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

The Chernoff Saga:

Stitching Together the Fabric of a Family

By Marilen Pitler

mildred chernoff

Mildred Chernoff, 1928


This is an updated version of a story that was first published in Avotaynu, Vol. XXI, Number 4, Winter 2005; reprint permission granted.


It all started with an e-mail received on March 14, 2004, at 9:57 p.m.: Dear Marilen and Jordan, I am looking for my Chernoff connection. Can you tell me where your family is from? My grandmother was from Skidel, but I have no idea where my grandfather was from. I only know his name when he left Europe. Chernoff. I’ll look forward to hearing back from you. Perhaps we can find a connection.

Being the e-mail junkie that I am, I promptly responded at 10:33 p.m.: The only thing I know about my grandfather is that, according to a cousin, he was born in “Novgorod-Sevorsk, State of Chernigov (now Gorky)”.

At 11:21 p.m., I received another e-mail from Leah: Thank you so much Marilen, I’ll let you know if I can find any connection. I do know that my mother thought that they were somehow connected to Howard Chernoff, who was very active in Virginia in radio and later on the board of Curators of the new San Diego Zoo in California.

That third e-mail was the clincher. On March 15, 2004, at 12:03 a.m., I wrote: Ohmygod, WE MUST BE RELATED! Howard Chernoff is the cousin to whom I referred….

“Genealogy is the connecting thread between people. The stitches remain part of our fabric forever, they are the tiny stitches of love.”

The rest of our story is now history, but it is a history that just keeps growing and growing and growing. There is no end to the growth of family trees; they just keep maturing in all directions. Our saga is especially incredible because it was less than six months later when we met face-to-face. Leah traveled from the state of Washington to St. Louis with her son Mark, where the three of us were met by Leah’s first cousin from Hawaii, Harriet, and her husband Bob. Leah and Harriet share the same grandfather who was a brother to my grandfather, thus making us second cousins. The more we talked, the more we shared stories, the more we shared pictures, the more we knew we were related. Our hearts and souls melded together; we, indeed, became one family.

But, I’m jumping ahead…. How did Leah even find me? She logged on to JewishGen, and searched through Family Finder (JGFF, I have done the same thing in the past without success, but as our story points out, it is important to be tenacious, and keep going back. Leah saw my name and e-mail address and decided to contact me. In shortly over two hours of correspondence we won the greatest Bingo game ever. We won the entire board.

My grandfather had ten siblings. My mother Mildred, an only child, was ten-years old when he died from pneumonia. Shortly thereafter, my grandmother moved from Akron to Chicago and remarried. My mother lost contact with her father’s side of the family, except for two cousins, Howard Chernoff and his sister. My grandfather’s name was Nathan Irwin Chernoff , also called Ned; Howard’s father was Morris. That’s the extent of the Chernoff family I knew until that fateful evening on March 14.

ned chernoff

Nathan "Ned" Chernoff,
c. 1915

I had mentioned that the only family information I had was a note Howard had written my mother many years ago. It listed the names of my grandfather’s siblings, including some dates. Leah also had a scrap of paper she had kept for years after badgering her mother for family names. It, too, listed the names of her grandfather's siblings. The names matched! She also had her grandfather’s death certificate containing more information.

Leah’s grandfather was known by another name. As the story goes, he changed his name while a youth in Russia to avoid the Russian draft. He took the name of a deceased soldier. When he came to this country, he retained the name he adopted. He always told the family, though, that he was a Chernoff. On the back of one of his pictures he even wrote the name Louis. This presented another link to our puzzle. One of my grandfather’s brothers was named Louis. I do not have any pictures of Louis, but in my mother’s vast collection of photos and letters, I did find one of another brother, Harry. In scanning photos back and forth, Leah discovered a photo she had of a “Harry Chernoff;” the photos were of the same man.

Then… September, came the fateful day of our meeting. I took one look at Leah and gasped, she was the mirror image of my mother 40 years ago. We had shared pictures back and forth, but nothing was like the chemistry created as we stared at one another. I did not see a strong resemblance between Leah and Harriet when Harriet and Bob arrived at the airport, but that following Sunday at a family dinner at my home, we discovered who our daughter, Lisa, looks like. We were never quite sure; Lisa really did not look like anyone in our family. When together, we had no doubt; Lisa was definitely a Chernoff, the resemblance to Harriet is striking!

Meetings and holidays do come to an end, as did our week together in September, a September we will never forget. The treasured moment for me was the realization that I now had two cousins with whom I would share the rest of my life. Growing up, I was never close with cousins. Now I have two with whom each day begins with a “good morning” e-mail and each day ends with a “good evening” e-mail. Words are the beauty contained in the lines of writing, they convey the “heart.” We will be in daily contact for the rest of our lives. For genealogists, if not for everyone else in this world, the age of modernity has been a blessing. Leah, Harriet, and I would not have met had it not been for the Internet and JewishGen.

cousins meeting

Marilen (left) with newly discovered cousins
Leah and Harriet

As one of my cousins said, “The cream rises to the top and now we get to savor the sweetness of it. We are forever intertwined and what a mechyia it is to be reaching out and learning who we were, in turn opening the threads of who we are.”

How interesting are the branches of a tree, much like the stitches in a quilt. The branches connect the leaves to the trunk, just as the stitches in the quilt connect the patches of material. Genealogy is the connecting thread between people. The stitches remain part of our fabric forever, they are the tiny stitches of love. The Chernoff Saga has not ended….

In the time that has passed since 2004, much has happened. The original note I had from my mother’s first cousin, Howard Chernoff, listed additional family names. He believed these people lived in Pennsylvania, but he did not know them or their relationship to us. Using an online phone directory, I located several people with these surnames and Harriet followed up on the lead. We have now added hundreds of people on my grandfather’s maternal side of the family.

For me, the story gets even better. My husband and I moved from Chicago to St. Louis, Missouri, nearly 30 years ago, leaving our extended family behind. In the course of the years, we now have three generations of Pitlers in St. Louis; us, our children, and our grandchildren. A couple of years ago Leah’s son met a St. Louis woman, they married and he’s now living here. Recently, they had a daughter. Leah is now in St. Louis, too. There are no words to describe the joy of fulfillment JewishGen has provided me. Rather than time diminishing my family, it has grown exponentially.

June 2012
Saint Louis, Missouri, USA

Archives · Current Stories

Research Notes and Hints

Marilen connected with her cousins because of her listing on JewishGen’s Family Finder -- JGFF is one of the most successful resources offered by JewishGen. An old note from her mother’s cousin listed a number of family names. Using an online telephone directory, Marilen connected with other family members, greatly expanding her family tree.

Copyright 2003, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 JewishGen, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
JewishGen® is a registered trademark of JewishGen, Inc.
Updated on June 27, 2012.

Switch to the JewishGen main page