ONLINE NEWSLETTER
(No. 7/2007 – December 2007)
Editor: Fran Bock

We thank Sarah Greenberg for sharing her experiences in tracing her own ancestors, and for her helpful advice on how to begin, and how to sustain the journey.

 

Sarah’s excitement at each success is something to which we can all relate. The joy at finding living connections is less common, but patience and persistence may pay off.

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This article is copyrighted by Sarah Greenberg.

Reprinting or copying of this article is not allowed
without prior permission from the copyrightholders
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Re-Connecting The Mendelsons:The Journey From Mogilev (Belarus), Russia, To United States

By Sarah Greenberg, Great-Granddaughter Of Anna (Mendelson) Rakoff

I had the wonderful experience of visiting with my grandmother’s first cousin Ruth Wiener on my trip into Queens, New York on January 14th , 2007. I have been working on my family tree for 5 years now and ever since my grandmother, also named Ruth, passed away in February of 2006, I have been more determined than ever to find out about her family and my roots.

 

So, that’s where my genealogical journey began 5 years ago. I had no clue as to where to start looking for information on my grandmother’s side of the family. All I had to go on in the beginning was my great-grandmother’s maiden name of Elka/Anna Mendelson. When my grandmother Ruth (Rakoff) Faikes was alive she use to talk about her uncles, Samuel & Louis, but at the time I was not old enough to realize who they were or even care.

 

So, basically that’s where I started, combing through lots of genealogical resources, online and off, to help me trace these ancestors of mine. The first step I took was to use Ancestry.com (commercial website) and search their wonderful databases of census records, ship passenger manifests and other data. Once I located my great-grandmother on the census, I then proceeded to search for her two brothers, Samuel & Louis. This was not an easy thing to find for Mendelson is a pretty common Jewish surname, but with more clues I was able to narrow them down. It’s always best to go into your research with some estimates of dates and name spelling variations, because as great as these records are, I have found many mistakes with the transcription of them.

 

I already knew that these three siblings settled in Brooklyn, New York. Finding all three siblings, Anna, Louis, & Samuel, on the census helped me to determine when they came to America. My next step was to find their passenger manifests, which gave me the birth place of Mogilev. That was a crucial part of the puzzle needed for research. This task was not easy either, for in order to find them on the ship’s manifests you have to know what name they traveled under, otherwise you will have a difficult time locating them, if at all. I found this out the hard way, but you learn all the tricks and quirks as you go along in your research. In my case my great-grandmother Anna (Mendelson) Rakoff came to America in March of 1911 under the name Elke Mandelsohn. I was not able to find this bit of information until I ordered her naturalization record.

 

 

Some of the Mogilev Mendelsons, taken in Russia prior to 1912

 

Once I had exhausted any and all information from Ancestry, I went to my next step, which was ordering various birth, marriage, & death records on all three siblings from various New York City vital records offices. These vital records are very helpful when doing family research. They gave me lots more information as to the names of the parents (Morduhk & Beila-Ryvka [Katz] Mendelson) and next of kin at the time of death. I also utilized the great online indexes for birth, marriages and death records for New York to help me narrow down the correct record on my ancestors.

 

These indexes are located on italiangen.org (Italian Genealogical Society). I had the opportunity last summer to help put some of these indexes online by volunteering to enter the information into a simple database. Before these indexes were created, I would have to order several records until I found the right one for my ancestors. It took me 5 years to get to this point, because a lot of this research takes time, money and, above, all patience. Never give up, even if you hit a brick wall. If that happens, it’s best to leave it alone for a while. Then you should regroup all of your information and try a different path of research -- it’s worked for me.

 

I have also found it very helpful to have an online family tree to which I am always adding information as I go along in my research. I have utilized Rootsweb.com by posting information in the surname message boards, hoping for feedback of any kind. Another great tool is Jewishgen.org & Yadvashem.org. Jewishgen has tons of great resources for those searching their Jewish roots and Yadvashem has a great Holocaust database of people from around the globe who have submitted POT’s (Pages Of Testimony) on loved ones lost to the Holocaust. It wasn’t until last year when I came to a crossroads in my research. I had come as far as I could go with US records. I also never thought about finding any living relatives, because I did not think there were any.

 

Then one day in August of 2006 I got an e-mail out of the blue, from a gentleman who saw all my postings on the internet and thought we might be related. In the past, I have received many such e-mails which never panned out, so imagine my shock and excitement when this person turned out to be the son of my grandmother’s first cousin (whose maiden name was Mendelson). So, that is how my 5 year journey has led me to make a real connection with 82 year old Ruth (Mendelson) Wiener, daughter of Samuel & Emma (Kaplan) Mendelson.

 

My visit with Ruth was very enjoyable for both of us. I learned a lot about my grandmother & great-grandparents who lived in Brooklyn, New York, for many years. My grandmother Ruth Faikes was born in Brooklyn, September 1922, and her cousin in 1925, so they were only three years apart in age. I learned that they were very close growing up, but that they grew apart after they each got married. They lost touch in the 1980’s when my grandmother moved to Connecticut to be closer to her grandkids, of which I am the youngest (out of 4) . Ruth also told me that her father Samuel was most likely one out of 13 siblings, which surprised me and made me want to find out what happened to them all. Ruth even related to me a story that I have heard several times, but have been unable to prove.

 

Apparently my great-grandmother Anna (Mendelson) Rakoff was employed by the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and survived the fire. The story goes that Anna was not feeling well on the day of the fire, and went to use the bathroom. It turned out to be the only area not locked, so she was able to exit to safety. According to the story, when she came out of the bathroom, she had a funny feeling that something was wrong and left the building. I do have a picture of my great-grandmother in a sewing factory, but I am unable to determine if it is indeed that factory or another. Also since Anna arrived in March of 1911 when the tragedy occurred, I find it highly unlikely. I am sure there was more than one factory that had fires like this, and I hope to one day find out which one it is.

 

Anna (Mendelson) Rakoff

 

After getting all the information I could from talking to my newly found relative Ruth (Mendelson) Wiener, I finally decided it was time to see if I could trace any information on my great-grandmother and her siblings from her birthplace. Through all my research of census data, ships manifests, vital records and naturalization papers I had already pieced together that all three siblings originally came from Mogilev, Belarus, Russia. I still had no proof to back that claim. I started researching and asking questions about this town/village called Mogilev. I did a lot of this research via the internet. I wanted to know if there were any vital records that survived. One of my postings got a reply. A research group based in Minsk, Russia contacted me via e-mail and said they could help me with my research. I had to really think a while before I decided to have them work for me because the research was costly.

 

A couple of weeks after that, I came across an index of male births on a Jewishgen.org database, including four male births listing the father as Morduhk. I knew without a doubt that I had found something. So I teamed up with my cousin Ruth on further research into our Mendelson ancestors to cut the cost of the research in half. I contacted the Minsk research group back and had them proceed to work on my behalf in the archives located in Minsk, Russia. What I got out of it was the names of three more of my great-grandmother’s siblings and their birth years, making it a total of 6 siblings out of the supposed 13. I knew I was getting close.

 

I was getting more excited with each new find, as was my cousin Ruth. A week after the research was concluded, I came across a direct hit on the YadVashem web site, with a POT that definitely was connected to my ancestry. I got very excited and contacted my cousin Ruth and her son Marc immediately. Her son found the contact address for the submitter of the POT, which has led us to two other descendants. I was practically jumping on air to have had another breakthrough, and to now have three living connections. The two women are Bela Rozovskaya & Ina Lerner, both granddaughters of Movsha Mendelson, who was a son of Morduhk and a sibling to my great-grandmother. These two women, both survivors of the Holocaust, lived most of their lives in Russia, until immigrating to the US in the 1990’s and settling in Denver, Colorado.

 

Ruth Wiener had the opportunity to visit with the two women in Colorado the week of April 4-9, 2007. Ruth’s son Marc & his wife Elsa also went. I was not able to go at that time. They were able to record a little of their conversations with Bela, who even though her accent was thick was the better speaker out of the two women. So, now we have learned that some did die in the Holocaust. Bela lost her mother and infant brother. Through unknown circumstances her father wound up marrying his sister-in-law after his brother got drafted into the Russian army and killed during the war. So, Bela’s cousin Ina now became her sister as well.

 

At this point I got even more determined to find additional information. Once again I had the research group work with me to find out the names of these other siblings. The results this time around gave me the names and birth years of 5 more siblings, for a total of 11. Also I now have the death date for the mother Beila-Ryvka (my great-great-grandmother), who died of a severe kidney disease in Mogilev in 1917 at the age of 60. The death date of the father Morduhk still remains a mystery. Armed with all this new information I hope to trace this line as far back as the records will allow.

 

I am still amazed to have come this far, to know that there are living descendants and to hear about their lives growing up before, during and after the war. All of this would not have been possible if I had not been working for the history department of my local public library. That’s where I got my drive and passion for doing my genealogy, since I do it on a daily basis for patrons local and around the globe. Also a big thanks goes out to Yad Vashem, for without them I would not have found the other connection which has brought me to the point of filling my Mendelson tree with more names. The mystery/hunt still continues for me, for I have yet to uncover the fate of all my great-grandmother’s siblings.

 

For all those out there just starting your research: please keep in mind that it’s a step-by-step process and takes time. The more information you have to work with, the better your chances are for getting accurate results in your research. Always talk to any and all living relatives and take lots of notes. Even though the internet is a global database of information, know that not everything is available online. You will have to do most of the detective work yourself in a lot of these archives. That’s where your local library, vital records office, and genealogical societies come in handy. I myself find it very fun and exciting when I get to comb through the archives and find a missing clue.

 

 

Copyright 2007 Belarus SIG and Sarah Greenberg

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