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A Hundred Year Journey:

Searching the Past, Finding the Future

By Stella Saperstein

saperstein 2

Grandfather Zalman Senderov, taken in German captivity, c. 1914-17.


Our incredible story began 108 years ago. I don't know all the details and locations, but I know it started in one of the small towns in Chernigov Gubernia, Ukraine.

It was probably a typical story of the day when an older brother, trying to protect the younger one from conscription to the army, switches identity with him, sends him off to America, eventually gets drafted to the Russian Czarist Army, and goes to World War I in his place.

That was our story; the beginning of it. I grew up in the former Soviet Union and for many years didn't know anything about my American family.

My grandfather, Zalman Senderov, was that older brother. I recently learned that he was a German language teacher in a gymnasium in Nezhin, Ukraine, and was an interpreter in the army during WWI. He also was a prisoner of war and I have photos of him from that period. My grandfather survived the war and imprisonment only to return home to Nezhin during turbulent times of the revolution and Civil War, and to be killed in a pogrom in 1919. He left a young widow with five little children ages two weeks to eleven years. One of these children was my father who, at the time, was just eight years old.

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Grandfather Zalman Senderov during WWI, top row, second from right,
c. 1914-17.

For many years I didn't know about the existence of my American family. In the Soviet Union it was not popular to have relatives abroad, especially during the Cold War. Apparently, there had been some communication over the years with the "American" brother, but it didn't last for too long as the "iron curtain" fell and all connections with foreign relatives were severed. It is truly a miracle that my father even knew about his uncle and was able to save some important facts about him in his memory. That is what helped us to establish identity when I finally found my cousins.

My father graduated from college and became an electrical engineer. Immediately after his graduation in 1939 he was drafted into the Soviet Navy and sent to the front just as World War II broke out. He survived the war and the siege of Leningrad, receiving numerous medals and orders (citations) for bravery. After the war he continued his career in the Navy until 1961, when he retired with the rank of colonel. He had an illustrious career and continued working as an electrical engineer for many years after. His position was probably one of the reasons he never talked about his foreign connections and, living behind the "iron curtain", these connections for him were distant and abstract.

Of the five children in his family, three survived the war—my father and his two sisters. His older brother perished in Babi Yar, and his younger brother was killed at the front in 1944. After the war, my grandmother and her two daughters, my aunts, settled in Kharkov. Our family moved around from sea to sea because of my father's Navy assignments. I never really knew my grandmother and saw her only once or twice in my life. She died when I was about 11 or 12 years old. I never had a chance to ask her questions about the family.

As I grew up and was getting ready for emigration, my father casually mentioned that we may have relatives in United States. Somehow he remembered that they lived in the Boston area. He also knew that they changed (abbreviated) the last name but he didn't know how. Our family name is Senderov but he wasn't sure if they changed it to Sender or Sandler or whatever. He thought his uncle emigrated in 1913 just before WWI and that his first name was either Hersh or Gersh. My father didn't know anything about his uncle's family and wasn't sure whether they were even alive. All this information was very vague. Since his uncle left the country four years before my father was born, it is amazing that he knew anything at all.

I immigrated to the United States in 1979. My parents were refuseniks for nine years after I left because of my father's elevated security clearance and the work he did for the Navy, but eventually they were able to emigrate in 1988 during the era of glasnost and perestroika.

Sometime after my parents’ arrival we had a conversation about my father’s mysterious uncle and uncle's descendants. One of my friends mentioned the Mormon library of microfilms that just opened in Phoenix and we decided to check it out to see if we could find anyone. We checked Ellis Island records, but we were looking at the year 1913 and the name Hersh/Gersh Senderov; of course, we didn't find a thing and that was the end of story.

With the development of the Internet and genealogical sites, I developed curiosity. Three years ago I registered with JewishGen and started searching for both my mother's and my father's family. To my disappointment, I was completely unsuccessful. To be honest, I was not looking for the lost relatives as I didn't even know who to look for. My interest was in finding archives that would tell me more about my grandparents and great-grandparents of whom I knew nothing at all. The results were very discouraging. I found absolutely nothing. After spending many fruitless hours, I curtailed my search.

A few years later, in October of 2014, I decided to go back and see if new information was available and I started my search by entering my grandfather's name, Zalman Senderov, in the search box on the Homepage of JewishGen. This brought me to JewishGen’s Family Finder page and a list of researchers searching similar surnames. Most of these researchers had last been on the site as long ago as 1997 and 2004, so I didn't have much hope to connect with them. I noticed that one of the researchers had been on the site just ten months prior, so I sent an email to see if we were looking for the same Senderov.

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The “mystery” photograph. Grandfather’s younger brother Herschel Senderov (Harry Sanders) and sister Zelda,
c. 1907-10.

That same night I also went on the site and entered my grandfather's name again. A page came up with the immigration record for a Zalman Senderov who entered the country in 1907. I couldn't believe it! It was him! Years ago I was looking for Hersh, but he entered the country under his brother’s name Zalman! It was late at night when I made this discovery so I decided to pursue this lead the next morning. What happened in the morning was even more unbelievable. I received a response to my Family Finder email from a woman named Ellen Sanders. In two emails we established that we were indeed second cousins—and the rest is history! [See e-mails here.]

For years we had a mystery photograph in our family album back in the Soviet Union. The photo was of a young man and woman from the turn of the twentieth century. Nobody in the family knew who these people were but suspected they might be "the American family". Ellen confirmed that it was her grandfather Herschel and his sister Zelda. I never knew there was a sister, too. That photo had been saved by my family for more than a hundred years!

Ellen told me that her family had been trying to find their Russian relatives (us) for years but, not being successful, assumed that everybody was dead. I learned that she has a sister and a brother, so I have two more cousins. Ellen and Eric live in Paris, France, and are coming to Arizona in July for our first reunion. Ellen’s younger sister is flying here from California as well and we all are going to the Grand Canyon to celebrate Ellen's birthday—and to exchange more information about our long-separated families.

May 2015
Phoenix, Arizona USA

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Research Notes and Hints

Stella and Ellen found each other through JewishGen’s Family Finder. If you haven’t already done so, we encourage you to post the surnames you are researching. If you have posted your names in the past, remember to check back periodically for new postings.

Stella also received helpful information from the Geni website.

JewishGen’s Ukraine Special Interest Group (SIG) provides information regarding Jewish Genealogy in Chernigov and other former Russian Empire gubernias now in Ukraine.

More information about Nezhin, Ukraine, can be found on the website “History of Jewish Communities in Ukraine”.

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Updated on April 26, 2015.

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