Archives · Current Stories
Welcome to Success!Stories
Current stories
About us
Do you have a success story to tell? Please let us know and we may feature your connection here
Switch to the JewishGen main page

Never Give Up!:

Finding Freida Halpern

By Angela Strohschein


Great-Grandmother Sora Freida Halpern, c. 1910


My interest in genealogy dates back to the 1970s when I first interviewed my maternal grandmother for a school project. She told me her father (my maternal great-grandfather) was a tailor named Julius Pollack, and he came from Russia as a young man through Ellis Island with “$4.00 and a thimble in his pocket.” She told me he met a beautiful woman shortly after he arrived in New York City, and she worked for him as his clothing model. They fell in love and were married in 1907 in Brooklyn, New York. That beautiful woman (my maternal great-grandmother) was Freida Halpern, and my grandmother knew almost nothing else about her. She told me that Freida died in Brooklyn, two years after my grandmother was born, at the young age of 28.

I never stopped wondering about the beautiful great-grandmother I never knew. As time went on, my grandmother gave me a photo of Freida, Julius, and their two sons (the only photo of Freida known to exist). I was determined to find out more about her, her family, her life in the old country. I researched to honor her memory, to give life to that name on a document. I felt that because of her, I was here, and she deserved more than that one small photograph; her short life was important.

Great-Grandparents Sora Frieda Halpern and Julius Pollock with toddler Jacob and baby Alfred; Brooklyn, New York; c. 1910.

My maternal grandmother died in 1984, taking with her long forgotten bits of information that may have helped me in my genealogical quest. Even without her assistance, my maternal family tree was growing. I found Julius Pollack's siblings, mother, and the city in Russia where they lived prior to their immigration to America. I could not have done it without the help of and I remember many nights after my children were asleep looking at pages and pages of Ellis Island manifests and census records until I was seeing double. Those countless hours of work paid off, and the Pollack side of my tree was filled in with a solid paper trail of marriages, births, deaths, and addresses. I felt like the story of their life was nearly complete. The Halpern side, however, seemed empty in comparison, and it felt like there were a thousand different puzzle pieces that wouldn't fit.

I focused any spare time I had searching the internet for information on the Halperns. Through Ancestry's census records, I learned Freida's parents names were Israel Halperin and Hannah Bayla Gott. Julius lived with Israel and Hannah in Brooklyn after Freida had passed away. I ordered death certificates, marriage certificates, and was elated when Ancestry made New York City's naturalization documents public. When JewishGen created the Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR), I found Freida's burial place was Washington cemetery in Brooklyn, her given name was Sora Freida, and buried next to her was Alfred Pollack, her 4 year old son who sadly died just a year before her. Her story was starting to come together, slowly, but I still had so many puzzle pieces that I wanted to fit in to the Halpern tree: Where were they from? Were there more family members who immigrated to the states? Do I have distant cousins somewhere out there I don't know about?

Great-Great-Grandfather Israel Yehoshua Halperin (Halpern); Vilna, Russia (now Lithuania);
Before 1905.

Prior to my mother's death in 2011, she recalled some relatives visiting her family from Brooklyn when she was a young girl in Smithton, Pennsylvania. She thought their name was possibly Halpern, and she thought they were cousins of my grandmother. The man's name was Harry, his wife was Sara, she knew there was at least one daughter, and she thought her name may have been Bernice. She told me Harry was a painter, and that he was a union delegate in New York City. She recalled that his wife Sara had made them the best cheese blintzes they had ever had. At last, I had something to go on! I searched the census records again and found a Halpern family in Brooklyn in 1940, Harry--occupation painter, wife Sara, daughters Bernice and Madelyn!!

From there things moved quickly, I obtained Harry's marriage certificate, and from this found his parent's names. Elias Benjamin Halpern was Harry's father and Yetta was his mother. Surely Elias was most likely Freida's brother! Harry Halpern's naturalization paperwork listed his daughters’ birthdays as 1930 and 1923. There was a small chance one or both of these women could still be living. I researched Ancestry, JewishGen, and Family Search for almost three years, trying to find these Halpern daughters, but found nothing. Surely they had to be married, and I would never figure out their married names. I felt defeated, staring at the brick wall so many genealogists face in their research.

Great-Great-Grandmother Hannah Bayla Halperin (née Gott); Vilna, Russia (now Lithuania); Before 1905.

Fast forward to September 2015. I was checking in with my account and saw that I had a little green leaf, a new hint. I clicked it and to my surprise it was another Ancestry member who happened to have a Bernice in their tree with the same birthday as the Bernice in my tree. I immediately sent him a message through explaining it was probably a long shot, but I was hoping to find more information about my Halpern line, and I gave this complete stranger my phone number.

That night I received a phone call from a New York City area code. The person on the line said he received my message and could I explain more about the relative I was looking for. I told him about my great-grandmother Freida, and that she probably had a brother Elias who lived in Brooklyn, and Elias and his wife Yetta had a son Harry who had two daughters, one named Bernice. Bernice would be 85 years old now, but if she was still living, she may be able to help me put the puzzle pieces together.

This wonderful man named Matt told me that Bernice was alive and well, living in New Jersey, and was still as smart and witty as ever. He then asked if I would like her phone number! This was sounding too good to be true, but I thanked him and jotted down the phone number. I called the number immediately, and a lovely voice answered the phone. I was terrified she would be the wrong Bernice, or that she would think me a pest for “cold calling” her. Just the opposite happened! This Bernice DID have a father named Harry, her mother was Sarah, and her grandfather was Freida’s brother, Elias Benjamin / Ele Ber (she called him Benny); and she was just as excited as I was that I had found her!

Bernice’s Parents, Harry (Aron)
and Sarah Halpern.

We spoke for nearly an hour that evening, exchanged information, and promised to be in touch soon. It wasn't even a day later that her children started sending me photos of these relatives which had been just names in my family tree! It turns out that Elias never told his daughters he had a younger sister that died of pneumonia in 1915. Bernice recalled visiting my mother's childhood home near Pittsburgh, remembered stories told to her from her parents and grandparents (my great-grandparents), confirmed this Halpern family came from Vilna, and overall answered many questions I had about this family for so many years. She was a delight to talk to, and just hearing her voice while she shared stories about growing up in Brooklyn, I felt a kinship with her, and look forward to many more conversations.

This success will not be the end of my genealogical research, but it does tie up the loose ends and the many questions I have had for so many years about my great-grandmother Sora Freida and her family.

Sadly, Bernice's older sister Maddy passed away just this past March at the age of 92, and my mother passed in 2011. We both admitted that the first thing we thought to do after having that phone conversation was to call them and share the excitement of finding each other, both of us still missing our loved ones.

I am looking forward to learning more about the Halpern family in the future, and am so very happy I never, ever gave up!

February 2016
Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

Archives · Current Stories

Research Notes and Hints

Through, Angela found pertinent census reports that yielded the names of her great-great-grandparents; and she ultimately connected with living family members when another Ancestry researcher contacted her about similarities on their family trees.

It was through the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR) that Angela discovered the burial place of her great-grandmother.

The passenger manifests on the Ellis Island database also proved to be helpful.

Angela was tenacious in searching for and ordering naturalization papers and other vital records that yielded important information regarding her great-grandmother’s family.

Copyright 2003, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 JewishGen, Inc. All Rights Reserved. JewishGen® is a registered trademark of JewishGen, Inc.
Updated on March 5, 2016.

Switch to the JewishGen main page