish communities; links to additional resources and information about the community; and a link to the JewishGen Family Finder database, where you may be able to connect with other JewishGenners who are also researching your town. —MH

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Updated by MH on Wednesday, February 2, 2011.

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