The Poretzkyn Family in America:
The First Generations

By J.R. Rothstein


This history outlines the life of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Paretzky(n) (1856-1933) and his siblings, and children, residents of the village of Tolochin, a small shtetl in Central Belarus. The history traces their individual and collective decision to migrate from their homeland to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century and their subsequent acculturation in their new homes in Brooklyn, New York.


This history would not be possible without the research and testimony of Ruth Paretzky Hershkovitz, Bonnie Brodie, Hank Plotkin, Sylvia Weinstein, Edith Weinstein, Beth Levy, Rana Morris, Rebecca Grutman and others. This history synthesizes their research into a single narrative about the first generations of the Poretzkyn family in America. [1]

The Origin of the Name Poretzkyn

The original surname of the family was Poretzkyn. There are different theories as to the origin of the surname:

  1. The surname originated from Perez - a name of many people who escaped from the explusion of the Jews from Spain and settled in the Russian pale of settlement.

  2. According to Ruth Poretsky Hershkovitz, the surname is associated with the name or title “Poret.” That term was associated with bourgeoisie status and land ownership in Eastern Europe.

  3. Gregory Poretskin states as follows: “what I know about the surname is that in Belarus there is a place called Porechka which means “Smordina” in Russian, which translates to a redberry and people that lived in that place had my surname.”

  4. Along the lines put forth by Gregory Poretskin, Professor Dmitry Shirochin opines that the name Poretzkin is most probably derived from the name “Porech'e” which means “near/of the river” “rechka” = river in Russian. There were, and there are, many villages in Belarus, particularly in Mogilev region, which are called Porech'e. The Yiddish suffix “Kin” connotates belonging to a place or person (i.e. the surname Rivkin ‘belonging to Rivka’) or in our case, Porechkin, belong to or being of, the river.

  5. Another theory, put forth by the author, is that Poretzkyn is derived from the surname Berezkin which is a generic non-Jewish surname from the Berezina River near Babruysk.

  6. The author opines that the surname could indicate descent from an individual named Peretz and that the ‘kin’ is the Yiddish suffix indicating “of Peretz.”

It’s unclear as to why some members of the Moshe Bunim Poretzkyn family started using the name Poretsky/Paretzky/Poret while others retained Paretzkyn/Poretskin/Poretzkyn. [2] The surname has been spelled in a variety manners phonetically including Poretsky, Poretzky and Paret. Throughout this document, I intentionally employ different variations of the surname much in the way members of the family did. As of 1875, the surname Poretzkyn was used in public records containing references to this family. It’s unclear when the surname Poretzky was adopted but possibly during the 1890s or even upon arrival in the United States.

DNA Analysis

Y-Chromosome DNA testing was conducted on Nathaniel Powers, grandson of Nathan Poretzky, great-grandson of Zvi Hirsch Poretzkyn. Extrapolating his results to all Poretzkyn men reveals that the Poretzkyn men belong to Haplogroup E-M35 also known as E1b1b1. Haplogroup E-M35, which accounts for approximately 18% to 20% of Ashkenazi and 8.6% to 30% of Sephardi Y-chromosomes. Its presence among Jews all over the world from Yemen to Europe, from Turkey to Spain, argue geneticists, suggests that Haplotype E-M35 was one of the major founding lineages of the biblical Jewish population. Poretzkyn men are not Kohanim or Levites but are rather Israelites.

The E-M35 marker is rare among non-Jewish Europeans and is more widespread among Near Eastern populations, many of whom are Arabized and Islamisized, and confirms overwhelmingly the middle-eastern origin of the Poretzkyn male line as demonstrated by the above migration chart. Genetically, the Poretzkyn marker clusters most closely with Jewish men from Belarus and more distantly with a small group of Roman, Spanish and Arab men. Further DNA testing and upgrades are needed to resolve questions regarding the historical migration of this male line and resolve conclusively the origin of the Poretzkyn Y-chromosome.

Geography & Overview of Tolochin, Belarus

Before the Russian Revolution, the Jews of Belarus were forced to live in a region known as “The Pale of Settlement” which spanned from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. About 5 million Jews (94% of the total Jewish population, about 12% of the Russian population) lived in this region. The poverty rate was high and the Jews had the worst jobs, worked for the lowest wages, and in the most demeaning positions. Pogroms occurred frequently throughout the Russian Empire. The Poretzkyn, Rutstein, and Epstein families, who appear to have been closely associated, were concentrated in the region between the city of Minsk and the town of Orsha. These families settled its smaller hamlets or villages, primarily Tolochin.

Tolochin or Talachyn (Belarusian: Талачы́н, Łacinka: Tałačyn, pronounced [taɫaˈtʂɨn]) or Tolochin (Russian: Толо́чин; Polish: Tołoczyn, Lithuanian: Talačynas) and Yiddish: טאָלאָטשין was and is a small village in the Viciebsk Region of Belarus, an administrative center of the Talachyn district. It is perhaps the coldest city in Belarus in winter, with a record low of -42.2C. The town was founded by Jews and first mentioned in 1433. In the third quarter of the 17th century historical documents mention new Jewish settlements Bobr, Belynichi, Gory, Glusk, Dubrovno, Krynki, Mir, Ross, Staroselie and Tolochin. For most of its history, Tolochin was a shtetl with a majority Jewish population.

In 1880 Old Tolochin had 160 wooden houses, 110 of which belonged to Jewish families. New Tolochin had 93 houses, 27 of which were Jewish. There were also 4 houses made of stone – 3 in Old Tolochin and 1 in the new part. On the whole 1,119 Jews were working in Old and 253 in New Tolochin in 1880. It should be noted that from 1792 Old Tolochin was a part of the Russian Empire. New Tolochin was founded in the second quarter of the 19th century on the western bank of the Drut River and was a part of Mogilev province.

From 1850 to 1905 the Jews constituted the overwhelming majority of the population, possibly as high as 90%. According to a Jewish resident of Tolochin, Anatoloy Schneider, the Russian authorities put a lot of effort into the military and financial development of this region. People from other towns would come to Tolochin to buy things – there were a lot of wholesale shops, stores, kiosks and a big trade square. The shops sold everything: groceries, haberdashery, pottery, fabrics, clothes and meat. Fish was brought three times a week from places that had lakes or rivers. Zarechnaya (today Engels) Street was one of the longest. It started not far from the trade square, crossed the Drut River and went on westward. This is where the post office and the telegraph where located. Craftsmen also lived here: tailors, shoemakers, and blacksmiths. The street ended with a highway. Jews were traditionally involved in selling timber, cereals, vodka, fish, confectionery and small wares. Jews were also known to be excellent craftsmen: blacksmiths, potters, tailors, shoemakers, tanners, barbers and bakers. Trade, however, remained their major occupation.

The Poretzkyn Family Tree in Europe

Little is known about the family genealogical structure as it existed in Europe in the period prior to immigration to the United States. Based upon oral history interviews, we can postulate that at roughly the turn of the twentieth century, the family looked approximately something like this [3]:

The Children of Moshe Bunim & Breina Poretzkyn

The earliest known progenitor of the Poretzkyn family is Moshe Bunim Poretzkyn. Moshe Bunim married Bertha (Breina?). [4] To them were born at least four children: (1) Mordechai; (2) Basha; (3) Ilja [5]; (4) Zvi Hirsch.

Archival Records hint that Mordachai Poretzkyn (1854/5 – 19??) may have been elder of the four known children. [6] Research reveals that in 1874/5, Mordechai was drafted into the Russian Army. This event would have been traumatic to Moshe Bunim and Breina who lived through the age of the Cantonist schools, khappers (kidnappers), and other discriminatory policies of Czar Nicholas The First. From 1827 to 1874, the couple had witnessed children as young as eight years old drafted into the Russian Army for twenty-five-year terms where many of these children suffered from starvation, physical and psychological pressure to convert to Christianity. [7] An example of this is what occurred to Benjamin Epstein, the elder brother of Moshe Bunim’s son-in-law, Joseph Epstein. Benjamin had been drafted into the Russian Army as a twelve-year old boy and served twenty-five years. After the twenty-five years, he came out of the army at the age of 37. Traumatized by the experience, Benjamin sought to regain his faith and begin his life. The family helped him do that by arranging a career and marriage with Moshe Bunim’s granddaughter.

Few of the children drafted into the Russian army were able to remain observant Jews during military service, and the majority of those that survived were not as lucky as Benjamin to ever see their families again. The military draft devastated the Jewish community, increased class tensions, and eroded confidence in rabbinic leadership and created a consistent sense of panic among Jewish parents, including Moshe Bunim and Breina, that their children would be taken away from them by the state. Their greatest fears manifested when their son Mordechai was drafted into the Russian army in 1875. However, lucky for Mordechai, in 1874, Alexander II engaged in a series of reforms which reduced military service to six years and raised the draft age. After his years of service, Mordechai married a woman named Bella and had three daughters, the first of which, Basya, was born in 1885. [8]

Basha Poretzkyn (1854/5 – 1926) married Yosef Epstein of Orsha in an arranged marriage. [9] Basha left Tolochin to live in Orsha with Joseph and his family. Although Basha had an arranged marriage she and Yosef eventually fell very much madly in love with one another—a love that made a deep and generational impression on their children and grandchildren. Joseph and Basha lived in Orsha on a farm, and lived off the land. They ate red meat only on the holidays. Otherwise during the week, and on Shabbat, they ate fish or chicken, which they raised. They also owned a cow which provided them with a regular supply of milk. Joseph owned a shipping business with his cousin, whose Epstein descendants migrated to Scandinavia.

Yosef and Basha were on good terms and had good relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors. These non-Jewish neighbors reportedly saved her life, and those of her children, during the pogroms and raids by the Cossacks by hiding the Epstein-Poretzkyn family in their homes. The couple appeared to have had some disposable cash and were progressive as they hired private tutors to educate their daughters as they were no schools for Jewish girls at the time in Orsha. The Epstein girls learned to read and write Yiddish, Russian, and French.

Basha and Joseph immigrated with each other to the United States. Ruth Poretzky remembers Basha Paretzkyn as a very short, happy woman who lovingly read to her as a child. She died when Ruth was five years old. Basha wouldn’t speak to her children or grandchildren in English but she understood every word. Basha was on excellent terms with her children and her sons and daughters-in-law really loved her and Yosef and would fight among themselves for their attention. After Joseph died, the children and their spouses named their sons after him. Joseph died of a burst appendix in a hospital and everyone blamed the hospital for his death. As a result, many in the Epstein family were skeptical of hospitals and thus Sadie Epstein gave birth to her daughter, Ruth [10] at home.

Zvi Hirsch Poretzkyn (1856 – 1922) was born in approximately 1856 or 1857 in the vicinity of Tolochin, Belarus. He was called Hirsch and Girsch in official records. As a young man, Zvi Hirsch received rabbinic ordination and presumably studied in a Yeshiva—although it is not known which one. Rabbi Zvi Hirsch was reputed to be a learned and wise man, a great Torah scholar, a Talmud chochom, and a tzaddik. He was referred to as the/a “Rav” of Tolochin who mediated disputes between individuals. In his youth, he had been referred to as a “nativ kest.” The system of the nativ kest was practiced by the Jews of Tolochin. The town Jews were motivated by the Torah inspired value that it was more important to marry a daughter to a Torah scholar than to a rich man. In most instances, the parents of a wealthy daughter would take the smart and educated young men and marry their child to him. Zvi Hirsch was apparently one of those young and scholarly men.

Zvi Hirsch married Esther Sarah Dubrow, the daughter of Avraham Elitzur Dubrow and Sima (Sylvia) Fagen. According to Esther’s death certificate, Esther Sarah was also born in Tolochin on March 3, 1861. According to Ruth Poretzky Hershkovitz, the marriage was arranged. Together the couple established/owned an inn, shop, and dairy farm. The family owned a barn and cows and was engaged in some sort of small-scale agricultural farming. Esther Sarah Dubrow was deemed a “baalabusta” as she was the one who primarily managed the inn and ran the diary farm.

Tolochin, being a border town at the time (some say near a main travel route), had many travelers stop and spend the night. The family, and inn, was a proud owner of a seltzer machine. This high-tech machine was a good investment and provided the family a good financial return and additional income. Prior to World War One and the Russian Revolution, the business was profitable enough to allow Zvi Hirsch to focus on his rabbinic studies. Zvi Hirsch was thus able to become the author of many manuscripts on variety of subjects, including Torah, Talmud and Halacha. Unfortunately, all of these works have been lost to history. [11] According to Ruth Poretzky Hershkovitz, “Esther Sarah ran the inn, and Hirsch did not work with his hands, he worked with his head. Esther Sarah was a breadwinner and had a strong business acumen. Zvi Hirsch wasn’t expected to dirty his hands to make a living.” Rather, Zvi Hirsch was the “village wise man” and scholar. He would lead prayers and teach in the synagogue. Yet despite his communal duties, Zvi Hirsch was reported to also be simultaneously a shopkeeper and wheat broker.

The Children of Zvi Hirsch Paretzkyn & Esther Sarah Dubrow

The couple had at least twelve children together. The lives of Zvi Hirsch’s children were heavily shaped by the official policy of the Russian Empire towards its Jewish population as crafted by the Czar’s procurator of the Holy Synod, Constantine Pobedonostev. The policy entailed that “one-third of the Jews should be expelled, one-third should convert to Christianity, and one-third should be killed.”

This policy was somewhat effective in regards to the Poretzkyn family. Four of Zvi Hirsch’s children were murdered through this policy and the rest exiled. Based on oral history accounts, the author posits that one child died/was killed in infancy, two were killed in pogroms (possibly when boarding a train running for their lives from anti-Semitic mobs) and one from disease/famine. Only the names of the eight surviving children are known.

The children of Zvi Hirsch and Esther Poretzky were:

  1. Mordechai Shmuel Max (b. 1878)

  2. Basha “Basya” Bessie (b. March 1885/1888)

  3. Yaakov “Yankel” Jacob (b. March 16, 1887)

  4. Aaron “Ahra” Harry (b. January 15, 1893)

  5. Noach Nachum Nathan (b. 1894)

  6. Breta Breina Bertha (b. January 2, 1900/1902)

  7. Tziporah “Shea” Celia (b. July 1, 1904)

  8. Leah Lillian (b. 1905)

  9. Unknown

  10. Unknown

  11. Unknown

  12. Unknown

Most of the biographical details regarding the lives of these individuals arise in the context of the pogroms and other forms of persecution. The pogroms were a series of raids and riots against the local Jewish population which occurred from the 1820’s through 1935 and which culminated in the Holocaust (1939-1945). The pogroms were organized attempts by local and national authorities to massacre and harass Jews. According to Ruth Poretzky Hershkovitz, the Cossacks would periodically ransack, raid, pillage and rape the Jews of Tolochin. The local Jews would run from village to village and hide with friends or in the forests. These pogroms, often state sponsored, were one of the primary motivations of Jewish families leaving the former Russian Empire, including the Poretzkyn family. It prompted numerous different branches of the family to migrate to the United States and elsewhere.

During the pogroms the sons of Esther Dubrow and Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Poretzkyn would help their sisters climb into barrels and then cover them with apples and potatoes, or on other occasions huddle them behind the tapestries which covered the walls, or help them into the cellars. This was done with the purpose to prevent their sisters from being raped by Cossacks and their non-Jewish neighbors.

Basha, being the oldest girl, some say the oldest child, helped her mother Esther take care of the other children and different arms of the family businesses. Basha, as a result, never received any formal education, something she felt terrible about for the rest of her life. According to Milton Rothstein, “Bessie never had the education the rest of her family had. She worked in the tea house owned by grandfather and raised the many younger children, mostly her sisters.” Rita Kaplan relates that Basha ran away from home and hid among or in a pile of coals because the family would not let her go to school as a child because she was a (older) girl. Bessie was subsequently found but her act of protest did not result in her obtaining an education.

Charity or Tzedaka was a central value in the Poretzkyn-Dubrow household and Basha was raised with daily examples of such charity. A saying of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch, that has been passed down through Basha was that, “it is better to give tsedaka [charity] to nine fakers that don’t deserve, than to turn away one who does.” Bessie took her father’s teaching to a new level and gave charity, food, clothing, to all who asked. People said to her, “you are giving money to worthless fakers.” She would reply, “If I gave to 9 fakers and only one is deserving charity then I am satisfied.” Bessie was good hearted and gave to all charities and beggars. She bought fruit from the peddlers and poor (just) to help them. According to Milton Rothstein, “she was a loving decent slave to her family” in Europe and in the United States. According to Ruth Paretzky Hershkovitz, Basya (Bessie) had an arranged marriage while still in Tolochin while she was still seventeen or eighteen years old. Basha is said to have known her future husband in Tolochin, Belarus but only became romantically involved when she fled her, “slavery” in Russia.”

In or around 1901, Aaron, who was then approximately eleven years old, returned from playing with his friends (or hunting) out in the fields of Tolochin. Aaron found that his family and other members of the community had been herded by (local) mobs into the synagogue. The mobs had the Jews locked inside the synagogue, and had lit the building on fire. Aaron, along with his friends, who had also been playing in the fields, broke open the doors of the synagogue and freed their family and neighbors. The synagogue subsequently was burned to the ground. This was a defining moment in Aaron’s life, and at that moment, he later recalled, he became a Zionist. It was likely around this time, that Aaron was sent to Minsk and apprenticed to a cousin who was a baker. Aaron had been sent along with his brother Nathan to learn the baking trade from this cousin.

Up to four of the Poretzkyn children were murdered in the pogroms. According to Bonnie Brody, “2-4 siblings were killed [by mobs while] boarding the train leaving Tolochin.” It’s not clear if only part of these four or all four were killed boarding the train of Tolochin or whether some were killed in other pogroms and others while boarding the train.

By all accounts, life for the Poretzkyn family was difficult and it appears by 1900 some family members considered leaving Tolochin. Positive reports about life in America coupled with state sponsored antisemitism and pogroms against the Jewish community were factors in favor of the family deciding to leave. [12] One source provides that Mordechai Shmuel, being the eldest, was the first to emigrate to the United States and did so as early as 1900 or 1901—perhaps as a result of the Tolochin Pogrom of 1900. Another account provides that Mordechai Shmuel immigrated with his younger brother, Yankel, in 1906. Official records have not been able to resolve this discrepancy.

Pressure on Jews to leave Belarus increased drastically between 1903 and 1905 when a series of larger pogroms swept the region and led to the death and maiming of many Jews. At the same time, the draft which demanded an extended military service, during an active war with the Empire of Japan, along with the repugnance of serving an empire which actively persecuted Jews and the Poretzkyn family, led the family and many other Jews to consider permanent migration.

According to Ruth Hershkovitz, Yankel was the first (along with Mordechai Shmuel) to depart to the United States. According to one source, Jacob is reported to have arrived either in 1904 or 1906. In or around the same time, Yankel Poretzkyn was drafted into the Russian Army. Unwilling to dedicate his life to a state which did not offer him the benefits of citizenship, Jacob fled to the United States. Deserting the draft was a crime for which the government would engage in collective punishment against the family financially and otherwise. However, despite this, the Poretzkyn family came together and braced themselves for that retaliation.

Upon arrival in the United States at the age 17, Yankel Poretzkyn’s surname was changed to Poret based upon an act of an immigration official and Yankel became Jacob. When Jacob first arrived in the United States, he had the equivalent of $10 in his pocket. Jacob’s first job was as a bricklayer. Mordechai Shmuel became Max and he adopted the surname Paretzky. It is not known what career Max first adopted did upon arrival but he too eventually worked in the real estate industry as a builder. According to the history compiled by Bonne Brodie, the siblings “first lived at 316 E. 7th Street, Brooklyn, N.Y. The family would stay with Max because he had hot water. Max was a builder or ran a lumberyard and liked to play cards.”

Noach Nathan reportedly left Belarus because he had killed someone in self-defense during a pogrom (or was a revenge killing later in retaliation for violence done against his family during a pogrom) and was afraid of being retaliated against in return. Records also provide that he was later drafted into the military.

Sometime between 1905 to 1906, Basha arrived in the United States. Jacob sent her a ticket and she traveled with her brother (not clear which one) to the United States. According to one account, when Basha arrived in the United States, she at first didn’t recognize her future husband, who she had known in Tolochin, because he had remade himself into the likes of a ‘European gentlemen.’ One can imagine all of the siblings dressed in the wares of the shtetl only to remake themselves in America. As soon as she was able, Basha, who became known as Bessie, enrolled in night school to get the education she could not get in Europe.

The siblings were eventually joined by Aaron in 1907 who was the youngest of the boys and who had been living in a house filled of woman in Europe with his sisters. Ruth Hershkovitz describes the feeling of the siblings, particularly of Nathan and Harry, of coming to the United States: “They came to America and they were free—especially after how they lived in Russia with the pogroms and everything. For the first time, they were free, they were free of their parents, they were free of the Jewish laws, they didn’t have to obey somebody. They were on their own. And they made it. But the one thing they had was that they had been taught a trade. They were both bakers. Nathan was a cake maker. And Aaron made fancy breads.” The two would eventually open up a bakery together.

According to Ruth Hershkovitz, in or around 1907, Aaron arrived on the ship Leviathan to the United States when he was approximately fourteen years old. Tziporah Sadie (Zlateh) Epstein, his cousin and future wife, arrived a year later on the same ship. According to Ruth, Aaron Paretzky was a stowaway on the Leviathan. Aaron had a friend whose family had twelve children and decided to go with them. However, when Aaron arrived in the United States at Castle Gardens (which is where immigrants arrived prior to Ellis Island), his friend’s family denied knowing him because they didn’t want to be financially responsible for him. Aaron was to be deported but he told the immigration officials that he had brothers in the United States. The brothers were beckoned and Max and Jacob signed an affidavit stating they would be responsible for Aaron. When Aaron arrived in New York, he was renamed Harry by an immigration official. According to Ruth Hershkovitz, Aaron, or Harry as he was now called, was completely on his own in America. Aaron had been away from home before. Yet nothing in his life could prepare Aaron for navigating the new world alone while his parents remained behind in Europe and his older brothers struggled to establish the family in the United States.

Should the siblings have ever had any doubt about their ability to return to the land of their birth, two announcements from 1909 in a Mogilev province newspaper show that such an option was impossible. The records provide that Orsha county police department was looking for Yankel (the son of Hirsch) Poretzkyn and his siblings Mordukh Shmuila, Noach, Aron, and Basya. The announcement provides that Yankel Paretzkyn was drafted into the military in 1906 but did not appear. A subsequent announcement provides that the Orsha County police department was looking for Noach (the son of Hirsch) Poretzkyn and his siblings Mordukh Shmuila and Basya. The announcement provides that Noach Poretzkyn was drafted by the military in 1907 but did not appear. It is likely around this time period that Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch and Esther were hit with massive fines for their children’s evasion of military service. This no doubt contributed to the economic downturn Zvi Hirsch and Esther experienced in the coming decade.

The Poretzky Children Establish Roots in America

Whatever the order the siblings immigrated, and whatever their exact personal motivations for leaving Belarus, or the exact circumstances of their arrival in the United States, three photos, from approximately 1909 and 1913 show that Max Poretzky, Harry Paretzky, Jacob Poret, Jacob and Bessie Rutstein and Nathan Paretzky were in the United States and that the first grandchildren of Zvi Hirsch and Esther Sarah had been born too. In 1912, at the age of 55, Rabbi Poretzky visited/immigrated the United States but, for whatever reason, decided to return to Tolochin.

Bessie Paretzky and Jacob Rutstein. Brooklyn, New York. Circa 1909.

From Left to Right: Max (or Hirsch?) Paretzky, unknown male (Harry, Max???), Jacob Poret, Jacob Rutstein, Nathan Paretzky. Brooklyn, New York. Circa 1913.

From top Left to Right standing: unknown (Anna?), unknown male, Nathan Paretzky, Anna Poret, Bessie Poretzky Rutstein. Middle row from left to right, sitting: unknown (almost certainly Max), Jacob Poret with infant son Frank Poret, Jacob Rutstein. Row of children from left to right: unknown, unknown, Sidney Poretzky???, unknown, unknown. Brooklyn, New York, circa 1913.

Tolochiner Friends Association

During first decade of the century, the Paretzky brothers and Bessie worked hard to establish themselves in America. Some of the Paretzky siblings and cousins went onto create and support a ‘fareng’ or organization to help other Tolochiners emigrate to the United States and acculturate to their new homeland. The brothers, along with others from the village, formed the Tolochiner Friends Society, whose President was Harry Paretzky. The society was organized officially on December 30, 1914. This society required that its members pay dues and that any person who came from this town could become a member. If a person fell on hard times, or didn’t have a job, the society would help them. The society also had a form of universal health care. It hired a doctor out of university and the society paid the doctor a stipend and the doctor saw members of the society at a discounted rate. The society made sure that to take care of its members who in many cases were part of an extended Jewish family with centuries deep roots in the Tolochin region. Two brothers of Jacob Rutstein (who married Bessie), Nathan and Sam Rutstein, were also members. Benjamin Plotkin, who would later marry into the Paretzky family, was also a member. The minutes and records of the society are presently in the possession of Rebecca Grutman Kirkpatrick.

Zionist Harry Fights For A Jewish State in Palestine

Upon his arrival, Harry worked for his brothers for a period of a time. Then, in or around 1916 or 1917, Harry went with a friend to Montana because the two unsupervised teenage boys had decided that they were going to be sheep ranchers. When the Balfour Declaration was declared, Harry, recalling the persecutions of his youth, and being a proud Zionist and Jew, crossed the border into Canada and joined Allenby’s brigade with the hope of eventually establishing a Jewish State in the Land of Israel.

Harry Paretzky, Allenby’s Brigade, Palestine. Circa 1916.

During his military service, Harry served in Alexandria and in Palestine. When Harry was slated to come home, he contracted malaria and ended up in a hospital in Italy. He survived and arrived back in New York in 1920 where he subsequently married his first cousin, Sadie Epstein.

Harry Paretzky. Allenby Brigade. Palestine 1916-1917.

Rabbi Poretzky & the Youngest Girls Fend For Themselves in Russia

Zvi Hirsch, Esther Sarah, Bertha, Shea and Leah remained behind in Tolochin, including through the first world war and the Russian Revolution. The four other unnamed children, murdered by local non-Jews in the pogroms, had presumably remained too. Shea Poretzky related one instance running away from her home to a shelter after the Cossacks burned their barn in a pogrom. Shea grabbed the Samovar and (Breina) Bertha let the cows out of the barn so the cows would survive and not be burned alive.

During the First World War, all the boys had already left Russia. The boys had left behind the three youngest sisters and their parents. When the Germans came to the village, they burned it down. This is reported to have occurred in or around 1917. However, relative to what was to come to the Jews of Tolochin at the hands of the Russians with the creation of the Soviet Union, the Germans were reported to have been relatively nice to the Jews. However, after the First World War was over, the Russian Revolution started, and the Russians didn’t care to restrain themselves in their hatred of the Jews. They started raping and pillaging in the Jewish villages. The girls, on one occasion, hid behind a long carpet that had been hanging on the wall in order to keep the house neat and warm. They did this to avoid being raped by the Russian soldiers. The girls, with their elderly parents, fled from house to house and then village to village in order to escape the mayhem created by antisemitic mobs. At the same time, famine and drought devastated the region and many in Tolochin and its vicinity starved to death, including relatives of the family.

Rabbi Zvi Hirsch “Harris” Poretzkyn and Esther Sarah Dubrow. Tolochin, Belarus. Circa 1920.

Letter From Zvi Hirsch Poretzky to Children in America

The following is a letter sent from Tolochin, Belarus, or its vicinity, by Zvi Hirsch to Bessie and Jacob asking for more information regarding their lives, and the lives of their siblings, in the New World. The letter references the engagement of Aaron Poretzky and Sadie Epstein which therefore dates the letter to sometime between 1918 and 1920. It is littered with Talmudic sayings and reveals the author to be an educated and literary man. The cursive handwriting, however, is difficult to read and clearly written with a rushed and unsteady hand which made its transcription and translation very difficult and expensive.

Letter from Tzvi Hirsch Poretzkyn to his children. Tolochin, Belarus. Circa 1920.

Due to its great significance, I reproduce the whole letter with its Yiddish-English translation as follows:

Yiddish English


משנכנס אדר מרבים בשמחה כח אדר 2\2 2\8

ליבע קינדער יעקבען ני'. בתי ת' מיט אייערע ליבע קינדער ר נחום-קע ובראיינקע מאיינע באקאנטע אין די נאיי געבארענע דארף - זיי לעב גליקלעך מיט א גוטען מזל מיט לאנגע יאהר מיר זאלען זוכה זאיין ווערט זאיין צו זעהען גיך מיט אייך אלעמען מיט פיל פרייד און מיט גרויס פארגעניגען. מז''ט מז''ט אייך פאר די נאיי גיבארענע קינדער און פאר דער נייער פאר אהרן מיט זלאטע מיר פרייד דאם זייער וואס אונזער בליט האט זיך ניט פאר פרעמד. גיב ג' אז זייער קינד זאהל זאיין מיט ליינגע יאהר מיט גוטע קינדער מיט גוטען מזל בני חיי ומזוני

מאיינע טייערען וואס זאהל איך אייך שראייבען געוויינלעך פארשטייט איר גאנז גוט אין דער צאייט וואס פאר אווערט האט אלעטער אז ווי באקומט איך. גידענק איז מער ווי צוואה- אז איך האב ניט גיזעהן פאהן קיינעם א ווארט ניט קענט איר זיך פארשטעלען וואס פאר א שמחה עס האט אונז געבראכט די בריף פאהן מרדכי שמואל און יעקב זאלען לעבען

With God’s help

When the month of Adar arrives, we increase our joy. [13] 28 Adar 2/2 2/8

Dearest children, Yaakov and Bessie and your beloved children R’ Nachumke and Braynke, who I know, and the children born recently, may they all live long in happiness and prosperity! May we be granted the chance to see each other soon with great joy and great pleasure! Mazal tov, congratulations to you on the children born recently and the new couple Aharon and Zlateh. We are so happy that we are still close and in contact. May God grant their children long lives with good children and good fortune — children who will survive childhood and prosper. [14]

My dearest, what shall I write to you? Surely you understand how much the letters I receive are worth to me. In our times, thinking of one another is more valuable than an inheritance of great fortune, and I have not received a word from either of you. So you can imagine what joy the letter from Mordechai Shmuel and Yaakov brought us, long may they live.

בתי וועסט דו ליינען איבער מרדכי שמואלס לעטער וועסטו זעהן וואס זיי ארבעטין די גאנצע גישעפטין אונזערע איך האב אין זאיין לעטער אויס גישריבען איך ווייל מיט דער פאצ'ט ווי איז באוויסט אז איך בין אקרעמער געוואונליך און שראייב איך אין קראך גייט דער אכין און אין 2ער2ער אלזא פאר קיריץ אייך איך רעכען אז מרדכי שמואלס לעטער איז פאר אלעמען גישריבען גיווארען אלזא – בלאייבט נאר איינס אז מיר זאהל זעהען צו שראייבען און ניט זארגט אונזער גוטער און גרויסער ג' לעבט און פארלאזט ניט קיין מענשין איך האף צו אים אז ער וועט ניט פארלאזען אויף וואייטער. ביז האיינט זאיינען מיר מיט אלעס זאט –דער צערות איז אפשר גרייס 1000 אפונט לחם 3000 פלייש נאר אונזער ג' איז גוט אז ער קען אין הונגער אויך קארמענען צו זאייט

Bessie, if you read though Mordekhai Shmuel’s letter you will read about their work, and about all our affairs. I described in his letter, as you know, that I am an ordinary shopkeeper and I also wrote that the business is going bankrupt and secondly, secondly, in short I believe that Mordekhai Shmuel‘s letter was written to everyone. Writing is all we have left – and do not worry, our good and great God lives and does not forsake anyone. I hope that He will not forsake us in the future. Until now we have had everything we needed. There is great hardship [here]; a pound of bread costs more than 1000 and [a pound of] meat more than 3000. Only our God is so great that even in times of [famine and] hunger, He also fills our pockets.

מיינע ליבע יעקב און בתל

איך דארף אייך ניט בעטין איר דארפט אליין פארשטיין און שרייבען אלעס פאדראבנע און געבען אייער אדרעס אז איך זאהל גלייך שרייבען - אדאנק מרדכי שמואל זאהל לעבען ער שראייבט שראייבט ער פאהן אלעס און פאהן אלעמען.

ער שראייבט פאהן דאיין שמעון עטליכה פאהן נחם שמואל אבער מיר איז דאס נאך אלעס ווייניק מיר וואלט זיך וויסען און זעהען פאהן איטליכען באזונדער מיט זייערע האנט צו שראייבען. אלזא שראייב אליין און אז דו וועסט זעהען נחם און אהרןען ווי דו ביסט א עלטערע בעטין זיי פאהן מיין נחומען אז זיי זאלין דאס טאהן זייערע אלטע עלטערען דעם פארגינוגען צו שראייבען ביז ג' וועט געבען אז מיר וועלען זיך איין קלאייבען אין איינעם. די מוטער די שוועסטער אלע ג' צו דאנקען גיריסין און פריינדליך זיי וועלען אליין אויך שראייבען זיי זאיינען פארנומענע

My dear Yaakov and Bessel,

I should not need to ask you, you should understand alone, to write all the details and give your address so that I can write to you immediately. Thanks to Mordekhai Shmuel, may he live long! He writes, he writes about everything and everyone.

He writes some news about your Shimon about Nachum Shmuel, but it is still not enough for me. I want to hear about and read people’s news in their own hand. So write yourselves, you will understand, Nachum and Aharon, when you are parents yourself. We ask, my Nachum – that you do this for your old parents, do them the kindness of writing until God reunites us. Your mother and sister both send warm and loving greetings, thank God, they will write themselves, they are busy.

אלזא מאיין ליבע טאכטער ג' צו דאנקען ביסט א מוטער פאהן קינדער דארפסטע שיים פילען דעם געפיל פאהן עלטערין. קוריץ אין מאיין שראייבען איך ווינש אייך אלעס גוטעס מיר זאלין ווערט זאיין צו פרייען גיך אין איינעם אויף די קינדערישע שמחות. גיריס אלעמן פריינדליך וי דער ווייס פאהן דאיינע עלטערן שראייב ווי לערנען זיך די קינדער וואס קען שיים ר' נחום קע ובראיינקע פאר מאיין אפגיין בעט איך נאך אמאהל ניט אנדערש צו שראייבען פאהן אלעס פאדראבנע און שראייבען דעם אדרעס איך ווייס ניט פאר וואס האט מרדכי שמואל געבעטין דעם אדרעס ווו אויך איז גיווען אייגענע האייזער – שראייבט פאהן אלעס צו דאיין פאטער וואס טראכט פאר איטליכען און האט האלט אלע קינדער גלייך

So, my dear daughter, thank God you are already a mother. You must already have the feeling of what it is to be a parent. My letter is brief. I wish you all the best, may we celebrate together soon at the happy occasions of the children. Your parents send loving regards to everyone. Write how and what the children are learning, what can R. Nachumke and Braynke do? Before I finish, I ask you once more to write about everything, in detail and send your address. I don’t know why Mordekhai Shmuel asked for the address they were free-standing houses. Write about everything to your father who thinks of each one of you and loves all his children equally!

Signature (Zvi Hirsch Poretsky)

The Brothers Bring Their Parents & Sisters to America

During World War I, and then during the subsequent Russian Revolution, communication between the siblings in America and the siblings and parents in Belarus was limited. The brothers in America were very worried for their sisters and their parents. The siblings had a hard time finding them in the chaos, pogroms, and famines then ravaging the collapsing Russian Empire and for a period lost contact with them. The siblings, desperate, petitioned the American Red Cross for help. With their help, the sisters and their parents were eventually found. After communication was reestablished with the sisters, Hirsch and Esther Sarah, the Poretzky brothers sent first class tickets for their sisters and parents. They departed from the port of Libau on a ship named the Lithuania. Because the brothers in America were able to send first class tickets for their parents and sisters, the girls would not have to shave their heads like the second or third class passengers. The girls even purchased some fur coats with the money the brothers had sent them. However, the coats were stolen during their journey. The girls and the parents arrived in New York on May 24, 1922.

According to Sylvia Weinstein, when Hirsch arrived in the United States, he did so with a whole box of rubles. Hirsch was convinced that the Czar would return to power and that the rubles would be valuable. When the three youngest Poretzky girls arrived in the United States, they went to work in the factories. Bertha sewed fancy children’s dresses and is reported to have been an excellent seamstress. [15] Shea was a ‘rabble-rouser’ and tried to start a union in the factory where she worked. Leah eventually became a forelady in the factory where she worked. The brothers took upon themselves to rent a house for their parents and sisters on Ditmus Ave in Brooklyn and then later at 3030 Brighton 12th St, Brooklyn, NY 11235, USA.

Rabbi Hirsch was a very respected scholar in Brooklyn. Every Friday night, he would sit in the living room, and people would come to him and ask for advice on halachic questions and discuss their personal issues. Rabbi Hirsch was an avid writer and wrote editorials and essays for the Yiddish newspaper called Der Tug, which means “The Day” in Yiddish. Rabbi Hirsch was also reputed to have written several books in the United States but their whereabouts are unknown or lost. [16]

In America, Like in Europe, Charity Began at Home: Family Helped One Another

The stories from this period show how close the family was to one another and how family helped one another. It was this ethic that allowed the group as a whole to get ahead and accomplish their family and financial goals. One story, related by Marty Poretskin illustrates this value. In or around this time, a tragedy occurred to cousins of the Poretzkyn children. In Tolochin, a relative of Zvi Hirsch, Chaim Poretzkyn, and his wife Rachel Altschutz and eight children [17] decided to emigrate to America. Chaim Poretzkyn left his family and immigrated to the United States and migrated to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and prepared for his family to immigrate. Over time, Rachel and her children sorted, sold and donated their assets in preparation for their immigration to the United States. Just as the family was about to leave, Rachel died. The pre-teenage children, who were homeless, starving, managed to get themselves onto the ship to the United States. When they arrived in the United States, however, they learned that their father, Chaim, had died too. The children found themselves in a strange new country, alone, with no parents, and without knowing the language and nobody to take care of them.

The Poretzkyn family in America came together to help the children. The Poretzkyn siblings also came together in their own way to assist their cousins recover from this tragedy. Some of the orphaned children went to live with their uncle and aunt Basha Poretzkyn and her husband Moshe Frotkin. Basha and Moshe didn’t have any of their own children. However, when they came to the United States, they adopted several of Chaim’s children, their nephews and nieces, as their own children after the loss of the children’s parents. Basha and Moshe tried their best to instill their nephews and nieces with Jewish values and education and tried to prevent the assimilatory habits of Jewish immigrants to this country and help them preserve their Jewish identity.

According to Gail Gordon and Ethel Poretzky, the Rutstein-Poretsky house on President street was on occasion a reunion center for the extended family. Ethel Poretzky remembers going to visit Jacob and Bessie and their children. Marty Poretzkyn also remembers visiting the family at the Rutstein house on President’s Street at a family get together and that it was a really nice house. However, for the most part, the family gathered at the home of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Poretzkyn and Esther Sarah in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn on Ditmas Avenue and 4th Street which was on top of a hardware store. Jacob Poret owned the apartment that Leah, Hirsch, Esther Sarah and the other girls lived in and together they lived there for free. Many of the grandchildren of Esther Sarah can recall her sitting outside of the apartment reading the tzenehrena prayers, which are prayers authored by and for women. On Shabbas, Esther Sarah would sit on the patio all day and daven or pray for her family, children, husband and the end of suffering.

Bertha was the first to marry and leave the house on Ditmus Avenue. Bertha married Isadore Weinstein and she, and “Izzy” as he was affectionately known, moved out to another apartment. Harmon Brody described Izzy Weinstein as follows: “Isadore Weinstein was perhaps the most generous and charitable man of all. He built the first temple in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He would give you the very shirt off of his back and so would his wife Bertha. Isadore would hire black garment workers when nobody else would. Bertha would send food along with them [to the workers] even before the ILGWU (Union) existed. Isadore Weinstein would not fire his workers because they needed to take care of their families. Izzy Weinstein was a great man and was idealized by so many. He took care of the community. I met this man. He is a historical character.”

Hank Plotkin swelled up in tears when he talked about Izzy and said that describing Izzy Weinstein as “generous” was an understatement. Izzy completely changed Hank’s life and was like a father to him. Izzy paid for Hank to go to college at Leigh University and gave him a job in his factory. He also paid for Hank to go to summer camp and gave him a $1,000 when he got married. Izzy loved Hank and treated Hank as one of his sons. Sylvia and Edith Weinstein were both born in Brooklyn. After a few years Izzy bought an existing shirt factory in Northampton, Pennsylvania, which already had the name, Clyde Shirt, and the family moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1932.

Breina Bertha Paretzky. Location and date unknown.

Between their arrival in 1922 and through the death of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Paretzky in 1933, the family centered itself around their home. Every Sunday, all the children and grandchildren would come visit them for tea. Ruth Poretzky Hershkovitz, remembers that Tzvi Hirsch taught her the Yiddish alphabet while sitting on his lap. Later, she would send him postcards and he would send them back corrected. Ruth remembers Hirsch and Esther as very kind and loving people.

Tzvi Hirsch and Esther Sarah ran a very Orthodox home. Ruth Paretzky Hershkovitz, remembers that when the family would go visit them on holidays or Sabbaths, they would have to arrive before the Sabbath or Yomtov began. She remembers that Tzvi Hirsch would come home from shul, wash up, and call all the children and grandchildren into the dining room where he would place his hands on their heads and bless them in Hebrew, “May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord show you favor and give you peace.” On many instances, specifically during holidays, the men would sit at one table with the boys, and the women and girls would sit at another table. During Sukkot, Ruth and the other women would sit inside the home, not outside in the Sukkah.

On Pesech, the sedarim would last a long time since all the children had to ask the four questions, and find the afikoman, and Zvi Hirsch had to bless all the children. Ruth Herzhkovitz remembers that Esther would bring all the grandchildren into the kitchen and give them food to eat in order that they could stay up for the long night of the seder. Sylvia Weinstein remembers that Esther would travel to Allentown and take care of the children and make them food and study Jewish texts all day. Ruth Hershkovitz remembers Esther as a tall woman, about the same height as Rabbi Hirsch. Esther was about equal height to her husband and had the presence of a matriarch. She was broadly built and controlled the house and had great presence within it. Rabbi Hirsch didn’t speak English and neither did Esther. Ruth remembers Esther as someone driven by a sense of duty. This was different to Basha Poretzkyn Epstein, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch’s sister, who was an exceptionally warm and affectionate person and who told Ruth stories in Yiddish. Syvlia Weinstein remembers Esther Sarah sitting on the front porch, alone, reading her prayers.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Paretzky. Date and location unknown.

1923 Poretzky Family Portrait. Top-row, from left to right: Nathan Paretzky, Goldie Okul, Leah Paretzky, Sadie Tziporah Epstein Poretzky, Harry Paretzky, Tziporah Celia Paretzky. Second Row, from left to right: Bertha Paretzky, Betty Poratzky, Frank Poret, Yvette (Yetta?) Poret, Sylvia Poret. Third row down: Max Paretzky, Annie, Tzvi Hirsch Paretzky, Esther Sarah Dubrow, Jacob Poret, Anna (her section of the picture deteriorated). Bottom row: Murray Poretzky (son of Nathan and Goldie), Sidney Poretzky (son of Max and Anna); Murray Poret (son of Jacob and Anna); Ruth Paretzky (daughter of Harry and Sadie); Rhoda Paretzky and Sylvia Paretzky (daughters of Nathan and Golda).

In was in this warm, loving and supportive context that an entire extended Paretzky family, three generations, all living near one another in Brooklyn, raised a whole new generation of American Paretzkys, Powers, and Porets. Parents and children were close to one another and respected one another. Torah, Jewish and social justice values were discussed often. Grandchildren developed personal relationships with their grandparents and saw them on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

Esther Sarah Dubrow with her granddaughter, Ruth Poretzky. Circa 1936.

Cousins, close and distant, played with one another, supported one another, did business together, gave one another loans, got and gave each other jobs, built one another up professionally and personally, attended school together, socialized together and generally looked after one another irrespective of education or economic status.

An example of this can be found between the Paretzky-Shulman sisters and the Paretzky-Rutstein children. According to Ethel Shulman (the daughter of Haddie Poretzky and granddaughter of Mordechai Paretzky), one-time Bessie Poretsky Rutstein got sick with an ulcer and because Haddie was a nurse she went to go take care of Bessie. When Ethel got married, Bessie Poretzky Rutstein sent her a beautiful table cloth and assisted Haddie in numerous other ways, including financial. The two took care of one another. Ethel remembers that Bessie’s daughter, Rita Rutstein, would call her all the time when she was a student at Cornell because she missed her. Ethel remembers that Milton Rothstein, Rita’s brother, and Ethel’s sister, Bella, were both in touch with each other on a regular basis because both Milton and Bella liked music (Bella was a music major). The two corresponded extensively on the subject. There are countless examples of these types of relationships between cousins. Most of these types of relationships would last through the 1950s and some for a little bit longer.

Left photograph: Esther Sarah Dubrow at the tombstone of her husband Hirsch. Circa 1933. Right photograph: Leah Paretzky Brickman and Shea Paretzky Plotkin with her son Hank Plotkin at Esther’s gravesite, circa 1942. Brooklyn, New York.

Rabbi Zvi Hirsch died in January 2, 1933 and is buried in Montefiore Cemetery. Esther Sarah Poretzky died in 1942. After the funeral of Esther Sarah, the children found a kittel, in which traditionally Jews are buried, and that Esther had sewn by hand and which she stored under her pillow. Unfortunately, Esther had been buried in another kittel but the children were distraught that they didn’t know that she had prepared her own in anticipation of death, made according to the specifications of Jewish law.

In the years after that the death of the Paretzky patriarch and matriarch, the family assimilated and acculturated into American Society. They changed their names to Poret, Powers, Paretsky, Poretsky. They migrated from Brooklyn, New York to New Jersey, to Los Angeles, California, and everywhere in between. Many Paretzkys became successful doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and businesspeople. Some became multi-millionaires many times over. The descendants of Moshe Bunim Poretzky contributed to American society, maintained their Jewish identities, were productive citizens but never forgot where they came from.

Appendix: Other Biographical Details About the Children of Hirsch and Esther Paretzky

  1. MAX MORDECHAI SHMUEL PORETSKY was born in 1881 in Tolochin, Belarus. He was the oldest of the boys. He died on August 23, 1935 in Brooklyn, New York of a heart attack. He married Anna Cheifetz in New York. She was born in 1888 probably in Tolochin, Belarus. She died in 1953 in Brooklyn, New York. Max was a happy, jovial person and liked to drink and play cards. He did well in the construction business but eventually lost most of it during the great depression.

    Max and Anna had four children. They were: (1) Isidor Poretsky born in 1908. He died in 1944; (2) Betty Poretsky born in 1909 in Brooklyn, New York. She died in 2001 in Florida. She married Merrill Jacobs in 1928 in Brooklyn, New York. He was born in 1907 in Brooklyn, New York. He died in March 1973 in Florida; (3) Yetta Poretsky was born in 1911 in Brooklyn, New York. She died in 1985 in Florida. She married Mendel Bauman in 1930 in Brooklyn, New York. He was born on in 1909 in Chanawith, Austria. He died in 1995 in Florida; (4) Sidney Poret was born in 1920 in Brooklyn, New York. He married Charlotte Koller in 1948 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was born in 1916 in Philadelphia. She died in 1990 in Florida.

    Max Poretzky and his son Sidney. New York, circa 1924.

  2. JACOB YAAKOV PORET was born in 1887, in Tolochin, Mogilev Gurburnia, Belarus. He died in 1964 in Brooklyn, New York. He married Anne Nemrowsky in 1910. She was born in 1891 in the United States. She died in 1950 in Brooklyn, New York.

    Jacob and Anna had four children. They were: (1) Frances Poret born in 1912. He died in 1980 in Brooklyn, New York. He married Pearl Salzman in 1941 in New York, New York. She was born in 1920. She died in 1990 in Leverett, Massachusetts; (2) Sylvia Poret born in Brooklyn, New York. She died in 1982 in New Jersey. She married Irvin Weber on 20 Apr 1940 in New York, at the Plaza Hotel. He was born in 1912 in New York City. He died in 2000 in Connecticut; (3) Murray Poret was born in 1919 in Brooklyn, New York. He died in 1979 in Brooklyn, New York. He married Fay Berman in 1945 in New York, New York. She was born in 1912 in New York; (4) Aaron Poret was born in 1931 in Brooklyn, New York. He died in 1997 in Scottsdale, Arizona. He married Barbara Lieberman in 1956 in New York, New York. She was born in 1936 in Brooklyn, New York.

    Jacob, Anna and Frank Poret. New York, Circa 1914.

    According to Charles and Barry Poret, Jacob’s first US job was as a bricklayer. Later he became a builder. He moved to Brooklyn and lived in a building which he built. His grandchildren still live there. Jacob also built a synagogue on Ocean Parkway called Ocean Parkway Jewish Center. Jacob was written about in a book about builders in Brooklyn. According to Barry Poret:

    “The oral tradition, as I have heard it so many times, is that Jacob Poretsky, whose dad I believe but perhaps his granddad was a Rabbi, came to Ellis Island in 1906, with “ten-dollar equivalent in his pocket.” The name was shortened to Poret at Ellis Island. Jacob ostensibly came from a small town around Kiev [18] during the pogroms in 1906. After Jacob came here, he ultimately brought over his siblings. Jacob was a brick layer, he the built private homes, then three four story walkups, then his crown jewel and the only remaining property, a 140 apartment building in Bayridge, Brooklyn, one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, named by my dad, his eldest son, The Colonnades.

    Jacob’s four children lived there after their marriages. and I was born and raised there. Jacob was written up in Who is Who of American Builders.”

  3. BASHA BESSIE PORETZKY was born in March 1888 in Tolochin, Mogilev Guberniya, Belarus. She died in February 1957 in Brooklyn, New York. She married Jacob Rutstein, son of Dov Ber Rutshtein and Rivka Shpitzgloz. Jacob was born on April 15, 1878 in Tolochin, Mogilev Guberniya, Belarus. Jacob died on February 27, 1946 in Brooklyn, New York.

    The couple had five children: (1) Bertha Rutstein was born in 1909 in New York. She died in 1999 in Florida. She married Abraham Becker. He was born in 1907. He died in May 1986 in Albany, NY; (2) Dora Rothstein was born in 1910 in New York City, New York. She died in 1995. She married Joseph Bloom; (3) Nathan Rothstein was born in 1911 in Brooklyn, New York. He died in 1994 in Florida. He married Helen Jacobs on September 14, 1941 at the Brooklyn Jewish Center. She was born in 1918 in Brooklyn, New York. She died in April 1995 in Florida; (4) Morris Milton Rothstein was born on July 28, 1916 in Brooklyn, New York. He died on June 11, 1999 in Reno, Nevada. He married Bernice Bronster, daughter of Henry Bronsther and Hannah Gross on September 2, 1945 in Brooklyn, New York. She was born on August 7, 1922 in Brooklyn, NY; (5) Rita Rutstein was born December 10, 1928 in New York City, New York. She married Gerald Kaplan. He was born on December 19, 1927 in New York.

  4. AARON HARRY PARETZKY was born in Feb 1890 in Tolochin, Mogiliv Gurburnia, Belarus. He died in 1972 in Brooklyn. New York. He married Sadie Tziporah Epstein. She was born on December 23, 1892 in Orsha, unter nerbia, Mogilev Gurburnia, Belarus. She died in 1988 in Florida. According to Ruth Hershkovitz, her parents sent her to school at the Workman’s Circle. Later in life Harry became a socialist and was very politically liberal. The couple had two children: Ruth Paretzky was born in 1921 in Brooklyn, New York. She married Emmanuel Hershkovitz in 1943 in Brooklyn, New York. He was born in New York; and Betty Paretzky was born in 1927 in Brooklyn, New York. She married David Grutman in 1951 in Brooklyn, New York. He was born in 1922 in Brooklyn, New York. He died in 2000 in Florida.

    Harry, Sadie, Ruth and Betty Paretzky. New York. Circa 1927.

  5. NATHAN NACHUM PORETZKY was born in 1894 in Tolochin, Belarus. He died in 1948 in Brooklyn, New York. He married Goldie Okul. She was born in 1895 in Warsaw, Poland. She died in 1962 in Florida, United States. Nathan Poretzky and Goldie Okul had the following children: (1) Maurice Powers was born in Brooklyn, New York. He died in 1996 in Oakland, California. He married Leah Finkelstein. She was born in Brooklyn, New York; (2) Rhoda Paretzky was born in 1915 in Brooklyn, New York. She died in 1959. She married Frank Field in 1941 in Brooklyn, New York. He was born in 1915 in New York. He died in 1995 in New York City, United States; (3) Sylvia Paretzky was born in 1918 in Brooklyn, New York. She died in 2002 in Florida. She married Morris Brody in 1948 in Brooklyn, New York. He was born in 1907 in Brooklyn, New York. He died in 1984 in Blountstown, Florida.

    Golda had arrived from Europe at the age of sixteen and was living with her aunt Anna, Max’s Paretzky’s wife and that is how the couple met. According to Harmon Brody, “Nathan married Golda; had 5 children of which 3 survived. Nathan worked as a baker and union organizer and helped found the New York baker’s union.” Nathan would eventually go into the wrecking business and construction until the Second World War.

    Elsewhere, Harmon Brody writes:

    “Nathan was a lifelong democrat. He was a national committee man and Union organizer. His profession had been as a cake baker and he helped to start the cake baker’s union in the sweat shops of the bakeries in NY. He took many beatings at the hands of the shop owners. He was dedicated to the working class, to the little guy, who had no one to protect him, to the poor man who needed help.

    Nathan gave to charity and donated many hours to helping the poor. He had been a religious and an Orthodox Jew but abandoned (giving time to) that part of his life, instead giving of his time to the labor movement. When World War Two came he was a very patriotic citizen, but too old to serve. He had many political connections through the unions and also through the synagogues. Maurice, Nathan’s son, and Nathaniel’s father also was very politically motivated as was my mother by Nathan. They were quite liberally minded. They sought to get educated and expand their minds and learn as much as they could and contribute to society.

    Maurice became a professor through Colombia and an artist while my mother went to Brooklyn college and worked as a legal secretary to the NY Prosecutor at the time. Because she was a woman she wasn’t taken as seriously as a man in her day and that was something that bothered her…

    What I know about the rest of the family and politics is what my mother told me. That we have always stood for those who need the strength of others. That it is our duty to be there for those who cannot be there for themselves--to help them be strong and complete. That our work is never done. That relieving suffering is the greatest mitzvah…”

    The Family of Nathan Paretzky. New York, circa 1940s.

  6. BERTHA PORETZKY was born on January 2, 1900 in Tolochin, Mogilev Gurburnia, Belarus. She died on May 23, 1983 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She married Isidor Weinstein, son of Loppel Lieb Weinstein and Yetta in Mar 1927 in Brooklyn. He was born in Littin Podyner, Russia. He died on April 21, 1968 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Bertha was said to be the prettiest of the sisters. Izzy chased Bertha and was very in love with her. They had three children together: (1) Sylvia Weinstein born in 1928 in New York, New York. She married Ben Ami Sussman in 1948 at the Brooklyn Jewish Center. He was born in 1925 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; (2) Edith Weinstein was born on 17 May 1931 in Brooklyn, New York. She married Chester Miller in 1950 in Forest Hills, New York. He was born in 1929 in Brooklyn, New York; (3) Harris Weinstein was born in 1935 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He married (a) Debbie Plarr in 1976 and (b) Sandra Levy in 1957 in New York.

  7. SHEA CELIA PORETZKY was born in 1902 in Tolochin, Belarus. She died in Brooklyn, New York in the United States. Shea took care of her parents during their last years. She married Benjamin Plotkin when she was in her thirties. He was born in 1890. He died in 1973. Shea was very different from her sisters and described as a free spirit and a “character.”

    Shea Poretzky, date and location unknown.

    Benjamin had been married before but divorced his first wife to marry Shea. The couple had one son, Harris or Hank Plotkin. Harris Plotkin was born in 1935 in Brooklyn, New York. He married Ruth Wedeen on 24 August 1958 in Newark, New Jersey. She was born in 1938 in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

    According to Hank Plotkin, when Shea was pregnant she had a dream of two lights going in other directions. So she named him Harris Max Plotkin for the two names, from two different lights (i.e. from both families). Shea had many boyfriends in her youth but she was not allowed to marry until her older sister got married. After Bertha and Izzy married, Shea married Ben Plotkin. Ben had been “The Flying Tailor” for the Navy in California before he married Shea. Shea and Ben honeymooned in the Catskills. They then stayed on and ran a bar and grille in the Catskills called “Shea’s Bar and Grille.“ After their son was born, “Shea decided she didn’t want her baby crawling on the floor among the drunks, so they left the bar and the Catskills. Uncle Jake Poret offered them an apartment in his building at 3030 Brighton 12th Street if Ben would become the house painter. Bubbie Esther, Leah, Shea, Ben and Harris all lived together in that apartment. The years of painting took their toll and Ben developed lung problems. At that point they moved to Allentown and Izzy Weinstein set them up in a retail clothing business.”

  8. LEAH LILLIAN PARETZKY was born in 1905 in Oriol, Tolochin, Belarus. Leah was the youngest. She married three times. She married a very handsome man named Milton. The marriage lasted a very short time and was either annulled or ended in divorce. Leah married another time “but the marriage was annulled because he was a fairy.” According to Ruth Paretzky Hershkovitz, in one of her marriages, her husband disappeared. Rumor had it he had wanted to return to Europe to take care of his sick mother but that Leah, who had experienced persecution, refused to return to Europe under any circumstances. Leah was apparently devastated at being abandoned and had a broken heart. The exact details of the story were never related. After that negative experience, Leah married a taxi driver she met in New York, Max Brickman. They had a stillborn baby. Leah and Max came to Allentown and lived in the Weinstein attic for a short time until Izzy Weinstein set them up in a small haberdasher shop in Philadelphia. She had no children.

    Leah Paretzky. Date and location unknown.

Photographs of Unknown Paretzky Family Members

Below are photographs of unidentified Paretzky family members, taken in Europe. It is possible these are photos of the siblings murdered in the pogroms, or photos taken of the surviving siblings in Europe, or a combination of both.

About the Author

J.R. Rothstein is a 2017 Fulbright Fellow and visiting scholar at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law researching comparative real estate transactions. Mr. Rothstein, now a real estate transactional and employment law attorney, began his career serving as a federal law clerk in the Eastern District of New York for the Honorable I. Leo Glasser. Mr. Rothstein received his Juris Doctor, and Master of Laws in International and Comparative Law from Cornell Law School in where he was Editor of the Journal of Law and Public Policy and an Albert Heit Scholarship recipient. Mr. Rothstein received his Bachelor of Arts in Middle-Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Mr. Rothstein is pursuing, part-time, a Masters of Real Estate Development at New York University. Mr. Rothstein was a Ariana De Rothschild Fellow at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Mr. Rothstein has lived, worked, studied or traveled in over two dozen countries. He grew up in Monsey, New York and enjoys genealogy, real estate, history, and nature. Mr. Rothstein can be reached at


  1. 1 This history also attempts to answer the questions asked by Bonnie Brodie in 1988, where she asked: What is the name of the village that Esther came from? What were the names of the brothers and sisters who didn’t make it? Was Harris (Hirsch) the Rabbi, wise man or cantor of the village? Did he also do something else to make a living? Did everyone come to the U.S. together? Did Jacob come first and then send to everyone else?

  2. 2 Other lines of Poretzkyns originated in Tolochin and were established in the United States and Israel. It is unclear how these lines connect to the Moshe Bunim Poretzkyn family but it is logical to assume they are related. Those lines include: (a) Lev Leib Poretzkyn and Esther Glucko via their son Isaac Mordechai Poretzkyn (born 8/27/1888); and (b) Beila Poretzky, born 1852, immigrated in 1912 with daughter Paja and son Abram and immigrated to Pennsylvania and another son, Hirsch Poretzky, remained in Tolochin.

  3. 3 Some of the marriages represented in this chart occurred in the United States, not Belarus.

  4. 4 Ruth Hershkowitz posits that Moshe Bunim’s father’s name may have been named Aaron but this cannot be confirmed.

  5. 5 Archival Research reveals the existence of another son, named Ilja Poretzky who appears to have migrated to the Ukraine. A 1922 record provides that he lived in Charkov at Mushanka 16/6. Nothing else is known about him.

  6. 6 One of Mordechai’s descendants is Gail Gordan Hyamowitz, a Poretzky family researcher. Mordechai had a daughter named Basha Poretzky sister of Pia Paretzky, who married Gershon Guzinsky, and whose daughter is Gail Gordon. She has documented this line extensively in her family research. When Bessie and Pia immigrated to the United States they went to stay with their nearest relatives, Hirsch Paretzky.

  7. 7 See Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, Jews in the Russian Army, 1827-1917: Drafted into Modernity. Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

  8. 8 See infra fn. 15.

  9. 9 The Epstein family was affiliated with Orsha. The Epstein family was part of a much larger Epstein ‘tribe’ spread throughout the region. Yosef Epstein was said to be the son of Avraham Epstein, the son of Alexander Epstein, the son of Michael Epstein, the son of Moshe Epstein (who is said to have had four different wives) and many many children. The Epstein’s were Levites.

    The Epstein-Paretzkyn children were:

    1. Michael Epstein, who stayed in Russia and inherited the carrier service business of his father Joseph Epstein. Michael got married and had five children. His children participated in the Russian Revolution, changed their names, and gave up their religion.

    2. Chassah Epstein married her cousin Jacob Epstein. Their fathers were first cousins. They had four children, one died in Russia. Two were born in the United States. The children were: Louis Epstein, Sam Epstein and Esther Epstein.

    3. Max Epstein had been drafted into the Russian army. He acquired a furlough and the family pooled its resources together. They sold the silverware and the salavare and they gave it to his wife and shipped him to the United States so he could avoid further military service. Max Epstein was in the construction business who built lower-priced homes. He married a Hannah. Max had three boys: Oscar Epstein, Morris Epstein, and Joseph Epstein.

    4. Bertha Epstein had a great singing voice and was very pretty. She married Louis Fagen who was a butcher. Sadie Epstein introduced Louis and Bertha. Louis and Bertha had a son named Seymour Fagen who lives in Los Angeles and who at the age of 90 is as fun, vibrant and dynamic as a man of 30.

    5. Louis Epstein was a lawyer. He married Rose Epstein (no relation) who was introduced to him by her brother, who was a law school classmate of his. They had two children: Judy and an unknown boy Epstein.

    6. Frumma Epstein was the oldest daughter. She married her uncle, Benjamin Epstein. Benjamin had served in the Russian army. He had been drafted as a twelve-year old boy into the service and the term of service was twenty-five years. After twenty-five years, he came out of the army at the age of 37. The youngest daughter of Joseph wanted to get married and Benjamin wanted to begin his life, so they arranged the marriage.

    7. Sadie Epstein, who married her first cousin, Harry Paretzky.

  10. 10 Ruth Poretsky, daughter of Aaron Poretzky, was named Rivka after her mother’s grandmother.

  11. 11 The author believes some reference to his work may be preserved at YIVO Institute.

  12. 12 This may have been earlier. Some reports indicate that family members arrived as early as 1902. It’s possible that Max and Jacob Poret predated the arrival of Jacob Rutstein who is known to have immigrated in 1906. According to one narrative, Max and Jacob Poretzkyn arrived in 1900. According to some accounts, Max and Jacob Poret were simultaneously joined by Nathan and Basha (Bessie) but others say that these two came after Max and Jacob Poret. Three possible dates exist for Nathan’s arrival: 1905, 1906, and 1909.

  13. 13 See B. Talmud, tractate Taanit 29a.

  14. 14 See B. Talmud Talmud tractate Moed Qatan, 28a.

  15. 15 In one photograph, Sylvia, Edie and Harris Weinstein are on a sofa, Sylvia is wearing a yellow dress and Edie is wearing a pink dress that Bertha made using the skills she learned in the factory where she worked.

  16. 16 Hank Plotkin says he saw the books. They were bound handwritten notebooks. Big and thick. They went with the family from Brooklyn to Allentown, PA. Hank writes, “I remember seeing them in my parents house on Livingstone street. I understand my mother gave away all my books and other stuff to Sylvia and Edie when she moved to Florida. I doubt if my mother thought the books were significant to anybody—she could have thrown them out.” Sylvia Weinstein says the basement of her home was cleared out when her mother died in 1983. Old Yiddish books (but no manuscripts) were donated to Sons of Israel and Temple Beth El of Allentown, PA. A future family researcher should contact the synagogues to see if some manuscripts were inadvertently donated.

  17. 17 Chaim Paretzkyn, was the son of Mordechai Leib Poretzkyn (who was said to had been married two or three times), and was a relative of Tzvi Hirsch. The author posits that Chaim was the great-nephew of Tzvi Hirsch and that Mordechai Leib is the same as Mordechai the son of Moshe Bunim mentioned above. The author bases this on the 1922 ship manifest of Chaim’s children emigration to the United States. The children listed Hirsch Poretzkyn of Orsha as their Uncle. The author posits that Chaim Poretzkyn (1873 – 1922) was born to the first marriage of Mordechai Leib Poretzkyn. The other children born to Mordechai, the line researched by Gail Haymowitz, are a product of his second marriage posits the author.

    According to Lisa Kerner, Mordechai Leib and his best friend arranged the marriage between Chaim and Rachel Altshutz. Rachel was the second of 16 children. “The two men were good friends. Both were observant Jews and both co-owners of a butcher shop. The two friends felt that their children would make them proud grandparents.” According to Linda Appleman Shapiro, “Chaim was a mediator. When problems occurred in the neighborhood, Chaim would step in and advise… Anyone that couldn’t afford the meat at the butcher store, Chaim would give them pieces of meat for free. He was the type of man that he would lend a hand whenever he could.” Chaim liked to grow his own vegetables in his yard and every Friday before Shabbas, he would take them and distribute them to poor peasants. After Ruchel died, their children took their mother’s body home from the hospital on a sled and dragged it in the cold to the house to perform the rites of the body. Chaim and Rachel had the following children: Elie Paretzkyn, Pauline Paretzkyn, Miriam Paretzkyn, Abe Poretzkyn, Bessie Poretskin, Leah Poretksin, and Yitzchok Poretskin. They all married and had children and their descendants live throughout the United States. More about this branch of the family can be found in Linda Appleman Shapiro’s book “She’s Not Herself.”

  18. 18 He must mean Minsk.